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’.
Cem’s travels have continued. As one of the few Westerners to visit Burma (recently, anyway), he has decided to take advantage of the opportunity by bringing along some literature that might be of use to the Burmese. Good luck and be careful Cem!I am heading into Mandalay via Air Mandalay the day after tomorrow. Mandalay is the second most significant city in Burma, a country which has been under the boot, physically and psychologically, of one of the most oppressive governments in the world for some 30 years. save N.Korea and maybe now Tajikistan, there are few places more old-school totalitarian – even Syria is more free than this place.Books, fiction and nonfiction, have always played an important role in denting the armor (and often more) of authoritarian rulers, just ask Vaclav Havel and George Soros. So – I would like to do my part in bringing in some interesting material, in denting the armor, even if the tiniest chink. I don’t intend on smuggling in tomes of guerilla tactics, or explicitly subversive rants published by expatriot opposition groups – I just want to bring in some books to give to these information starved people (well, the English speaking upper-mid class, probably students and hopefully not ‘guest’ intelligence, that read English), something that will either give them some inspiration, distract them, help them deal with/understand the living in an authoritarian/totalitarian society in an explicit way.Now, 1984 is an obvious choice, and I already have 3 used copies in my bag. Anyone could have come up with that. I need some titles that will impress the fleshy white activist chick crowd in Chiang Mai! Anyone else have any ideas? Even if I am unable to get them in time -which is almost certain – I’d love to hear what people have to say.I agree that 1984 is the perfect book for this situation. With simple, yet riveting prose, Orwell creates a generic totalitarian society, which, stripped of its ceremonial trappings becomes instantly recognizable as a society of horrors. One can imagine a Soviet dissident reading his samizdat copy by candlelight in an attic or basement and being struck by wave after wave of sickening, empowering recognition. It is no question that Orwell is most needed in places where books are banned and burned, so it seems fitting to bring along a book that addresses that very topic, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Other suggestions that come to mind are One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey and Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut. And finally there is The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the towering giant of dissident literature. These books, once cutting edge, but now required reading in our schools, will surely fail to impress the “fleshy white activist chick crowd.” Anyone have anything sufficiently subversive to recommend? Send me an email or press the comments link below.Mystery and the Buddha I finished reading Bangkok 8 by John Burdett yesterday. The mystery genre is highly underrepresented on the list of books I’ve read. I’m not sure if this is from lack of interest or lack of time (all these guys wrote so many books, and I’m worried that once I started I wouldn’t be able to stop.) Anyone who has read this blog consistently knows that I’m a sucker for books set in exotic locales, and the fact that this book is set in Thailand and was well reviewed, led me to pick it up. First the bad: I found the book to be less than gracefully written. At times the language is painfully stilted. I know that I am not used to the “hard-boiled” style that many detective stories employ, but too often the prose caused me to lurch to a standstill while my brain rotated the offensive sentence around in my head, unwilling to go on. On the other hand, I was pleasantly surprised by how well Burdett used Thai Buddhism to add fascinating depth and nuance to the story. I have often been wary of Buddhism in general, mostly because my only experience with it is as a trendy religion, the accessory of Beastie Boys fans and cause-hungry hippies for whom the Free Tibet bumper sticker perfectly conceals the country club parking permit on the bumper of the Volvo (cf: “fleshy white activist chick crowd” in previous paragraph). Burdett’s Thai Buddhism, however, is both unassuming and universal. He presents it as inseparable from Thai culture, and naturally the Buddhist way of thinking, so different from our cold Western logic, becomes integral to solving the mystery (we are investigating the gruesome death by multiple snakes of an American marine, by the way.) It’s not so tidy as most detective stories, but then that too, follows the Buddhist way of thinking and is the strongpoint of the book.Two More Books That Bear Mentioning and an Important Programming NoteI’m starting to hear good things about the new Garrison Keillor novel Love Me. Brian pointed out the laudatory review in the Washington Post. Also, how could I have not mentioned this yet. Though I have never cracked the spine of a Chuck Palahniuk novel, I should mention that fans of his will be pleased to hear that he has a new book coming out very soon: Diary: A Novel. I haven’t seen any reviews yet, but I have heard that this one might be his most twisted yet.Tomorrow I’m getting on a plane and flying to the East Coast for 10 days. I have a lot planned and so I will probably not be able to post extensively. However, if any of you feel like picking up the slack and have some book-related news that just can’t wait email me or use the form at the right, and I will post it up. Thanks!