April Showers

April has flown by. Time is moving much more quickly these days; my weekends have been spent primarily with visitors, events and local adventures, and I seem to careen pretty rapidly through the workweek now that I have my schedule nailed down. There’s a beautiful lake up the street from my house and I’ve loved walking the dog around it in the evenings, spotting so many birds I haven’t seen in years. lakeThe nicest things about moving back down here have been the small pleasures: how comfortable the weather is, the herons and cormorants, the constant sunshine, even the wind. I still would put sitting outside in the sun with a book and slamming cocktails as among my top 5 favorite things to do; my house is comfortable, my neighborhood is quiet, Fuji is happy. My gym routine is working out well for me, and I’ve got 4lbs more to shave off before I hit my target range. I still feel pangs of… something, when I think about what I left to be here, and what those things meant to me over a decade of my life. Alas, it could all be a lot shittier here, and it’s not. I spent $100 on a set of baller wind chimes that I can hear from inside and you’d think it’d take a lot more to make someone happy in the moment. Not so.

fujiIt seems that it was a long time ago I was thinking about driving to South Carolina, and flying back up to AK, and those trips are coming up fast. I still feel a deep sense of ‘what’s next?’ in my life, but it’s slowly dissipating as I ramp up socially and make more plans. I moved here, more than anything else, to be closer to people, to see familiar faces more often, to have more people to talk to, and I have in 4 months managed to turn that into a pretty excellent reality. Maybe it’s OK to not know what the future holds. Maybe things just need to not be lonely and depressing af first. Everything was so epically beautiful where I was (this is not ‘the grass is always greener’ rationale, because a lot of things sucked up there) – but in returning to the lower 48, I’ve become a willing participant in a kind of lifestyle I hate: 9-5, commute to the office, etc. This is not my long-term plan. I do not want this kind of life with any kind of permanence. I am making the best of it, for now.

I met up with a former boss earlier in the month and once again cried in public (this dude has a special talent for making me weepy in absolutely inconvenient situations), but he ended up sending me a book called Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents that gave some more concise explanation to this prevailing feeling that I am always alone, and I have no one to blame but myself. It’s a special kind of frustration to realize that despite many years of therapy you’re still fucked up, but somehow reading that book allowed me to add some context and to address some phantom threads of some of my core feelings and how I (often fail to) relate to the world around me. I’ve channeled some effort into building more training modules for work, specifically around curiosity and assertiveness and what they’re worth in terms of character traits, so I still don’t love my job, but I don’t hate it as much as I did in the beginning. I still sometimes feel like I am required to insert myself into a clique, which has pushed me more than once to start looking for other opportunities. I’m hard-wired to struggle through things and I committed to a year in this role, so I shan’t be giving up for now. I’ve received pretty glowing reviews from above and below, but if you asked me if I truly enjoyed this role, my answer would be mostly no.

Today and tomorrow are the calm before the storm this week, and early Wednesday I fly to Vegas for 37 hours for our annual convention. I have done my best to avoid attending over the years as it’s all just way too much for me in terms of fervent partying and drinking and the militant networking makes me cringe, but I decided to suck it up and go this year, though I will sneak out after my “look pretty and talk to people” responsibilities are over to hit a dive bar with a friend, preferably far away from my coworkers. I am departing a bit earlier than others to get back here, swap my luggage, throw the dog in the car and drive to Myrtle Beach via Kansas City & Nashville. This drive will suck in terms of scenery: driving through Kansas especially is the absolute worst (tied for #1 most visually boring US state with Nebraska), endless flat blandness, but I’m stocked up on podcasts and audiobooks and driving has always been a sort of meditation time for me, so I think it will do me good. The stairmill, planes and long drives are periods I deconstruct my life and process large swathes of information, so I think this is long overdue.

I am sure it will be bizarre to be crossing state lines; I’ve wondered many times how living in AK imprinted so heavily onto my life that everything afterwards has felt so unreal, but I think a lot of it is that I never thought I’d leave and I still feel some skepticism about being back down here. I told my mother a few weeks ago that while most people spend their 20s-30s finding a partner and settling down and I spent mine hurtling around in small planes, driving every dirt road in Alaska and vacationing in the Eastern Bloc, I’ve arrived in my late 30s as a single person with a particular richness of experience that sometimes makes it difficult for me to garner as much deep understanding/connection from others. This will be a lifelong challenge, and it will only grow as I become a weirder and weirder individual. I don’t feel better than anyone, but I do feel very different in many ways and the further you deviate from the mean, the harder it is to find multiple points of common ground.

I have, however, surprised myself once again in my ability to collect/attract good people.FB_IMG_1651417969249 I showed up here barely knowing anyone, and I’m charmed by how many solid people I’ve already collected, not to mention the many people who have already stopped in to spend time. My former roommate’s coworker relocated to Denver as well, shortly after I did, and we’ve been spending Sundays drinking Bloody Marys in my yard and I’m grateful one of my favorite people managed to gift me another quality friend.  I hosted a small-ish house party on Saturday to get to know some of the local metalheads, I’ve had a number of work and personal-life visitors, including my sister and her husband, and a close friend from the Catskills. Juan came in for the Amorphis show, a long-time friend from Albany is flying out for our other friend’s band’s show over Memorial Day weekend. There are many great bands coming through, and I love that aspect of being back down here.

sarah_mikeMy social life overall is pretty full… I cannot complain. I even have really enjoyed getting closer to the Ukrainian on my team, and we are navigating the fine line between professional and personal relationships. Before I know it, it’ll be July, I’ll be packing for Europe, and maybe… just maybe… this whole depressing pandemic ordeal is mostly over, and I’ve emerged from this pretty dark, fucked up period of my life. I even caught up on WhatsApp with some people we met last time we were in Georgia and we’ll be meeting up for drinks in Tbilisi. For a pretty introverted, private person, I somehow manage to connect deeply with certain people and keep them around for years. I don’t know why people go out of their way for me, or remember me, or put in the work, but I am always grateful and feel a lot of love in the social sphere after all this time. So thank you all.

I’ve forgotten how to pack multiple bags at once and string complex itineraries together, so I’m crossing my fingers for the muscle memory to return. It’s inconceivable to me that, before the pandemic, that was my lifestyle, and everything just stopped for a long time. baroloI’m signing over my condo to the heli-ski company full-time as of October, so this may be the first and last summer of remote coordinating vacation rentals. Depending on how my June trip shakes out, I may go back up there again before the end of the summer… we’ll see. I’m torn; I want to go to Jordan, I’d also really like to make an appearance in Sarajevo as it’s been a hot minute, so we’ll see. I’ve had some epic food adventures here in town over the months, and many more places to hit up, but all in good time.

I wrapped up two work books this past month for training/presentations: Never Split the Difference, which was awesome, and Cracking the Curiosity Code, which was also OK (the latter was more of a refresher, it’s very hard to turn this stuff into teachable content, so I have to spend long periods of time how to distill applicable pieces to convey to large groups.

I also finished re-reading (listening to, rather) The Gulag Archipelago: Vol I, which I’ve been chipping away at for a long time; I first read it when I was in high school. I can’t stand the audiobook reader’s voice, which is unfortunate as he also did Vol II and III. Gulag Archipelago is so twisted that it actually makes me laugh (I think I owe this to Solzhenitsyn’s dark sense of humor and sarcasm). This should really be required reading in high schools; I believe it is in some countries, sadly not the US. These books have helped me so many ways, they’ve added so much context and a sense of fortitude, they’ve helped me put my own bullshit in perspective. I remember reading Kolyma Tales as a kid and being amazed at just how tough humans can be, what they can survive.

I also finally read Vasily Grossman’s Forever Flowing, and I’m taking my hard copy of Life and Fate to Myrtle (what better place to read Soviet / WWII history than on a sunny beach?) Forever Flowing is incredible, another must-read, so fucking grim and depressing. There are some really beautiful passages I won’t soon forget:

He went through the Hermitage–to find that it left him cold and indifferent.  It was unbearable to think that those paintings had remained as beautiful as ever during the years in camp which has transformed him into a prematurely old man.  Why hadn’t the faces of the madonnas grown old too, and why hadn’t their eyes been blinded with tears?  Was not their immortality their failure rather than their strength?  Did not their changelessness reveal a betrayal by art of the humanity which had created it?

On that note, I’ll wrap this up. We are already into another month: Picketty’s new book is on my list, plus Douglas Murray’s War on the West (his interview on Rogan was excellent). I’m still not reading as much as I’d like, but I’m getting there.

Slava Ukraini (II)

I had grand visions for the second part of my rambling about Ukraine, but as time drags on, that vision becomes increasingly blurred. Quillette has been publishing some excellent content, particularly an article out today about Russian literature. I’ve shared many of their articles with many people. The US news is minimum 24h behind, and I’ve had better luck with Telegram, Reddit and WhatsApp group texts.

On the positive side, the world has not yet lost interest in this conflict, which absolutely blows my mind. At best I assumed people would care about some faraway country most Americans would be hard-pressed to point out on a map for a maximum of two weeks. The impeccable marketing prowess of the Ukrainians doesn’t hurt their cause; I have never seen advertising and social media used as such a robust component of war in my life. I suspect this skill is a result of two things: 1) a recent history as a democracy and adoption of Western values (and along with it, media) and 2) a lengthy history of exposure to propaganda, which they have used to their benefit as well. Probably an additional element is that the private sector has mobilized to help, Elon Musk finally becoming the savior he has always yearned to be. Of course, there is some imbalance: internet has been unreliable in the East for weeks, so there are a lot of people completely isolated.

The second aspect of their “help us” ad campaign — propaganda experience — is ethically dubious, as it’s questionable to use half-truths even for what we deem as a ‘good’ cause, and if they are caught in deeper lies, it will surely backfire. I further suspect that most Americans with little historical knowledge of this neck of the woods are drawn to the story arc, and the Ukrainians are the underdogs — the heroes fighting off an evil repressor, the David to the Russian Goliath — which is not incorrect, but also is far too simplistic. That story arc resonates deeply with Americans, and as far as that idea is concerned, I’m happy to accept whatever works to keep the West engaged. Another softer source of power here is that there are an awful lot of Ukrainian-Americans: their diaspora is enormous, particularly in the US and Canada. Even so, it’s important to note that a huge factor in how plugged in we are to Ukraine can be linked back to the classic hero’s journey and good vs. evil story arc that has shaped civilization as a whole, and secondarily to our national identity of overcoming our own oppressors during the formation of our own country.

I’ve also seen a lot of woke bullshit about how no one is standing for Yemen, no one stood for Iraqis (not true), no one was issuing sanctions for Afghans (Ethiopia comes to mind as well, though their civil war is not equivalent to Russia’s invasion of a sovereign nation). These vague comparisons are not only ignorant, but patently absurd: Ukrainians have the same values, the reside in Europe, and have been striving to join the West since the fall of the USSR. They have been thwarted repeatedly by Russian-backed leaders and Russia’s threats. A more contentious truth is that they mobilized to fight, where training troops who have been tribally organized for centuries was a constant uphill battle. There is not an Inclusion & Diversity angle here, and it’s annoying to see it so prevalently in the news (Q also featured a great article about this, this past week).

The West has failed to accept the threat of Putin, and Ukraine is paying in blood and guts. That includes America, although Germany shoulders a disproportionate amount of blame, for turning a blind eye to Putin’s agenda and squaring itself up to buy even more energy from Russia. This is a typical Western thing: to hold such a narrow view of the world that it is assumed all people think the same way we do, and possess the same values, and this ignorant approach to existence has backfired in many ways: prior to this war, a good example is the refugee camps that have sprouted up in Sweden particularly, and the shock of European citizens in the face of refugees self-sorting into ghettos and living off the welfare system for generations. This is a huge generalization, of course, but it is a persistent problem in Western countries that have taken tens of thousands of refugees with different cultural norms. By contrast, it is culturally and politically a much smoother transition to accept other people from within Europe who already understand how society works in the West. Finally, for all their Law & Justice bullshit in the past ten years, the Poles have been particularly kind to refugees, despite long-standing disputes over land between the two countries.

Nordstream II was a nail in the coffin of a (relatively) peaceful Ukraine, and Russia using its additional leverage to blast Ukraine into oblivion was predictable. The West also did almost nothing when Putin began chipping off pieces Georgia, followed by Crimea (where Crimean Tatars were all shipped out to Uzbekistan in the 40s and the region was resettled by ethnic Russians) and Donbas. (Meskhetian Turks were deported from Georgia to Uzbekistan in the 40s as well… seeing a theme here?) Watching the laziness and ineptitude of the West over the years has made me unbelievably resentful toward Europe especially; I am sure this has played into my transition from traveling in Western Europe to my primarily traveling to the former Eastern Bloc, Balkans and Caucasus over the past decade+. I had said from the beginning of the Nordstream II construction that once it was up and running, I would never go back to Germany, and that may happen anyway, unless Putin provokes NATO and is subsequently crushed by the West. For years and years, the warnings of Poland, the Baltics and other former Soviet countries has been scorned as “paranoid”… not so much.

The West has also been terrified forever by Russia’s military might, and their power lies only in their nuclear arsenal and their leader’s sociopathic delusion: Russia’s military is a rusted, non-functioning piece of crap, like everything else made in the USSR. Totalitarian regimes capitalize on creating a façade of terrifying might, and they have done that well all these years. The Chechens have done this well too, though the fear they inspire originates in the sheer brutality they exert on innocent civilians. If Kadyrov could bite the dust soon too, that would truly be a gift from God.

What has also surprised and depressed me is the portrait of Zelenskyy as a leader possessing near-superhero status, and I think that says a lot about the low standard of governmental leadership we’ve come to expect. I was ashamed that he was offered an escort out: it cemented even more how goddamn pathetic life has become in terms of politics in the US and Western Europe: it is now assumed you will govern in exile and not stay on the ground with your shelled citizens: you will scurry out and hide. If nothing else comes of this on a domestic level, I hope it’s at least obvious that we should stop electing cowards, that you do not need an Ivy League education and a career in politics shaking hands with the right people to be a leader. That anyone can be brave and courageous, even a comedian-turned-president. I have been long-surprised by the scorn his experience has received, even well before this: Vaclav Havel, one of the most prominent politicians during the fall of the USSR, was a playwright. Courage and integrity are not taught at Yale, nor do they naturally occur in the wealthy or aristocratic. In a world of inequality, those traits are likely evenly distributed.

In some ways, watching this unfold is like living in an advent calendar, waking up every day to a new gift of dissent: separatists from other repressed parts of Russia have joined in the common struggle to knock down the world’s biggest bully. Belorussians, Georgians, Chechens, Dagestanis, Azerbaijanis, Bashkirs from the Urals, not to mention other Eastern Europeans have joined in what is already a proxy war, as much as people do not want to admit it, unified by their common hatred of Russian oppression. The sanctions, the contempt, the shaming of companies still doing business in Russia, the repossessing of oligarch yachts are all music to my ears: in my perfect world, Putin is dead, and whenever that comes to pass in my lifetime, it will be one of the happiest days of my life. Putin is playing the long game that Lenin and particularly Stalin set the groundwork for: where Stalin ripped ethnic minorities out of their ancestral homes to crush their sense of identity, Putin continues to capitalize on this by using the democratic framework to hold elections, in which ethnic Russians vote: hence Crimea voting to break away from Ukraine. This has always troubled the Baltic countries: it’s not paranoia. It’s history and, to be fair, brilliant manipulation of said history to show the West in their own language that Russia stretches beyond its current borders. In that sense, his misstep here is incredible: he clearly chose the echo chamber over history.

None of the good deeds completely cancel out the mistakes the West has made: sheltering oligarchs, buying cheap energy, politicians assuring themselves and their people that this will never come to pass. As much as Putin miscalculated how much we would rally around Ukraine, the West has amassed years if not decades of grave miscalculation that has brought us here. I’ve been alternating between wrapping up my Gorbachev biography with Zbignew Brzezinski’s The Grand Chessboard and it’s been interesting to see that he projected that by 2010 Ukraine would be a member of NATO and/or the EU, and yet here we are.

The West has failed Ukraine, and I hope we make it right.

That’s all for now. Next post, soon to come, will be a standard one.

Slava Ukraini (I)

Stepping out of my “one post a month” routine, as there is certainly plenty going on in the world to warrant some additional thoughts and words. You wouldn’t necessarily think so in some circles, given Americans’ penchant for whining about gas prices instead of having much geopolitical interest. Considering fewer than 40% of Americans have passports, it’s not entirely surprising.

This statistic used to fill me with scorn for my fellow Americans, although the US is so enormous it’s somewhat easy to find many destinations within our borders before leaving them. I’m not sure if that’s a valid excuse over the term of someone’s entire adult life, though: traveling is often fairly inexpensive and takes courage and more importantly some level of curiosity, which seems to occur at roughly the same rate as passport issuance does in this country. It’s taken some time abroad to realize these things:

  • Americans idolize multilingual people, but most of those people speak multiple languages because they live closer to other countries than we do, or had to learn English secondarily.
  • Western Europeans are not exotic by any means, they can barely function outside of cities, for the most part, and have little survival instinct. Their entire lives are built around civilization: American life is not.
  • Many Europeans are better-traveled than Americans solely due to planes, trains and sharing of borders with multiple other countries.

These are, of course, not excuses to not travel, but when looking at Americans vs Europeans, it’s not exactly apples to apples. That said, I had a minor meltdown yesterday seeing my parents’ friends whining about the cost of gas to drive from one of their homes to the other on Facebook: my mother told me I “need to understand that not everyone is as lucky to be so well traveled,” which is not helpful and also completely absurd. My parents’ friends vacation to Disney and own a second home in a beach community, so that strikes me as more of a personal choice than “luck.” In fact, I did not travel abroad until I was 18, and no one in my family went farther than Canada until I dragged them overseas. The first ten years or so I spent going abroad, I made almost no money (seriously, my paycheck was around $400 a week for my first job out of college). So not being wealthy is not an excuse, especially not all these years later when affordable travel is even more accessible than it was back then.

As for my own good fortune, I totally imploded my first semester in college and happened upon a study abroad program through Harvard, to which I was accepted and subsequently took out a few thousand dollars in student loans to make ends meet overseas in 2003. I stretched my paltry $6,000 pretty far: completed two semesters in Sweden, and also went to Copenhagen, Helsinki, St. Petersburg, Tallinn, Vilnius, Riga, Warsaw, Prague and Kiev (now Kyiv). I returned multiple times per year, winding my way through Scandi-land, Eastern Europe and Russia, and I never stopped pushing further East.

I enjoyed Scandinavia and spent many, many months there. Sweden is OK… Norway is better. Finland is awesome (I have a tattoo of the view from a cabin window in a birch forest in Karelia on my back), but I became bored with the Nordic area: life in terms of people and culture is too tame, to contained, to orderly. I originally went there as an homage to my mother’s mother, who grew up in Ekerö, in the Stockholm archipelago. We still have family in Stockholm, and we continue to keep in touch to this day. I could talk forever about Scandinavian cultures, and I say cultures because those countries have surprisingly different cultural norms, and I dislike Swedish ones the most. Karl Ove’s My Struggle series actually covers a lot of this, and his observations are perfectly symmetrical to mine. I will return to Iceland sooner than later, and have taken many friends around the island — the rest, probably not. Very yawn.

I knocked out every (other) country in Western Europe except for Greece over the years as well, and most recently I’ve traversed the Balkans and the Caucasus. My plan was to push into Chechnya, Dagestan and the Don region of Russia in late 2022, as that is now delayed for obvious reasons. It occurred to me yesterday that I have spent most of my free time over the past 20 years either in the Far North or among Slavs, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. For a little more context and some indication of how little people change, I’ve spent my entire adolescence and adulthood steeped in Arctic expedition novels/accounts, and Russian literature. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky have kept me company over the years, beginning when I was a teenager. As a kid I was horrified by the Bosnian war, and it gave me a deep disgust and also appreciation for the power of propaganda (essentially the route I took with my undergraduate degree)… that interest is very much alive today, and has motivated me to read probably thousands of books at this juncture about the USSR, the Caucasus, the Eastern bloc, the Balkans, the World Wars.

I’ve mentioned in the past that all of this reading has helped bring these countries to life for me, and there is no better example than being in the Balkans a few years back having read probably 100 books on the region, including all of the folklore and epic poems, including Montenegro’s The Mountain Wreath (I did the same for Finland with The Kalevala, Iceland with their sagas). I was flipping out in the Caucasus having read Tolstoy and Lermontov over the years. I make fast friends abroad, and part of it is because I go in armed with reference material and have taken the time to think about their experiences and the history and folklore that has shaped their countries. Most recently, it was And Quiet Flows the Don that sealed the deal on finally moving Rostov-on-Don up my list, in addition to currently reading a lengthy biography of Gorbachev, which makes me want to visit Stravropol. They are not far apart.

I have always so deeply loved the disarray of Eastern Europe, and the nostalgia I feel there, especially when it comes to food, decor and culture; I remember blogging years ago about the way Prague was beginning to look like any other Western European capital, which I found troubling, as it’s traded some of its Eastern Bloc character for the prosperity of department store billboards and too many H&Ms and magnet vendors. Life is a series of trade-offs: Prague was an epicenter of resistance from the Prague Spring to the Velvet Revolution, I hope it retains its importance in terms of struggling to break free of the USSR (I’m too lazy to link all of these references, but Wikipedia has all the answers).

I’ve persuaded many friends over the years to head to these glorious countries, and they’ve all hopped on board as well. Some countries are more frequented than others, namely the Baltic countries and Poland. Bulgaria and Romania less-so, though we had a blast in Bulgaria years ago and the Carpathian wooden villages and Transylvania are worth a trip to Romania. I’ve been pleased to hear my friends are enjoying Riga, Bucharest and Dubrovnik over the years rather than toiling in line at the Louvre.

Which brings me to Ukraine, an unfortunately non-EU country that has been fighting for its right to exist peacefully for longer than people realize. Ukraine is particularly interesting, even for Eastern Europe: it resides at a convergence of cultures between Europe and Russia; settled by Vikings en route to Byzantium, who blended with Slavic tribes and the Kievan Rus was born. The area has been partitioned, crushed, rebuilt, trampled, starved, collectivized and been reborn as independent over the last few hundred years. Despite what you see on the news, Ukraine has rarely been unified as a country throughout time: particularly over the last 100 years, parts of it fell under the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, then the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then the USSR. The country is split in religion as well, with swathes of Western Ukraine belonging to the Eastern Rite Catholic Church (aka Greek Catholic aka Byzantine Catholic Church) and the rest being Ukrainian Orthodox (which also split off from the Russian Orthodox church recently, not without a fight from Putin). This country has been home to Crimean Tatars, Cossacks, Carpatho-Rusyns, Volga Germans, Russians, Jews and many others. It is home to three particularly historically significant and completely contrasting cities: Kiev, the ancestral home of Ukraine and the Kievan Rus; Lviv, the Byzantine Catholic center of the Carpatho-Rusyns and capital of the old provinces of Galicia and Volhynia; and Odessa, on the Black Sea coast, home to many Crimean Tatars, Jews, Greeks, Bulgarians and others. Ukraine also has black soil, and as we (maybe) all learn in Elementary School, it is the “bread basket” of Europe. The land is extremely fertile; it is worth invading for its natural spoils. And it has been.

Worth noting perhaps that my grandmother is Lithuanian, and my grandfather was Carpatho-Rusyn. My father grew up speaking Lithuanian in heavily-Slavic Northeastern PA, and my family went to Byzantine Catholic Church; my deceased family members are all buried in a Byzantine Catholic cemetery. These were curiosities to me as a kid, and I only really began digging into our history when I was in my 20s. While I find Scranton to be bleak and ugly, I admire its roots, and how much it’s kept alive even to this day: so much so that when I moved to Alaska, I was horrified that I could not find the food I grew up eating, as even as an adult I thought it existed more commonly everywhere. My grandfather died when I was in college, but I wanted to track down our entire family history before my grandmother died (she is still alive, gratefully). I found a Carpatho-Rusyn scholar who assisted me in putting my records together, and like anyone who came over from that part of the world, our records are a wreck: my grandfather’s family all came from Lviv Oblast, but it says Czechoslovakia on our documents (many Carpatho-Rusyns ended up in modern-day Slovakia after borders were redrawn). Our name was Americanized, yet still manages to confuse people. I don’t know if I believe in being “proud” of your heritage, as you do nothing to earn what you get, but I do know that as an adult I cherish my multifaceted childhood: I had one grandmother who spoke Swedish, one who spoke Lithuanian, my siblings and I went to Lutheran, Byzantine & Roman Catholic mass, as well as Ukrainian Orthodox church, and the town I went to high school in was and still is heavily Jewish, with a lot of Hasidic Jews at that, who live (mostly) peacefully alongside everyone else (the Catskills were actually called the Jewish Alps at one point in time). My parents are also members of two different political groups, so I’d like to think that’s contributed to me growing into a fairly open-minded person.

All this to say we have roots in this part of the world, though arguably my love and admiration has more weight: though admittedly if Putin had invaded Latvia I would be equivalently enraged. My loyalty lies with the Eastern bloc and the Caucasus, some, like Chechnya, which have yet to break free of Soviet shackles. I often feel more alignment with this part of the world than I do with my own country full of countless spoiled idiots, and I have little intention of living out the rest of my life in the US: for the most part I’m here for the higher base salary and tax benefits of being an American, and if I hear one more person bitch about gas prices I’m going to accelerate my plans to disappear permanently. I don’t know that my own heritage has anything to do with anything beyond what growing up in that culture gave me in terms of familiarity with Slavic countries. I’ve spent my whole life reading about their tortured history under the Soviet Union. It is probably one of my most significant obsessions, and has been from the beginning.

I’ll skip the part where I yap about Ukraine and how it has changed before my eyes in the past 20 years: it seems disingenuous, and I’ve spent a shitload of time in all of these countries except Belarus (my choice). But what is happening here and now in the world is unbelievable in many ways.

What I told people prior to this invasion is that Ukraine will never roll over, Slavs always go down swinging, and I have not been wrong. During the Holodomor in the 1930s, Stalin starved over 7m Ukrainians to death during collectivization. Ukrainian Jews died in droves during the second World War, most famously in Babi Yar. The Western part of the country has been home to resistance movements since that time, particularly the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, and Russian forces have gotten nowhere near Lviv yet. Ukraine’s Maidan revolution in 2014 was a clear cultural end of their time as a Russian satellite, and they have paid dearly for it over the years while the west has done absolutely nothing.

I’m not sure where to go from here, as I never plan these blog posts and I just let them take me on whatever inspired tangent I wish. That said, I’ve run out of steam today and this all means a lot to me, so I’m going to post this with a “stay tuned.” I’ve laid a foundation of love and respect for these unbelievable people, and a very brief history of Ukraine. Next up, how the world reacted.

I haven’t said much about this to most people outside a few close friends and a Ukrainian from Transnistria I manage (I have a Russian starting on my team in a week as well); I also have a group of friends who live in Kharkiv, Odessa and Kyiv, and none of them have any intention of leaving their country, so if you’re into prayers, say a few for them: they are as of today all still alive and staunchly remaining in Ukraine (my friends in Kharkiv have relocated to Lviv for the time being). Odessa is next up on the shelling list. Fuck Putin, to be continued.

July, so far.

I’ve amassed so much content for July that I’m posting this before the end of the month; my parents are flying in on Tuesday night, and it’ll be only the second time this summer I’ve gone out and done any Alaska things, particularly the first trip up to Denali, which in previous years has always been in May/June.  Today was also the first hike up Alyeska, which used to be a daily affair… I’m surprised by my fitness level; while I spend nearly an hour on the stair mill most days of the week, it’s usually not sufficient training for hiking up an actual mountain. Surprisingly, today my heart rate barely rose enough for me to earn any Fitbit active minutes: a good and bad problem to have, good because you’re in decent physical shape, bad because you need to push yourself harder. It’s been raining a lot up here, and the humidity fucks with my joints, as much as I appreciate rain over wildfires. patio

It’s been a generally challenging summer for a number of reasons: we have no help in the hospitality industry, and anyone who is working in this industry is working twice+ as hard. Restaurants require reservations or have long wait times; everywhere is overcrowded. Alaska is crowded already in the summer, and over-tourism has become more of a struggle every year. That, combined with inadequate staffing levels and an unbelievable lack of patience of people visiting has created really unpleasant working conditions.

After opening my condo up on Airbnb, I’m sold out for most of the summer season; I’m grateful for the opportunity to compensate for lost wages during COVID, but because I manage, clean and maintain it myself, I now have even less free time than I usually do. I’ve made a few thousand dollars on Turo as well, though I don’t expect to continue that at this time… after weeks of mulling, 10986964_10103331468477270_2700687044414104837_o_10103331468477270I sold my beloved STI and bought a Toyota 4Runner, if for no other reason than to (a) capitalize on the high resale value of my car before the odometer was too high and (b) because my Alaska exit strategy will require a larger turbo-free vehicle that won’t blow a (literal) gasket on me on the Alcan.

I’m surprised by how unemotional the entire process was; I bought my first WRX in 2008 in New Hampshire, and bought my STI in 2015 up here. They are the only two cars I have ever outright owned, both manual transmission, and I have loved every moment of driving each of them. I nearly cried when I turned in my WRX for the STI; that car had been with me longer at that point in time than any person had; I had driven it to the easternmost tip of the continent (St. John’s, Newfoundland; photo to the right is the Bonavista Peninsula, where John Cabot landed in 1497) and then drove it to Alaska. It had 140,000 miles on it. I still see it on the road in Anchorage. I have covered virtually the entire road system of this state with those two vehicles, and the STI was a wonderful companion for my years as a road warrior. It is truly the end of an era. But it feels like the end of a lot of things is on the horizon.

Another reason I switched vehicles is that I’m not convinced this microchip shortage will end anytime soon, despite what we’re told by the media. I had originally planned to hold out for the 2022 STI, which I do not believe will be released anywhere near its target date. So, that’s done. I wish I felt more enthusiasm about it, but meh. I am making some modest changes to the 4Runner that will get it to where I want it to be aesthetically so that may help. I tell myself if I feel too much FOMO in the future, I can go buy another STI… and tow it with the 4Runner if need be. Win win.

I think this is also part of a continuing process of divorcing myself from material possessions with any meaning; it happened naturally with my condo, and I think is largely a consequence of my closest friend up here moving to Idaho… it does not feel the same to be there anymore. I think to some degree I also stopped caring about the car, at least to the level I had in the past; I hit a point where it became more of a source of anxiety than a pleasure. I realize this is something suicidal people do (give away all their worldly possessions): that is definitely not the case with me. I shared how emotionally dissociative I’ve been lately with a friend of mine in Fairbanks and he suggested that I may have transcended in a way, and as absurd and funny as that sounds, I think there is some truth in that. I have been in the zone 24/7 lately. I feel mostly nothing but the process itself, the accomplishment of individual tasks that are part of a larger series, and that might not be such a bad thing.

And so, alongside the juggling of various endeavors, I have been chugging through books, podcasts and even some good video content. I have struggled to get into podcasts, and it’s taken months of forcing myself to listen to them to really adapt, but I think I am finally there.

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January 2021

January is a shitty month. I haven’t felt that way about this particular month prior to this year: I always hated grey, cold, soggy November more than brittle, dark January… but January 2021 seems to have earned discontent from nearly everyone I know. I’d imagine fresh off the pandemic-fueled loneliness of the holidays, January has felt as much like forever for many others as it has for me… days feel like weeks. Weeks feel like months. Add a brushstroke of insomnia and every day feels month-long. This month is also odd because I and two other friends have had parents in the hospital for complications of congestive heart failure… not a fun thing to go through when your hands are tied by a pandemic and your parents are old and unvaccinated. It has been nearly a year of being home-bound… and I am grateful for my friends and the comforts of my life, but holy fuck this just feels neverending at times. 

I’ve been pretty focused on work lately, and more attuned to streaming television than books, which is not ideal. In an effort to turn that around, I bit the bullet and bought an awesome reading chair, and restarted my habit of listening to audiobooks prior to falling asleep. Over the past months, only classics and non-fiction were interesting to me, but I am a hard reset person and the turning of the year and individual months helps… in 2021, I resumed reading business, political & personal growth stuff, which people roll their eyes at, and yet I often find pretty insightful. My little derp face dog has had a long procrastinated surgery, I’ve checked many items off my to-do list, and all said and done it has been a productive but difficult month.

I’m actually going to keep this post fairly short as I have a different one wholly dedicated to one book coming up later, but here’s January lite in “stuff.” One theme stands out among the books below: all four have incredibly high ratings and 5/5 reviews, and I disliked all four. How did I pick four unlikeable books in one month? January. 

The Interpretation of Dreams & A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis | I’m not sure what inspired me to listen to these two books, but I had never read any Freud before and now is as good a time as any. Unfortunately, I found them both somewhat boring: Interpretation of Dreams, despite being groundbreaking in its time, was mostly dull; you can learn more in a Wikipedia article at this point. The General Introduction to Psychoanalysis audiobook I listened to was a series of 30 lectures on the unconscious, dreams and neuroses, some interesting and some not so much. I wouldn’t discount Freud as much as I just am not particularly interested in this stuff; I am actually interested in neuroses in general (I see a lot of them in others) but I don’t feel like these lectures dove in as deeply as I would’ve preferred. Both books have near-perfect ratings across the web; I think this was more a matter of preference. 

Giants in the Earth | This was another book I had heard many good things about and found very boring: a story of Norwegian settlers pushing their way across the Dakota Territory to settle in the 1800s. Nothing particularly interesting happened minus a locust swarm toward the very end; reading about the Gulag and the Bosnian War has really raised my bar for suffering and tragedy: this was not that grim. Comparatively, these guys did alright, though it was a lonely and arduous journey and the locusts ate all their wheat. Boo hiss. I’m actually surprised I didn’t like this more as I will always remember reading Grapes of Wrath and thinking that was a hell of a horrible story.

Principles | Yet another let-down, though Ray Dalio’s advice is good, the dude spends WAY too much time talking about how brilliant he is. Probably just skip the entire first 1/3 of the book or find a YouTube lecture on what the actual principles are… no one needs to read a bio of another hedge fund guy. I downloaded this because it was in a list that contained other books I loved, namely Thinking Fast and Slow, How to Win Friends & Influence People and The Power of Habit. Principles was not 10% as good as any of those.

HBO: My Brilliant Friend & In Treatment | I indulged in seasons 1 and 2 of My Brilliant Friend after reading the Neapolitan Novels last month, both seasons of which are incredible, and I can’t wait for the remaining two. I would never tell a man to watch this show… I honestly don’t think men can possibly understand or identify with 90% of what happens in this long story. Everyone is amazingly well-cast, the story is near-perfect and all around the television rendition of this series is about 100x better than I had hoped. In Treatment I found browsing through HBO series (most of which is trash these days)… I’ve somehow been sucked in, despite the fact that I find all of the characters so brutally flawed. The episodes are short but the first few seasons are pretty interesting, as you watch a series of people go to therapy and speak with a guy whose own life is falling apart while he’s trying to help others. I’m taking a break from In Treatment because it depressed the fuck out of me to watch people sabotage their own lives over and over… but I do plan to finish it.

Fitbit Charge 4 | A little over a month using this FitBit Charge 4 and I’m mostly impressed by how much data this thing can churn out. I’m not wholly convinced on the sleep metrics; I notice if I fall asleep, then wake up and then go back to sleep, it seems to change the entire night of sleep data, which is odd; I also noticed that a common problem with this device (and all FitBits it seems, based on hundreds of complaints) is that it does not read your heart rate consistently during strenuous activity, which I noticed early on. I had initially ordered another HRM, but then managed to mostly solve the problem by taping the band of my watch to my arm about 3″ from my wrist bone. I have gotten fairly consistent readings during strenuous exercise since. I am a big fan of its Active Minutes, which was not a feature of the last FitBit I had. Being home nearly all the time, I rarely cross the 10K steps a day threshold; but I do clock 80-100 active minutes daily.

 

I have a large pile of books for February, and I’m setting the bar fairly low, at 5. So we will see. 

Viva Emptiness

Last time I posted was 10 weeks ago, and I was preparing to move into a huge house down the street and begin another stage of my life. Somewhat bewilderingly, I find myself here and now moved back into my former abode (I moved out, got completely settled in, and then moved again… fun). Some of my former aspirations have been dwindling for some time (weeks, if not months), so I feel less devastated than I expected. If I’m being completely honest, I don’t feel a whole lot of anything these days other than a stubborn enduring to keep myself occupied churning out anything worth something.

I’ve thought often of the book Alone, by Richard E. Byrd, chronicling 6 months alone in a bunker in Antarctica, and if another lockdown comes (almost guaranteed at this point), I don’t imagine I’ll feel too differently. I at least have a cute dog and the Internet, amirite? I quietly entertained myself this summer and slowly tucked money away, which turned out saving my skin during this most recent set of unforeseen circumstances. The truth is, I find I’ve become a person who amasses more strength and calm after every hardship; as Albert Camus wrote, “blessed are the hearts that can bend; they shall never be broken.” Is it that, though? Or are people like rubber bands, stretching and stretching, becoming ever more brittle over time before their inevitable snaps?

I’m pretty committed to personal growth and enjoy learning things (even hard lessons), and this moving and moving again drama has been a difficult situation for me because I don’t feel I caused this very unexpected outcome in any way whatsoever. Where I find other people wanting to deflect blame, it’s always seemed easier to me to accept responsibility and move on.

I am, at least, moving on. Again I find myself fortunate to have a nice house to move back into; the wherewithal to negotiate out of an expensive and lengthy lease; and a strong sense of resilience punctuated by already-tepid expectations of people (and life, to a somewhat lesser extent). I’ve also ducked yet another round of layoffs at my company; I’ve switched teams and regional hubs.  Perhaps most importantly, or at least top of mind during the holidays, I haven’t seen my parents, brother or any of my out-of-state friends in soon to be one year. Hell, I’ve barely seen my in-state friends in the past year; and I know many people are in the same boat. I still remain pretty overwhelmed with gratitude for how nice my life is, even when it sucks, too. Shit has been a lot worse for me, and I won’t ever forget that. That said, when it rains it pours, that’s for sure.

And so I’ve begun my winter reading marathon. I’m still moving a bit slowly due to work and life, and I’ve had more of a hankering for fiction than non-, so there will be a pretty solid mix in the months to come. The skills I’ve acquired over the summer remodeling will suit me well as I slowly patch all the earthquake cracks in the walls of this house. My survival strategy is to channel my frustration into making things beautiful/better, and it’s this house’s turn to receive its dividend. 

I’ve never been much of a holiday person, but seeing as how I will be spending the upcoming ones alone, I figure as the winter drags on I should figure out how else to healthily entertain myself (the pantry is already stocked with wine and gin, for less-healthy entertainment purposes). I’ve contemplated beginning to write in a real journal again… not quite sure I’m there yet, but I have sent a few cards to friends whose faces I haven’t seen in what feels like forever. Nearly a year after last returning to New Jersey and New York, I miss it, the feeling of having a foot in each world. My feet have been immersed in Alaska all summer, and lately, a shitload of snow. Watching the incredibly cheesy Smithsonian special Ice Airport Alaska, a guy on the show mentioned that there are two kinds of people who live up here: those who love winter and those who don’t, and the latter should probably leave. I’m inclined to agree… this winter will likely be a long, cold one. 

As someone who spent a lot of time flying for hang-time with friends prior to this pandemic, I’d say a lot has changed for me. I wonder why I’m not faring worse, or if I am and it’s just bubbling under the surface and I can’t feel it yet. More likely, my life has been so chaotic and unpredictable over its duration that I simply feel there’s no alternative to pressing on and making the best of all of this. As I told my work team recently (we do a lot of psychometric stuff), my #1 Strengthsfinder is Context, and I think a lot about the much worse things others have been through in the past: I told my manager recently that when I think about how hard life is for me/us all currently, I immediately feel that it could be worse: I could be hammering railroad spikes in Siberia at -60 in felt slippers. All of the morbid literature I’ve read over my life has paved a reasonably smooth road through 2020.

I feel for people who are deeply hurting after all these months; or the people who, in ignoring it due to COVID fatigue, will get sick. People who are developing real depression and anxiety. People without health insurance. Me, I’ve been alone for a long time, and it doesn’t look like that will change anytime soon. I graduated from the Acceptance stage on this one many years ago.

And so, let’s close out November with a few recent reads:

The Erratics: A Memoir | This memoir of return trips home to Alberta to deal with the author’s narcissistic whacko mother and starving, despairing father made for a grim but wonderful tale that will definitely hit home with anyone who has a screwed up family (possibly anyone who has to deal with ailing parents and the squabbles that come with). The winter weather and the dread made it all the more appropriate for this time of year in Alaska. NY Times review here.

Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town | This book has been all over the internet lately, often with a lot of praise. Part of the reason is due to there not being a whole lot of visibility into Tibet (thanks China). I actually found the human interest stories throughout to be below my expectations based on what I had read online, though it gets progressively better (especially when you get into self-immolation). The Tibetans have been fighting China for a long time, as many marginalized people have been fighting their evil Communist overlords for decades; a lot of this book seemed somewhat tame compared to most of the stuff I read, and perhaps that’s why it lacked the gut-punch its given to many others. I would go so far as to say I was even discouraged having bought two of her books at once, though amassing this information and the set of experiences that led her to write this is pretty amazing considering how tightly China controls this fledgling territory. Much more positive NY Times review here.

Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood | Eat the Buddha ended up letting me down, but Logavina Street was far beyond what I expected could be fit in 250 or so pages. I further was skeptical about how well anyone can explain much of what happened there in any cohesive way. I love the way this book is constructed, detailing the lives of the families who live on one street in Sarajevo through the four-year siege. There is a lot of explanation in here without too much confusion, and she manages to wrap it all in the complete identity crisis that was suffered individually and collectively during this war. She touches on the UN’s failure in Srebrenica and Žepa; the partitioning in the Dayton Accords; the complex circumstances that beset Sarajevo’s ethnically mixed populace. You can go in a lot of directions with the war; it remains overwhelmingly complex to most. Unfortunately she draws the same conclusion I’ve come to myself after many years deep-diving through Bosnia’s history and people… that another war, someday, is a likely outcome. While I wouldn’t rank this among my favorite books on the topic, I’d pass this first to anyone who wanted to learn more in simplistic terms (I would also pass along a copy of Sarajevo Daily, which she cited in this book). This was a really spectacular read, even for someone who has read 382398723842384 books about the Balkans already. LA Times review here.

My next read will occupy December and beyond… I’m diving into The Neapolitan Novels, which have apparently been turned into an HBO series.

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.

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.