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.

Peak Summer: June & July

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Excerpt from And Quiet Flows the Don:

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

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

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.

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