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 Rise of Jordan Peterson

This is not a review. We all know by now that I can’t — or perhaps, won’t — write actual reviews. I pre-ordered The Rise and Fall of Jordan Peterson weeks ago (for whatever reason I thought it would be a good idea to order a hard copy, which makes no sense to me presently), and immediately watched it.

We live in a day and age where you lose friends over admiration of this man, which says more about the cultural atmosphere than Jordan Peterson himself. I’ve read his books, watched a few (though not many) of his YouTube lectures and read quite a few of his articles. The documentary is pretty fairly filmed: there’s a somewhat fair balance between his fans and detractors. Quite a lot of it is focused on his trans verbiage stuff in Canada, which is essentially what made him mainstream-level famous.

I don’t care much about this particular event (with the trans crowd): more than anything else, he embodies qualities I find highly valuable and increasingly rare, namely curiosity and defiance. Not the kind of moral righteousness megaphone yammering defiance… but a real unwillingness to buy into ignorance or intellectual laziness because it’s an unsavory way to live. I was entertained by the inside of his house, as we seem to also share an affinity for USSR-period literature and art (I noticed a copy of Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine on his shelf, along with countless other books I’ve read over the years). I imagine to him (and certainly to me), an obsession with authoritarianism is a lesson in how not to live, how not to be, a reminder to not be rolled over upon at any cost. By the way, this post is mostly about me. I know, you’re shocked.

As I spend another early Alaskan winter gorging on stories of the gulag; Srebrenica and other large-scale atrocities (reading roundup to come within the next week or two), I’ve been reflecting on how I got here, to where I am in my life, and why. The explanation is truly absurd in its simplicity.

The year(s) were the early 90s. Enter young me, in elementary school, bored out of my gourd and reading well above my grade level. There were 38 kids in my class by the time I graduated from high school: I would say at least 1/3 of my classmates were special ed/remedial, half rarely bothered to show up for class.  Fewer than 5 kids were what I would call “high achievers.” I can’t remember a single time in grades 1-12 I had to harness more than 25% of my brainpower, even during my AP Calculus exam, which I passed despite teaching it to myself because we watched Lord of the Rings during our 2-person classes. Unsurprisingly, my classmate failed. Not her fault: Tolkein is just a bad calculus teacher.

I would have fully hated public school altogether if I hadn’t mastered the art of finding any sort of random thing interesting at all times, and had a handful of teachers who, even in my early years, took pity on me and allowed me to (a) blow things up (b) create hydroponic vegetable gardens (c) order dead animals from mail order catalogs. It could have been worse. And, what I did have time to do as a kid was read. I read everything, and even shitty public schools have OK libraries. There’s almost nothing else to do in the Catskills that’s not outside, especially when you’re a 12 year old girl.

In the early 90s, I read Lord of the Flies. I read Animal Farm and 1984. These three books stuck with me my entire life. Brave New World, later on, as well. They are so central to my life, character and personality that I even cited them recently in a letter to my local newspaper. I’ve noticed as I’ve watched my siblings grow up that there’s a strong defiant streak in my family in general (I attribute this mostly to our Slavic genes), which has conveniently been combined with a deep revulsion for groupthink and the so-called wisdom of crowds. Our grandparents were acutely aware of what they were running from when their parents arrived in the US from what is now Ukraine. I’ve long been obsessed with what their pre-America world looked like, and what happened after they left (they would not talk about it, and stopped speaking anything but English when my father was a kid): they missed WWI by 1 year: the formation of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic by 6. They then missed the Holodomor, which likely killed everyone else that didn’t die in the former two events. By the time my father was born in 1949, anyone who hadn’t starved 15 years earlier had been steamrolled by the Red Army, the Nazis, then another famine, forced deportations…just another day in Eastern Europe, amirite?

Back to Lord of the Flies… reading a bunch of books as a young kid in rural New York is one thing… to really drive home the theme — the mental weakness of humans — you really need a catalyst: some kind of event that shows you, even better if in real-time, that these ideas are much more than a series of dystopian nightmares. What else happened in the 90s, at the very time young Jessica was horrified, reading about those snot-nose British kids turning on each other in Lord of the Flies? Cue the Bosnian War, people! There is no better example of people who frequently were neighbors, whose children grew up together, whose fathers had fought together in the same army, only to murder each other in cold blood while the world looked on. That this happened among people who were racially, ethnically, culturally near-identical murdered each other was an outrageous achievement in propaganda, and it had happened countless times before, and will happen again over and over in the future (probably not as interestingly as this particular war, as it was the restoration of individuality post-Tito that really revved up the ethnic strife).

But really, how did this happen? How did Milošević so effectively blast this idea out to people? How did Stalin and Hitler make all that totalitarian magic happen? And, perhaps more importantly, why did people fall for it time and time again? Didn’t anyone say “man, this is pretty messed up…” — and why didn’t more?

What Orwell, Huxley and William Golding wrote about is as authentic as it gets, and it’s this unbelievable cognitive and intellectual laziness that has truly horrified me my entire life. Whether it’s a result of this or completely independent, I have always seemed to lack this intense desire to cooperate with everyone around me to feel like people like me. I have always ranked very low on people-pleasing, especially when it comes to people who are not “my people.” Some people would say this makes me a jerk. Others would say this makes me a libertarian. I say, who cares, pretending to agree with people is no way to live.

While there were other factors at play, I majored in whatever “the science of getting people to believe your probably dumb ideas” is at college (this is called Mass Communication Theory); my independent research projects focused on it; it has been an underlying feature of my job and career: simply put, persuasion. In recent years, I’ve become fascinated by behavioral economics, and lately, our very polarized political environment, and a tale as old as time: people saying whatever the popular thing is to say, and believing whatever is trendy, and not bothering to really consider much of anything because social ties mean more than truth or logic or discourse.

I have always wanted to know what’s real, and what’s true, and to repeatedly separate logic from emotion, which people increasingly fail to do. There’s a sequence in The Rise and Fall where Peterson is talking about high heels at work and it is so unbelievably obvious that people can no longer separate emotionally charged concepts like sexual harassment and feminism and sexism from what is actually happening. Over the past half-decade or so I have felt more and more like I live in the Twilight Zone in the modern world, and Peterson’s refusal to submit to ridiculous ideas is probably more inspiring than it should be, if for no other reason than people are excessively sheepy these days. Further, it’s this quest for actual truth despite the consequences that creates the only kind of authenticity that seems worth anything.

Wrapping this up now. All in all, Peterson is a fascinating person. The documentary is great. He and Quillette, for me, are oases in an endless desert of stupidity and laziness these days. Perhaps it was always the way it is now… some of my friends would say as much: that people have not actually changed, for better or worse. And maybe 20 years after my first Orwellian nightmares and Srebrenica’s genocide, I haven’t either.

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.

The sky turns dark, the year grows old,

September 3, Books, Pt 1. The season seems to have changed practically overnight up here; the rustling trees this past weekend made me miss the much more colorful Northeastern autumn. My patio plants, having been fried mercilessly by unseasonable heat, are now withering from cold nighttime temps… but sitting outside with these rustling trees has cursed me with a touch of homesickness.

I always think of the first line of Roethke’s “Coming of the Cold” at this time of year: “The late peach yields a subtle musk” …alas, there are no peaches growing in this state. And so, sometimes where I’m from and where I live seem forever apart. Autumn here is typically a rapid and violent death in a brief period of time: one day a cold wind comes and blows all the scraggly leaves off the trees and that’s it. Onto 6 months of winter in a parentheses of slush and mud.

Winter here is also reading season (for non-readers, it’s ‘Netflix and chill’ season, and also backcountry ski season, and for some it’s ‘drink until the sun comes up again’ season). I’ve been flying a lot, so I’ve also been reading a lot, but I intend to pick up my pace further in the winter. I got sort of sucked into a wormhole in terms of subject matter, so books 2, 3 and 4 are related.

Night of Stone: Death and Memory in 20th Century Russia | This was an incredible find from Title Wave in Anchorage. There is someone (or there are some people) reading excellent books on the Soviet Union and the former Eastern bloc and then turning them into Title Wave. I don’t know who you are, but you rule, and I wish I could find you, because I can tell from your underlines and highlights you are thinking as you read these books. I can’t think of a book that looks solely at death (and, occasionally, the ceremony or more often lack thereof) surrounding it at different periods of time in Russia (and let me tell you, I’ve read an embarrassing amount of Russia books). It’s an ambitious topic; one which obviously inspires the author. It’s difficult to read only because I think the anonymity of death at many points in Russia is sort of lost on Westerners: it is so different, so alien to us that it’s nearly impossible to truly imagine. There is a very good, in-depth review of this book here. Truly a unique read and has been passed onto another avid Russian history reader.

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World | This was an impulse buy; or perhaps Amazon’s algorithm (in combination with the Alexa devices my roommate has peppered our house with) suggested it because I’ve been telling people lately that I don’t care about my career (I mean that in a positive way). I suppose if I had needed some reinforcement or moral support in my “I’ll just learn how to do something else whenever I get bored” attitude, this would be a good one to read. I think the 10,000 hour anecdote years ago sent too many people in a singular direction, and I think the world also seems to love experts and high specialization; for most of my life I’ve wanted to keep options open and diversify as much as possible so I’m versatile enough to flex into whatever interests me. For that reason I’m not particularly amazing at anything, but I am pretty good at a lot of things. The author doesn’t go so far as to say that high specialization is necessarily bad; only that there are many benefits to not trying so hard in one realm to be perfect in that same realm, and that creativity and imagination are more flexible when there are more externalities and when other interests are pursued. This is a good book to pass along to someone who hates his or her job or career; it’s never too late to pick up something else. NY Times review here.

Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why | We are now on the 2nd step of the cascade of interconnected books; when chatting about Range with a friend of mine, he suggested Deep Survival, which was completely fascinating once I got a few chapters into it. I can’t really find any particularly compelling reviews of this book; and the second half of the book is more interesting than the first. It’s mostly a collection of gnarly survival stories (some actual survival stories, and some total fails); there’s a lot of psychology and insight that can be applied to every day life: casting away mental models, using curiosity, optimism, etc. There’s a story in this book about smokejumpers not dropping their tools and dying as a result that was completely mind-blowing; I’ve thought a lot about it since reading about it. This is especially an awesome book for outdoorsy people, but really it’s relevant to anyone who wonders what kind of person s/he’d be in a true crisis. Two meh reviews here and here.

The Survivor Personality | I read The Survivor Personality because it was cited repeatedly in Deep Survival, and it’s entirely (and obviously) about the psychology of survival… surviving anything, big or small, and surviving it mentally. Don’t judge a book by its tacky self-help cover (ok, it is a little self help-y): this is another decently good read (if you have to choose, read Deep Survival). I’ve read a lot about this — resilience in general, ACE scores, etc — this is a good quick one that I hadn’t come across before. Resiliency is important regardless of what kind of life you have and understanding how all of these elements come together internally is pretty relevant to just about everyone. The chapter list gives somewhat of an idea of what’s in this book. It went a few routes I hadn’t expected.

  1. Life Is Not Fair and That Can Be Very Good For You
  2. Playful Curiosity: Learning What No One Can Teach You
  3. Flexibility: An Absolutely Essential Ability
  4. The Synergy Imperative: Needing To Have Things Work Well
  5. Empathy Is A Survival Skill
  6. The Survivor’s Edge: The Subconscious Resources of Intuition, Creativity, and Imagination
  7. The Serendipity Talent: Turning Misfortune Into Good Luck
  8. The Good Child Handicap
  9. Thriving
  10. The Roots of Resiliency: Your Inner “Selfs”
  11. Self-Managed Healing
  12. Surviving Emergencies and Crises
  13. Surviving Being a Survivor
  14. Your Transformation: Learning About Surviving and Thriving

The other four coming tomorrow… probably… in the meantime, here’s a glacier. Because, Alaska.

Back to Bosnia

I’ve found as I’ve grown older, I have come to appreciate some of the previously ignored yet formative experiences of my life. For whatever reason the Bosnian War and the Siege of Sarajevo (during which I was in grade school) both cemented my then extremely limited awareness of the world outside my own, and fully horrified me to the core. Over time, the horror turned to curiosity, and I took a deep dive into the black water that is the history of the Balkans.

Many years and hundreds of books later, my lifelong appreciation of this unique country and wider region is still on full blast. And after spending last September winding through the Balkans over a period of weeks, I was very pleased to return to BiH for a few days. I again ran out of time in Mostar… but there will always be a next time for Bosnia. The country lies at many crossroads, and has over many periods in time, not least leading up to WWI.

The photos below are all places I had been previously, minus Jablanica, where my friend polished off an entire kilo of lamb (I was so personally enthused about this lamb, I’m breaking a self-imposed rule and posting a photo of myself).

Bosnia, of all the countries in the Balkan region, is a particularly mysterious and exotic place seething with tension, its ground soaked in generations of blood. Based on its bloody history and still-palpable religious tensions, I would say it’s unlikely to last as a country for many more. So, you know, get moving.

Tourism is largely an untapped market here, and it shouldn’t be. They barely have 1 million tourists a year (by contrast, Georgia has 8 million, and they have roughly the same population). There are excellent tour companies to do all the heavy lifting, and every part of the country is steeped in rich albeit often brutal human history.

The people are wild but kind, and the food is incredible. Shortly before we arrived, The New York Times published this: A Journey to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Where Sleeping Beauty Awakens

Some other recent travel articles: Lonely Planet | CNN
Bonus Reading
: Poetry and War, Eurozine | Sarajevo, by Peter Balakian

Caucasian Tales

So long is liberty oppressed by laws,
so will the tribes resist until they’re free:
at length the smoldering Caucasus will be
unburdened by this monstrous foreign cause
Pushkin

Our Free City Tour guide in Tbilisi, the lone local guide who was not an actual local but a Dutch guy who fell in love with a Georgian girl and relocated, warned us toward the end of our lengthy walk around the city to be careful: crazy things happen in this country. He meant this not in a “jihad in the mountains” kind of way, but in a “you might wander through and stay here forever” kind of way.

And so, a strange thing or two did happen in this unique and rugged country, and I left with a long to-do list of things I did not have time to fully explore.

The day we drove out into the mountains to Kazbegi, I felt as though I was on a time-warp road paved with nostalgia. To explain it would be to fail immediately. I spent my week in this country floored by the experience of being surrounded by others with strikingly similar facial features (I had never experienced this before to this degree, Georgian people are unique genetically and I am not one, though we share a diverse yet heavily Slavic contemporary blend); being out in the mountains forces you to fully appreciate the incredible falsehood of the word “Caucasian” listed on American documents. Caucasians are pale, with light eyes and dramatic features; often large aquiline noses and dark hair. This is the land of white exotics.

I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone in this place; a beautiful albeit steaming hot one (Tbilisi means “warm place” for its natural hot springs) filled with bread and cheese and dumplings stuffed with mushrooms you know someone picked with his or her bare hands. The ruggedness of the Caucasus reminded me in many ways of Alaska: the primitive individuality of the land and the people. Over 300 kinds of wine call Georgia their home; and much like Bosnia, I could have happily stayed forever… except with Georgia, I would be a face the same as everyone else’s. I have always loved the idea of absolute anonymity, of no one looking twice. Of being a ghost. I thanked my bizarre good fortune every time a street hawker harassed my Mexican companions while ignoring me entirely.

I remember reading Elif Batuman’s The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them and chuckling often at her commentary on the ‘Stans. I’ve spoken many times with a friend of mine often about our diverging ideas of beauty: mine is crumbling, decrepit buildings and stray dogs, bright clothing strung over errant clotheslines. His is more the clean lines and what to me has always been overwhelming orderliness and sanitized existence of a city like Boston. Boston always felt like a sterile cage to me; at night, it seemed as though no one lived there, especially downtown. Tbilisi is its opposite.

Tbilisi’s old town is what is supremely beautiful to me: periods of time and style built atop one another… the Eurasian-Persian-Byzantine-Soviet aesthetics all smashed together into a hot decrepit mess, though a mess that is cared for with tremendous love… winding streets with the odd can or bottle, dust flying around in the breeze, and panting dogs and lazy cats lounging in the shade. I would come back here again, with my DSLR.

With all the rugged landscapes and the country’s oppressive history (the Russians most recently invaded and reclaimed South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008), Georgians are incredibly kind, gregarious and welcoming people. They have a cultural tradition of sharing homemade wine on their beautiful balconies with neighbors and strangers alike and helping visitors and newcomers get around and learn about their country. The protective but individualistic culture that is so well-known in Alaska exists here as well: live and let live, but always lend a helping hand. The country is extraordinarily safe. My friends commented that Bosnia (we had flown to Tbilisi from Sarajevo) was a lot more questionable comparatively. I initially scoffed, though by the end of the trip I concluded they were probably right.

Georgia has built a robust tourism industry, though their tourists are primarily Russians. And their food is to die for; one of my regrets (other than not staying longer) was not eating more. I had wanted to try legit khachapuri for a long time. Life can be a real let-down sometimes when you have great expectations… khachapuri is not, nor is their homemade wine, which has a sort of thick, mead-meets-raw apple cider taste and costs practically nothing (even their “good” wine is a few dollars a bottle at the most).

We found a bizarre tour of the old mining town of Chiatura, which has fully in-tact cable cars from the 1950s and ventured out to ride them. The country is riddled with monasteries and Orthodox churches (the country is 90% Orthodox, so they lack the kind of internal friction you can feel in every waking breath in Bosnia). The Stalin Museum in Gori (Stalin’s hometown) eluded me, and I was sad to hear it will likely close as the tone of the museum is a bit gauche for what they’re going for tourism-wise. As our guide said, “There’s no Hitler Museum, so there probably shouldn’t be one for Stalin.”

I don’t love every country I venture to; I wouldn’t return to Macedonia and definitely not to Albania. I could leave Serbia, Western Ukraine and Romania indefinitely off my re-visit list as well. I’ve long grown bored of Western Europe. Georgia, I will go back to. The Caucasus are wild, and real: an amalgam of familiar things from different stages of my own life.

In these past two years, two countries have far exceeded my high expectations: Bosnia, and Georgia, for entirely different reasons. It took a long flight on a vintage-upholstered plane and one in my party being detained for awhile for having a terrorist-looking neckbeard. He swears he won’t go back, but I surely will.

Bonus: they’re big on importing cars, and there’s a pretty solid rally culture, so there were quite a few WRX and STI spottings throughout the country.

Bonus reading: How Russia’s writers saw the Caucasus, Financial Times
Up next: back to Bosnia