Thursday, January 10, 2019

Varlam Shalamov survived the Soviet Gulags, and shares the horror with us readers




Kolyma Stories: Volume One – Varlam Shalamov - Translated by Donald Rayfield (2018)

            A few years ago I read and reviewed the account of one Ferdinand Ossendowski, titled Beasts, Men, And Gods, which dealt with the author’s experiences escaping into the Russian wilderness to avoid the killing of intellectuals fermented by the Bolshevik Revolution.  That first-hand account led me to look for more books written by survivors of Russian pogroms, prison camps, and Siberian death camps.  I read and reviewed A World Apart, by Gustav Herling, an account of his time spent in a Soviet Gulag and the institutionalized insanity that was the Soviet criminal system.  It was an amazing book.  From that I moved on to Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich.  Whereas the previous books are biographical accounts, this work is a work of fiction, but it carries every horror and trauma that Solzhenitsyn suffered when he himself was a prisoner at a Soviet Prison Camp.  In doing some research, I found that the book I just read, the Kolyma Stories, by Varlam Shalamov, had recently been published in an English translation. 
            Varlam Shalamov was a Gulag prisoner for 15 years, enduring 6 years as slave labor in the gold mines of Kolyma, one of the coldest and most inhospitable corners of Siberia.  After he was released he began writing poetry and prose, including many of the stories contained in this volume.  The harassment from the KGB never stopped, and because of this he was unable to publish his work in the Soviet Union.  At home his work was stashed away in the Russian State Archives of Literature and Arts, likely never to be seen again.  These stories were leaked/smuggled out and printed in Germany and France under a pseudonym, with Shalamov never receiving any payment.  In the late 1970’s, Shalamov disappeared into the state-run homes for the elderly, the conditions of which were “as bad as the worst institutions in the Gulag”. (Donald Rayfield – 2018).  These stories were finally published in the late 1980’s in Russia, and shared with the world Shalamov’s unvarnished and unflinching look back at his Gulag experiences.  While these are all “stories,” pretty much everything that happens in them was something witnessed or experienced by Shalamov himself.
            Many of the stories are very short.  Some are two pages long.  What they lack in length they make up for in power.  There is little moralizing in these stories.  The horror is described in plain language, much like Vonnegut did when describing the trauma of the Dresden fire bombings.The plain, insane truth of what humans are forced to do when under totalitarian control is enough to scare the shit out of anyone.  Institutional horror is the worst creation of humanity.  But, when it is backed up by a Byzantine and self-negating government structure?  That is when the human mind shrinks to its smallest, only seeking to survive another day, another hour, another minute.  There is no thought for the life of freedom.  Those that dream of freedom are the first to die.  There is no escape from the forced labor.  Those too sick to work were often treated like lame horses, as wastes of food and resources.  These tales serve as a reminder of how ugly our shared humanity can be, how little we actually care about each other when the powers that be decide to erase our humanity.

            In 1961, Shalamov wrote down a list of what he saw and understood in the prison camps.  It is a list of 45 truths.  Here are just a few of them: 

·         The extreme fragility of human culture, civilization.  A man becomes a beast in three weeks, given heavy labor, cold, hunger, and beatings.
·         I realized friendship, comradeship, would never arise in really difficult, life-threatening conditions.  Friendship arises in difficult but bearable conditions (in the hospital, but not at the mine’s pit face)
·         I realized Stalin’s “victories” were due to his killing the innocent – an organization a tenth the size would have swept Stalin away in two days.
·         I realized the feeling a man preserves longest is anger.  There is only enough flesh on a hungry man for anger: everything else leaves him indifferent.
·         I realized that one can live on anger.
·         I realized that one can live on indifference.
·         I understood why people do not live on hope – there isn’t any hope.  Nor can they survive by means of free will – what free will is there?  They live by instinct, a feeling of self-preservation, on the same basis as a tree, a stone, an animal.
·         I discovered that the world should be divided not into good and bad people but into cowards and non-cowards.  Ninety-five percent of cowards are capable of the vilest things, lethal things, at the mildest threat.
·         I understood what power is and what a man with a rifle is.

         The stories within this volume will live on in my head for the rest of my life.  Soon there will be a second volume published.  I cannot wait to read that.  Thank goodness that people are able to share these experiences, no matter how horrible, through the power of the written word.  The written word is humanity’s greatest invention.  What an amazing writer.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Sonic Youth is Dead. Long Live Sonic Youth.




Spirit Desire – Jennifer Benningfield (2018)

            I am a Sonic Youth Lifer.  The skronkalicious foursome has been my favorite musical group for the past 30+ years.  As a part of my fandom, I have been a member of the Sonic Youth Gossip Forum for nearly the entire existence of the interwebs.  In that nebulous cul-de-sac I met and have befriended many a fellow Sonic Youth Lifer.  I have seen them grow up, rock out, and move on with their lives.  I have lost Sonic friends who passed too early (RIP Adam “atsonicpark” Cooley - http://directoradamcooley.angelfire.com/ ).  I was also exposed to some of the most creative, interesting, and downright bizarre people, all of them Sonic Youth nuts to one extent or the other.  One of these bad-asses is Jennifer Benningfield, or as she is known on the SY Gossip Forum, jennthebenn.  In 2009 she published her first book, No Setlist: Pieces of a Sonic Life, detailing her near-obsessive devotion to traveling for Sonic Youth concerts.  My review of that book is here: http://rxttbooks.blogspot.com/2017/06/rxtt-flashback-review-story-of-sonic.html .
            It is now 2018, Sonic Youth have broken up, and the individual members have moved on to new musical projects, as varied as one can imagine.  Jennifer Benningfield has released the follow-up to No Setlist.  The development of her writing voice and style are evident throughout, as the book is tighter, funnier, and in many ways more resonant than her debut.  Like before, the book is divided into sections detailing individual Sonic Youth concerts she attended, describes the moment she and her partner in crime, Patrick “pantophobia” Suddath learned of the imminent breakup of our favorite band, and finishes with her treks to various post-Sonic Youth concerts.
            If it was inspiring to me to read Ms. Benningfield’s initial love letter to the Youth, it was even more amazing to read this new book, appreciating the growth and maturity of writing that has allowed Jennifer Benningfield to submit her short stories to various hard-copy and online publications.  While I do not personally know her, having had little interaction with her besides the Sonic Youth Gossip Forum (and the Instigator Fantasy Football league which I run every year.  Jenn’s team is Snoopy’s Smash Squad, and anyone who knows her knows she has a near-fetishistic fascination with Charles Schultz and the Peanuts gang), I am so proud of this digital friend for grinding away, for continuing to write and submit, even though the rejections and tough times can seem never ending.  The band is very lucky to have someone such as her as a fan.
            One of the little oddities that I found endearing in this book, is the way that, as a super-fan, Ms. Benningfield describes the journeys taken to the shows, the people she meets and stays with, the long-distance friends she connected with, the fearful walks through unfamiliar neighborhoods in search of a pre-show meal, and everything that goes into attending rock shows.  I myself have attended countless hundreds of not thousands of rock shows, and these little details are the ones that actually make the occasions memorable, apart from the musical performances themselves.  There is a huge difference between going to a big, national touring show at a giant arena, and going to a small touring act performing at who-the-fuck-knows-where.  It is more personal, more intimate, and if you are one of the early arrivals, like Ms. Benningfield likes to be, you can be in the FRONT ROW!  (I never ever stand in the front row.  I am 6’2” tall, and no one likes my ass blocking their view.)
            Sonic Youth is no more.  The Sonic Youth Gossip Forum is creaky and increasingly less populated.  The Sonic Lifers have had to move on.  Our favorite band, the band that never even sold 250,000 copies of any release, that taught so many of us what noise as Art was, and the possibilities inherent in that, will never come together in skronk again.  All we have are our memories, and thanks to the mind and work of SY Lifers such as Jennifer Benningfield, we can all share in our collective Sonic Joy.  SONIC LIFE!

(This book can be downloaded and read here: https://trapperjennmd.blogspot.com/2018/07/spirit-desire.html)

Friday, November 2, 2018

Heredity, and genetic science, are more complex than one could ever imagine




She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers. Perversions, and Potential of Heredity – Carl Zimmer (2018)


            (A quick note on some awesomeness that has graced this humble book review blog recently.  Several weeks ago I received notice that RXTT’s Intellectual Journey has been included in Feedspot’s Top 200 Book Blogs, currently found at #193! Amazing!  Many thanks to blog master Mr. Anuj Agarwal, and the good people at Feedspot.  BOOKS RULE!)

The past decade has seen the world of genetic research explode, in both the amount and the scope of what is being attempted.  Researches the world over have new tools with which to explore the genetic codes that provide the instructions to make all parts of living organisms.  As with all emerging scientific fields, the general public’s discourse is decades behind the forefront of research.  This leads to reactionary angers, manipulation of the ignorant through fear, and an inability to properly fund cutting edge research.  Carl Zimmer has done an amazing job corralling the wild and weird history of the human study of heredity and genetics, and made it truly enjoyable to read.
Humans have been genetically altering the natural world around us for millennia; way before we knew what drove heredity, or had any idea about why offspring acquired certain characteristics of their parents and lost others.  These early genetic experimenters were the early humans that began to cultivate wild plants.  An example of this is the modern tomato.  The original fruit, which is exceedingly rare to find these days, was basically a tiny, tart and seedy berry.  The humans in the New World (many of our modern foods were not found in Eurasia, Africa, or Australia) would choose a plant with slightly lager or sweeter berry, collect those seeds, and propagate it.  Each new generation, the human would choose the plants with the best fruit, propagate that one, and dispose of the lesser plants.  Over the centuries, that basic method created whole new species of tomato plants, capable of producing much bigger, sweeter, and more nutritious food.  The same process allowed our New World ancestors to create what we now call corn, chili peppers, potatoes, and a host of other vegetables that are ubiquitous in modern diets worldwide.  This same process was undergone by early humans domesticating cattle, goats, swine, etc.  By breeding only the animals whose traits were preferred, more animals capable of reproducing those traits existed, soon making them the norm.
In spite of the long history of humans altering the plants and animals around us, it seems that as a species, we humans have an extremely short memory of our collective past.  We allow ideas that have no relation to the world around us to color how we see the world itself.  One of the biggest restraints to developing the science of heredity and genetics came from organized religion, and the blind obedience that their dogma requires of their followers.  Ideas that are in opposition to religious dogma are disposed of without exploration, and people are kept blind, ignorant and happy in their stupidity.  For centuries, the idea that the world was truly static, truly unchanging, was prevalent in Western culture.  This stems solely from theologians and priests demanding that everyone see their little collection of stories, history, genealogy, myths, and fables as LITERAL TRUTH, never to be questioned, never to be doubted.  In this world view, every animal species was perfectly crafted by an omniscient creator, and these species have remained unchanged since the beginning of time.  This belief depended on the unchallenged assumption that the world was just over 6,000 years old, an assumption so stupid and wrong yet strictly dogmatic, that it was unchallenged for centuries, even causing the execution of people willing to claim otherwise.
It is quite fitting that despite these idiocies pushed on people by organized religions, it was ordained members of the clergy who did the most groundbreaking work on genetics.  Gregor Mendel, an Augustinian friar and abbot, decided he was going to do his own experiments, regardless of the consequences.  He used the common pea plant, and its many colorful flowers, as his subject.  By cross-breeding them over and over, and carefully observing the results, he developed the idea that the outcome of reproduction is due to the offspring inheriting some sort of instructions from both of its progenitors.  He showed how, for these plants, and it turns out, for much of life on Earth, there is a rigid set of probability controlling which traits are passed on and in what quantity.  By selectively breeding only tall plants, an d then pollinating them with pollen from short plants, he was able to show the existence of dominant, and recessive, traits.
Dominant traits are those that will appear in an offspring if only one of its parents carries that trait.  Recessive traits can spring up in offspring, but only if both parents carry the recessive trait themselves.  He also determined the ratio in which these traits would appear, and was vindicated by his experiments.  People condemned the man, ignoring his work. It was only after his death that recognition came, and now Mendel is considered the father of genetics for his efforts.
Breeders and scientists continued working in this manner for centuries, through trial and error, until a great discovery was made.  This was the discovery of the DNA molecule, and how it is found in every single form of life on the planet, from bacteria to trees to humans.  Understanding that this complex and huge molecule encoded instructions for the creation of all parts of an organism was something that, even today, many people are not willing to accept.  Once this was found out, scientists and researchers sought to decode what was now called a genome.  Some animals have few chromosomes containing DNA, and others have dozens and dozens.  Each species is different, yet each species carries so much “junk” DNA (DNA that is left over from previous ancestors or organisms) that looking for the genes that are actually shaping our bodies was a herculean task.  Over the past 30 years much groundbreaking work has been done in studying genes, what they are responsible for, how to alter them, and how to use gene therapy to help people suffering from genetic diseases.
Another awesome part of this book discusses the study of heredity, as it relates to what traits and genes are passed on to our children.  Humans are pretty selfish and stupid, for the most part, and because of this many people were convinced that having “bad” parents automatically created “bad” offspring.  This was such a racist and classicist idea, yet it persisted for a long time, because, of course, most “educated” people canme from the rich white upper crust of society.  It allowed people to classify a pecking order of human quality, with white Europeans on top of the list, and African and tribal people at the bottom.  These morons made the grievous mistake of assuming that genetics count for everything in a person’s makeup, and that environment, opportunity, and nutrition had no bearing.  These idiots fought the hardest, and still fight today, to try and maintain the status quo which keeps them fat and happy while everyone else deserves their shit lot in life.  It has been shown, countless times, that human achievement and quality is an ongoing process, and results from everything that shapes a person, from their family life, to their education, to their nutrition, to where they are born.
Even after these dumb-ass ideas were discounted, people continued to stick to strict ideas of heredity, ideas which have no bearing in the real world.  In one example, around the 1920’s, the comedian Charlie Chaplin was sued by a young lady claiming her son was his illegitimate child.  Chaplin sought to have the court accept scientific evidence (blood type) that the child could not be Chaplin’s, but at the time the courts were scientifically ignorant, and would not allow it.  In recent decades, this mindset has flipped, and in most courts, only DNA evidence is accepted and it is seen as irrefutable. The blind stupidity of this is pointed out by the case of a woman with three children, who, in a custody battle, had blood work done.  The blood work showed that her kids did not share her DNA, so the courts accused her of stealing the babies when they were young.  She tried everything, including testimony from the doctor that delivered her babies, but had no luck.  It was not until several scientists did extensive work on the lady that it was discovered that she is a chimera.  Her body is composed of two distinctly different sets of DNA.  Her blood contained DNA that did not match her kids, but her muscle and skin contained matching DNA.  Genetic chimeras are quite common, in fact, it is estimated that most humans are genetic chimeras on some level.  Some of them are formed when two eggs are fertilized by two sperm I the uterus, and then these two combine into one embryo, creating one human.  Sometimes these come out hermaphroditic, other times it is seemingly undetectable.  Even other people have stripes across their skin, from two separate genetic pools. 
One other seeming insanity I came across while reading this book is the discovery that human mothers exchange DNA with their offspring, and vice versa.  It used to be thought that the placenta was a protective barrier, keeping the fetus separate, but that is not the case.  The mother’s DNA does enter the child, and sometimes the child’s DNA goes back through the umbilical cord in the form of stem cells and become part of the mother’s body.  In some cases it was found that the fetus’ stem cells became neurons in the brain of the mother, sometimes months after the child had been born.  The implications are awesome.
I could write about the amazing stuff in this book forever.  I think it is a very engaging read, and worth the time it takes, for anyone interested in heredity, genetics, science history, and the foolishness of man’s assumptions about our own nature.  Highly Recommended.

(This book can be purchased here: https://carlzimmer.com/books/she-has-her-mothers-laugh/ )

Monday, October 1, 2018

The animal life around us is more interesting than we could ever imagine



The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary – Caspar Henderson (2013)

            Bestiaries are bad-ass.  I even like the word itself (a collection of beasts!!!).  For the most recent human history, bestiaries were collections, much like encyclopedias and atlases, that sought to compile the whole breadth of the animal life found in a specific area of the world.  Ancient Greek and Roman scholars would compile these amazing bestiaries, mostly based on word-of-mouth and accounts brought back from intrepid sailors.  Because their sources were never actually verified, many of the entries found in these old bestiaries are either for wholly made up animals, such as chimeras, unicorns, and gryphons, or they were for severely misidentified and poorly described animals, such as the rhinoceros, which was originally thought to have armored plating, and whose horn it was said would spew fire when the creature was angry.  While many of these descriptions sound poetically correct, (you do NOT want a 2 ton rhino angry at you.  You will swear he has fire shooting out its snout as it comes to wreck you up.  Also, its thick, folded skin, does indeed look like armor plating,) they were not up to the veracity needed to function as true scientific categorization.
            Around half a decade ago, author Caspar Henderson started to think about animals, specifically the ones that are surprising to encounter.  These animals are so amazing, so unique in their morphology or their behavior, and so different from the standard animals we humans find ourselves exposed to, that they may as well be mythical.  He began to do the research that led to this book.  Mr. Henderson’s love of nature shines through in his writing.  He has chosen one animal to represent each letter of the alphabet, and in each chapter he manages to not only describe the amazing animal in question, what we know currently about its life, physical properties, and behavior, but he also explores the way humans have discovered these details, how humans used to see these animals historically, and the possibilities inherent for us in studying these magnificent creatures.
            I am a huge nature nut, and I am always in awe of the seemingly inexhaustible variety of form and function that life has taken on our lovely planet Earth.  I was quite familiar with some of the animals in this bestiary, and I was completely ignorant of several of these creatures.  I learned quite a lot about or fellow animals, and was left with a distinct impression that, for all we humans know about life and the universe around us, what remains to be known is so vast, and so completely unpredictable to us, that it shines a harsh light on the selfish way we humans treat our Earth and its fellow inhabitants.  We are all in this together, whether prey or predator, scavenger, or parasite.  The more we know about the world around us, hopefully the less we will take it for granted.  When we destroy nature we are destroying ourselves.

(This book can be purchased here:  https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/B/bo15631080.html )

[ Review edited per the author's correction. - RXTT ]