Pandemic Spring: February & March

I’ve had this WordPress window open for over a month, and daily life is changing so rapidly for so many people that it’s been difficult to nail down a good time to get cracking on this. I’m still unsure of my take on the pandemic unfolding across the world: on one hand, a grotesque curiosity of mine has become a reality in my lifetime, and I watch daily with deep (and admittedly morbid) interest, even as my brother, sister, brother in law and many of my closest friends reside in/near what is currently COVID-19 Ground Zero, NY Metro. Many of my friends have lost their jobs, or are furloughed with more uncertainty than savings. I am quite curious as to how long I will have a job, as I also work in the hospitality/service industry, which is the most grim sector in which to be employed currently. Further, my beloved state will certainly have some deep scars from the double-whammy of COVID-19 and the crash of oil. Alaska is fucked, at least in the short term, and I have no doubt the tourism industry will lose 30% or more of its operators by the time this is over. I actually think this will depopulate the state a fair amount; I am unsure we are capable of recovering from so many consecutive catastrophes… earthquakes… forest fires… government shutdowns… and now a pandemic. I think this kind of chaos will bring some long-term positive change, though, some of which are mentioned in this NY Post article.

As for me, I’ve spent most of my adolescence and adult life fascinated by infectious disease. The single newsletter I read with any regularly is CDC’s Emerging Infectious Diseases. I’m not surprised this has happened… it was only a matter of time. And even early on, as people poo-poo’ed news out of China of a new virus, I was pretty sure this would be a months-long shit show, upending most of the world, at least temporarily. Lo and behold, here we are. I’m actually not sure life will resume as it was, when this is over. People will act differently. And feel differently. I think a prolonged period punctuated by fear of other people will have deleterious effects on how we function socially, which is already severely stunted in the modern age.

On the positive side (for me), presently, apart from having to cancel a few months of travel plans and not being able to log an hour on the stair machine every day, I’m largely unaffected. I quite like being home, I have an enormous stack of books, I live in a big house in a cool neighborhood (one of Anchorage’s urban moose up the street in the photo on the left) with someone I don’t hate, and I have a cute dog who is enjoying extra exercise. Spring is around the corner, and I eagerly await a snow and ice-free patio so I can reconstruct my Eastside Shangri-la. If we are still on lockdown in the actual summer, I’ll have my ski condo to hang at, at the very least. Life could be a lot worse… there has never been a better time to be an introvert.

That said, I think a part of me has decided I don’t, for the time being, care much for the future. This may be a good skill to have. I only mean that insofar as I am not crippled by anxiety and uncertainty. I had said in the beginning of the year that 2020 would be my year… which will certainly not be the case. I try to balance the sadness I feel for my friends and my industry and the uncertainty I feel for my loved ones’ safety with a sense of gratitude that I’d be pretty OK if I lost my job, I’m not dying of boredom and not particularly miserable as a result of any of these mandated pandemic rules. I do not think the end of this is near. I am not convinced I will remain employed. But, eh. There has always been a silver lining to choosing to bypass my chosen career path for something more versatile… during uncertain times, the field of possibility is much more vast.

In the meantime… I’ve read a ton of random shit over the past two months, and obviously there’s a lot more to come. Reminder that I feel it’s a complete waste of time to write full reviews; I’d sooner expound briefly on whether I liked a book or did not (with some exceptions where I’m inspired to ramble), and link to someone whose job it is to review books. These posts take long enough as it is ffs.

The Price We Pay: What Broke American Healthcare — and How to Fix It | This was a pretty interesting book, and definitely relevant today, in a period of time when tens of thousands of Americans will not only become critically ill, but then be bankrupted by our healthcare system. The author takes a pretty ambitious trip around the country and covers a lot of subject areas — obviously price (and hospital billing) is a big part of it. Our healthcare system is as confusing as it is unfair, and this book was oddly hopeful. Here’s an NPR review/interview. Sounds like a boring topic, no? It’s actually written in a pretty casual tone and the author keeps it interesting.

The Light That Failed: Why the West Is Losing the Fight for Democracy | Financial Times review here; Economist review here; Foreign Affairs review here. This is one of the most brilliant books I’ve read in years, and that says a lot — I read a lot of excellent stuff. Many of the points in this book are insane in their obviousness, and yet there’s so much in here I had not ever fully constructed in my own head. I will very likely read this again at some point (or at least peruse); I could not get over how many times reading this book I was completely floored by how much sense the authors made. Truly incredible book with a really ambitious topic.

The Elementary Particles | I quite enjoyed this. I had never read anything by Houellebecq before; I don’t think he’s a particularly talented writer, but there were some memorable pieces of this often very depraved story of two brothers. I definitely want to read Whatever, one of his other well-known novels. Quillette has published alternating views of him, but they did cover Elementary Particles here. There’s a more recent article on him here.

The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol | I’m just going to come out and say that I’m not a huge fan of Gogol. This stories are a bit too folksy for me, though in a way I find difficult to describe. There’s something grotesque and surreal about his style I really enjoy… that said I had a really difficult time getting through some of these stories, which often unfold at a very slow pace. Probably worth reading some of his more famous ones if you’re into Russian literature; the entire Collected Tales was a bit too much for me.

The Nation Killers: The Soviet Deportation of Nationalities | I acquired two books by Robert Conquest over the winter: The Nation Killers and Harvest of Sorrow (about the Holodomor). For whatever reason I found this book profoundly depressing; the resettlement campaigns in the USSR were unbelievably cruel. I’m not sure if this strikes me as awful because so many people died living in mud holes in Kazakhstan or if the calculated way people were stripped of their sense of homeland is what is so sad about this… further, that this happened is by no means widely known, and like everything else in Soviet times, countless people died as ghosts, unrecorded… the lucky ones ended up in the death count.

Few books have been written about this, and it’s dry reading for sure, but sometimes reality is more morbid than anything concocted in the imagination. Such is the case here. I took a photo of a map that shows to a small extent the absurdity. The book goes so far as to explain why they did this, which makes sense (in a sick way, of course), though I am somewhat sympathetic to their wariness of nationalism. So many things that transpired in this country are so mind-blowingly cruel and were also so successful in destroying millions of people, literally and figuratively. There’s some disjointed information on Wikipedia about these resettlements. Much, much moreso than dark classics like Kolyma Tales, this deportation — the scale of horror that was never fully uncovered and is now lost in history — is nightmare material for me.

My Struggle, Book 6 | I can’t fully express how it feels to have finally finished this series, after beginning it over two years ago while living in Fairbanks. I have listened to the Audible version of this book all over the world, on a lot of airplanes, while living in different houses, in different parts of Alaska. As this is an autobiography of sorts, I’d say it is much like a person: there are good parts, bad parts, boring parts, annoying parts. Book 6 returned to a lot of the thoughts the author had in the beginning of this series; Book 6’s lengthy part on Hitler was not good… even if it were, I don’t find Hitler (or Mein Kampf) nearly as interesting as he does: Mein Kampf is one of the shittiest books by one of history’s villains I’ve ever read… even Stalin is better, and Stalin was also a dreadful writer. I was struck by a sort of irony with Hitler with regard to the importance of the individual — this entire series revolved around the immensity of a single person, the sheer multitude of thought wrapped up in one person’s life, his experience, his actions… to end the book focusing on a man who only valued some individuals with the right racial makeup is strange indeed. Further, Karl Ove, despite writing this and many other books, has accomplished little in his life, though he has ‘done’ a lot (otherwise what would he fill 3600 pages with?) and that I suppose is part of the story as well… to what extent is someone expected to provide any kind of value to the world?

Ultimately I’m pleased I managed to claw my way through this gargantuan series: my feelings for this author run the gamut. You get to the end and you feel as though you know him; I also came away with a feeling that I would love to have a conversation with him, but I’m unsure I would say I “like” him. I admire his ability to expose himself, his cowardice, his poor decisions, the monotony and selfishness that overwhelms him at times. This was an impressive series, though Book 6 received tepid reviews: New York Times here and Slate here. I felt the entire series was hit or miss, but it was much more hit than miss, and the boring parts were worth the struggle for the nights I, lying in bed, sat straight up and said “WHAT??” and hit the 30-sec rewind to listen to a beautiful thought, or an incredible passage, 2, 3, 4 times. Last note, the Audible version of this is incredible… so incredible in fact that I already purchased all 4 of his recent seasons books (which are much shorter) just to continue to listen to Edoardo Ballerini.

Transparent Things | This is another book I really just did not get into. It’s short, so I finished it, but I found it pretty boring. None of the characters were particularly likable. The New York Times’ archive has a great review; it seems they saw a lot more in it than I did. Most of the reviews end in general admiration for Nabokov (this Guardian review is one); I concur, but this book was nowhere near his best work.

Putin Country: A Journey into the Real Russia | The author of this book was a correspondent for NPR, apparently, and the book is interesting because her material comes out of her experiences in Chelyabinsk. The book is mostly a series of human interest stories with characters she meets in the city; post-Soviet identity (or lack thereof) is I think really difficult for Western people to understand; she does a really good job of explaining the roots of conflict. There are a lot of kinds of books people write to explain Russia: books about what happened, and books about what people feel about what happened, and this is the latter. Easy, quick read, super insightful. Would recommend. Foreign Affairs review here; YaleGlobal Online here; CS Monitor here.

Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs | I saw an interview with this guy on Joe Rogan and decided to read his book, seeing as how there’s pretty much no better time in history to do so. I’ve read some awesome pandemic books over the years; my favorite is probably Spillover, which features a cornucopia of diseases… this one primarily focuses on influenza and whatever is coming next, though he talks about HIV, TB, malaria and others briefly as well. Definitely a good read for anyone living in coronavirus times. Here’s a review from NIH… didn’t know that was a thing.

Marina Abramović: Walk Through Walls | I was pleased to see this on a shelf facing me at Powell’s in Portland a few months back; I’ve encountered her work throughout my life and having been somewhat familiar with her, I was still taken aback by the end of this book, by her ability to put her pain and suffering in the forefront in a way it for whatever reason really resonated with me. I read this and A Hero of Our Time simultaneously, and by the time I finished both books I was depressed af. Her work is incredible; the trajectory of her life is pretty interesting as well, and her romantic endeavors add so much depth to her (particularly in terms of suffering). I didn’t find this memoir to be particularly well-written, but she’s an artist, not a writer, and it was definitely worth the time. Truly fascinating person.

A Hero of Our Time | This is me, saving the best for last. How has it taken me 35 years to read this unbelievable book? The odd organization of events was difficult at first (the end of the book is really the beginning, and then it flashes back in diary entries)… I was completely amazed by the depth of the main character and how (especially these days) I identify so deeply with his feelings on life, namely in it being completely meaningless, endeavors often completely pointless, with the lack of reconciliation between how he acts and how he feels, with his deeply conflicted nature overall. I will never forget the part, toward the end, where his horse collapses as he is riding after Vera, and has this incredible opportunity to make a difference in his life, a grand gesture (maybe) and asks himself, “for what?” And lies down and sobs. He wanders off and eventually dies. All of this emptiness against the backdrop of the Caucasus, which are so vividly and incredibly developed in this book. I think something I also found interesting is how much the ethnic groups of the region all hate each other (Cossacks, Ossetians, Tatars, Circassians / Kabardians, Georgians, etc.), how diverse and strange (and beautiful) that part of the world is. I think this may be one of my favorite books of all time. I rewound, re-listened, and I’m grateful to have found a little copy recently that I can tuck into a bag if I choose to peruse it; I’ve realized other people rarely re-read books, but I go back to ones I love regularly. I loved some parts of this book so much that I screenshot passages from Google Books while lying in bed listening. This is a really unbelievable read.

Re-reads:

Heart of Darkness | I had forgotten until I nearly completed this post that en route to Hawaii, I listened to Heart of Darkness in its entirety. It had been a long time; and I often expect to not be as enamored by a book the second time around as the first; that is rarely if ever the case. Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim are both brilliant — Conrad seems to be difficult for people to digest, or too dry, or something. It has always been disappointing to read about his supposed racism, which I never saw in the book: to me this was always about the fear of the unknown, the evolutionary fear of darkness (not blackness, but darkness) and the fear of things different than you. The way it’s written paints a nightmarish but often beautiful and mysterious portrait of the Congo, and the narrator in the end is forever changed by his experience, and his perception of civilization as he knew it prior to his trip is forever changed. Both books: Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim have bizarre analyses — I saw Lord Jim as much more about shame than free will and determinism. Heart of Darkness scarcely seemed racist to me at all: it was a product of colonialism, and if anything the narrator was more sympathetic to the natives (he had much more curiosity than contempt) than anyone else in the novel. I noticed many years ago that someone used an excerpt (one of the better known ones) in a tourism video for Malaysia. Pretty cool. Vimeo link here.

That’s all for now. Trying to keep these monthly moving forward (or more frequent) since there’s not much else going on.

Post-publish addition, I’m incredibly grateful to have squeezed in a beautiful week on Maui before this all transpired. At the very least the travel ban took place for me immediately after a very active early 2020… one of countless reasons for a lot of gratitude, despite present circumstances.

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