Last days of year 36: May/June

It was easy to conceive of being able to post in this thing once monthly when life was moving at a COVID pace; it’s unbelievable how quickly some things have gone back to normal, and how my life has gone from chill af to a hectic hellscape of shit to do. In the past month, idahoI’ve visited friends in Los Angeles and Idaho, work has ramped up precipitously, my condo has again been relinquished by my tenant, and I’ve been otherwise overwhelmed with externalities. My trip to Idaho was one of the highlights of the past few months… I’ve really missed my close friend who moved there last July, and it was awesome to slam through some hikes with her. The Sandpoint / Coeur d’Alene area is awesome. Even took some frigid dips in multiple lakes.

It feels amazing to get out and do things. It feels amazing to not wear a mask everywhere and to be able to see peoples’ faces, to not have to maneuver around everyone’s anxiety. The fog of fear and paranoia is slowly lifting, and I am really pleasantly surprised; I expected this crisis to drag on for a few months longer than it has, at least up here (and in the US). 

It’s been a cold spring in AK, and only in the past few weeks has the weather warmed up to normal temperatures. My Anchorage plants haven’t exactly been thriving, and I’ve been hustling back and forth in an attempt to complete two renovation projects by the time my first batch of friends/family visit… unlikely to happen thanks to a long wait for materials. I chose to paint my ugly wood cabinets this summer, and I’m torn on whether it was a good choice or not. Painting cabinets is a famously challenging and tedious ordeal, even for people who love painting (not me. I hate painting). cabinetsThat said, as I slowly reassemble them, I’m reasonably happy with how they look. One of the reasons I’ve chosen to do these things myself is because I know they won’t be perfect and I have to learn to accept my own fuck-ups and not obsess over them forever. I’ve come a long way from being a control freak perfectionist to being (as I am now) mildly frustrated with the fact that the output isn’t professional-level quality. Also, a pro-level cabinet job costs around $5000. While my time is valuable, my materials cost has been approximately $200.

My life (and its locale) may be changing sooner than I expected, which is adding onto my pile of anxiety, but could potentially be really exciting and cool, and I feel ready in my head and otherwise emotionally to jump ship up here if the opportunity is offered to me. For the time being, the next few months will be filled with friends and family, and a lot of time outside in the sun. Managed to spurn a new side hustle or two, including listing my car on Turo for a surprising amount of money, thanks to the national rental car shortage.

The transition from managing a fair amount of down time to what was previously normal has been pretty draining, to be honest. I’ve been staring at this unfinished blog post for weeks now, and my book blips will be even shorter than usual, but I have read some great ones lately. I’ve done a lot of shit lately.

It’s my birthday next week: never a particularly exciting thing for me, but this year I truly feel like I’ve aged. I feel fucking old. It’s a strange dichotomy as I also like myself more every year as my confidence and wisdom grow. I’ve really enjoyed the experience of aging, which in this country is more often than not seen as a process of falling apart in a multitude of ways. I also somehow feel as though I’ve been through hell and back this year, and I suspect many people feel that way: it’s a year that I’m very glad has passed, filled with disappointment and bummers and even a few small disasters. I’ve made quite a lot of the collective misfortune of COVID, and I’ll be stepping away from the worst of this era with a lot of lessons learned.

2030: How Today’s Biggest Trends will Collide and Reshape the Future of Everything | 2030I feel like I read this book so long ago at this point that I don’t even remember all of the chapters, but it was a good one a friend and I read together. No particularly big surprises. I skipped the last chapter on crypto, because I am super tired of reading and hearing about cryptocurrency. Review in Publishers Weekly here.

Alone | aloneThis is a circumpolar classic that I began in the winter and then set down and lost track of; I love the writing style, and a lot of it is in the form of a journal, sometimes written while Byrd is sick from carbon monoxide poisoning. His experience underground in Antarctica taking instrument readings sounds horrible and definitely puts being stuck at home watching Netflix during COVID in perspective. After many, many years of reading Arctic and Antarctic expedition novels (and others, even stories of Everest climbers, explorers, etc) it’s crazy to really conceptualize how tough people were back then. There was simply no alternative.

Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know | thinkagainI’ve loved everything Adam Grant has written, particularly Give and Take, and Think Again is as good if not better than that one (his other book, Originals, was also OK. A good OK, but not as compelling, though I may reread it sometime soon). A lot of the source material and anecdotal information is worth following down the rabbit hole: I watched Accidental Courtesy as well, a documentary about a black guy who befriends white supremacists and ends up changing their opinions. I sent myself a few quotes to include, both for quality and to avoid having to write more, but I recommended this book to my work team, our leaders, many of my friends, etc. Further, I was pleased to see this book covered in Quillette, so linking to that here.

‘Who you are should be a question of what you value, not what you believe. Values are your core principles in life—they might be excellence and generosity, freedom and fairness, or security and integrity. Basing your identity on these kinds of principles enables you to remain open-minded about the best ways to advance them. You want the doctor whose identity is protecting health, the teacher whose identity is helping students learn, and the police chief whose identity is promoting safety and justice. When they define themselves by values rather than opinions, they buy themselves the flexibility to update their practices in light of new evidence.’

‘The ideal members of a challenge network are disagreeable, because they’re fearless about questioning the way things have always been done and holding us accountable for thinking again. There’s evidence that disagreeable people speak up more frequently—especially when leaders aren’t receptive—and foster more task conflict. They’re like the doctor in the show House or the boss in the film The Devil Wears Prada. They give the critical feedback we might not want to hear, but need to hear. Harnessing disagreeable people isn’t always easy. It helps if certain conditions are in place. Studies in oil drilling and tech companies suggest that dissatisfaction promotes creativity only when people feel committed and supported—and that cultural misfits are most likely to add value when they have strong bonds with their colleagues.’

The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago, and How We Can Do It Again | upswingI’m not completely finished with this book yet, but this also gets a standing ovation for the inclusion of data instead of just anecdotes and hypotheses with no hard backing. To be clear, this book does not offer solid answers, nor does it contain solutions to the decisiveness in modern American society; and some of the data (like searching Google’s book databases for uses of “we” vs “I” over time) is a bit dodgy. That said, for someone who constantly wonders why things happen and where we’re all heading together, this is well worth the time (his first book, Bowling Alone, is a prerequisite, only in the sense that if you haven’t read it and care about this kind of stuff, you should, and then read Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities). Review of The Upswing in Harvard Magazine here.

The Fall of Hyperion | fallofhyperionMy Bolt Thrower software engineer buddy from NY and I are still chipping away at Hyperion, and we’re on book 2, though I am only about 1/3 of the way through, this one is far less appealing than the first. I suspect the rest of this series will be a let-down versus the first book, which injected all of the context and built the characters and plot. But I’m (slowly) enjoying it, for the most part.

Otherwise, I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts from Jordan Peterson, Jocko Willink, Quillette. Have watched Sharp Objects (A-), Mare of Eastown (A+) and getting through The Night Of on streaming. Quiet Place 2 was great. While I was in LA, we saw the new Saw movie (solely to see something in the Chinese theatre), which was also surprisingly good, though Chris Rock isn’t really suited for serious roles. 

Up next in books will be Noise by Daniel Kahneman; Outline by Rachel Cusk (reading by request of someone else); The Frontlines of Peace, about the failures of UN peacekeeping missions; a biography of Gorbachev and some others. Also planning on reading Thomas Picketty’s latest; I read Capital in the 21st Century despite a lot of skepticism and feeling that it was largely against my values/beliefs. It gave me a lot to think about. I’m curious about his new one as well.

April into May: Great Expectations

T.S. Eliot wrote in The Waste Land that April is the cruellest month, but I beg to differ. April 2021 has been pretty good to me. I landed back in Anchorage at 2am on Sunday after two weeks in the Northeast, suitcase chock full of crap I can’t buy here, feeling like a million bucks after seeing my friends and family for the first time in 1.5 and 2 years, respectively. catskillsI had really only gone back because I was concerned about my parents’ mental and physical health and wanted to check in on my people — most of my loved ones live in the Tri-State area, and months sitting here by myself left a void of conversation, advice and moral support. That void is now overflowing and I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to get back there, despite the shitty weather (rain, snow, hail, the typical schizophrenic Northeast trifecta).

I wish I had same the sense of community and the loving friendships here in Alaska, but for the most part I don’t; I’m not sure what that means for the rest of my life, but I’m glad I have that depth somewhere, even 4,000 miles away. I always come back from that time back reminded of how valuable I am to people and how much people care for me, and that was a sentiment that has been lacking up here during a long winter of COVID solitude.

While I was in Albany, NY seeing friends, I drove past the hotel where a live-in boyfriend in my 20s had rendezvoused with escorts while I was visiting my sister in Florida… I’ve reflected many times on how that was a turning point in my life, because after the shock of that event it became apparent to me that it’s more fruitful to channel negativity into personal progress. And while I sometimes regret that I lacked (and still lack) the spite to have fully humiliated that guy at the time and ruined his reputation, I had enough foresight even in my 20s to play the long game: I decided to get hotter. And happier. And broaden my horizons. I started taking really long hikes with my dogs, I read more, I deepened my friendships by hosting amazing dinner parties with friends I will never forget (the friends and the dinners). I felt so awesome in almost no time.

Since then, over the last decade+, there have been many times I’ve felt hurt or angry… I’d even throw in depressed and aimless in a few instances. And every time I’ve reminded myself that living well is the best revenge. It takes a particular kind of person to be hurt and to pay him- or herself back positively.

The last 6 months have hurt me in many ways. Some people have let me down. I’ve been lonely, and sometimes devoid of the kinds of deep conversations I have always needed, about life, and purpose. I’ve realized I won’t get some things I want; I’ve realized some things I hoped would change never will. I’ve realized my job is even more a means to an end than I had accepted previously, and that I’ve sacrificed more to live here than I initially had expected.

COVID has also made me ruthless in a way that’s been difficult to wrap my head around: being here alone for so long and forcing myself to make the best of it has shown me how intolerant I find people who do nothing to better themselves, and how unsatisfying it is to interact with people who do not care to learn and grow as human beings. I’ve missed the experience of being pushed by my loved ones to improve, to broaden and fine-tune my opinions, to feel as though figuring out what life is all about is a shared experience instead of something that happens to us all. I’ve noticed over the past months that many people say they’ll do things and don’t; that destructive habits die hard and there has to be some kind of catalyst for a lot of people that drops on them like a ton of bricks before they choose to propel themselves forward, if they choose that at all. Even in the weeks before I went back to NY, still struggling to shake off some of the morbidity of the winter, I upped my fitness goals and dropped another 8 lbs; I ate really clean and drank very little; I got a lot of things done. I slept well. I was overjoyed to get back there and see many of my other close people had changed their lives for the better, despite the headwinds of the pandemic: my parents are back at the gym, and are happy, and feeling better. My friends all prospered in a variety of ways, and it made me look back at some of the people in my life up here and realize that the only gains made during COVID in their lives has been amassing more financial wealth. Otherwise, progress of any kind is nil.

My mentor at Google used to always tell me I needed to find “my people,” and I struggled with this idea. I have always been torn between many different worlds, but I think I finally realize the kind of people I want to be “my people,” and they’ve always been there: people who turn lemons into lemonade, as the saying goes, and persevere through dimensions of bullshit to come out the other end as better individuals, richer in character and self-awareness. When I visit my friends in New York, their homes and lives are so filled with the warmth of love and confidence… it always reminds me of what my priorities are. It reminds me that a long time ago I chose to take a path to be a better, more versatile, decent human over solely focusing on financial success, and it reminds me that especially recently, I’ve chosen to only associate with people on a similar path. “My people” aim for progress.

Jordan Peterson podcasts have also really helped me, and while most of his ideas are familiar, it’s helped me to putter around my house and listen to him talk through things that are important to me. I’m not discounting financial security — and that’s been even more of a concern to me lately — but money isn’t everything.

I don’t have much in terms of books for this month: I finished Hyperion and my audiobook buddy wants to complete the series, so I’ll be starting on The Fall of Hyperion in a few days. I can’t say I’m in love with this level of dorky science fiction, but the series is so revered and there are so many references back to it I’m noticing (even in modern life) that it’s worth the time. While I’m juggling many things this month in preparation for summer, I do hope to finish 2-3 other books this month as well.

The weather is warmer and the snow is melting fast up here… yesterday was my first sunny evening out on my back patio. There’s a lot to be done to prepare this house and my other house for the next 3-4 months, which will be filled with a lot of friends, family, hikes, road trips and oysters. I’m also dropping in on some friends in LA and Idaho later this month, so despite all the monotony of being here for months, there’s a lot to look forward to.

Toward the Winter Solstice

We’re closing in on the darkest day of the year, and I’m chugging through books, house projects and (tasteful) Christmas decorations like it’s my job. This year I’ve been talked into a wreath, I initiated a flickering-light-lit fireplace (which looks awesome) and now look out onto a beautiful brightly lit patio with two classy af reindeer (seat cushions are en route). My parents think I’ve cracked up. Maybe I have. It was bound to happen eventually.

I’ve gotten through the Bergman films I’ve put off watching for many years: Fanny & Alexander; The Best Intentions and Sunday’s Children. All three were films I never got to because the plots sounded boring… turns out I was right. Didn’t love any of them. I liked Fanny & Alexander, it was just brutally long, on top of being a period piece.

I also watched the Netflix adaptation of Hillbilly Elegy, which received terrible reviews all around. The cast was amazing and it made for a decent movie if not being compared to the book, which told a much more comprehensive story. Glenn Close and Amy Adams were excellent… Glenn Close was a perfect fit for her character. This book was really pivotal for me during a really tough period of my life, so I felt like I’d hate the movie adaptation more after reading the reviews, but I didn’t. I’d still recommend the book to anyone half-listening. Even if it bears no resemblance to your life, it’ll probably help you understand someone around you.

I think I’ve largely survived the pandemic without anxiety or depression due to a pre-existing grim pragmatic outlook on life; channeling energy into being even more meticulously organized; focusing on work; fixing stuff in the house, reading, and last, the preposterous psycho-babble “being kind to myself,” which took me over 30 years to really fathom (and it still sounds ridiculous). I read something lately about how people who are less likely to be lonely have spent more time “grooming,” I would say that’s true for me: I’ve spent quite a bit of this time on “girl stuff,” and my hair and skin look pretty amazing for a hermit in the dead of winter in Alaska. I’ve lost a few lbs over this time instead of a “Quarantine 15,” and I’m curious about the body composition scale I ordered recently. I have made zero loaves of bread. I am still not on Pinterest. I still have infinite love and appreciation for Alaska, despite being sequestered here for nearly 100% of the past 9 months, with 3-6 more to go. I wrote a close friend lately and told him I feel like a ghost, and I do, but I think it’s affecting some of my friends much more than it’s affecting me. You’re nobody ’til somebody loves you, or so the song says, but all your somebodies are locked down just like you are, and that’s created a painful situation for many people. I have always believed that people aren’t worth jack shit on their own; your value is always relative to others, and COVID has really upset that balance.

Karl Ove’s Seasonal Quartet: Autumn, Winter & Summer | I didn’t love Autumn or Winter as much as I enjoyed parts of Spring and Summer, which have more of a story within instead of being broken up into random chapters on things ranging from frogs to vomit (seriously). Like all of his stuff, the monotony is worth it for the great parts and his many often beautifully written tangents. I came to the conclusion after finishing My Struggle that I often find him distasteful, selfish, self-absorbed, occasionally pathetic, as I’ve written in past posts…but after all of those words, endless details of his life, I somehow feel close to him, I admire him, and this series is in some ways such a wonderful gift to his daughter  (to all four of his children, actually) — all his work is — but this especially, being such an expansive (although random) collection of his thoughts on everyday things. I will continue to read/listen to anything he writes, because I can’t think of anyone who has expressed so much of himself, both the mundane and outrageous in the way he has. His unrelenting honesty and lack of much of a filter is so respectable. I’ve thought at a few junctures about whether he really knows himself, because people often portray themselves differently (often more positively) than they are in reality, but you get a sense of who he is and his flaws because his words explain the actions of his life, and he doesn’t skimp on the times he behaved poorly. That’s been a takeaway from my life over the past few years: that words are often pretty meaningless, especially when someone is speaking of him- or herself; his autobiography speaks to the actions within his life, and so it is so much more him. This was well-timed for many reasons, one of them being that so many people are losing their parents to COVID: his children will have an unbelievable collection of their father’s life and thoughts to reflect upon long after he is gone.

The Neapolitan Novels: My Brilliant Friend; The Story of a New Name; Those Who Stay and Those Who Leave; The Story of the Lost Child | I didn’t expect to read over 1600 pages so quickly, but I couldn’t help myself, and will be passing this boxed set onto one of my closest friends. Worth noting the covers of the books are terrible: they look like sad middle aged cat lady romance novels. In reality each book is wonderful, also filled with horribly imperfect people, and the books revolve around a friendship between two girls growing up in Naples who proceed in completely different directions in their lives: the main character, whose voice the book is written in, goes to college and becomes an esteemed writer, travels abroad, marries an educated man. Her closest friend drops out after 5th grade, marries a local shopkeeper, has a kid, her life falls apart and she ends up clawing her way into relative stability. Both women are highly intelligent; the latter is brilliant, but troubled. Their lives start in the 1930s and proceed to the 90s, and at that time Naples was violent and shitty; it was commonplace to beat your wife and kids, and murder and domestic abuse abounds.

I think I loved this because I felt such sympathy for Lenu (who left to get an education and climb out of her lowly socioeconomic status): the people she grew up with treated her success with envy, bitterness, resentment, spite, but also support and respect. Her mother constantly accused her of abandoning the family; told her often that she thought she was better than everyone else, that she looked down on her roots and the people she grew up with, and yet she returned to Naples in mid-life to be with those people, allowed herself to be sucked back into their quarrels and drama because she loved them and couldn’t let them go, and loved Lila (her friend) most of all. I told my work team lately that the hardest thing I’ve had to deal with growing up is not what you’d think if you knew me or the details of my life very well, but instead it was trying to figure out where I fit in the world, and as was also a topic in Hillbilly Elegy, it’s true that once you leave to advance your own life, you’ll never be able to return to your origins and be the same person. From that point on, you are an outsider, and often be viewed with suspicion or resentment. And it’s strange, given that especially in the US we believe deeply in our rags to riches thematic: it is a heartbreaking, lonely, miserable endeavor to move up the socioeconomic ladder, and you never stop feeling alone, because you can never fully be like the people where you land, and you can never go back. That said, it is possible, and millions of people do it. There’s so much to say about all of these books: they tell a really unbelievable story of how turbulent female relationships can be, how hatred coexists with love.

Madame Bovary | I finished this awhile back and still am not sure what to say. I’m glad I read it. I hated the main character, but I felt some sympathy–some–for her in the end. I hated her baseless idealism and romanticism and all the disappointment that comes from having such great expectations. The story is tragic because at that period in time, women had no power and few rights, and were totally dependent upon men for any kind of stability or status. That said, knowing the time she lived in and the constraints on her freedom, why did she harbor such ridiculous hopes and dreams? I read some articles about this book after finishing it and it seems people often sympathized with her and found her dullard of a husband to be the one to despise, but I’m not sure I agree with this either. Emma Bovary, like many people today, are disappointed if not depressed because they have unrealistic expectations of love and of life. Emma slowly destroys her own morality chasing this pipe dream and in the end it destroys her, her husband and her child. For what? Quite frankly this book irritated me more than anything else; despite my acknowledgement that she lived in a shitty time for women (for everyone, really), I don’t know that the spoiled millennials of the modern age are much different: they may not expect so much of love, but they do of life. Life owes you nothing. It seems people needed to be reminded of that at any and all points in history. Instead of being annoyed to have read it, I’m grateful I did because it bothered me so much. It’s beautifully written: Flaubert was truly gifted, and he writes in such a way that he wants to flex your sympathy one way or another throughout the novel.  Despite my annoyance, this novel tells of a person’s unwillingness to accept the emptiness and disappointment of life: perhaps something I’ve done, and so can read this and scowl at someone else’s hopeless idealism. I believe I’m still here today and enjoying life for the most part because I accepted early on that life is meaningless and often disappointing, that everyone is alone forever no matter how many people one is surrounded by. I think that’s a harder pill to swallow for most, certainly for Emma Bovary, who swallowed arsenic instead.

The Master and the Margarita | I’m surprised by how much I didn’t like this book. I liked some of the characters, but it all became way too fantastical for me very quickly. I think the best part of the entire story is the way people talk to each other and how they react to one another: otherwise, this was a tedious not quite waste of time, but close. The constant nods to Faust in various reviews and other write-ups about The Master and the Margarita were also confusing to me; this book did not remind me of Faust at all, other than the devil character being present. All in all there was too much overt allegory, too much time travel, and a giant black cat (wtf?)… next.

(Reread) She’s Come Undone | I read this book at some point in middle- or high school, and when I began The Neapolitan Novels I kept returning to this, and some other coming of age stories. This book shares few parallels with Lenu and Lila; I actually found more similarities in another classic I had loved as a young kid, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, but I returned to She’s Come Undone nonetheless. Rereading books I read as a kid has often been an entirely different experience than the first time around: this one is a bit cliché and contrived as an adult, but the concurrent sarcasm and shabby idealism made it a pleasant (re)read. Worth noting that I frequently come across people who want to return to their late teens or 20s, I would sooner drive into oncoming traffic. My late teens and early 20s were the worst time in my life, by a long shot (and trust me, my early teens were awful as well, so I have some stiff competition)… I read books from my youth sometimes and shudder to think of how awful my life was before I was in my mid-20s.

I also took note of the time in which this was released: AIDS was taboo, it was still not OK in many places to be gay, and rape was still a hushed affair. Nearly 30 years later, HIV is much better understood, the Western world is kinder to gay men and women… and very sadly rape is practically mainstream: 15-20% of women in the United States have experienced it first-hand in their lifetimes. Can you even fucking imagine?

Speaking of, one night a few weeks back I finally bit the bullet and watched The Lovely Bones, which I had avoided for years because the book creeped me out so deeply. I was surprised when years ago it was turned into a major motion picture; I still have a tough time understanding how this story was so widely marketable, and the movie had a Disney feel despite its subject matter. It’s a story of a 13- or 14-year old girl who is raped and murdered in a root cellar and ends up watching her family grieve for her and search for the man who killed her. The end was unbelievably stupid, but what bothered me so much about the book (and the idea, even) is that as a young kid I had a recurring nightmare that I was dead and hovering over my mourning family. I had this nightmare for years and years, and it probably resulted in an even more stubborn unwillingness to give up due to how miserable it was to see, even in dreams, people suffering as a result of my untimely end. The movie, all in all, was OK… the book was excellent.

I also made it through Jordan Peterson’s Biblical Series on YouTube, which was really interesting and as is typical of him, filled with tangential material on psychology and history and everything else. I’m sad to have gotten through it and may watch it again at some point for comfort as the last few were background noise to me multi-tasking, though I stopped and skipped back when he admitted to my horror that he enjoys Trailer Park Boys… I myself have watched approximately 50 too many episodes of this show, and have many more to go before I get through to the end, we built a Trailer Park Boys gingerbread (ok graham cracker) set in lieu of a house. I think we did a pretty killer job; I’ve never built a gingerbread house before, but I learn fast and my next gingerbread-graham cracker whatever will be 100x better.

Back to Peterson, I preordered his new book, as have many of my friends, and I hope the crying millennials of Penguin Random House aren’t able to interrupt its publication. If I could have an hour or two with a single living person on earth, I’d easily choose him.

That concludes this very long post. I’m unsure as to whether I’ll post again before the year ends… probably, as the end of the calendar year earns an entry in my the good / the bad / failures / goals spreadsheet and it may be good to reflect on 2020 as a whole. Happy Holidays, Christmas, Hanukkah, solstice, etc. Shalom to you all, and fuck 2020.

April, May and into June

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kul'chytsi, approximate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time Regained: Reflections on Proust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pandemic Spring: February & March

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Re-reads:

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

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

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

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

January 2020 in Books

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

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

But I digress. Onto the rest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Re-reads:

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

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

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

2019, A Year in Summary

My last post regarding reflecting on my life was on the 7th anniversary of moving to Alaska, and I figured it’d be good to sum up my year, which ended spectacularly, despite a few wrong turns and some unfortunate luck (which I also addressed around my 35th birthday).

I had mentioned I keep an Excel sheet of essentially: travel; “the good” (things to essentially be grateful for that stand out); “the bad” (misfortune, bad luck, broad negatives) and “failures” (things I myself did wrong; ways I misstepped, made crappy choices or didn’t live up to my own standards). I was sure this year sucked more than the handful of previous ones by June, but I was wrong. And while the year, for me, at least emotionally, got worse, it was largely due to my own failures. And to someone who possesses a strong internal locus of control, that means resolution(s) are usually in reach. When I was young, and just starting out in my career, and had no money or general wherewithal, life spun out of control much more violently. Absent full-scale tragedies like my friend’s death in last January, the struggles of my life these days are merely a series of annoying hiccups: this to me is the ultimate prosperity.

The end of 2019 was a welcome close to many things for me: I knew my job was evolving and I’d be changing teams, which is the best thing for me for a variety of reasons. I had also been waffling for a few months in an unproductive relationship I was hesitant to close the doors on indefinitely: sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate how much dissatisfaction you can feel from something like that until you look at it in full hindsight. Perhaps much more importantly, though, the person I am closest to up here was having a litany of his own personal issues, none of which I could improve in any way (for someone who likes to take charge and fix things, this is a frustrating and demotivating situation to be in, to be unable to help someone you love). I decided sometime in the fall that things were so bad, and I was becoming so unhappy that I had to leave for a few weeks and definitely come back with my shit together, or else. Feeling like shit every day is not my status quo, and I felt for months as though I was amassing problems I could do nothing to resolve. This sucked. Big time.

That said, I realized many years ago that sometimes the only thing you can do is control the way you perceive things, and I know I am naturally inclined to be cynical, which is where this spreadsheet comes in. If I really look at what has transpired this year without a chip on my shoulder, I can see that despite an annoying health setback, I possessed the resources to resolve it to the best of my ability without being buried in medical bills (not to mention my employer and friends were all extremely supportive); that while I spent some time mired in a relationship that was a struggle from the start, it wasn’t for the wrong reasons, and it wasn’t with a bad person, and I really tried to make it work while advocating for myself, which is not something I have always been good at; that within the bounds of my job I often felt unappreciated and misunderstood for most of this year, but still rendered a lot of value to a company I actually really enjoy working for.

I think the top level view is that I rarely see any single (or even group of) event(s) as be-all, end-alls, and with age comes the realization that even tidal waves of combined problems eventually pass. As I mentioned, I’ve put so much effort into providing myself with layers of security — financial, emotional, intellectual, professional — that moreso now than ever before, I feel as though if life kicks a leg out from the table of my life, there will scarcely be much of a wobble. It’s easy to lose sight of this when you ruminate on the negative: it took some real time to see the light at the end of the tunnel this year.

So, I headed back to New York a few weeks ago feeling pretty beaten down, but I knew the friends I’d see along the way would remind me of the fact that despite ending up here years ago for reasons I still can’t entirely explain other than “it was what I had to do,” 2019, the last 6 months, my current life, Alaska, my job, whatever else is not the whole story: that you need other people to put your life, your view, your experience and your value into perspective. You can also be independent to a fault, but to ignore how important your relationships are to your general well-being is not only ignorant but damaging: there are few indicators of longevity more vital than human relationships, even if you’re a weird girl who works from home in the great white north. You never know who you’ll cross paths with by being open to the world, and so many people over the span of my life have shown me that. There were some bright spots: a lot of travel, particularly a wildly amazing time in the Caucasus and Bosnia; a fall trip to Mexico City to cross Day of the Dead off my list; and a mellow winter, where my withdrawal from everyone at least coincided with hiding in books, which has never been a bad way to pass even bad times for me. There’s a quote I always loved: “sometimes you win, sometimes you learn,” and 2019 for sure was a learning year more than a winning one.

I’ve been going to Vegas for many years to sleep off my emotional ills and relax/reorient myself (seems like an odd place to do so, I’ve been told, but that’s how I roll), and the last few days of this year were the best trip there I have ever experienced. I live in a place where we think of life, and nature, as apathetic and unforgiving, but I ended this year feeling as though life has given me something. And so, that’s how 2020 has begun: with a glance back at a year filled with things that could’ve gone better, though one that also showed me that with careful life choices and a lot of reflection (and maybe a list or two), life is rarely as bad at any given time as I may think or feel.

Quite a few of my real life friends read this blog, so if you’re one of them, thank you.

Closing out the Year: Books, Q4 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rise of Jordan Peterson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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