Peak Summer: June & July

And just like that, summer is circling the drain up here. Weeks of nippy weather and rain seem to signal an early fall for us; and we haven’t had many “falls” to speak of since I moved to Alaska: it goes from being nice to being grey and cold, and a gust of wind blows all the leaves down, and voila! 6 months of winter. August 18 will be my 8th year anniversary in Alaska, and if I had to do it all over again, I would. I’ve made a lot of good choices in my life (and some bad ones, of course)… moving to Alaska was one of the best things I’ve ever done. In the years I’ve lived here, I’ve transitioned from survival to prosperity.

I had intended to hike more broadly, and move around the state more, having canceled all of my domestic and international travel plans. I hiked some; my best (and first) friend in Alaska moved to Idaho with her family last week. Another will likely depart in the fall. It’s been a sad few weeks, truthfully, especially the process of losing my close friend (and hiking partner) to Idaho. My roommate (and often the only other person I see for days at a time) returned to work abroad a month ago. It’s been just me and Fuji lately: at least the dog has been lavished with love and attention (and treats, and bones, and new toys). One of the few drawbacks of the low tourist volume (apart from the economic devastation) is that there are too many bears everywhere. Bears are jerks.

Lots of good, and productive things have happened. I’ve enjoyed my four-day work weeks immensely. I’ve remodeled a lot of my house (in doing so, I’ve learned how to do a lot of shit I didn’t know how to do before), and refinanced at a much lower rate. I registered as a notary after realizing there’s a shortage of them in town. I’ve saved a significant amount of money. I’ve spent a fair amount of time with the few friends I have up here. My sister and her husband are still coming to visit next week: it’ll be the first time I’ve seen anyone in my family since December, and likely the last time for many months. Despite the increasing sense that I am entirely alone up here, and despite the state’s grim economic outlook, my appreciation for Alaska has grown. There is still no place I’d rather be than here. A lot of people are leaving: the question for me has been, where would I rather live? And the answer has always been “nowhere.”

I’ve realized I am largely emotionally pandemic-proof: I can partially chalk it up to spending my adult life reading books about Arctic expeditions and the Gulag. My dark curiosities have given present life a richer context. I admit it’s bizarre to envision remaining for an entire winter up here, not going anywhere, existing in the dreary, grey fall: I regularly try to get out of here for the month of November, which is particularly slushy and dull. I miss New York, though I’d venture to say it’s not the same NYC I’ve visited for many weeks annually since I’ve relocated. I hope that when all of this finally fades out that my very deeply loved destinations are not leveled economically. I suppose I hope I am not leveled economically, either. This summer, I’ve missed out on returning to the Caucasus; Brutal Assault; Dead Can Dance in Seattle; numerous other trips, and a lot of work travel. I’ve eaten far fewer oysters and driven many fewer miles. I’ve been here for so long that I actually have begun to miss living out of a bag, but it took me a lot longer to get to this point.

Ultimately as I’ve said before, in the grand scheme of things I am incredibly fortunate: my living situation is wonderful. I live in a place I love. I’ve been able to easily afford keeping my second home vacant all summer so I can go hang out there. I have reliable, close friends, though they are shifting in location. I have an unbelievable level of physical, emotional and financial security that could only be fully appreciated by someone who has spent years with none of those things. I don’t take any of it for granted for a moment.

I’ve read a bit less than is typical, because I’ve been binge-watching stuff on TV and hanging out outside a lot. I watched Netflix’s Hannibal series, which was amazing, as well as Prime’s ZeroZeroZero which was so brutal and violent and well-done, I can’t wait for the next season. My roommate also got me hooked on The Bureau, a French series similar to Homeland. My favorite Netflix series, Dark, released their final season as well, which was incredible.

Leo Tolstoy (Critical Lives) | This is a short and wonderful read. I originally saw a review in The Economist after seeing a ton of copies in my local bookstore (there is a Russian lit fanatic that works there that is likely responsible). It shows Tolstoy as imperfect, but wildly moral, somewhat petulant, sexually troubled and fabulously talented. If any writer has earned the right to be so flawed and tormented, it is Tolstoy. His contribution to Russian literature is quite literally second to none. I don’t know that this would mean much to people who haven’t read him, but it may inspire them to do so. I’d recommend this to anyone interested in Russian lit; it paints a vivid portrait of the atmosphere of his lifetime, and the experiences that shaped and inspired some of the best books ever written.

The Body Keeps The Score | I enjoyed this as well — some parts more than others — and while I read many depressing books, this is one of the most depressing when we look to the future. The book touches on various topics, iterations of PTSD and incest and other things, and refers often to ACE scores, which unsurprisingly also can be used to forecast most peoples’ future outcomes (high ACE scores don’t bode well). I’m not sure there’s much in terms of broad solutions; CBT and EMDR are covered. Review in NY Times here.

The Face of War | This book has been on my list since I read that it was Marie Colvin‘s favorite book, and she carried a copy around with her when she was working on assignments (her story is amazing as well, and her biography was turned into a halfway-decent film, where this book is referred to and displayed on a number of occasions). Gellhorn’s articles and essays span multiple wars; she touches particularly on WWII and Vietnam. These days, and perhaps back then, war reporters, despite being there in the thick of it, were apt to develop not only progressive but simplistic views of war; that said, some are brilliant; many are tormented… all the best ones are deeply passionate, though one could argue passion makes for worse war reporting because it’s too emotional. I’d like to believe there was a time when reporters weren’t all peddling their own personal opinions, but I’m no longer sure that’s the case. Regardless, this was a decent read, I wouldn’t hold it in esteem as high as Colvin did in her life, but Gellhorn and Colvin were both obsessed with the human element of war, and that seems a worthy enough passion to me. Old LA Times review here.

The Other Side (Alfred Kubin) | I came across references to Kubin in Karl Ove’s My Struggle, and had purchased a book of his drawings and his only novel, The Other Side. His drawings are awesome; his book is Kafkaesque, which makes sense, considering I believe he and Kafka were friends. This is a totally bizarre story of a rich guy the main character went to school with who ends up building a whole different world somewhere in Central Asia where nothing “new” can exist (fashion, technology, etc.) People cast off their new-fangled belongings and go live in Victorian squalor… many of them happily, to some degree, though the series of events becomes increasingly dystopian and surreal. The story is very dark and entertaining; I ended up really loving Severin’s Journey into the Dark (another Kafkaesque tale) and this book is similar in style.

And Quiet Flows the Don | I’ve been reading some overlooked gems of Russian lit lately and I’m really happy this was one of them; this is pretty much the Cossack War and Peace. It’s the story of a family of Don Cossacks over a few generations, over a few wars (WWI, Russian Revolution, Russian Civil War) and many trials and tribulations. It’s beautifully written; I snagged a few paragraphs toward the end to share with a few people. I’m currently revisiting The Master and the Margarita, and after that I’ll probably finally read Hadji Murad. Reading and re-reading some of these Russian classics has been a huge comfort for me, and to some degree a welcome break from my Gulag books… that said, winter is Gulag-reading time, and I have a formidable stack of Soviet stuff to read.

Excerpt from And Quiet Flows the Don:

Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism | Quillette just posted a review of this book here last week. The review gave a ton of props to her Pulitzer Prize-winning Gulag, which was incredible, though all of her books are unbelievably concise and well-researched (Gulag and Red Famine were definitely my favorites.) This is a very different kind of book, written perhaps more for someone who does not know her, and needs a lengthy explanation of her credentials and the guest-lists of her fancy parties. I became a bit tired of reading all of this stuff; she’s clearly well-connected through marriage and career. That said, I gradually began to appreciate the parallels between the life of someone like her, and one of an ordinary person: many of we ordinary people have relationships that have suffered the same fate (though I’ve lost many more to the far left than the far right, but I’ve definitely been disowned by friends who exist on either side). Applebaum covers personal accounts of reporting on/writing about and socializing in Poland; the UK; Hungary and the US. As the review rightfully says, there are few better-qualified people to cover this topic, and it’s a sad story. Twilight of Democracy is an easy read; there are a lot of familiar names if you have any familiarity with what has transpired in Poland and Hungary… not everyone cares much about Central Europe, but these are troubling times for those countries. Wasn’t as interesting of a read as her other stuff, but certainly timely. Anne Applebaum and Masha Gessen are two of my favorite contemporary writers on Eastern Europe/Russia, so I’m looking forward to Gessen’s latest (probably next post).

That’s all for now. Hopefully I’ll be able to crank out another post before summer ends for real, in September. Below, Portage Glacier.

April, May and into June

And so, the pandemic rolls on, and here in Alaska it’s a mixed bag. I’ve found myself excessively grateful to be living up here, as summer is approaching here, and almost no tourists will be crowding us out of our parks, trails, lakes, rivers and roads in peak season. GirdwoodThe solace we’ll all find as Alaskan residents in peak season comes at a steep price: it will be a seemingly endless bloodbath for small businesses and operators up here, as many businesses live on their summer proceeds all year. My travel plans, including a much-anticipated return to the Caucasus, have all been canceled, as have any summer concerts/festivals I had planned on attending. I’ve done a good job in my life with managing my expectations, so I find I feel less disappointment than many others whose lives have been completely disrupted by this.

I began this post in early May, and we’re well into June now. It’s taken me forever to finish the last two books in this list, and it’s primarily because I’ve been adulting hard over the past few months; I’m in the middle of refinancing, I’ve been remodeling my awesome ski condo, and hiking season has begun. I made the unfortunate decision years ago to join my Homeowners Association Board, so I will be increasingly inundated with horribly boring tasks there as well.

For someone who has spent the last decade flying all over the place and spending tons of time and money traveling and moving around (further, visiting many far-flung friends), I’m closing in on three straight months here in Southcentral Alaska, which is pretty unprecedented. Somehow I thought this would be harder — more crippling to my identity — it hasn’t been. In fact, I’ve used some of this time to further scrutinize some of my priorities and friendships, and really pare my life down to people who pull their weight. Reliability didn’t used to matter so much to me; I’m surprised by how much it’s taken a priority, likely due to such incredible (and prolonged) uncertainty, also I think partially because I am alone in a lot of ways up here. I still have yet to dine in a restaurant, despite the Municipality having been open again for weeks, which is definitely a personal record for me. I just don’t feel any desire. I don’t particularly miss flying all over the place; currently it just seems like an enormous hassle. I typically go back to New York a few times a year… I won’t be heading back that way until probably Christmas at the soonest.

And yet, I’m oddly pleased with my life: I took a 20% paycut, I work 4 days a week (I may opt to extend this if given the option… why did I ever think working 5 days a week was ideal?), having all of my summer plans quashed cuts my expenditures by a much greater percentage than the pay I’m losing. I’ve spent my weekends sanding, painting, cleaning, scrubbing, sealing, caulking. I’ve hated it, but I’ve made huge progress, among other things, I’ve eradicated all of the 70s ugly from my living room, including screwing up the mantle the first time and having to sand it down and do it all over again:

Our little Anchorage patio is also coming along nicely, despite a lengthy (cold) spring and a very sudden burst into summer. I admit I am exceptionally fortunate to have anywhere to go beyond where I live most of the time: I typically Airbnb my other place in the summer and have chosen (thus far) to spend my weekends there instead, basking in my own good fortune. Given the current state of the world, anyone who lives in peaceful quarters is fortunate, considering the amount of time people are spending cooped up in their homes. And while I would have probably never embarked upon home repairs if I weren’t stuck up here until further notice, it’s made me feel productive.

Many of my friends have spent this time reflecting on their lives and “looking at themselves,” as the saying goes, and I have as well. These opportunities are some of the silver linings of being holed up alone for so long. I’ve realized I have no desire to leave this state, despite years of waffling; I’ve acknowledged the sheer amount of time and effort I’ve squandered waiting for a few people in my life to wake the fuck up and show up for me; I’ve learned a fair amount of handy shit and it’s been a nice reminder that sometimes I’m a bit lazy and I shouldn’t be, because I can learn really fast. I had set sail my Northeastern-mindset career ambitions a few years back, which was oddly freeing. My life doesn’t have much purpose (at least not in the way workaholic Americans see ‘purpose’). Sounds grim, but it’s actually amazing to just accept it, make good choices and enjoy what you have. I like my job, I like the company I work for. I think an important turning point in my life was realizing one decent job is as good as another; what I do isn’t really any part of my identity. I would work at a sewage treatment plant or on an oil platform if it were the right kind of challenging and kept me interested.

I think over the past few months I’ve stopped striving for some things in my life: stopped waiting for other people, stopped waiting for things to change when I know deep down they won’t, stopped making an effort when it’s clear it gets me nowhere and I will only be disappointed again in the end. I’ve channeled virtually all of my time and effort into things (and people) that will work and pay dividends, and it sounds like a cold and calculating way to live, but it has made me feel a lot more secure and even less reliant on others (wasn’t sure that was possible, but it is). My birthday is around the corner, and last year I was grateful that despite having to cancel my birthday trip to Peru, I could afford to be seen by amazing doctors and obtain relevant information without going broke… this year, 3+ months into a global pandemic, I still feel a lot of gratitude for the life I have. I’d venture to say I even feel some mild pride: I don’t know that there has ever been a time when I’ve felt like the many bizarre decisions I’ve made in my life have paid off so well, and so broadly, and set the stage for a really comfortable, pleasant, mostly un-emotionally-strained experience. We, up here, are watching the rest of the world from very far away; we are an outpost… one that feels incredibly safe considering what is happening in the world’s cities. That doesn’t mean stress doesn’t creep in: many people with autoimmune diseases are having issues with flaring right now, whether they feel emotionally stressed or not, that anxiety manifests in their bodies. It does for me, as well.

Who knows what will happen in the future, and things will surely get worse before they get better, but to an astounding degree I’ve realized that nearly everything I want in my life is here already, or en route, and I’m thankful to be able to give up a lot of extraneous shit (at least, for the time being) I thought was really important to me and still be pretty fulfilled. Our Turkish Airlines tickets will be turned into vouchers, so I’m not about to wander off into the woods and never travel again… for now, I’ll wait. Happily.

And so, the shamefully few books I’ve managed to read lately:

With Their Backs to the Mountains: A History of the Carpathians and Carpatho-Rusyns | This is an unbelievable read. I don’t know that there is any more comprehensive collection of the history of Carpatho-Rusyns than the one in this book, complete with detailed maps for each period and after every border change. It has taken me YEARS to track down all of the information for my own family (my great grandparents emigrated from Kul’chytsi (now in Western Ukraine) in 1913 (good timing, amirite?). My grandparents almost never spoke about it (my grandmother is the Lithuanian Livia Soprano and my grandfather was quiet, kind and died when I was in college). I spent years searching for all of our records; this book definitely filled in the gaps: it’s additionally annoying to track down information as Carpatho-Rusyns are not Ukrainians, and they’ve been absorbed by a slew of empires and borders over the centuries.

Kul'chytsi, approximate

Journey to the End of the Night | This incredible book is filled with loathsome, miserable characters and yet the story is worth reading. From WWI to Africa to factoryland USA, this grotesque journey is somehow both grim and amusing. I laughed out loud at many points… this is a great quarantine book, to be honest. You think your life sucks? Check out this guy. Wikipedia here (it’s a classic). Would definitely recommend.

When: The Secrets of Perfect Timing | I actually loved this guy’s book To Sell is Human, so I decided to throw a business-focused book into the mix. I actually thought this would be more about coincidental good timing and “why” versus doing things at a certain time for better results (pro tip: if you’re having surgery, do it in the morning). This one was not nearly as interesting, but I read it in a few hours so I’m not sure it was a total waste of time. If you’re about living life efficiently, it has some cool pointers, but not his best work. NPR review here.

The Border Trilogy | Jury’s still out on Cormac McCarthy’s The Border Trilogy. He has a very distinct style; I loved the first part of the second book in the series, with the wolf. The rest was good; none of them would rank among my favorites of all time (I think culturally this landscape, the people, the values and lifestyles are too far from my own), but I don’t regret reading them for a moment. They’re all unbelievably tragic in different ways. There are some sentences and phrases in these books I’ll never forget… I can’t understate how beautifully he can churn out prose. The section of the second book about the wolf could have been its own separate book. He can paint incredible pictures if you have any kind of imagination, and his books are steeped in beauty and really horrible, soul-crushing solitude.

Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine | This is the second Robert Conquest book I’ve read, and Harvest of Sorrow is no more exciting of a read than his one on resettlement (he’s incredibly dry), but his information is so meticulous I have a ton of respect for him and especially the numbers he managed to compile at the time these books were written. I would only not recommend this book to someone because there are a number of others on the holodomor that are easier to digest (Anne Appelbaum’s Red Famine is by far the best). Conquest has a lot of personal accounts and also a shitload of numbers to look at, which makes it worth diving into if you’re wondering about the sheer scale by region or time period. There are all kinds of numbers in here and it’s pretty astounding he managed to piece it all together at a time when the information was not readily available. Wikipedia here.

I’ve been watching a bit on streaming lately and reading less than is typical for me. I revisited an oldie but goodie (Black Mirror) and while no show for me will top Netflix’s German series Dark, I’ve found a few random things I’ve really enjoyed (these are things I watched at the front of the pandemic, I haven’t been watching anything special lately… mostly revisiting old movies I love).

Red Queen (Prime) | I started watching this on a whim because Amazon kept pushing it on me, and I actually loved it. A lot of the show is made up, as there is not sufficient real information about the main character, Regina Zbarskaya, probably the most famous Soviet model of all time. Because it takes place in the ~60s in the USSR it’s a pretty amazing period piece, and it’s really well-done. Her life was, no surprise, totally tragic. This show is entirely in Russian and TOTALLY worth it.

Manhunt: Unabomber (Netflix) | I actually really liked this, too. I watched another Unabomber documentary (In His Own Words) and that one was pretty lame, but this one was worth it.

Waco (Netflix) | This was another incredible watch; I didn’t get into it at first, but after a few episodes I was hooked. Every American should watch this; for people who aren’t politically inclined, it explains a lot about the bipolar disorder America has in its politics.

Westworld, S01 (HBO) | I was surprised by how much I loved the first season of this show as well; I always considered watching it and never got around to it. Unfortunately I heard the next seasons sucked, so I probably won’t be continuing.

My next post will actually be about intermittent fasting for autoimmune disease, which is a bit boring I suppose, but I started it awhile back and I’ll wrap it up sometime this week.

Time Regained: Reflections on Proust

I’ve been revisiting some literary favorites of my past lately, and I had considered reconvening with Proust for a few months (and frequently while reading the My Struggle series) when I stumbled upon How Proust Can Change Your Life. On first pass, these short and often superficial “self-help” books seem a bit stupid, but last year I happened to read How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life (obviously different author). I enjoyed it. A younger me would have been annoyed by the ability, these days, for people to glean what I at the time found to be fairly hard-won knowledge (reading In Search of Lost Time in its entirety, or even Wealth of Nations is no easy feat). These days I’m as pleased that literature’s life lessons come easy as I am that some of my dorkier and more childish amusements: narwhals, unicorns, etc., are ever more popular, and nerdy unicorn shit is readily available everywhere. I want people to like the same shit I do; it increases my ease of access.

One might think it’s a waste of time to revisit books you’ve already read, but I read most classics in high school to stave off tremendous boredom and monotony (and to get a sense of the world outside of my own, having finished high school in rural New York). By the time I graduated, I had read hundreds of classics, many of which resonate on new frequencies nearly 20 years later. In Search of Lost Time was never a favorite in the way Moby Dick and Heart of Darkness have been favorites, but it is no less important, and Proust has likely contributed more to the outcome of my life thus far, and how I live, than have Melville or Conrad. I have never had a soft spot for French culture, and the social conventions of the 1900s gross me out, especially in Europe, which had a strict and petty class system. Proust himself, much like Karl Ove Knausgard (who has been called Norway’s Proust), is not entirely likeable, and his narrator Marcel even less so.  Proust (and Marcel) were completely helpless basket cases… Proust was exceptional in his sense of grace, his generosity to his friends, his refusal to be bitter as a result of his seemingly countless handicaps, whether they were real or he was just a self-indulgent hypochondriac, a spoiled metrosexual from a wealthy family who never needed to have a job to be comfortable. Like most French things, he contains zero masculinity. Somewhat predictably, he was gay. Marcel, his narrator, was not.

And yet, living in the shadow of his famous doctor father, it could easily be argued Proust’s life’s work provided as much benefit to the world: his seven-volume series is a timeless masterpiece. I thought this at sixteen, in my twenties, and now at 35. Proust is the only reason I would ever learn French (I never have, but to read In Search of Lost Time in French would be enough, as it is unbelievably beautiful even after being translated). And while I will probably not be revisiting the entire series, I just finished Swann’s Way, which is to me easily the best of the seven. There are many, many other things to be taken from this series (his reflections on love, on authenticity versus the representation of the ideal in art, essential truth and who people really are) and I am really only going down one road here in this post.

I sat in my kitchen and read How Proust Can Change Your Life in one afternoon last weekend (listening to Alcest, may as well keep everything as French as possible). This book is timely, considering what is happening in the world: something (a lot, actually) can be said for staying home and appreciating the little things — the comfort of your own bed, the meals you eat every day, the walks through the neighborhood. For me, also living in Alaska, a place I would have never dreamed of eeking out a prosperous existence in a million years. The experience of reading. The time you have to reflect on your life, and yourself. People don’t always make time for these things, and we have all regained it (time) in this pandemic.

How Proust Can Change Your Life is broken up into the following chapters:

  1. How to Love Life Today
  2. How to Read for Yourself
  3. How to Take Your Time
  4. How to Suffer Successfully
  5. How to Express Your Emotions
  6. How to Be a Good Friend
  7. How to Open Your Eyes
  8. How to be Happy in Love
  9. How to Put Books Down

Some of these chapters are more memorable than others, and #1-3 (and #7) are probably the most prevalent, and Proust’s largest claims to fame. The book is lighthearted but thoughtful. Returning to Proust has really helped me weather the world today: in a time when many of my colleagues and some of my friends are struggling feeling trapped, bored, confined, are unemployed, running out of money, depressed, I have been relishing very simple pleasures. I don’t know if this skill comes with age, if it comes with natural introversion, relative financial stability, or emotional stability. Books have always been among my top sources of comfort, and Proust’s love for literature made his work possible. There were some interesting takeaways in this book (among the more general Proustian lessons):

  • Through books, you encounter more people via characters, and develop a broader sense and understanding of the world, and of human nature. You build tolerance and empathy.
  • You recognize yourself, and learn about yourself through books, as who you are is reflected into your perception of what you’re reading.
  • People in past eras seem like aliens to us, but books show you that human nature has been fundamentally static through time.
  • Human experience is often vulnerable to abbreviation, and that abbreviation often detracts from what actually took place.
  • You can distill a long story into a headline, but you can pull a beautiful, lengthy narrative out of one as well: it’s almost unimportant what happens… what’s important is how you construct that narrative. The author made an example of Anna Karenina: “a young mother threw herself under a train and died in Russia after domestic problems.”
  • Seemingly superficial thoughts can inspire incredibly complex, deep ones that are barely if at all related to their origins.
  • Feeling things (painfully) is often linked to acquisition of knowledge: “we don’t really learn anything until there is a problem, until we are in pain, until something fails to go as we had hoped.”
    • We become properly inquisitive only when distressed.
    • Only when plunged into grief do we confront difficult truths.
  • Cliches are superficial articulations of very good ones (this sounds obvious but the lengthy part of this book that talks about cliches is actually pretty fascinating).
  • Happiness may emerge from taking a second look (I’ll stop here, you get the picture… this is from “How to Open Your Eyes”).

I’ve been reflecting on this last point over the past few weeks specifically. When the shutdown of the world began, I wondered how I would feel, having spent the last near-decade of my life traveling almost constantly. I wondered if I’d be able to revert to more of a homebody, to someone who could appreciate simple and domestic pleasures. I’ve slept in my own bed every night for over a month now: this is the longest I have consistently remained where I live in a very long time. I have weathered a few periods where I went into self-imposed hermit mode and immersed myself in books; to my surprise I don’t believe I’ve ever enjoyed it as much as I am enjoying it now, for a variety of reasons.

When I was a kid I wanted to see everything the world had to offer, and as I got older I grew to appreciate my immediate surroundings and the present instead of only hoping for what was to come, what I had on the books, what trips I had coming up, though travel plans have always motivated me. I find these days in the midst of what could be months of sleeping in my own bed and not being on an airplane, that I’ve begun to wring every bit of enjoyment out of some daily rituals: taking a searing hot shower after walking the dog a few miles out in the cold; switching out lotion and body wash to enjoy different smells daily; digging into the back of my tea cabinet for some more expensive stuff I’ve been saving for a rainy day. I think many of us have also found enjoyment in food: whereas my roommate has channeled some of his energy into cooking, I seem to have returned to extremely modest staples of my youth: steel cut oats; mac & cheese in a box; saltine crackers; honey (a food I typically hate). I was relieved yesterday to see that the Eastern European store in Anchorage is still open, as this weekend my family would typically be together eating pierogies for Easter. We will be convening on video chat instead. We (he and I) are also both originally from New Jersey, so we’ve returned to our Jersey roots: Taylor Ham, Italian food (my favorite is Italian wedding soup; his is eggplant parmesan). We have both, to some extent, been sustained and comforted by memories. Living a rich life insures your future against boredom, as you are unlikely to run out of nostalgic moments, opportunities to reflect on your experiences, big and small, pleasurable and not so.

Where this comes back to Proust is that really taking heed of some of these rituals has allowed me to reflect on my life: I told a friend recently that when I was a kid, my father would drag us out to ski on weekend mornings (I hated this as I wanted to sleep in like a normal kid after getting up at the ass-crack of dawn every morning during the week)… the liftlines became busy around 11-11:30am and we would turn in after freezing our asses off for a few hours on the heap of ice and rock we call “resorts” in the Northeast. I’d immediately take a burning hot shower afterwards. I loved that experience even more than I loved the hours before I had been burning laps on the mountain… the scalding water on my cold, red lobster-colored skin. I found a small tin of almond-scented lotion recently and was thinking about how that smell reminds me of eagerly awaiting, as a small kid, Stella D’oro almond toast at my grandparents’ house in New Jersey. Those little almond toasts were so exotic to me at that time in my life; my grandparents’ house was so peaceful, and they were so interesting. I always loved that smell: almond, amaretto, and also Sambuca (I have the same endless love for anise and fennel for this reason)… it always reminded me of them. And this — these moments in time unlocked by repeating them, by a smell or a sensation so many years later — is the Proustian experience, and so much of what gives life meaning. My grandfather died suddenly, shortly after I moved up here, and I could not go home for his funeral, but I found myself at times adding a splash of Sambuca to my coffee in the months after he was gone. That single smell, the mix of Sambuca and coffee, contained a childhood of memories. I could hold onto him. I still can.

I don’t know what value all of this has other than it puts my entire life in perspective. Who is anyone without all of these experiences? And as Proust says at times, the origin of the memory isn’t particularly special when it happens… until you remember it and realize how much it defines you and brings joy to your life. Many times earlier in my life I felt there was nothing worth remembering: when I moved up here and realized I would have to make my own traditional food on holidays… when I could not find a single good Italian restaurant… when there were Mormons and evangelical Christians instead of Jews… I gained a unique perspective on my life and the formative experiences I had earlier taken for granted, because even having finished high school in a rural area, I was born into and further exposed to so much culture; my family held onto a lot of tradition, from my mother’s Swedish and Italian parents, and my father’s Carpathian ones. They grew up in microcosms of their roots: Italian-American New Jersey, and heavily Carpatho-Rusyn Northeast PA. I’ve missed that diversity deeply living up here, as well as the passive, peaceful presence of Judaism, which to me is easily the least tyrannical Judeo-Christian group. As the saying goes, you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone…or until you have to make your own golubtsi, or seeing an Orthodox Jew in the post office is a total aberration when it used to be ordinary.

I realize fully that on top of all of this, to have the brain space to consider these things is not so much a privilege, but it did require years of hard work, diligence and discipline (and luck… luck is important). To be a person who can really enjoy this time, to be unafraid of shelter in place because my home life is warm, comfortable, peaceful, is not a mental (or literal) space in which I have always lived. Proust had the same, though it was privilege — his parents were wealthy, he was doted on by his mother — the end result is the same. Without the mental, emotional, intellectual space to ponder these things, of course you’re unhappy, afraid, and miserable, as all of your energy is put forth into survival. I think, to some extent, people with plenty a-safety net are blind to these simple delights, though, and I am grateful to not be one.

This blog’s contents have become increasingly personal, and while I’ve avoided doing so in the past. No regrets.. for now.

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.

There’s a subscribe via e-mail field on the sidebar; I can’t seem to get it to show more prominently, despite request(s), sorry.

January 2020 in Books

It’s been a productive month in books! I also have a pretty random assortment here (probably more random than is typical, even for me). I’ve been a devoted reader since I was a kid, and I’ve enjoyed the past few weeks of deep-diving into another human being through literature. So in addition to my normal book-load, I’ve wrapped up Severin’s Journey Into the Dark (amazing); Straw Dogs (entertaining but I disagree with most of the ideas) and All The Pretty Horses and then The Crossing (interesting and totally atypical for me; I’ll be finishing Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy over the next few months and moving onto some of his other stuff). I loved The Crossing.

I’ve also revisited a few books I’ve loved very deeply for a long time, namely Camus’ Lyrical & Critical Essays. I also recently re-read my favorite contemporary novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. I think I would be an entirely different person if I had not spent my entire life thus far obsessed with books. There is no better way to learn about, to really come to know another person than to read each other’s favorites. It is really uniquely intimate. It’s uniquely flattering, as well; someone else can choose to inhabit your world, even briefly. It’s an underrated experience, especially given (a) people don’t read like they used to (last year, I saw that over a quarter of Americans haven’t read a book or even a part of one in a year) and (b) we are living in a culture of extreme narcissism, where people star in their own social media novellas and could care less about anyone but themselves.

But I digress. Onto the rest.

The Rabbit Effect: Live Longer, Happier, and Healthier with the Groundbreaking Science of Kindness | I read about this book in the New York Times Sunday Edition and read it on a whim, because I like the idea and I’ve seen some bizarre things in my personal life that correlate. While it’s a bit touchy-feely (and a bit preachy at times), it’s well-cited and there’s a ton of research in the notes. I actually find the title to be a bit misleading: the premise of the book is basically that the mind-body connection is under-emphasized by the medical profession, and people who have loving relationships / social connections / solid communities are more physically resilient (and recover faster). Essentially that having people who give a shit about you is paramount to your physical health. Total rocket science, right? Not so much, but it’s surprising how much this element of people’s lives is ignored when there’s something wrong physically with them; further, how much loneliness can foster illness. There are a ton of studies that relay this point, but this book is a pretty well-organized summary of the sort of mental/emotional hierarchy of needs that contribute to your physical well-being.

Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America | This was an incredible read. Books about poverty tend to be extremely politicized; this one was not. The author was a Wall Street trader who began taking walks through various neighborhoods in NYC and eventually quit his job to learn more about the way people live. This is one of the few books that manages to feature a sense of humanity alongside common sense: he answered, for himself, many of the questions I’ve asked myself over the duration of my life. This book and Hillbilly Elegy are probably two of my favorite books on this topic, and they are both written from entirely different perspectives, with largely different opinions, and they attribute some of the issues of our time to different things. I will never forget this short excerpt in this book, which does a good job of showcasing how much this author really focused on telling fair stories of other people with no judgement:

Over the next half hour, she told me her life story. She told me how her mother’s pimp had put her on the streets at twelve. How she had had her first child at thirteen. How she was addicted to heroin. I ended by asking her the question I asked everyone I ­photographed: How do you want to be described? She replied without a pause, “As who I am. A prostitute, a mother of six, and a child of God.”

People who grow up in tremendous comfort, in stable, healthy families think they know and understand how all of this works; they just don’t. And I say that as someone who does not buy the conservative “get a job” trope, nor the bleeding heart “give them more public assistance” remedy. Reality is so much more nuanced, complex, often impossible. This book is really thought provoking, reasonable and open-minded. So pleased I read it.

The Lion’s Den | I’m a huge Anthony Marra fan; I’ve read all of his other stuff with extreme immediacy, and this was no different. The Lion’s Den is a short story about a guy who lost his father; it was good, but I didn’t love it, probably because his Eastern Europe / Russia stuff resonates much more with me. He is an incredible writer and this took me almost no time, so it was worth reading, but it was nowhere near as amazing as his other short, The Wolves of Bilaya Forest.

Talking to Strangers | Malcolm Gladwell is another author whose books I’ve read in their entirety, and I’m surprised to say I really was bored out of my mind with this one. The premise is actually brilliant: he basically talks about instances where people talked past one another and thought they knew more than they did; it’s largely anecdotes of cognitive bias. It’s rare I stop reading a book (in this case it was an audiobook), but I got about halfway through and found it too boring, though the theme was interesting. I actually really like Gladwell; his style is often criticized, but I find his quirky stories give me a lot to think about in a short period of time, and his books are easy ways to find interesting ideas with virtually no effort. The New York Times published a great article on him and his work here, and despite not loving this particular book, I’d read his next one as I’ve read all his previous ones.

Wilderness | This was another surprisingly disappointing, dry read. I am a huge, huge fan of Rockwell Kent: I own some of his other books (Greenland Journal is on my rare book wishlist). This artwork has always really impressed me; I recently acquired a copy of Moby Dick with his illustrations, which I will definitely cherish forever and have wanted for a long time (Moby Dick is one of my all-time favorites). I thought Wilderness would score more points because it’s based a mere two hours and a boat ride from my house, on Fox Island in Resurrection Bay, but his diary entries are dull and underwhelming, and the drawings are not great either. N by E and Salamina are far better reads. To be fair, his other books are in more interesting settings than boring af Fox Island in the winter. He loved the North, was completely captivated by Newfoundland; Greenland; Alaska and the Adirondacks and for that he will always have my undying love.

Re-reads:

Coming Into the Country | This is the third time I’ve traversed this book in its entirety in my life; I started listening to the audiobook version a year or two ago, and recently finished. I cannot express how unbelievable it is that a book written 44 years ago is still so spot-on, with regard to the people of Alaska, the culture, the “story” of Alaska in its entirety. For 7.5 years of my life I have lived here and loved this state, have chased all kinds of stories, anecdotes, histories, driven all kinds of roads in every direction, flown a bazillion air miles to far flung toiletless towns in the Bush, met some of the most interesting characters of my life, and I am mystified by how McPhee captured Alaska in a book that is still somehow so relevant. I would hands down recommend this book to anyone who moved here, or wanted to really know or understand this state, its traditions and legacy. This won’t be the last time I read Coming Into The Country, and a Fairbanks-based writer wrote an incredible follow-up to the Yukon-Charley Rivers section of Coming Into The Country called A Land Gone Lonesome which is also incredible and worth reading (and perhaps re-reading).

Lyrical & Critical Essays | I have a beat-up copy of this book I’ve had since college, with 100 different scribbles and highlights in it. I’ve re-read these lyrical essays countless times over my adult life, wondering if they will ever cease to resonate with me, and thus far they have not. At 35, I have read everything Camus has written/published; these lyrical essays are the best, in my opinion. These essays are a full-spectrum foundation of his values, his belief system, and much of what he stood for in his life, and are a perfect precursor to anything else one might read from him. Skip the critical essays; they’re not nearly as good. Linking to Goodreads reviews, as this is an old book, but much loved by virtually everyone who reads it.

Upcoming for February: Gogol’s Collected Tales; Cities of the Plain (Border Trilogy 3); Vaclav Havel’s Open Letters; The Nation Killers, on Soviet resettlement to Kazakhstan; a bunch of others.

Closing out the Year: Books, Q4 2019

It’s probably time to do one of these, though the books below will have summaries even shorter than is typical because I’m blowing through books at such a rapid pace; this post is a day late as I arrived back in Anchorage last night on NYE too tired to pound this out. I had squandered the remainder of my leisure time pre-Christmas holiday period watching Jordan Peterson’s Personality and Its Transformation lectures, and I’m almost finished with them. I highly recommend most of them, particularly the first 10-15 (and even more particularly, Heroic & Shamanistic Initiations, and Solzhenitsyn & The Gulag) . The Big Five ones became a little tiresome, but they’re ultimately worth watching anyway. He recorded a lengthy lecture series on the Bible which I will be watching soon. Trying to teach myself to enjoy YouTube lectures, and it’s working.

Either way, this winter is largely the same as any other, lots of dark, grim and often authoritarian stuff; some management books and social science as well. It seems sort of stupid to me that I publish these, but I’m always surprised by how many people write me or comment or mention they saw I read this or that, so it’s not for nothing.

The Lone Wolf And the Bear: Three Centuries of Chechen Defiance of Russian Rule | This is a pretty good run-down of Chechnya and its history of unwillingness to be folded into Russia, though it reads very dryly/academically. I’ve had this book forever and I started reading it years ago only to be really bored, so this time I plugged away and got through it: it’s the kind of book that has endless details you know will be forgotten sooner than later, but I would recommend it to anyone who wants to understand why this country has struggled the way it has.

Messengers: Who We Listen To, Who We Don’t, and Why | This was brilliant and I’d recommend it to anyone and everyone working at a corporation (and probably many, many other people). Strangely I can’t find a good review of this book (probably because 30 seconds of looking is sometimes insufficient), but it’s chock full of interesting information and insight. Short but decent review here. I find most people who are obsessed with behavioral economics read all of these books naturally, and I’m unsure of who else reads them, but this one is much more applicable to a normal person looking to improve his or her life than many of the others.

Black Earth: A Journey Through Russia After the Fall | I can’t express how much I loved this book. This, and Night of Stone are two of the best books I’ve read on contemporary Russia, and they’re written from two completely different perspectives and with wholly different underlying themes. The author traverses through Moscow, St. Petersburg, and then some far-flung places: Norilsk, Rostov-on-Don, Chechnya, Sakhalin. NYT seems to have reviewed this somewhat unfavorably; I disagree. This book captures a lot of the mystery and awe, especially in the Caucasus region, and is definitely going to be a part of my permanent collection. A blurb from Foreign Affairs:

“Dark and wondrous as ever” are the words that conclude Meier’s odyssey through the killing fields of Chechnya, up the Yenisey River to Norilsk in the far north — once part of Stalin’s gulag — to the wild east of Sakhalin, where oil substitutes for gold. A journalist advantaged by fluent Russian and a youth’s readiness for adventure, he probes deeply into the lives of everyone he meets, from the poor to the potentate, while traveling by road and river. Meier’s passion is for the victims, for those who survived the camps and those caught in the Chechen “meatgrinder,” and he works hard to get their stories, sometimes at great risk to himself. The result is a compassionate glimpse into the extremes where the new Russia meets the old, written with verve and humor.

The Great Big Book Of Horrible Things | A friend of mine asked me if I ever watched/read anything humorous a few months ago and I sent him a photo of this book… unsurprisingly, on the surface this did not qualify as comedy. Surprisingly, this book is actually extremely funny, as the author has a super dark sense of humor and is pretty cynical throughout. This is in fact a “great, big book,” though I read all 500 pages and change in one long night. Its writer is a statistician of death, essentially, and he explains in depth how and why he came to the conclusions he has numbers-wise. Also a part of my permanent collection, as this is an awesome reference material for many of the most gruesome things in history.

Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win & The Dichotomy of Leadership: Balancing the Challenges of Extreme Ownership to Lead and Win | I actually really enjoyed both of these reads, Extreme Ownership being the better of the two. Absolutely everything the authors express seem to be common sense, though they use a ton of anecdotes to make their point(s). I live in a place with a lot of military presence, and I’ve met some interesting characters over the years (I’ve also met some real goddamn idiots in this population, but idiots are everywhere): SEALs and EOD techs and sometimes Rangers are some of the more interesting people, as especially EOD guys are very cerebral and they all need to learn how to work in teams as effectively as possible. Not sure these books would be as easy to read if I were as bored with military analogies as many people are, but at a time in my life when I was struggling at work I think it was illuminating and I’d recommend these to new managers for sure.

Why Is Sex Fun?: The Evolution of Human Sexuality | I thought I’d enjoy this a lot more than I did; I think Jared Diamond needed an influx of cash at the time. I found most of the chapters pretty boring, though I’m not sure if this is because I’ve already read about a lot of this stuff or if his topics just weren’t that fascinating. It is pretty short so it didn’t steal too many hours from my life. I would absolutely never recommend this book to anyone: the best book on sexuality and human nature IMO is The Red Queen.

Endgame: The Betrayal and Fall of Srebrenica | At this point I’ve read an embarrassing amount of books about the Bosnian War; this one is particularly interesting in its lack of extreme bias, and it breaks down the way the Dutch fucked up into a series of misunderstandings that almost gives you a blip of empathy for soldiers struggling in layers and layers of bureaucracy. It also sheds a lot of light on the magnitude of confusion that existed in real-time in Srebrenica. I think the fact that this book is stripped of one human’s experience makes it one of the most reliable references for what happened in this enclave during the war. 

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind | Another book that was lent to me with rants and raves on it being amazing, and by the end I felt like I learned nothing; however, this is because I read way too much of the same shit over and over. Worth noting I would’ve never read this had it not been given to me to read. I think this is a great and easy summation of human history, and due to the fact that the world is filled with endless information on everything, I have deep appreciation for people who make things simple. This is probably something that should be mandatory reading in schools; it has that much information, broadly, in the correct order and with the most reasonable interpretations. Great gift for someone who wants to learn broadly about human history without getting sucked into one hole or another.

A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia | I have to say, I thought this would be a lot more offensive than it ended up being. This is a rare book, a copy of which inexplicably exists in the Kodiak library (a copy for purchase is over $500). Handke won the Nobel Prize in Literature this year, which caused outcries in many countries, Bosnia and Kosovo being two of them. I certainly don’t agree with some of this opinions, but I do agree that all of these countries have been victims of one another, which is largely what he is saying. He rails against journalists, who a long time ago used to report without bias, and he blames bias for a lot of the way people feel about Serbia, which I actually also think is true. He doesn’t absolve Serbia of all guilt, and he perhaps goes a bit too far sometimes, but I read this book to find out the extent to which I’d disagree with it (also because everyone is outraged by everything these days): the Serbs suffered some serious losses at the hands of the Ustashe, and in Kosovo, and to pin all the blame on one ethnic group in the Balkans is tantamount to having zero understanding of their unique history. Worth reading, even if you disagree with him, would recommend. Strangely, as I’m on the last book of Karl Ove’s My Struggle series, he actually speaks a bit about Handke, and I find this often happens with books I’m reading; they overlap in one way or another.

The Last Kings of Thule | Another book that has been taking up space on my shelf forever, and I’m glad I finally finished it. A long time ago, I became e-mail penpals with Malaurie’s grandson, who was a teacher in the Canadian High Arctic (I can’t remember how we ended up emailing back and forth in the first place). Malaurie spent a long time living among the Thule Inuit, before the air base was built there, and the book hearkens back to a time prior to much Western Civilization. He conveys a lot of stories passed down among these people, from Peary and Cook’s visits, Matthew Henson, Knud Rasmussen, about Peary dragging Minik and his family to the Museum of Natural History as a living exhibit, all kinds of stuff. There are many books written by random white guys living among the Inuit all throughout the North, but this one and Kabloona are probably my two favorites (Rasmussen’s books are all required reading in this subject area as well). I was taken aback by the end, as he returns to Thule and sees them building what would eventually be Thule AFB, realizing that Inuit history in the High Arctic was continuing to be erased by civilization. I could go on for a very, very, very long time about all of this, but I’ll leave it at that. A copy of this book is $2.39 on Amazon, I’d say it’s worth a whole lot more than that, if you’re into reading about the Inuit.

Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956 | Everything Anne Appelbaum writes is amazing. She writes in an absurd level of detail; I’ve now read all of her books. There’s a good review here, so I’m going to keep chugging through this post and let someone else’s review speak for me. With regard to all of her work, I like Red Famine and Gulag the most, but this is definitely #3.

How To Be A Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century | This book got overwhelmingly positive reviews, I think again I struggled with it being monotonous because I’ve read too much about the same topics. I think, much like Sapiens, this is a great high-level view of dictatorship and totalitarianism. I don’t think there’s much else to it at all. And, this is why I don’t write reviews for a living. A review of this book was featured in Quillette, which is likely why I pre-ordered it at the time. Read that. Important to note I knew literally zero about Duvalier, so I did learn some stuff. And I think Ceausescu is left out of a lot of dictatorship literature, which is unfortunate as he was a real monster (for more on Romania and Ceausescu, I’d read Balkan Ghosts, which comes with free nightmares).

The 48 Laws of Power | I don’t remember why I bought this book, but I still haven’t decided how I feel about it. The truth is, I don’t think one is supposed to “feel” anything when reading this book; most of these “laws” are likely true, but they’re not ones to live by if you want to be what you might define as a “good person.” I found (a) a short interview with the author here, and (b) this interesting post which shows some of the examples of the Laws. Yes, many of these “laws” of power are ways to live if you want to dominate everyone in your life; they are not the way I choose to live my life. I felt sort of like I was reading a book on how to accomplish a task I have no desire or need to accomplish; I don’t regret reading it, though I skipped a lot of the historical anecdotes and just read the laws themselves. All of these laws, in theory, will work. Will you hate yourself by employing them? TBD.

Resistance, Rebellion and Death | This was one of the books I took with me to the East Coast to read while home and I barely finished it before I returned, but it’s incredible. Camus writes about occupied France; Hungary; Algeria; Spain. Most or all of these were featured in Combat. Much is on the nature of freedom, love and morality (as is all of his stuff). This book also includes his essay opposing capital punishment, “Reflections on the Guillotine,” which is a must-read, and an essay in here has been re-made famous again recently, I noticed, in Quillette (his “Create Dangerously” speech). I’ve read most of everything Camus has written/published, and this is one of the best (why it took me so many years to read it, I don’t know). 

On that note, here closes 2019 in books. I left a lot of other stuff in 2019, and I’ll write about that soon. For now, I’m pretty tired of staring at this computer screen.

The buds draw in before the cold.

September 7, Books, Pt. 2.

Generation Me – Revised and Updated: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled–and More Miserable Than Ever Before | I’m an older millennial, and most of my friends are as well: we have solid jobs/careers, we don’t die for social media (and we don’t post selfies, I still can’t really seem to figure out exactly how Snapchat works), at least within my friend circle, the sense of entitlement is severely limited when compared to what you see in the tail end of the generation. I still harbored some curiosity about the striking differences between the generation overall and Gen X, and this book was pretty interesting, mostly when it comes to talking about feelings / expecting to be happy and Gen X’s sense of duty. There is a huge disparity in expectations, some significant differences in parenting styles and a disturbing assumption that one should always be happy that has clearly negatively afflicted the millennial generation. It seems as though quite a bit of this work has been found unsound, but I think some of these ideas are still fairly thought provoking. We definitely live in a ‘look at me’ culture where people expect things to be great all the time, and everyone is positive he or she is special and deserves consequent special treatment. Review here in the NY Times which also mentions The Narcissism Epidemic, which I believe I may have also posted in here at some point.

My Struggle: Book 5: Some Rain Must Fall | Book 5 took me forever to get through. And, much like books 3 and 4, it becomes a bit boring and monotonous at times. I liked Books 2 and 3 more than the other middle volumes in this expansive autobiography, and I have high hopes for Book 6. Book 5 details his foray into writing for a publication in Bergen and doing a writer’s program, traipsing around and banging a bunch of broads and so forth. This honesty is overwhelming, to the point that at times when you’re going through his recounting of his life and actions you sort of can’t stand him at many points: he is a complete coward on many occasions, though virtually everyone has amassed a cache of cowardice in his or her formative years. That said, Book 1 came on so strong, and to me it set a lot of the rest of these periods of his life up for failure. Perhaps, as I’ve said before, it’s that being young is simply not as interesting as being older, because you don’t have all of the insight. You don’t have the depth, or the breadth. And when you’re recounting the dumb shit you’ve done, it’s just that: dumb shit. I think of the books in the middle of this series, Books 2 and 3 were my favorite; Book 3 gave me an immense amount of sympathy (even empathy) for him, perhaps because we share some experiences, and I think those years of your life (when you are a really little kid) are more formative than teenage/20s. Falling in love (Book 2) is also extremely formative; moreso than a lot of the other clutter of your early life. I don’t remember anything I deeply loved about Book 5, other than the outward expression of shame, which is ugly no matter whose it is; 4 and 5 are a means to an end, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it’s all wrapped up. Book 5 review here.

Black Deeds of the Kremlin, Vol I: Book of Testimonies | One of the most grotesque things I’ve ever heard in my entire life was an account from the Holodomor: a woman spoke of officers showing up to her house screaming at her dying family for not dying fast enough. I have no idea how or why I found this to be 1000x more horrifying than anything I’ve read or heard from the Bosnian war; from Kolyma Tales; from the Bataan Death March; from Nanking, Chechnya, the White Sea Canal. I searched high and low for these two volumes of Black Deeds of the Kremlin; I found Volume I for peanuts on eBay, sold by a man who clearly did not know what it was worth (about $75 more than I bought it for); I found an incredible copy of Volume II in Minnesota (complete with dust jacket), and a friend sent me an even more astoundingly nice copy. I told myself I couldn’t buy VII until I read all of VI, so I did. The testimonies in Volume I were meticulously compiled from (what I can understand) survivors then residing in Canada. There is nothing more to this book than people telling of their experiences, and in true Slavic form, much of it is matter-of-fact. It is a brilliantly simple book: what makes it special is that fairly limited number of accounts of what actually happened, and much of Ukraine was closed off (when foreigners came into Kharkiv or Kiev, everyone was cleaned up and forced to act normal).  If you can’t imagine that an entire country was starved in two years, I can understand that: it seems insane to be able to murder millions of people in such a short period of time: more Ukrainians died in their own country in Holodomor in two years than Jews died in the Holocaust in 4 years. The way that these people died, and the way their houses were scoured by the authorities for anything edible, is mind-blowing. Further mind-blowing is that everyone can tell you what the Holocaust is; Holodomor was widely overlooked/forgotten. This is an incredible book (if you’re into reading about testimonies of slow and torturous death by collective farming) and I’m beyond excited to have both volumes in my permanent collection. I have no idea what is in Volume II, but I’ll be finding out soon.

Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Connection | I told someone recently in passing that I had asked my roommate in the past to join me if I moved out of state, and the person’s response was a sarcastic “that’s not weird or anything.” I chuckle at the occasional comments I’ve received regarding my living situation: I can easily afford to live alone, and own a house, which I rent out… why would I opt to live with someone when I can live completely alone? The answer to that, and what many people take far more years and suffering to learn than I have, is that the cheesy song lyrics are true: “you’re nobody ’til somebody loves you,” except not exclusively in a romantic sense. Loneliness is a pretty sweeping account of the modern epidemic of loneliness, and cites many other incredible books relating back to the collapse of communal life: Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities and Robert D. Putnam’s Bowling Alone among them. One it didn’t mention was The Longevity Project, which largely found that relationships are central to long life. And not romantic relationships… but friendships. There are many books about our growing reliance on technology and the way it takes more than it gives to us emotionally: I am positive my many years of emotional investment in my friends has paved the road to happiness for me. MIT Media Lab’s Sherry Turkle has also written about this, and the way that technology has helped in many ways but deprived us of a sense of real community. For that reason, people are both more and less connected these days. This book should be required reading for anyone aged between 18 and 45; the modern landscape has caused a great deal of suffering especially in this arena (which is why it’s fairly common to scoff at two single adults choosing to live together when they can both afford to live alone). My life would be worthless if not for my relationships; I only wish people realized this earlier in their own lives. This is an expansive and wonderful book, as depressing as its content is.

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. 

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.