Mother Russia

‘Babchenko–here. Your father died…’ [the postman] said breathlessly, handing me a telegram. And right at that moment they gave us the signal to board and the battalion started loading its gear. The other soldiers went past me, clapping me on the back and saying: ‘You’re lucky.’ Instead of going to Grozny I went to Moscow to my dad’s funeral.

My father gave me life twice. If he had died twenty minutes later I would have missed the telegram, boarded the helicopter and died half an hour after that. The helicopter was shot to pieces as it landed in Khankala. The battalion returned a month later. Only forty-two men remained of the ninety-six. That’s how the war was then.
One Soldier’s War

I’ve been reflecting lately on why many of my interests are so macabre. It’s a bit difficult to get to know new normal people and share interests when you spend your free time leafing through The Great Big Book of Horrible Things; when you will happily chat about any time in history where people were suffering and dying (which is, to be fair, all times in history); when your backup topics include infectious disease and radiation poisoning. I suppose I will also happily yammer on about personal development, business, psychology, travel, religion, general history and classical literature, but I have always favored the darker and drearier topics. History is the only real way to learn anything, after all, and the insane complexity of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; the Third Reich; the Soviet Union take forever to fully absorb. They’re rabbit holes from which you may never reemerge.

I suppose I am overly interested in the “how” and “why” of everything, and the mechanisms by which (bad) ideas (and infectious diseases, for that matter) spread. Communism has always been particularly interesting to me, as I can’t think of a wider-spread worse set of ideas than Communism… and, arguably, some of those belonging to the Catholic church. I’ve been fascinated for as long as I can remember by how Communism works and how it changes people individually, morally, ethically, politically, financially. Communism is so alien, so irrational, so gruesome, it’s a crime scene I’ve been rubbernecking my whole life.

I also have always wondered how people live, and what it feels like to be someone else–to have someone else’s life. I wonder about the way the world is filtered through different people’s eyes. I am pretty interested in horror and gore films as well, and much of it can be explained by the fact that when I think another person may be afraid or grossed out, I am mostly curious. I had a colleague ask me why many horror moves are so frightening to some people and not others, and I told him I believe it’s because religion has such power, even when as adults people don’t believe in God. Satanic movies seem to freak people out the most, because people are raised with a fear of evil. I don’t seem to harbor those kinds of subconscious preconceptions, and have really enjoyed some films, being able to see beyond the superficial style: Martyrs, Antichrist and A Serbian Film come to mind. I’ve met some others over the years who seem to have stripped those preconceptions from their personalities, and they tend to be more interesting to be around, not to mention more curious about the world.

This roundup is a brief return to the Eastern bloc, and the Caucasus.

applebaumBetween East and West: Across the Borderlands of Europe. I’ve loved all of Anne Applebaum’s books, and I have one left to read before I’ve read them all. I began with Gulag, which was a pretty meticulous history of the gulag system. Her history of the Holodomor in Ukraine, Red Famine, was also amazing. Between East and West seemed to hearken a bit to Black Lamb and Grey Falcon in its structure, and ever since I read that complete freakin’ masterpiece I’ve loved stumbling upon other books written in the same style. Between East and West winds through Kaliningrad, into Lithuania, Poland, Belarus, Ukraine. The Carpathians. I was pretty enamored by this map, which shows Galicia and Ruthenia: both no longer exist as demarcated regions:

IMG_0284

This book is a more leisurely and less meticulously detailed read as it details brief stays in each locale; she meets a series of characters who weave their own experiences into her story. The time frame of this trip is 1991-92, which was chock full of changes in this part of the world, and the people are filled with the uncertainty of their time as well. It paints a pretty dull portrait of a series of pretty dull places, with some interesting historical anecdotes woven in; it was worth reading, but not nearly as illuminating or full of information as her other books. Review which largely speaks this here.

warwithrussia

War with Russia: An Urgent Warning from Senior Military Command. This book was mentioned in The Economist, and it piqued my interest enough to read it. The book itself is not good at all; the ideas and the urgency of the message are pertinent regardless. Not sure I would ever recommend this book to anyone, but Europe’s utter unpreparedness to counter a larger threat from Russia is a massive blind spot in modern foreign policy. Review in FT here.

onesoldierswarOne Soldier’s War. I’ve had this book on my Kindle since 2017, and I finally started and finished it. This was a surprisingly incredible book; I loved so many excerpts I’d rather put them in here than say much more. An article/short bio of the author from The Guardian here.

Read excerpts here.

Arctic Dreams

When I was a kid, I counted down to winter. I was fortunate to have spent much of my adolescence in New York state, where those winters are long; and I can’t ever remember being excited for spring. I learned to ski shortly after I could walk, and as an adult, currently taking a hiatus from skiing, the whoosh of skis on hard pack will always hearken back to my youth and young adulthood. Like language fluency, when you learn to ski young, it is as natural as breathing. I loved skiing most on the coldest days, when the trees moaned in the wind chill and my eyes watered if the seal of my goggles was broken… the kind of Northeastern wind that turns your legs lobster red under your ski pants and lets loose a primordial scream from deep in your bone marrow.

After an emotionally trying first year in college, I escaped to Uppsala to earn some cheap credits and visit my mother’s Swedish family. I felt I had grown up in many different worlds: the world of open, kind and adventurous Scandinavians and Italians having entered the US via Paterson, New Jersey; and my father’s coal mining Carpatho-Rusyns, who settled in Northeastern Pennsylvania with the rest of their kind. Slavic people, in my experience, were more fearful; neurotic; insular and wary of the outside world. Their culture was no less rich, and my travels through the former Eastern Bloc are a story for another day. I was also trapped between city and country, born in urban New Jersey but raised in the Catskill Mountains.

It was my mother’s parents who infected me with a travel obsession; the postcards in Swedish and the dinner table prayers; the stories of summers on Lake Mälaren and broader Nordic world; the elephants that adorned my grandparents’ home, many of them brought back from travels abroad, especially from Southeast Asia, where my mother’s father served in WWII. My grandfather died unexpectedly shortly after I arrived in Alaska, and my sister read my eulogy to him in New Jersey. An excerpt,

The shelves of elephants were more significant to my hopes and dreams than any other material possessions I encountered in my youth. Your trinkets from afar—the elephants, the Dala horses, the wicker dragon from Vietnam, all of which rest on shelves of mine here in Girdwood—paved the roads I have traveled in my life, far away and often solo. I loved your adventures, alone and together, around the world. To be a child and to think of India and Vietnam and Germany—to be able to see and touch pieces of those faraway places, to listen to stories—made them real, and within reach.

And so I reached.

Each item, marked with yours and Nana’s human history, gave me hope in traversing the earth for the same knowledge and understanding, to find my place in the world, the same way you had found yours, with each other. Many of these items, tucked away in bags and backpacks and luggage, through wars and business trips and vacations, were brought back with unflagging devotion, over years and decades. I became unsure at times, reflecting on your journeys, which was more important: the departure toward the unknown, or the return to what you really loved.

My years wandering through Scandinavia changed me, as did the Danish and Icelandic professors at BU who took me under their wing and helped me get to where I needed to be, who traded research projects for teaching assistance in their graduate classes. I felt as though I gained some glimpse of who I was, of where I belonged, and all the errant dots slowly connected over the following years. And, down the road, I found myself back in my adolescent hometown, looking north while being whipped by wind chill. Traveling to Ottawa & Toronto, to Newfoundland, to Iceland, Finnish Karelia, to the Yukon. Long weekends I would drive up to Dartmouth College and spend entire days looking through hundreds and thousands of Arctic expedition letters and lantern slides, housed in their incredible Stefansson Collection. I read hundreds of books on the Arctic, on polar expeditions, survival stories, creation myths, Icelandic sagas. I made online penpals of Nenets people in Archangelsk, of archaeologists in Oulu, of Arctic teachers across Canada and Hudson Bay Company historians.

I slowly began accumulating lithographs from Cape Dorset, which cushioned the doubt I felt in ever being able to eek out a life at the right latitude… and I continued to return to the north. I dragged my entire family up the coast of Norway in 2009. Two years earlier, in 2007, I brought my mother to Alaska, and I remember sitting on a boat in Prince William Sound wondering what it would take to live here. I did not believe it was possible. I wanted too many things.

Fast forward to July 2012, the month of thus far the happiest day of my life, pulling out of my parents’ driveway in Pennsylvania to drive to Alaska, car full of whatever I needed for the first few months until the rest of my stuff showed up. I had pretty much shed tears of joy every night before I even flew up for the interview process, knowing full well this was it, I was moving, and this was happening… feeling slightly as though I was being released from a nice enough prison, and my life was about to begin. I’ve been sure of very few things in my life: this was one of those moments. It was time.

I drove to my new home via a slight detour: via Dawson City, ferry across the Yukon River and over the dusty Top of the World Highway into Alaska, to Valdez and across Prince William Sound, crossing the very place I had doubted myself years prior. I thought, car tucked into a little ferry over the Yukon, about the countless stories I had read, in John McPhee’s Coming Into The Country, in the follow-up by Fairbanks writer Dan O’Neill, A Land Gone Lonesome, and have spent these years with a sense of personal triumph punctuated by loving something with so much depth I want to know everything, even all its worst, ugliest parts. Some days here, in Alaska, I wonder what I am doing here after these years, and sometimes daily life is so grim and frustrating… and then I remember all of this.

There is a painting hanging in the Anchorage Museum by Rockwell Kent that sucks me in every time I walk through their Art of the North gallery. And I think back to his work, his books with illustrations which have accompanied my travels: Salamina; North by Northeast; the reproductions of women standing on the Greenlandic shore that hang in my home. I dove into a book today I have been lugging around for a few years and have hesitated to read: Jean Malaurie’s The Last Kings of Thule, and the preface ends with,

When, [with friends] certain scenes that we lived through together were evoked twenty years later, they were relived with infinitely greater intensity than when recalled after only a few months; as if time were needed for “the little sensation”–smell, color, emotion, astonishment–which is inscribed in the groove of memory, to protect one’s recollection of the event.

It was too early for me to have written this book in 1951, but I did not know that then. Curiously enough, great travelers–Humboldt, Jack London, Pere Huc–lived with their memories for years, publishing some of them only late or not at all. One lives with one’s memories–in the proper sense of that phrase–in order to grasp their internal order. The weakness of big travel narratives and reportages very likely derives from the writer’s haste to preserve vivacity at the expense of the deeper internal experience. It is the search for time newly refound that I offer the reader.

I came across this book because Malaurie’s relative was an internet penpal of mine, and a teacher in the Canadian High Arctic. Beginning this book triggered an immense tidal wave of all of these memories. It’s a distinctly human experience to be completely swept up in a long-dormant love and obsession. But as I look around and see stacks of Arctic books; Cape Dorset art and other traces of the north, I realize this obsession has been completely unwavering all these years, and my years in Alaska are years of my life I am the most grateful for. In my time here, I have been to Lake Clark, to Prudhoe Bay; to Dutch Harbor; to Nome and Sitka and so many other beautiful places. I have traveled this state more widely than most people I know, and I fully intend, despite likely having to depart for some time, to rest here indefinitely. I think these days it’s easy to generate content for Instagram, but that simplistic style of travel will never garner today’s feelings. This unflagging curiosity and deep love for high latitudes is a ridiculously large part of who I am, and it’s an overwhelming reality sometimes… and maybe it’s broader than that: the right way to love something, to dive so deep into it it becomes intertwined with your identity and chokes you up intermittently throughout your life. This is just one deep love of mine.

I remember reading in an Arctic novel ages ago that many explorers felt as though once they had crossed over the Arctic Circle, a piece of them was left there in the north forever. A close friend asked me to post, and so this is what I have today. It’s an appropriate post, as he spent a chunk of his own youth exploring the coast of the Hudson Bay, and landed squarely on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, another high latitude wanderer… we seem to find each other here.

The winter! the brightness that blinds you,
   The white land locked tight as a drum,
The cold fear that follows and finds you,
   The silence that bludgeons you dumb.
The snows that are older than history,
   The woods where the weird shadows slant;
The stillness, the moonlight, the mystery,
   I’ve bade ’em good-by—but I can’t.
RWS

Q1 2019 in Books

It’s been a long few months, and quite honestly, my reading pace has been a bit slow. I’ve at this point read all of Charles Murray‘s books, none of which I plan to include in this roundup: I am wrapping up The Bell Curve presently. Murray, like Jordan Petersen and many of the other so-called villains of our time, are among some of my favorite contemporary personalities. Related, I’ve also been bingeing on Quillette, my now ultimate favorite literary site.

The hustle is real in my life, and I have lots of fly time in Q2 and Q3. I am excited to return to beautiful Sarajevo in June; as well as continue onto Tbilisi, then onto Wave Gotik Treffen… and if I survive the Choquequariao to Machu Picchu hike at the end of June, I’m sure there will be at least a handful of llama sacrifice photos to post from Inti Raymi in Cusco. I am blessed to have been born on traditional Swedish midsummer, among other things, as June 24 is full of bizarre celebrations around the world. So, turn 35, and then probably die on this hike. Can’t wait.

Moving on…

Blood and Vengeance: One Family’s Story of the War in Bosnia. I will probably never stop reading Bosnia books. I have certainly not stopped watching Balkans documentaries and films; clearly weeks in the region has done nothing to quell my infatuation. This story is long and complex; it takes place in a small village near Višegrad, and ends as many do in Srebrenica. These stories are never boring because they are all so different and have so many individual histories interwoven throughout. The author is talented and writes with a lot of passion (he is also married to a Serb), but it takes a long time to read (this is not a detriment). Good review in The Independent here.

The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia. This is one of the best books I’ve read in the last year. It reminded me to some degree of another very long book of which I have only scratched the surface, Children of the Arbat, only in the way there are many different characters built out and they proceed in their lives and in the time they’re constructed in many different directions. The Future is History is essentially a run-down of 90s Russia, and how Putin’s rise affected people at different levels of society (with those people skewed toward people connected to some prominent figures of the time). The way the book is constructed allows you to amass pretty detailed portraits of each of them, which made it impossible to stop reading. New York Times review (written by Francis Fukuyama, interesting) here.

My Struggle: Book 4. I’m losing a bit of interest in Karl Ove’s endless autobiography. Perhaps the point of this exercise is that I’ve come to realize as I like myself more as I have aged, I also like other people more as they have aged, and at the points in this sweeping tale where he is an adult, I tend to find him less boring and more existentially explosive. That said, I think one of the qualities of this series is intended to be boredom, as anyone’s life when deconstructed into tiny subjugates is actually really tedious and even more irrelevant. Book 4 is mostly about him teaching in northern Norway and trying to get laid, beset by premature ejaculation, overdrinking and the awkwardness that looms over his head for what seems like his entire existence (this is true for virtually all Norwegians, they are born awkward and die awkward… it’s part of their charm). I’m a few chapters into Book 5 now, and am charmed thus far by his return to Bergen. New York Times review here (the reviewer was more impressed than I was by this book, though I think ‘airy’ is a good description).

Book 1 blew me away, and I enjoyed Book 2 as well; I have every intention to complete the series in my waking moments on airplanes, when I am not actually reading or sleeping to Mary Beard’s SPQR, which is so incredible that after listening to the audiobook while conscious, I now turn it on to sleep to… the woman narrator is like the British grandmother I never had. I chose to listen to My Struggle on audiobook, and I cannot say enough incredible things about Edoardo Ballerini’s reading of this massive volume. It is perfect. As an aside, I’ve always struggled with audiobooks; I am much more of an actual reader, but I’ve had some incredibly good experiences, and the $10 a month or whatever I pay Audible subscription has been a really great deal.

Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us. I found this book to be a little dry and neverending, but it was an interesting (and especially historical) take on the narcissism epidemic afflicting virtually everyone on social media… but much moreso, it is about the origins of the idea of self esteem, perfectionism, etc. A lot of the history and anecdotes in this book were completely new to me, and aside from the sections on philosophy and early Western thought, I was pretty unfamiliar with the rest of this content. A lot of these kinds of critiques tell the same stories in different ways; this one is not like the others. Two links for this, first a review, and second an interview with the author in Quillette.

In Extremis: The Life and Death of the War Correspondent Marie Colvin. I loved this book, this story, this woman, despite the fact that her idealism eventually resulted in her death in Homs. I also saw the movie, A Private War, which was good, though it omitted quite a lot (like her hiking over the mountains out of Chechnya, huffing and puffing from an adulthood of chain smoking, what a badass). I have always admired war reporters: you have to be a special kind of fucked up to be one, and their stories and lives are always both interesting and tragic. Colvin was no different. This women was beloved by Yasser Arafat; Muammar Gaddafi; quite a few other inaccessible and often evil people. She earned peoples’ trust and it was likely because she was genuine. She was a real person, and she maintained that real-ness until the day she died.

Side note, I watched a film recently called Single Frame about a man from Texas who happens upon a photo of a young boy taken during the Kosovo war in the late 90s, and the film is about him tracking down the boy. He meets a man at a cafe while in Kosovo, who tells him pretty gruffly that essentially to give a shit about some boy in a photograph is such an American thing, that it’s a privilege to have a life so nice you can care about a stranger you see in a photo somewhere and have the resources (not to mention the emotional space, the stability in your own life) to track him down. I think this is the kind of thing Americans don’t want to hear… it is so true.  Westerners give a shit because we are safe, and that’s the only reason we are able to do so. With that said, this kind of Western concern is not a detriment to the world, and has likely saved millions of lives. These war reporters are no different, and many of them have risked their own prosperous lives in stable countries to carry concerns of the less fortunate. Colvin was the perfect combination of interesting-tragic, long tormented by the death of her father, heavy drinker and likely anorexic, terrible man-picker, brooding with passion and courage. She lived hard and she died early and she’d probably do it all over again… which makes the story of her life (and death) worth a read and a watch.

Bowling Alone. I can’t believe I had never read this before. I also thought it had been made into a documentary, which it has not been. I’m not sure any of the content was a surprise to me: it is very much about civic engagement’s decline over time, and ultimately it seems as though television and the internet are very much to blame, which I suppose makes sense. There is no sign of this turning around, and it is likely to only get worse; I would recommend The Big Sort over Bowling Alone, but I think both these books are thought provoking. Wikipedia article on the book here.

Salt on Your Tongue: Women and The Sea. Let’s close with a book I really was not a fan of at all. I had high hopes after reading a very positive Economist review… which was a reminder I shouldn’t believe every (review) I read. I found this short book dreadfully boring and filled with only the most widely known mythological anecdotes. The review is quite honestly better than the book… boo hiss. I hate admitting I don’t like I book; this is the first one I’ve read in a long time I thoroughly did not enjoy.

Sometime this week I’ll follow up with random shit I’ve been watching on Netflix/etc. 

The Instant Gratification Age

There was an interesting article in the Washington Post this week on OKCupid and Tinder optimizing for hookups instead of romance. For obvious reasons, repeat customers are the chronically single kind, and in the same way Apple’s first generations of iPods were discontinued because they don’t break fast enough, you obviously see waning profits in a place where people pair off and close their accounts.

I have a bit of a different experience with OKCupid, and after a weekend of ruminating over it, I decided to shut down my account for the final time, despite meeting some of my closest friends through the platform (some as much as a decade ago). The functionality and format have changed, and it seems as though the audience has, too. Gone are the days people had long profiles and you could search anywhere, for anything, and messages would fly around with no pre-approval swipes. Part of the cause conveniently left out of the WP article was the #metoo movement and the growing preference for institutionally suppressing instead of ignoring unwanted messages… part of it is that social media has a whole has likely made people more fickle. Where a conversation fails or a person isn’t perfect (at least in the dating realm), why stick around? There are thousands more candidates. And despite all that, people seem lonelier, and more defeated in that loneliness.

Most of my closest friends have been de-Googling or have never (or only very lightly) joined the ranks of social media: I have a stern set of rules for myself, and limit myself to Facebook and LinkedIn. Some of the rationale is the quality of the content. Some of it is the narcissism it spurns in people, and the way social media has caused peoples’ desperate attention and validation to fester in unbelievable ways. For all the options we have, it seems harder to relate to each other, not easier.

I admit I have used dating sites very infrequently for actual dating, but it’s impossible to ignore the changing attitudes and the way people interact in general. It took some time to come to the conclusion that although this platform had assisted in finding excellent activity partners who became close friends (I have always been very mobile and like to meet people all over), that due to the platform changes I would be limited in what I could get from it moving forward.

I suppose in some ways I feel as though the world is leaving me behind, and I know some others feel that way as well. I suppose if I really had wanted to be a living microcosm of my generation, I wouldn’t live in Anchorage, where cosmopolitan glamour goes to die. That said, living up here has changed me so fundamentally that I’d struggle to make higher quality connections if I lived in a metro area full-time again instead of here.

I’ve never been fully convinced of the supremacy of meeting people to date online: most of my favorite ex-partners have been people I’ve met in real life, and they weren’t people who liked all the same things as me (I think this actually has very little to do with relationship quality). There was a time, though, when these sites provided a quality of access that they no longer do, because expectations have become so empty and unreasonable.

One of my favorite researchers of this topic, Sherry Turkle of the MIT Media Lab, writes and speaks (below) a lot about this, and it’s something that’s always been interesting to me. It’s also been a fascinating time to live in Alaska, where cultural values are extremely different and there is much more emphasis on real life (more on this to come). I’m grateful I moved here: for all its deficits, Alaska is about real, actual experience, and I have leaned on those pillars more and more over the years as my generation has morphed into something somewhat unrecognizable.

All Who Go Do Not Return

My mother gifted me a book with a note that said ‘this is the one you mentioned, I think.’ No, it was not, I had never heard of this book, but in an effort to offload a pile of heavy books to avoid transferring them into a crate, down the stairs, outside, across Anchorage, up some more stairs and onto a different shelf in a different house, I read it last week.

The story is one of an ex-Hasid who really just could not manage the oppressive lifestyle and ended up leaving his wife, kids and community to wear jeans and read Wikipedia… etc. His community’s rules were insane, and really not specific to Judaism; there are crazy people everywhere. I imagine this is a group of people, especially in the US, a lot of people don’t have much insight into. I had the luxury of growing up in the beautiful Catskills, which are conveniently mentioned throughout the book (see also: Borscht Belt).

I enjoyed the story and I felt immense sympathy for the author (I have a soft spot for people who leave, in a broad sense, having done it myself); I think secular and even religious Americans have a tough time separating the individual liberty we’re born with from the fact that ultimately these insular communities, and parents who raise their kids in them, choose differently. It’s always hard to leave something you’ve known in your formative years. While the extreme conservatism seems oppressive to me, people do leave, and other than fleecing the government for welfare, I’m not sure as communities these people are harming anyone collectively (side note, I also grew up in a town with a Bruderhof compound, so I have a high tolerance for strangely clothed people who think technology is mostly the devil).

I think it’d be easy for someone to be shocked and to assume the extreme culture of this Hasidic community is the culture of all of them; the author did mention this briefly but it probably could have been articulated a bit more. It was a good read anyway. Review from Chicago Tribune.

RP/Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult

This is one of a series of recycled blog posts from my last blog project, Shapeshifter, thanks to web-archive.org. This post has not been modified from its original version. Original post date: June 10, 2015.

Halfway through this very comprehensive history of black metal, on the forefront of chapter 19, Death of A Legend: Norway Part III, which details the death of Euronymous, I figure I should start writing this review. And so, for some explanation as to why I am writing this review, or reading this book, or some indication I possess any degree of knowledge on this topic, I’ve decided to rehash a bit of my personal history and create a Metal page to this blog… perhaps also in the hopes of expanding on this somewhat forgotten part of my past (forgotten in the sense that many things have happened between then and now, in the sense that I am no longer a contributing member of the music scene in any other sense than attending an array of creepy forest festivals and other live events in and around the world). Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult is part of a multi-volume project, which is completely awesome. I’m not going to get too caught up in the writing style but Dayal Patterson is excellent.  There could not have been a better person to take on such a ridiculously ambitious project. The single flaw I could find stylistically is he reverts toward the end to using “me” and “I” where he began with “your author.” Which made me laugh, this is a book about metal. Probably no one else gives a shit.

Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult is probably the most complete, fair, organized and well-researched history of black metal available. This is a vast topic despite its largely (initially) underground nature, with details that come with increasing complexity due to its insular nature, and the rapid publicity swings throughout its history… not to mention a lot of its pioneers met gruesome ends. Additionally, over some 30 years its subgenres forked out like tributaries over thousands of literal miles and it is extremely difficult to prioritize the wide expanse of events, personalities and digressions from music into society; politics; religion; murder; suicide; drugs; animal sacrifice; prison. This book covers three decades of black metal; when you think about the magnitude of information there is to include to tell a cohesive story, it is truly astounding. Or maybe I just really like black metal and it’s only astounding to me. Three decades of church burning- dead animal sniffing- brain fragment necklace making- naked lady crucifying- goat head blood showers… there’s a lot. A lot of stuff. There is a drama, and hearsay, but also a significant amount of insight and cultural introspection.

The book is organized in varying ways at different times; in the beginning, primarily by band but secondarily by releases to some degree… I infer that some of these bands were chosen or placed where they were in history not due to chronology but due to the influence of their releases. Periodically the band focus pauses and a major event provides additional context to the timeline. As you progress through the book you see that the categorization is a sort of third priority here, but is more prevalent toward the tail end of the book, where bands are grouped into subgenres (and paired together). Some of the pairs don’t make sense to me: why give Gorgoroth and Trelldom different chapters but put Dissection and Watain; Graveland and Infernum together?

This is an ambitious effort, maybe it should’ve come with a Fenriz-esque map of black metal and its personalities. Or a literal map with bands allotted to countries, as it seems the origins of these artists are of varying importance to the story the author is attempting to tell. Some of the chapters stretch to post-2010; some have stories slow to mature, particularly the Mayhem and Burzum chapters (there is not a comeback chapter for Emperor/Ihsahn…?) Mayhem punctuates the entire book, but for good reason. Some of the bands listed in the beginning who are still around and are not noted in any present tense; the author focuses solely on the band’s contribution to the past, which sets the stage for the book’s longer shelf life, but would leave a bm n00b guessing. The constant swapping of members into other bands is probably also overwhelming if a majority of these bands are unfamiliar to someone who is reading this book, though I imagine the people who are reading this are reading for nostalgia, not new information. You get both. Get stoked.

I could waste another few pages debating the merits of the selected chapter-heading bands, but ultimately every single fan of this music is going to disagree on this shit to some extent. To put things in perspective, I’m 30; I was born in June 1984, when Bathory was recording their first album. In terms of this book, the stream of black metal most interesting to me begins in chapter 20, with Thorns, continuing with Arcturus, Shining, Fleuerty, Solefald, Ved Buens Ende, Virus, Dødheimsgard and continuing into post-. Outside of the avant-garde subgenre, I was surprised there was no more prevalent place for Immortal; you also have to read 84% of the book before you get to anything at all about Windir (though they are quoted prior to that), and I think that is a damn shame; this is actually due to the organization more than the chronology; the ‘folk’ chapters were simply saved for later, despite Enslaved having been around from the beginning. I think some bands deserved more than they received in this book, some deserved less, but I can’t say there are many that didn’t pop up somewhere. But anyone would say that.

Before I go on, the easiest way to describe the complete flow of this book and its contents is to explore the chapters– if you are well-versed in black metal, this will reveal a lot more than a two-page list ordinarily would.  The table of contents is as follows:

1 Roots of Evil
2 Venom
3 Mercyful Fate
4 Bathory
5 Hellhammer
6 Celtic Frost
7 The First Wave of Black Thrash
8 Blasphemy
9 Samael
10 Rotting Christ and Greek Black Metal
11 Tormentor
12 Master’s Hammer
13 VON
14 Beherit
15 Mayhem Part I
16 Mayhem Part II
17 (Re)Birth of a Movement: Norway Part I
18 A Fist in the Face of Christianity: Norway Part II
19 Death of a Legend: Norway Part III
20 Thorns
21 Darkthrone
22 Burzum
23 Emperor
24 Gehenna
25 Gorgoroth
26 Trelldom
27 The Opus Magnum: Mayhem Part III
28 The Beast Reawakens: Mayhem Part IV
29 Cradle of Filth: Black Metal Enters the Mainstream Part I
30 Dimmu Borgir: Black Metal Enters the Mainstream Part II
31 Underground Ethics
32 Les Legions Noires
33 Marduk: Sweden Part I
34 Dissection and Watain: Sweden Part II
35 Shining: Sweden Part III
36 Politics, Poland and the Rise of NSBM
37 Graveland and Infernum: Polish Black Metal Part I
38 Behemoth: Polish Black Metal Part II
39 Enslaved: Folk and Folklore in Black Metal
40 Moonfog and Ulver: Folk and Folklore in Black Metal Part II
41 The Proliferation of Black Folk Metal: Folk and Folklore in Black Metal Part III
42 A Turn for the Weird: Part I
43 A Turn for the Weird: Part II
44 Sigh
43 Dodheimsgard
44 Mysticum: Industrial Black Metal Part I
45 Aborym: Industrial Black Metal Part II
48 Blacklodge: Industrial Black Metal Part III
49 Lifelover: Post-Black Metal Part I
50 Post-Black Metal Part II

I think chapters 1-16 are fairly self-explanatory. Bathory, Venom, Mercyful Fate, Celtic Frost, etc. There are some outliers like Rotting Christ that I think are there solely because they were sort of seeds in a vastly different environment than northern Europe in a time little was happening outside of the UK and Scandinavia (not sure RC deserved a whole chapter in there, but…) I’m a bit mystified as to why Quorthon’s death receives minimal explanation (perhaps because it was pretty hazy from the beginning); Dead and Euronymous receive many pages; admittedly their deaths were directly related to the scene; while perhaps this is unavoidable it gives the unfortunate impression that more was lost with Dead and Euronymous… until the end of the book when the folk chapters pay homage to Bathory. Aaaand then Fenriz opines that folk metal is retarded… but, moving on…

Much like Euronymous, Quorthon was ahead of his time, and was brilliant in his own way (the chapters are peppered with bands continuously attributing their sound/influence to Bathory). He was also much less of a (charismatic) jackass than the others, and sadly for that reason he is often overlooked.* (see below) The Bathory chapter does him limited justice as a human being and contributor to the bm scene. While aloof in nature, Quorthon made the same magnitude of contribution as Euronymous or Varg; he was simply more of an introvert. Interestingly enough the author makes this very same point at the end of the Gehenna chapter (a band I never cared for, quite honestly): “[M]any […] have expressed surprise that Gehenna did not become as big as outfits such as Emperor. The reasons for this arguably illustrate the factors–aside from music quality–that can dictate a metal band’s success.” Even Dead, who was another socially anxious introvert, received far, far more airtime than Quorthon, simply because he existed more dramatically as a person. This sucks. It’s reality, but it sucks.

*Back to Gehenna– the chapter ends somewhat passive-aggressively. It’s not immediately clear from the prior paragraphs to what the author is referring (perhaps similar to the statement made above about Quorthon?) To this point, though, one of the many resounding successes of this book is drawing out the personalities of some of these people in a distinctly different way. The personal information is astounding; but the author’s interactions with some of these people are far more intimate than what has been portrayed in the past. By the end of this book I actually think that Niklas Kvarforth may not actually be the hugest asshole on the planet, he is so well spoken and honest and introspective and I completely agree with a lot of his opinions. I even found Gaahl to be charming and reasonable in this book, a far cry from the hypocritical freakazoid I’ve found him to be in most of the films that have been released about black metal.

People-wise, what is most pronounced in this book is the reality of all of these ideas, beliefs and actions: people change. They change their minds and their priorities and their desires. Many of these people who were demonized or idealized at various points in time were kids trying opinions on for size. Many of them have transitioned through series of beliefs, and will continue to do so. There are admittedly people in black metal’s history doomed beyond repair… but truthfully the majority of them are growing and evolving as we all are. This book paints an incredibly human portrait of these people, even the ones who have solicited terror or outrage from the general population at one (or many) points in time. As for people like Varg and Euronymous, the author tactfully portrays them in remarkably neutral light. You, the reader, are allowed to decide, and even when you go in thinking some of these people are reprehensible idiots (but you respect them as musicians), you end the book questioning your previous opinions. That is my favorite thing about Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult.

The book not only features an incredible amount of interviews but also a ton of clips and references to other articles; I found the quips about Dead’s fascination with decay and rotting animals to be particularly specific (and, admittedly, completely disgusting), but illustrative of the degree of insanity inflicting some of these people:

“I was in the studio when Dead recorded his only studio vocals for Mayhem and I will never forget it,” recalls Maniac. “His dedication was something that was very hard to come by even then, let alone these days. I had to hold a bag of dead crows for him when he was singing so he could sniff it for the right atmosphere. These crows has been in the ground for quite some time when he dug them up. His voice was really of another world. Those two are still my favorite Mayhem tracks.”

There is, again, such a wealth of information in here that the author collected independently. Some of it, even third party reiteration, is sheerly hilarious. This book is completely worth the read if only for the quotes and interview blurbs. The only video equivalent of the amusing information in this book is Attila talking about cutting down Christmas trees in Black Metal: The Music of Satan.

“Perhaps unsurprisingly given [Mayhem’s Pure Fucking Armageddon‘s] raw lo-fi barbarity, the reception to the demo was not entirely positive. ‘I thought it was terrible,’ laughs Necrobutcher, ‘ but that was the good thing. I remember one article– I can’t remember if it was Kerrang! or Metal Forces— but it said ‘This tape has no vocals on it at all, the bass sounds like [Celtic Frost’s] Tom Gabriel Warrior’s balls in a lawnmower and what they were talking about was actually the vocals!! But it was [next to] a review of [Thin Lizzy guitarist] Snowy White and the review was just ‘zzzzzzzzzz’ repeating itself. I thought this review about Tom’s balls was better than this other shitty one, so we felt like we had won.”

Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult takes a brief break from individual band chapters halfway through to delve into the church burnings and crime for which the genre is so well-known. The author seems to avoid too much of a deep-dive into the politics of burning thousand-year old churches to the ground and goes so far as to explain the reasoning; the chapters are peppered with many band members’ largely neutral feelings. There is a pattern that emerges–a bunch of bands, an overarching theme; a bunch more bands, another theme; this becomes a bit convoluted at the end when you begin to feel like the author ran out of space and had to start grouping shit together against his will; so, smattered amongst the individual bands & releases, you have: church burnings; Euronymous’ death; underground ethics (this chapter should’ve been longer); NSBM; folk metal. As previously mentioned I think sub-labeling Marduk and Shining as ‘Sweden’ is irrelevant; all the Finnish bands are thrown into the folk chapters (Moonsorrow, etc, though there are not that many Finnish bands included, and yet f’n Turisas ends up being included AGAIN! What is black metal journalists’ obsession with Turisas!??!) Also, why was Ihsahn’s side project Hardningrock mentioned, but Gaahl’s Wardruna was not? There are a lot of these small inconsistencies that are simply byproducts of sorting so much information. Maybe I only care because I also love neofolk.

I had a lot of fun repeatedly asking me where I would come across… Solefald… Pensées Nocturnes… Fleurety… In The Woods… Virus… Arkhon Infaustus… Alcest… most of them showed up. I was surprised Kovenant was only listed once in passing, and Thee Maldoror Kollective was not in any of the weird/industrial chapters. I was interested to find a vague but probably necessary chapter on French black metal, though I would’ve preferred for the author to expound on what is now a significant black metal scene; instead you receive a short chapter on LLN with Blut Aus Nord mentioned in the “weird” (ie, avant garde) chapters and Alcest in Post-Black Metal. There is also virtually no heed paid to Agalloch, which is disappointing: they have been around forever and deserve more than one or two passing mentions in a book about black metal. Agalloch was doing a lot of shit in the US that no one else was doing at the time, and yet Wolves in the Throne Room get a lot of ink even though they are living on some organic farm in Cascadia and slowly releasing some music.

I think the end of this book is riddled with haste: I don’t particularly care for anything more industrial than DHG but I am a little stupefied as to chapters 44-49. Mysticum, OK. Aborym, alright, I guess. Blacklodge and Lifelover? I don’t think so. How did each of these bands get their own chapters? Why are there three consecutive industrial chapters when Mysticum and Aborym were in the exact same time period? With regard to post-metal, the book perhaps should have ended before this: post-black metal was disappointing as a source of information.

More importantly, and perhaps not a question this book/series will answer, where did post-black metal come from? The descent into the post- style is interesting to me, although the author does make the point that there is no post-anything. There’s a part in the book where an artist names influences including (but not limited to) Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Swans, Dead Can Dance, Tenhi, Triarii, Of the Wand and the Moon, Death In June, Sol Invictus, Mono, Explosions in the Sky. Some of these bands can be traced back through other subgenres, specifically sludge. This is a unique evolution point for me, as I evolved toward black metal from hardcore, digital metal (Botch; Dillinger Escape Plan) and sludge (Neurosis, Isis, Year of No Light, most Hydrahead bands). My tastes have always bordered on the avant garde, as bands like Kayo Dot have punctuated many genres.

And so, I am looking forward to the sequel. I look, primarily, to France, though I’d like to see a bit more about American black metal bands… there are still some good ones lurking out there. He did mention Nachtmystium. Deafheaven deserves a place. Haethen is another band of significant talent lurking in the bowels of… uh, Philadelphia, I think? There are many, many unsigned, super kvlt bands that only play at previously mentioned creepy forest festivals. Black metal lives on, whether or not it is fused with different styles. In terms of France, he speaks about Alcest, Ameoseurs and Peste Noire (maybe the follow-up will include Lantlôs… Glaciation… Pensées Nocturnes…?) Speaking of Pensées Nocturnes, how weird can we go here? What about Carnival in Coal? There was an amusing exchange about circus metal in the book, I’d say there are quite a few bands that have ridden that wave even further. Would’ve liked to see more in the “weird” chapter about Ihsahn and the inclusion of jazz, courtesy of Shining (Norway); that would’ve created another nice past-present link.

I have to shut the hell up now. I will say I believe to some extent my disappointment in the final chapter stems from my infinite love of this subset of black metal, as well as my adoration for Blut Aus Nord and what has been happening in France for a lengthy period of time; alas, this is an incredible read that begins with the fundamentals and yet manages to present new, exclusive and insightful information in order to dive deep while telling a largely unbiased story, which has been an impossible feat for many others. Maybe his second book is out already, I wouldn’t know, since I am writing this review a year and a half after the first one was released. JK, it’s not. But when it is, I will be reading it. Immediately. In the meantime, you can get Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult here. I wish it came wrapped in a rotting animal carcass, but you can’t have everything.

Q4 Reading Roundup (2 of 2)

The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure | This book starts with a completely absurd fictional account of the authors hiking up to some Zen master’s retreat and being granted some advice that is completely wrong. The long, unnecessary anecdote sets the stage for the rest of the book. The rest of it is good, and sad. I am glad I graduated from college over a decade ago, I am sure I’d be disgusted by campus society these days. My main issue with a book like this is that I’m not sure what good it does, other than provide confirmation of a problem will remain unresolved because the people causing the problem will not accept the book’s key points. I would happily pass along copies of this to people who could benefit greatly from its content, but those people have long un-followed me on Facebook and haven’t read much if anything I’ve passed along to them. You could build much more upon this idea, as this learned fragility flows into corporations and government from the university system, and the consequences are already frightening. Review here.

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined |While this 100-chapter book took me forever to get through; I really enjoyed it, I will never write a review (of anything) as complete or thoughtful as Aschwin’s, so I will link to his.

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America | I’m still really unsure how I feel about this very lengthy and bitter-sounding history of poor whites in America. Further, while some explanation of inequality make sense to me (property ownership value compounds over generations, so if you start later you can have less inherited wealth), this tirade against a country that allegedly oppresses opportunities for the poorest whites, who are generationally poor, fails to account for the fact that millions of poor immigrants with even fewer opportunities landed in this country, dispersed and flourished. The book has no real topic order; some of her reflections on people like Bill Clinton and Sarah Palin are interesting, and her cultural critique is worth considering. Overall I was not a fan: the disjointed style and the wildly resentful tone were not particularly persuasive. Two completely different reviews, one from the Washington Post here and one from the National Review here. There is a false comparison to Hillbilly Elegy: the two books are nothing alike.

The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia (Comparative Studies in Religion and Society Book 11) | I will never forget the way this book opens, with the shelling of the National Library in Sarajevo. I consider myself a fairly rational and often unemotional person; the Bosnian War has always evoked very deep horror in me, and absent geography, I can’t think of a worse building to go up in flames than a library, though I attribute this partially to my own culture, in which burning books is taboo.

This book is similar in tone to The Serbs: it is highly critical of Serb politicians and nationalists. It is rightfully critical of the West and the UN. Its primary focus is Christoslavism, which is integral to explaining the history of the Balkans. The extent of cruelty and dehumanization and groupthink leading up to and during this war is staggering. That it dragged on for years before anyone intervened is sickening. The book details the rapid destruction of tolerance and history, and the way Serb and Bosnian Serb politicians fanned the flames of hatred. It is not unbiased, but it is very good. I wish I could say that September’s trip to BiH was fulfilling enough to stop reading books about the Balkans. It was not, and I have quite a few others I will read in 2019 before heading back to Sarajevo in June.

The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives |Not sure why or how I came across this book, it but’s a pretty diverse collection of stories by refugees in America. No real opinion, it’s always interesting to read about how other people live. Pretty good read. SF Gate review here.

The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border |This book was pretty well-received for offering a different perspective on border patrol, though I’m not sure in the end it lacks any sympathy. It’s tragic and torn; also really well-written. NY Times review here.