In The First Circle by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

In The First Circle

In The First Circle; translated by Harry Willets.

Russ Roberts on EconTalk interviewed Kevin McKenna (University of Vermont) about this book. I couldn’t wait to read it. I was warned not to read the 1968 (self-censored) version; yet that’s the one I accidentally started. When I checked the Econtalk discussion forum about this book, I soon realized I wasn’t reading the 2009 uncensored version. I started over with the new version rereading the opening chapters and those about Stalin.

Way back in high school I read “The Gulag Archipelago”. The accounts were so stunningly black and depressing I was never going to read Solzhenitsyn again. I though the book was one of the most important books I had (and have ever) read. In both books Solzhenitsyn tells a cautionary tale about the joys of living under socialism/communism.

As I read “In The First Circle” I thought it might be a black comedy.. at least that’s what I told everyone. But there is nothing funny in the book. The book isn’t as depressing as “The Gulag Archipelago”.
The story starts with a Soviet diplomat, Innokenty Volodin who warns the United States that their nuclear secrets are about to be handed over in New York. But this thread is only a back story to the role the prisoners have in finding him and helping their Soviet masters destroy their homeland.

Although it’s fiction, it mirrors the experiences Solzhenitsyn had in the special prisons Stalin created for his scientists and engineers. This after he realized it was a mistake to send them to work camps. Stalin needed the atom bomb and other toys, so he created a prison where these specialist could work for the state. Solzhenitsyn called it “In The First Circle” as a nod to Dante. Here the sinners were still tormented, but not like the poor zeks (prisoners) who end up in the work camps (death camps).

There are many characters in the book and it can be difficult at times to keep them straight, but the character guide in the book helps. Solzhenitsyn spends much of book recreating dialog that brings the characters to life: what they’re thinking; their relationships with each other, their superiors, and their inferiors; the role of the state, morality and ethics.. especially working for a government that every citizen knew was hopelessly corrupt and evil.
The book takes place in the Soviet Union from December 24 to 27, 1949 . It might seem like the distant past, but I found the subject matter current when you look at Venezuela and certain Democrats new infatuation with Socialism. It never ends well.

The book is a masterpiece and I’m glad I’ve read it. It’s only weakness is we don’t learn the final outcome to Volodin and the prisons. I can only assume Volodin will be tortured and then killed. The prisoners will be worked to death.

741 pages

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In Search of Silence by Samuel R. Delany

In Search of Silence

In Search of Silence: The Journals of Samuel R. Delany, Volume I, 1957-1969; edited by Kenneth R. James.

I wasn’t sure how I was going to read this. But I was always going to read it. Delany is one of my favorite Science Fiction writers and here are his earliest journals. I write a journal myself, so how could I resist.

They’re more writing notebooks than journals. James has tried to put them in a loose chronological order (with Delany’s help) but the subject matter jumps around: some personal thoughts, story fragments, lists, comments, porno, poems, letters, etc.
I quickly realized this was all but unreadable. But then I discovered a different way to approach the book. I found I often like to read something before bed that shuts my brain down. A book like this (and a couple others) fit the bill. I created a new folder on my Kindle called Backburner. I would trot this book out whenever I needed to wind down. The writing in these journals is all short and non-lineal. I could read as much or as little as I wanted. It was perfect. There were enough jewels to make it worthwhile even if it took over a year to read.
This book is for hardcore fans only. Delany has written his memoirs, this is a look a kid finding his voice and all the doubts and anxieties that go with it.

D/B [for the Jewels]
688 pages

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Art Matters by Neil Gaiman

Art Matters

Art Matters: Because Your Imagination Can Change the World is an inspirational coffee table book. But it’s not inspirational, and it’s too small to be a coffee table book. It’s cute but not very serious. It’s a collection of four pieces that are illustrated in pencil by Chris Riddell.


112 pages

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The Reckoning by John Grisham

The Reckoning

The Reckoning is a departure from Grisham’s usual legal thrillers. The story is told in three parts. 1. A premeditated crime in rural Mississippi. 2. The Bataan death march (which stands by itself, and doesn’t really drive the story). 3. The children try to piece together their lives after their father returns from WW-II and shatters it.
The novel is very dark, but I enjoyed reading it. I didn’t mind the departure(s).

B-/B+ (for the WW-II section)
417 pages

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Chasing The Demon by Dan Hampton

Chasing The Demon

Chasing The Demon: A Secret History Of The Quest For The Sound Barrier, And The Band Of American Aces Who Conquered It
This book should have been titled: Chasing the Swallow, and subtitled: The history of western civilization during the first half of the twentieth century as seen through aviation. Where was Hampton’s editor? This book is too wide-ranging. The book is almost over by the time he gets to the X-1. There is a lot of pre-history covered before Chuck Yeager gets into the Bell X-1. That said I found Hampton’s stories to be interesting. He managed to find some details that I hadn’t hear a hundred times before. The aircraft stories were particularly interesting. (See below) There was some evidence to suggest the German Messerschmitt Me 262 ‘Swallow’ could have broken the sound barrier during WW-II, but there is additional evidence that the plane (and pilot) would not have survived. What is really fascinating is the F-86 Sabre while it was being tested probably broke the sound barrier.. before the X-1. And as it was pointed out, the Sabre took off and landed under its own power. But North American didn’t want the USAF and Bell to look bad. While Bell was testing the X-1 years earlier they could have broken the sound barrier, but the Army Air Corp., told them not to. Further more, Mills in the UK, had designed the M.52 with a jet engine that would probably have approached 1,000 mph before either aircraft got off the ground. But the program was canceled just before testing was to commence. The British were way ahead of us, and they shared their notes.

I wish Hampton had spent more time on record breaking aircraft rather than on back history. Still I enjoyed reading the book.

Grade C+
346 pages

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Past Tense by Lee Child

Past Tense

Past Tense: Jack Reacher #23

Jack Reacher left the US Army as a Major (military police) at the age 36. Since then he’s been roaming the country taking odd jobs and investigating suspicious and frequently dangerous situations. No home, no possessions. This is the book where he finally goes home. Not really. It’s his father’s childhood home.. nothing is there.. except more trouble.. more people that need a beating.. by Reacher. And a big mystery that is going on elsewhere that Jack manages to stubble into.
It’s not the best story Child has told, but I like these small town stories better than Child’s ‘save the world’ stories.

400 pages

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Thanks A Lot Mr. Kibblewhite by Roger Daltrey

Thanks A Lot Mr. Kibblewhite

Needless to say I loved reading Thanks A Lot Mr. Kibblewhite. The Who are my favorite Rock artists. I didn’t know what to expect from this book. Roger comes across as a very down-to-earth guy. Maybe the only ‘regular guy’ in The Who. It’s a short book and in some ways the best book about the Who, because Roger deals with personalities and not the music, equipment, or other details in the life of The Who.
Roger also covers his personal life from childhood until now.

253 pages

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