One winter I came down with pneumonia twice in five months. The doctors, with my semi-conscious consent, were ready to try anything. One thing they did try was a technique “to warm up the lungs.” It involved a canvas corset that looked like it had been developed in a Victorian brothel and weaponized in a Soviet psychiatric hospital, ca. 1938. The nurses filled the thing with hot paraffin, strapped it on my naked torso, covered me up with furs and, pulling on their coats, left the room with promises to be back in 20-ish minutes.
Turns out there’s not much you can do for second-degree paraffin burns beyond trying to cool them down, keep them clean, and try not to pop the blisters. It’s astonishing how much pain you can stand when its infliction is gradual. It’s also astonishing to see how easy it is to forgive when beauty enters the equation. My nurses forgot me in that isolated exam room. They’d been outside, reveling in the season’s first snowfall. I imagine those two young women shivering in their great coats, arms linked, looking up at the sky and smiling. S pervym snegom! The dank caecum of the city where the hospital sat squat, prison-like, was getting its annual winter makeover. Given enough snow, even Soviet brutalist architecture assumes a certain charm.
Which is to say that winter is a sacred event in this part of the world. And given that it’s winter about half the year, that’s not nothing. It doesn’t mean, however, that eastern Slavs are incapable of viewing winter’s drawbacks pragmatically. Already treacherous sidewalks don’t become less so with the addition of ice. Municipal negligence of road maintenance, nightmarish driver noncompliance with traffic law, balky central heating—all exacerbated by the interminability of the season—are hardly exclusive properties of the West. The distinction in our perspectives of winter lies, it seems to me, in our arts: for Americans, November/December feels like a Robert Frost poem, for Slavs, a Tolstoyan reckoning or an Andrei Tarkovsky dreamscape, though that’s likely where the difference ends. This, too, is just a guess, but I figure that to all or most of us, East or West, by March, its romance wearing thin, winter feels as cold, dark, and endless as a Donna Tartt novel.
Yet, here in Slavic wonderland, despite the difficulties winter presents, when it hits we still rush to greet each other—s pervym snegom! with the first snow!—and are transformed en masse into 9-year-olds by the touch of the big, early flakes. Winter is romance, a chance at renewal, a purifier. We have trouble envisioning how the word “snowflake” could ever be used as a pejorative. Winter stopped Napoleon Bonaparte, Adolf Hitler, and whoever might try next. Winter is when the Leshy—the forest demons—go to sleep and finally leave us be: Anton Chekhov, Alexander Pushkin and 12 centuries of folklore don’t lie.
All of which came flooding back when I opened this—one of a half-dozen or so indispensable books I read this year—Alex Cigale’s lithe translation of Russian Absurd: Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms. Kharms was a Soviet writer who was not prolific, was a committed misanthrope, a friend of Kazimir Malevich and an admirer of Vladimir Mayakovsky. He despised children, but was a talented and successful writer of children’s books. A four-year-old I know laughs himself silly every time I read him Kharms’s poem “Bulldog and Dachshund.” In the end, Kharms would starve to death in a psychiatric ward during the siege of Leningrad. It seems his nurses forgot him, too.
The current collection, published by Northwestern University Press, assembles fragments of Kharms’s poetry, dramaturgy, prose, diary entries, literary criticism, private correspondence, largely arranged chronologically—a chronology that only gains in poignancy with a glance at the datestamp accompanying each entry. In 1936, with the Great Terror gunning its engine, Kharms wrote this in his notebook:
I am incapable of thinking smoothly
My fear gets in the way
It severs my train of thought
As though a ray
Two or even three times each minute
My conscience is contorted by it
I am not capable of action.
If the prospect of reading a minimalist, absurdist, surrealist Russian intimidates, Cigale’s translation should help allay those fears. His agile rendering of Kharms’s work is as fine a representation in English as I’ve seen of the ambiguity, shading, and tense-shifting that typifies Russian prose, aspects that English translations too often muddle. If Jean-Paul Sartre, Samuel Beckett, and Albert Camus light your fire, or if your writing life, however difficult, seems like so much torture, or if you’re intrigued by what a story coming from a man experiencing “the existential nightmare of a decade lived under a suspended death sentence,” sounds like then, winter, that season of reflection, might be just the time to add this collection to your TBR pile.
Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right by Angela Nagle
Twitter’s got you feeling toxic? TV news doesn’t offer any relief? You find yourself refreshing your website of choice to see whether Robert Mueller has handed down any more indictments? You wonder how it was that “contempt” became the default setting for our public discourse? Save yourself the time, the screen exposure, and the inevitable frustration and wrap your brain around this thesis that, among other matters, convincingly draws a line from Raskolnikov to the Alt-Right and describes the radical left as an “anti-intellectual online movement which has substituted politics with neuroses….” This book is terrifying, outstanding, required reading.
The Body Hunters by Sonia Shah
An hour later, the nurses come back to my room, giggling, the tell-tale bite of cognac floating with them into the room. Beads of sweat streaming down my face I turn my head to the one I can see to tell her that “it really hurts.” The other one, behind me unpiling furs, fussing with the snaps on the corset says, “just a sec.” I hear a sharp intake of breath as she whispers, “Oh, my God,” and runs out of the room.
It’s probably a good thing that Sonia Shah’s exposé of Big Pharma sat on my shelf unread for so long. This immaculately researched, exhaustively referenced, and rage-inducing study chronicles the deeply disturbing abuse of the poorest of the poor in the service of reliable data for clinical drug trials. And, well, profits. I don’t know if I could have taken it when it was first published a decade ago. A bioethicist quoted in the book states succinctly the matter at the heart of the problem: “The data [guinea pigging the poor] is valuable either academically or commercially.” So what’s the good news? The book is 10 years old so perhaps the systematic and cynical targeting, dehumanizing, and embittering of the poor has decreased in its intensity. Or increased. It’s one or the other. Right?
Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine by Anne Applebaum
The Holodomor Museum is about a 15-minute bus ride from my flat. In 2004, Ukrainians took to the streets to protest a stolen presidential election. That was called “The Orange Revolution” because we all wore orange at the behest of a populist—and attractive—politician. I still have my orange down jacket. I slept in it in the tent city that went up downtown, shutting Kyiv—and effectively the country—down. Got pneumonia that year, too. Also got a new election with a different result and a president who promised to “put the bandits in prison!” but didn’t. He also promised to raise the issue of the Holodomor—the Soviet program of collectivization that killed millions of Soviet citizens, mostly Ukrainians, in 1931 to 33—at the U.N. He’d get them to call it “genocide.” He made good on that, though he accomplished almost nothing else in the remainder of his five-year term. Not one corrupt official went to prison, but we got a Holodomor Museum. Ukraine is Charlie Brown on Halloween: I got a rock.
A teaser from the introduction to Anne Applebaum’s lucid examination of the artificial (enforced) Soviet famines of the 1930s: “Applebaum proves what has long been suspected: after a series of rebellions unsettled the province, Stalin set out to destroy the Ukrainian peasantry. The state sealed the republic’s borders and seized all available food. Starvation set in rapidly, and people ate anything: grass, tree bark, dogs, corpses.”
This is not a history for the faint of heart. It is the documentation of a crime: the premeditated, targeted murder by starvation of five million people in just over two years. A sobering investigation of the human capacity for evil, it also serves as an indirect indictment of that niche within Western academia that has labored to relegate the slaughter to the status of an historical footnote. Applebaum’s dependably lucid argumentation and nimble prose makes for a substantial, if deeply troubling, read.
The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics by Mark Lilla
I’m trying to figure out what I dislike about Lilla’s charge that the liberal cause has dismantled itself. But it’s hard to resist an argument whose core tenet is “the common good,” a phrase that is found in one form or another on practically every page of this short book. To the oft-heard insistence that “there is no right or left any longer, just capital,” Lilla offers convincing proof that there is an American Right and it has a concrete image of society that it holds to. Contrast that with the Left, which has drifted demonstrably from its core message and abdicated “the contest for the American imagination.” The upshot according to Lilla: it’s hard to envision a political entity as rudderless as the Democratic Party winning many elections for a good, long while.
And yet, one wonders. Would there have been any measure of the kinds of civil rights advances we’ve seen in the last 2- years if they hadn’t been championed by the Left? Lilla’s unclear about which “identities” he would rather the Left had left off its to-do list. The Once and Future Liberal is an excellent argument starter.
The Given World by Marian Palaia
The thing about this debut novel is that it compels you to pay attention. It would be easy to get lost in prose this gorgeous, lives this palpable, and a story this heartbreaking, and end up at, “Pretty good. I liked it. Four stars.” But there’s a lot more going on under the surface. A word like verisimilitude isn’t enough to describe why The Given World works so well. It’s more than authenticity, there is an intimacy in the telling, as if you found yourself sitting down on the back porch with a friend of years, and she decides to tell you a story over beers. It’s a story about a young woman who seems to believe that the only acceptable alternative to shooting yourself in the foot is shooting yourself in the head, and yet, she makes her way. This is grown-up fiction that has not yet consented to leave me at peace. A haunting, formidable debut.
The books above were those that helped me get through the year. The purifiers. Books that managed to assure me that where evil abounds, grace abounds all the more. Tyrants, robber barons, cynics, and cyber-bullies don’t stand a chance when confronted with intelligence fueled by grace. And grace takes work. Good news: winter is on its way. Lots of time to read, to prepare for spring, that awful season when the river ice breaks up and the bodies begin to surface.
Finally, what follows is a listing of every book that made good use of my brain and heart in 2017. I highly recommend every one.
Emperor of the Earth by Czeslaw Miłosz – Essays on life, society, art by the Nobel laureate
Ghost Moon by Ron Butlin – A Scottish girl’s fight to survive, set in Edinburgh.
A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre – Kim Philby, deception in the spy game. Thrilling.
The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter – Don’t let the title trigger you. Smart.
Human Acts by Han Kang – Political turmoil in South Korea. Outstanding.
But Beautiful by Geoff Dyer – If you love jazz. If you don’t, have you considered therapy?
Feral by George Monbiot – Could a romantic vision of the environment save the planet? Maybe.
The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric by Sister Miriam Joseph – Oh, the blessing of an old-style liberal arts education.
Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense by Francis Spufford – Can faith still work? Survey says: Yes!
The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov – Radioactive love from a banned Uzbek writer
Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb – Erudite, trenchant, and certainly right, Taleb makes a case for beneficial chaos, only he calls it “antifragility.”
Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson – Short stories that are too good for anthologies. Outstanding, each one.
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