Mother Russia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

warwithrussia

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

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

Read excerpts here.

Q1 2019 in Books

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

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

Moving on…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q4 Reading Roundup (1 of 2)

Oops, it’s now December. And, the time of year The Economist and New York Times publish their best of the year: both contain some really great ones. Because I’m lazy and my readership is deliberately limited, I’m only covering Oct-Dec. I’ve read over 100 books this year: ain’t nobody got time for that shit. I will supplement my laziness with other peoples’ reviews — sometimes negative ones — and all reviews are limited to one paragraph, in classic millennial TL;DR style.

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress | I am currently reading this, but figured I’d include it anyway. Quite honestly I find this a bit boring, but it’s not Pinker’s fault, it’s mine; I read too many books that end up confirming my world view (I don’t necessarily mean to) and am familiar with (thus far) all of his included references. Many sweeping societal views are deeply flawed: one that I find consistently bothersome is the belief that today’s world is worse. This book is filled with the work of Kahneman & Tversky; Johann Norberg and many others who have commented on this erroneous belief and why people believe this. This book was not widely loved and admired, for obvious reasons. Here’s a positive review, and here are two critical ones, one from the New York Times, and one from Vox (a site I reference because it tends to occasionally feature writers who are not sanctimonious assholes). The New York Times review is particularly interesting, as the group of people who would be inclined to agree with the reviewer’s argument (‘things are overall better, but not individually’) are the same ones who would bleed upper-middle and upper class individuals for the sake of the argument that collectively, society would be better if they paid more taxes. This book is simple, even for Pinker; thus far it reads as a light, data-centric but emotional argument defending prosperity. Some current issues, especially societal polarization, are glazed over. Chapter 4, about how progressives hate progress, made me laugh, though it was cynical laughter, and a point driven home by my own personal experience of gifting Johan Norberg’s Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future to some of my most progressive friends a number of years ago… not one of them has read it. I like Pinker’s books for the references to other books; this one was a bit light on that as well. I will always read his books, this one is my least favorite, but only due to standards set by his previous work. As an aside, I’m surprised no one has mentioned the subtle silver lining to the current ‘life sucks more than it used to’ narrative: it could, and likely will, in some instances, perpetuate further progress. Gratitude is not required to raise the bar even higher in the future.

Is Shame Necessary?: New Uses for an Old Tool | I wasn’t a huge fan of this when I began reading, but by the end I was pleased I did. While her distaste for libertarians is obvious throughout the book, I think she makes some good arguments for the high utility of shame, and its misuses, as well as further opportunities to wield it to change corporate behavior (and possibly public policy, but not holding my breath). I was pleased to see a pet issue of mine featured in many chapters: big agriculture (her specialty is environmental protection, and it is a much larger source of ire than industrial farming). Her lack of interest in including the presence of government subsidies seems to fall in line with her political views; shame has diminished utility in agriculture, pharma, biotech and many other industries where government subsidies exist, and she could have made a better case for the shame brought about by modern writers like Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, which increased consumer demand for organic food and humanely reared meat, both of which were incredibly difficult to find 15 years ago. Shame has also not worked for American airlines, where consumers can only purchase sub-par services due to government constraints on supply and competition. Environmental protection shaming will also not help protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, due to the relationship between ASRC and the government; the ideas are good, and the book is thoughtfully written, but I think there’s a limit to the power of shame where government and lobbying are involved. It’d be impossible to shame the postal service for arbitrarily closing yesterday due to the GWB ‘day of mourning,’ but consumers could shame a grocery store for doing the same. For that reason, there is a lot of disparity in the power of shame. Chicago Tribune review of two books on shame; I chose this one instead of the other.

The Incurable Romantic: And Other Tales of Madness and Desire | This was an impulse buy following reading The Economist review. Read with a lot of scrutiny; its style echoes Psychopathia Sexualis, in a way, and to the writer’s credit, many of the stories encompass mental issues I’ve never heard of (and I am a person who spends hours scrolling through articles and photos of infectious disease and obscure mental and physical illnesses). I don’t love his writing style, he has a way of weaving his general psych knowledge into the chapters and then being self-deprecating in a way that annoys me, but the mental problems he covers in the chapters are really interesting. These characters are fascinating and deranged; it’s difficult to ignore their innocence, the author displays a lot of empathy and curiosity, traits which, when combined, are not always attractive or unbiased.

American Character: A History of the Epic Struggle Between Individual Liberty and the Common Good | I read this because I read the one below, which blew my mind to some degree. Woodard is not the first to divide America into ideological regions, but his book helped me answer some of my own questions: I spent a long time ruminating on the underlying causes of feeling unimpressed living in Boston, yet having undying love and admiration for New York: this writer’s theories on the subcultures of the US really fascinated me, and a lot of American Character refers back to his former work, though the author spends an awful lot of time railing on the apparently stupid libertarian ideals and making fun of Hayek. He comes to a fairly reasonable conclusion: that we need a blend of ideologies for real progress. Overall, the book below is the better read, but American Character is an easy read that gave me things to think about. Bonus points for the Ceaușescu reference. WSJ review here. Side note, it surprises me so many authors believe there is an adequately straight solution: I find it highly likely, especially due to so many regional subcultures and states’ rights, that America will always oscillate between federalist and anti-federalist, between excessive laissez-faire and over-regulation. It’s especially American to fight and bitch and argue about everything, and to run constant experiments in different states and regions. The squabbling has been a pretty important part of our so-called exceptionalism.

My Struggle, Book 3 | I loved Book 1 and 2 of this series, I found Book 3 to be boring but probably necessary. Thankfully it is shorter than the others. Much of this revolves around the author’s relationship with his father, and the fear conveyed in this book adds a lot of context. I love the order of this series so far… only in book 3 does he return to his childhood. I had no idea how I would feel about the series as a whole, the books take absolutely forever to get through. I’m “reading” this with Audible.  The reader is theatrical, which is an incredible and probably underappreciated feature of the audio version: Scandinavian languages have a completely different cadence, and this feature doubtless increases my enjoyment of the material. A somewhat monotonous Book 3 has not dissuaded me from continuing, and Book 4 is coming up in the queue quickly. I imagine this is the kind of work you either love or hate. I expected to hate it. I’m linking to the Book 6 review in The Economist, where the reviewer implies the high readership is perhaps partially attributed to his “craggy good looks.” This one sentence in an otherwise insightful review earned The Economist another pissed off note from me; after all, it would be taboo to make a statement like that about a female author. His outrageous honesty, in all things relevant and irrelevant, is what makes this an incredible project, especially for a Norwegian (though his honesty would be even more scandalous if he were a Swede).

Part 2 of this roundup coming before the end of the year. I promise.

To My Friends on the Left

To my friends on the Left,

Do you remember the days before Donald Trump? The year was roughly any year before the 2016 Presidential Election, before every conversation was political, divisive, exclusionary, accusatory, hateful, demeaning, aggressive. It was a time long past, when the most pressing thing you wondered about a stranger was not who s/he voted for in the last election. It was a time when it was OK to not be a member of a political party, because it was not at the core of your identity.

To me, it was a time when we laughed and drank wine and spent our time bonding over daily life, and shared experiences, travel, family, dogs, hobbies, movies… anything but politics. Political views sometimes arose, but they were shared with no judgment. When someone disagreed with you, the conversation would carry on until you reached the point at which a fundamental belief diverged, and you would say ah-ha! That is where we differ. We were all people, after all. It was a period of time when it was harder to be extreme, because there were so few extreme people, and we all thought they were crazy (though perhaps for different reasons).

Those were good times for me. Maybe politics have always been this way and I have just been blind, or mostly unaffected, but if you were me now, you would watch as your friends spent their time without you. You are no longer invited, because you do not find it reasonable to believe every accusation ever rendered. Because you do not shout ‘down with the patriarchy’ or say things like ‘men are pigs’ or ‘I believe her,’ or ‘the evil 1%’ or call for ‘free’ anything, you are not a part of anything anymore.

You may indeed believe her, but you know that justice is not about what people believe: it is at the end of a path that includes proof. You may agree there is a disparity between the way the world treats men and women, as you have been on the losing end countless times. You may have tremendous empathy for the poor, the uneducated, the underprivileged. You may even have been those things at one point in your life: but your friends now speak about you as ‘privileged,’ dismissing any experience prior to present. You find that you fit into these hated demographic groups: wealthy. Selfish. White privilege. You realized that, amid the #MeToo movement, despite being a victim of multiple violent sexual assaults in your own life, you were somehow standing on the other side of many of your close friends, because you chose rationality and thought over diving head first into the echo chamber… and while you’ve had your own experiences with a litany of bad men, you felt it was too severe and unreasonable to qualify all men as shit, or to treat any man in a combative way based on how other members of that demographic group have acted.

Imagine that your daily life now is watching your former friends converge without you, because in the past handful of years, your lack of ranting for Likes on the internet has deprived you of value as a human being. You realize over months and years that you are part of the hated center, the least loud and thus the most marginalized group of people, because the extremes have become so magnetically loud that they have swept up virtually everyone between. The Libertarian party you lean the most toward has become demonized as an alleged invention of the Koch Brothers. You realize that today, the price you pay for valuing reason and truth over blind agreement for the sake of community is that you are very often standing aside a shouting mass of former friends, fingers in your ears. You learn another unfortunate lesson: that angry irrational yelling does actually get you somewhere, that the very aggression and violence you’ve committed yourself against has been fruitful, and damaging, on an unprecedented level.

And, despite trying to maintain your friendships, you are dismissed, Unfollowed, ignored.  You wake up daily and feel you are one of the few non-card carrying members of a cult. That is my life in the days of Donald Trump. I did not vote for him, but I mean just as little to you as if I had, and I can’t remember a time in my life something like that was so fundamental to my worth. I miss you guys, and the fun we had, even if today instead of being me I am to you an embodiment of privilege, wealth, selfishness, and betrayal to my gender.