Gulag: A History

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Pulitzer Day!

I'm back from Vegas just in time for the announcement of the winners of the Pulitzer Prize. Here are the winners and finalists in all of the book categories:NOVELThe Known World by Edward P. Jones Winner!American Woman by Susan ChoiEvidence of Things Unseen by Marianne WigginsDRAMA: I Am My Own Wife by Doug Wright Winner!Man from Nebraska by Tracy LettsOmnium Gatherum by Theresa Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten-VassilarosHISTORY: A Nation under Our Feet : Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration by Steven Hahn Winner!They Marched Into Sunlight: War and Peace Vietnam and America October 1967 by David MaranissGreat Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center by Daniel OkrentBIOGRAPHY OR AUTOBIOGRAPHY: Khrushchev: The Man and his Era by William Taubman Winner!Isaac Newton by James GleickArshile Gorky: His Life and Work by Hayden HerreraPOETRY: Walking to Martha's Vineyard by Franz Wright Winner!Middle Earth by Henri ColeEyeshot by Heather McHughGENERAL NON-FICTION: Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum Winner!Rembrandt's Jews by Steven NadlerThe Mission: Waging War and Keeping Peace with America's Military by Dana PriestI have to commend the Pulitzer committee; they really got it right this time. I actually started reading The Known World today because it's the selection for my book club. I'll be able to add my two cents at the end of the week, but based on the lavish praise this book received from critics and readers, there's no doubt it was deserving. Also, the more I hear about Jones, the more I like him. Check out this excerpt from an AP story announcing his victory:The Pulitzer was a shot of energy on an otherwise down day for Jones, author of a previous book, the acclaimed story collection "Lost in the City." He was feeling so ill Monday he didn't bother at first to answer his phone. He also was in the middle of moving from his longtime home in Arlington, Va., because of noisy upstairs neighbors."This (award) should give me strength to finish up tomorrow," said Jones, who next week expects to move into Washington, D.CI think it's a particularly writerly trait to be distracted from the demands of the outside world by your inner concerns. As for the other winners, I was thrilled to see Anne Applebaum lauded for her truly astonishing book, Gulag. I'm glad that the Pulitzer did not stick to its bias of rewarding books with American themes in selecting a book that is of universal importance and that greatly expands our knowledge and understanding of what was until now a hidden part of 20th century history. For similar reasons, I was also happy to see Taubman's biography of Khrushchev get the prize. Daniel Okrent, another favorite author of mine, was named a finalist, as well. All in all, I have no complaints.

2003: My Year in Reading (Pt. 2)

After two weeks of distractions, spotty internet service, and a massive dose of holiday merriment and madness, I am finally back in Los Angeles, which is why I can now move towards completing the year end list that you are all awaiting so patiently.Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum: Earlier in the year, Ryszard Kapuscinski's book Imperium had made me more fully aware of the vast Soviet prison system. Years ago, when I was in high school, I had read bits and pieces of The Gulag Archipelago, and, bewildered by the density of it, I had come away with little more than the notion that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had been a political prisoner held by an evil, totalitarian state. I carried this notion of the Gulag with me for a long time, and though Solzhenitsyn certainly would have been able to correct my misconceptions had I been a more diligent reader, I encountered nothing else that showed me the real picture of a state-run system that killed tens of millions. Then Kapuscinski's forays into the long-hidden depths of Siberia opened my eyes to a tragedy that is, of course, no secret, yet manages to be overlooked when people are taking stock of recent historical tragedies. This negligence is the launching point for Applebaum's considered history of the Soviet prison system. She covers the system from all the angles, from the bureaucrats at the top to the zeks toiling in mines and forests and withering away on frozen ground. I began reading the book in early June and I was halfway through it when I left for Europe. I didn't bring it with me because I didn't want to lug the heavy hard cover with me, but I ruminated over what I had read for much of my trip.Lenin's Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire by David Remnick: This was one of three books I read while I was in Europe, mostly on interminable airplane rides and also while I was in Ireland as I recall. I hadn't planned to read all those books about Russia, but the three put together taught me more about the subject than any course might have been able to. Remnick's Pulitzer-winning book about the fall of the Soviet Empire is truly exhilarating. Through his eyes, you see the collapse of the great empire from Moscow. The book reads like breaking news, and though I was, of course, aware of the ultimate outcome, his blow by blow account is really exciting. Being halfway through Gulag at the time, I was especially fascinated by the role that "Memorial," a group dedicated to uncovering the crimes of the Soviet regime, played in the process.The Lonely Hearts Club by Raul Nunez: I spent a week in Barcelona last summer, and before I left I decided it would be fun to read a novel set in the city while I was there. I managed to track down this slim volume, which I found to be a bit thin, but nonetheless a perfect book to read at three in the morning in a steaming bedroom whose only window looks into an airshaft, and when I walked through the bustling old city, I have to admit, I felt like I could see the city through Frankie's eyes. Here are my comments on the book, which I posted after my trip was over.Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware: Years from now, people won't remember that the graphic novel was once a marginal format, consigned to hobby shops and newsstands. Literary historians, however, will point to Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan as the book that brought graphic novels out of the dark and into the cultural spotlight. I read this one in Europe, too. It's one of my favorites ever.Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis: I mentioned this book dozens of times this year, so I won't bother to once again mention how much I enjoyed it. Instead you can read what I wrote right after I read it. (It'll be at the very bottom.)The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem: Ditto on this one, which I probably talked about on this blog and in the aisles of the bookstore more than any other new book this year, so here's my review.That's all for now. I'm jetlaggin'.

The Results Are In

Last night the winners of this year's National Book Awards were announced:Fiction: The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard (I've got this book lying around somewhere, and I've been somewhat interested in reading it... and I'm still somewhat interested in reading it.)Non-Fiction: Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy by Carlos Eire (I was hoping that Gulag by Anne Applebaum would win. Of course, in these situations, I always want the book that I've read to win. It's more fun that way.)Poetry: The Singing by C.K. Williams (This is exciting. C.K. Williams has been one of my favorite poets for a very long time. Here's an anti-war poem of his called "The Hearth.")Young People's Literature: The Canning Season by Polly Horvath (I'm no expert on kid's books, but I'm actually pretty familiar with Horvath. A few years back I worked at an agency that repped the film and TV rights for a huge catalog of books. Polly Horvath's books were among them, and they were favorites around the office.)Additional info: Past National Book Award WinnersDexter SpeaksI found this great mini-profile of author Pete Dexter yesterday. It helps illuminate the qualities of his character that I was unable to quite describe in a post a while back about seeing him read. He is a very old-fashioned hard-nosed guy, a newspaper man. He's got a great sense of humor too. They sort of gloss over it in the article, but I think it's pretty remarkable that he's driving himself around the country for this book tour. He clearly enjoys doing that sort of thing. I do, however, happen to disagree with the remarks he makes about Stephen King and the American reading public. King himself admits that he has written several clunkers along the way, but he has also written some astoundingly good books that, given a little perspective years from now, will be thought of as some of the best books of our era. I know it's a bold statement, but think about how good The Stand, It, and The Shining are (just to pick a few of the many good books he's written). Just because he sells as many or more books than Tom Clancy or John Grisham doesn't mean he writes at their level. I also disagree with this: "The winner of a National Book Award argued that the reason John Grisham and James Patterson novels are so popular 'has something to do with our lack of attention span.'" Dexter mentioned this at the reading I attended with unironic and grave concern. It's true that millions of people read books by those authors, but I don't think that it's due to a lack of attention span. My theory is that people read the same types of formulaic books over and over again because it is comfortable. The vast majority of the people out there lead busy, stressful lives and they read for fun and for an escape. They don't have time to browse endlessly at bookstores seeking out a hidden gem. They don't want to risk buying a book that is unknown to them and that might not serve their needs, when there is a shelf full of books that they know with certainty will give them what they need. A lot of these same people would gladly be more adventurous readers if their lives permitted it, they just don't have the time or the money to support it. This is why all those polemical right-wing and left-wing books do so well even though they bring no new discussions to the table. This is why Jerry Bruckheimer movies do so well. It is an unfortunate fact that our modern lives do not typically leave room for the adventurous consumption of creativity, and to say that people consume all this stuff that is "bad" because they are deficient in some way misses the point entirely. (I know I made essentially the same point in a post last week, but I've had this idea on my mind a lot lately).

More Awards

So, they announced the nominees for the National Book Award yesterday. Interesting choices. Here they are with some comments:Drop City by T. C. Boyle: I read this one about a year ago. The book is definitely better than some of the, in my opinion, duds he has produced of late, but it does not come close to surpassing his three best books: The Tortilla Curtain, World's End, and one of my all-time favorites, Water Music.The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard: I haven't read this one, but I have a copy. If you would like to read it and write a little review for this website, I will send the book to you at my expense. Any takers?The Known World by Edward P. Jones: I have not read this one but I hear it's quite good. It was extremely well-reviewed.A Ship Made of Paper by Scott Spencer: This one came out a while back and was also well reviewed, although I only ever seemed to hear Scott Spencer fans talking about it.Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins: this one slipped under my radar because this is the first I've heard of it. I know, not very helpful.My pick to win: The Known World by Edward P. JonesAnd the nominees for non-fiction are.... (drum roll):Gulag by Anne Applebaum: I read this book and was completely floored by it. Applebaum was able to get to the heart of a multi-generational tragedy that affected literally tens of millions of people yet is curiously underrepresented in history books. Bravo to her for braving the horrors and writing an unflinching book.The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home by George Howe Colt: this one was very well reviewed, and, though the subject matter is rather quaint and sentimental, it is pretty clever to follow the history of a house across many generations. Apparently, Colt does a good job of it.Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin by John D'Emilio: This one pretty much slipped under my radar as well. Rustin is the man responsible for organizing the historical Civil Rights March on Washington.Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy by Carlos Eire: This one came out a while ago to not a whole lot of fanfare. It is pretty highly regarded, and is a must read for folks who are interested in Cuba.The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson: This one was a huge seller. The book provides a healthy dose of historical true crime excitement as it traces the steps of a serial killer who terrorized the Chicago Worlds Fair at the turn of the century. Would love to read this one.My pick: I hope Applebaum wins, but I think the award will go to Colt.For all the details and author bios as well as the nominees in the childrens and poetry categories go to the National Book Award website.

Mother Russia

Over the past couple of weeks I've been reading two illuminating books about the Soviet Union. Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum is the first compresive account of the Soviet system of forced labor and random terror. Now that the shroud of secrecy and propaganda is lifted, the reality of twentieth century Soviet Union, and especially the period of Stalin's rule, is of a catastrophically malfunctioning totalitarian state. At times the horror of the Gulag is almost unfathomable. Applebaum's research here is clearly very thorough. She makes ample use of survivor memoirs, recently opened Soviet archives, and interviews. Gulag is an unwavering look at a piece of human history that is difficult to behold. Any inclination to sympathise with the Soviets is dispelled by this remarkable book. If Gulag is a book about the rot at the center of the Soviet system, then Lenin's Tomb by David Remnick chronicles the point at which the rot became more powerful than the Communist Party's iron fist. Remnick is a storyteller telling the story of a riveting period in history. As he writes, "To live anywhere between Bonn and Moscow in 1989 was to be witness to a year-long polical fantasy. You had the feeling you could run into history on the way to the bank or the seashore." Lucky for us, Remnick spent 1989 (as well as the years before and after) in Moscow. Reading these two books simultaneously has provoked in me a minor obsession with 20th century Russian history, which is fantastic because in the last year alone several compelling books about the subject have come out. I'll let you know if and when I read them.Some Good BookfindingToday, on my day off, I went by a nearby Goodwill store and found a mini treasure trove of good reading. The best find was 7 old issues of Granta, each one chock full of fantastic writers, including some of my favorites like Ryszard Kapuscinski, T. C. Boyle, and Haruki Murakami. Flipping through the tables of contents, I can see I'm in for some great reading. I let you know what I find. I also bought an old issue of Story magazine from 1997 featuring stories by Heidi Julavits and Bobbi Ann Mason among several others. I don't know who is giving away old literary magazines but I was more than happy to find them. I also found two history books that look pretty great: Balkan Ghosts by Robert Kaplan which is about Eastern Europe and The Price of Admiralty by John Keegan, a history of naval warfare. And just in case all these books are too serious I found a copy of The Essential Calvin And Hobbes for only two bucks... yes!Don't ForgetGo to Realistic Records to get a copy of the Recoys album. And go see them play Friday June 20th 9pm... Kingsland Tavern at the corner of Kingsland and Nassau in Greenpoint (that's Brookyn by the way). I'll be there!
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