Mini Reviews: Russian Totalitarianism, the Appalachian Trail, Cults

Quite the mixed bag today, eh?

Although I try to avoid hard reading goals or challenges, I do set myself a soft challenge of reading at least one big book of Russian history every year. It’s one of my favorite genres anyway and there are so many that it’s a good way to make sure I tackle a doorstopper in this category.

Before December ended I managed to squeeze in Masha Gessen’s The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, the 2017 National Book Award winner in nonfiction. Gessen, an experienced journalist in both their native Russia and the US, is an expert on totalitarian societies and Putin’s Russia. The book paints a vivid portrait of contemporary Russia through the lens of several citizens as they transition from the Soviet Union.

Gessen tells their lives from childhood to the present. It’s an effective structure, and is so thorough and detailed, it’s astonishing how much time and effort Gessen must have invested in drawing out and sharing their stories. I loved this aspect, and the personal faces were a unique, impactful way to to illustrate changes and issues since each had such different experiences.

It’s reminiscent in some ways of David Remnick’s Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire and Resurrection: The Struggle for a New Russia, these two being for me the best representations of contemporary Russia immediately post-Soviet Union, with clear depictions of exactly how the country started down its current path. But I found those somewhat smoother reading than this, and it’s a problem I’ve had with all of Gessen’s books except Surviving Autocracy. When their writing is good it’s exceptional, but it veers into some overly detail-laden territory that reads drily around the historical narrative. It was mostly in descriptions of government and political happenings, but the personal writing about the figures Gessen follows was entirely different, in sharp contrast. I learned so many new things about the social system, higher education and discrimination, medical treatment and the like that I hadn’t encountered in other books.

An especially affecting story is that of a young gay man and what he went through under Russia’s punitive atmosphere around homosexuality, with beatings tacitly allowed and shame de rigueur. It was horrifying — he was attacked, beaten, and forced to hide so much of himself for so long, as the repercussions would’ve touched everything. But it’s a triumphant story too, in its own way, as he finds his place in the university and as a researcher and writer in a field that needs his voice. Russia’s human rights violations and especially their treatment of LGBTQ+ people deserves more spotlighting.

Although dense in parts, it serves as a worthwhile kind of postscript to Remnick’s earlier works on political and social changes and is a must-read in any study of modern Russia.

On a lighter note, I decided to give Bill Bryson another chance since The Body was one of my absolute favorites last year. Otherwise he’s never done much for me, like a more dad-jokey Garrison Keillor or something. I needed something light to end the year on and to temper my reading of A Promised Land with, so A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail it was.

It’s definitely the right book to take you out of wherever you are mentally and, well, just go for a walk in some Appalachian woods. It has some surprisingly meaningful moments amongst the funny, lighter ones, as his time walking in nature inspires plenty of deep life thoughts. Bryson has a nice ability to write about them in a simple style that still captures something of seriousness and complexity, the contradictions of life goals and desires and hopes.

It’s also deeply informative in ways I wasn’t expecting, namely around the “bizarre and erratic behavior” of the National Park Service throughout its history. They are rather villainous, according to statistics and stories Bryson presents here, tending to interfere more with nature than spend funding preserving it, something I was entirely unaware of.

The basic premise is Bryson deciding to reacquaint himself with his native land after 20 years living abroad in England by tackling the 2,200-mile-long Appalachian Trail with an out-of-shape, recovering alcoholic friend, Katz. As he tells their story of the hike attempt, he also shares history of the trail — equally bright and cheerful as it is dark (injuries, animal attacks, disappearances and unsolved murders) and colorful sketches of past hikers and ones they encounter.

The humor worked better for me than in his other books, but I was a bit suspicious of some dialogue, since it all sounds like him. But when he showcases his quirkiness, it’s pretty delightful. “There is nothing more agreeable, more pleasantly summery, than to stroll along railroad tracks in a new shirt,” made me laugh more than I should have, probably.

Spoiler: Bryson and Katz don’t manage the entire trail. In his words: “But hey and excuse me, 870 is still a lot of miles — from New York to Chicago, indeed somewhat beyond. If I had hiked that against almost any other measure, we would all be feeling pretty proud of me now.” It’s aged a bit, but still had some laughs and tons of useful information, and made me see a bit more of what other readers see in him.

One of the funniest books in recent memory is Jo Thornely’s Zealot: A Book About Cults. Originally published in her native Australia, it got a US release last year. I already included it in my backlist favorites list, but it’s so good it deserves more detail.

If you know her podcast of the same name, you already have a pretty good idea of what you’re in for, and that is: a total hilarious delight. I’m not sure I can universally recommend this if you’re not already a Zealot fan, and a somewhat dark, biting sense of humor is required, as well as an appreciation of Thornely’s dry, irreverent tone and the ability to laugh at religion and religious maniacs.

Thornely explores the foundations of 15 cults, including Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple, Colonia Dignidad, the Rajneeshees, the Tokyo subway sarin gas attackers Aum Shinrikyo, the Children of God (always tough to learn anything about, but Thornely makes it manageable), Heaven’s Gate, the Raelians (WHY have I not heard about this one everywhere, they are fascinatingly bonkers), and the Moonies.

It’s not a completely thorough history of each group, but a basic narrative positively packed with Thornely’s sharp, hilarious commentary. I actually had to slow down reading it in parts because every sentence was so funny. As on her show, she picks out amusing or extra-odd random facts (you can practically hear her radio jingles playing as she gets to her go-to points – “Is there yoga in it?” and “Does anyone think they’re Jesus?” are my favorites) to riff on.

Thornely makes the excellent point that making fun of narcissistic cult leaders is a good way to take them down a peg, by showing how terrible they were at their jobs (? I struggled with the word here — is cult leader a job?). And I think seeing more of how manipulation through religion, fear, shame, and sex works is always worth learning about and trying to understand. This was the third book I’d read by a podcaster and the only one that felt like it had anything new or different to say in the format.

Fave lines:

“According to Jones, he was the living embodiment of reincarnated mates Jesus, Buddha, Lenin, Allah, and an Egyptian pharaoh or two. It was very, very crowded inside Jim Jones, but luckily he had voluminous reams of satin robes to accommodate everybody.”

On Sun Myung Moon: “Despite his golden robes and ostentatious crown, he was no idiot.” (Why so many robes?!)

“The Bible tells us that many things are an abomination, yet weirdly never mentions Christian rock.”

And her dedication, which is to “all of the Messiahs past, present and future, in the hope that you find a better hobby.”

Indeed.

27 thoughts on “Mini Reviews: Russian Totalitarianism, the Appalachian Trail, Cults

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    1. I’ve read Made in America but now I can’t remember too much about it even though I was really interested in the topic, which is a bummer. This one was pretty good, it was entertaining. The cults book is amazing, but maybe give her podcast a try first and see if you get along with her sense of humor!

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  1. I have a longstanding (from childhood) fondness for Bryson which will never go away, and I’m especially fond of A Walk in the Woods (the Blue Ridge is in my parents’ backyard!), but the last time I reread it I was struck by the profound unkindness with which he writes about Katz. There is a real Katz (though that’s not his name) and apparently when he read the book he was really upset by it. Katz does make himself vulnerable by embarking on this project and Bryson largely mocks him for it; it hasn’t ruined the book for me and a lot of it is very funny, but I can’t quite get away from that either.

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    1. The teasing or mocking of Katz bothered me as well! I didn’t know that he had been so upset by it (I mean, I can completely understand why) but because, odd as this sounds, I thought maybe he’d invented him to make a better narrative, or he was a compilation of multiple people who joined him here and there on the trail. I just got the impression so much of this was invented or embellished for humor’s sake. It really bums me out that he was hurt by it because Bryson does have that mocking sort of humor, and he absolutely was vulnerable. Especially since he was recovering from addiction and some bad life moments, and Bryson made fun of so much about his lifestyle. Ugh it makes me really sad to know he was real and upset by it because now it seems especially mean!

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      1. Oh 100%, and I think some of the people they encounter (Mary Ellen, for instance) are composites. I think Bryson has acknowledged that he was hurtful, which is a good thing. Such an intriguing reminder of how comedic journalism/travel/creative nonfiction like his work does involve real lives!

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      2. “Composite,” that was the word I couldn’t think of, I’m laughing at myself for compilation!! Too early in the morning 🙂 I completely agree, such a good reminder and something I think that is always an interesting discussion in nonfiction as opposed to fiction, when real lives are so deeply involved!

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  2. I’ve found Bryson to be something of a mixed bag as well, the more of his work I read. A Walk in the Woods was one of my favorites but like Elle, hearing about the real Katz spoiled it for me. I feel about Bryson now sort of like how I feel about Oliver Sacks after reading Seeing Voices, I want to love his books but trust is low.

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  3. Great pot pourri of books here! Admire your enthusiasm for hefty volumes on Russia. That’s literally foreign territory for me. I do have Anthony Beaver’s Stalingrad on my Kindle to read, one day I will attack it, when I am up to the rat eating and dropping dead from the cold descriptions. The cult book sounds horridly intriguing, the quote about Jim Jones and his robes made me laugh. I think he bloated up so needed a kaftan to cover up and he was off his head on prescription drugs most of the time in the jungle. Funny you should mention Walk in the Woods – my 90 year old mother told me she had watched the film on Tv the other day and that Robert Redford was looking very old. My mother thinks she still looks 21! Nick Nolte was Katz. I remember enjoying the book at the time.

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    1. I read a Beaver book (I’m making myself laugh) years ago and was surprised how much I liked it…think it was the Battle of Berlin one? I thought it would be very much like, dad-style nonfiction but was pretty good. Of course one must mentally prepare for rat eating, as you say…

      I think you’d love Zealot, you have the sense of humor for it for sure. I was cackling throughout. She does write about his drug use, he was just so gross but kind of sad in that he started out as a fervent civil rights advocate and did do a lot of good for the Black communities he worked with at the beginning…none of which matters with how he ended it.

      And funny you mention that about your mom — one line that struck me from Obama’s book was about his grandmother told him the hard thing about getting old is that even as you age and change physically, it’s still the same you inside. It was so sad but revealing!

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      1. Yes agree about the ageing thing, when I was in my early 20s I thought by 40 I would be a mature, sophisticated person, inwardly and outwardly, ha huge misconception! Now I know that’s never going to happen…

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  4. I always appreciate your reviews. I don’t think I’ll read The Future is History. I’ll keep Bryson’s book in mind if I’m looking for something light and don’t want to think too much. I love hiking so I’d probably enjoy it quite bit. Zealot sounds excellent. That one is going on my TBR list. Thanks again.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Carol 🙂 I would imagine if you love hiking you’ll just be continually appalled at how unprepared they were. I’m not a hiker but it even surprised me! It’s definitely a good one for when you don’t want to have to think too much, it worked for me when I needed that. Zealot was so entertaining — very worth the read!

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  5. I read a Bill Bryson book years ago and it didn’t do much for me. I totally get the appeal, but his style never clicked for me—which is a shame because so many people recommended him and think he’s a riot. I want to laugh, too, dang it. But you have me considering checking this one out!

    Zealot, though, is definitely going on my TBR pile. I gravitate toward books on cults anyway, but toss in actually funny jokes and I definitely have to snag a copy. Loving the quotes you highlighted.

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    1. Bryson is not really my cup of tea! You have to appreciate that Garrison Keillor/Lake Woebegone-type of humor, I think. Sometimes it’s fine but not exactly my go-to, I loved The Body, but it has very little of his personal story in it, if at all. Maybe that’s the problem, I just don’t enjoy his memoir style that much. This one was interesting for what it showed about the trail and the people who hike it. But I wouldn’t say rush to read it if you’re not a fan of his!

      Zealot is wonderful!! If you mesh with her sense of humor then absolutely read that one immediately, and try her podcast too. Just the best.

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  6. I’ve been very impressed with all the National Book Award nominees I’ve picked up, so The Future is History grabbed my attention for that reason. What the author has done, getting detailed life stories for ordinary people, sounds pretty incredible and I’ve found that lately I’m happy to read pretty dense nonfiction, so I’ll hopefully get to this one eventually.

    I’m happy to get your thoughts on the Bryson as well. It seems like The Body is really the one to give him a chance with. I think I’ve heard at least one other blogger say that’s by far their favorite of his books.I was also a bit suspicious of the dialogue, but enjoyed learning about the park service and their nefarious ways 😛

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    1. I definitely think it’s worth reading, it’s just one of those where I struggled between loving certain parts of it and thinking others could’ve been better written or structured. But very informative overall, and lots of unique perspective in the personal stories.

      Bryson’s other books just don’t compare to The Body, in my opinion! I almost couldn’t even believe it was written by the same person, honestly.

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  7. I so want to read this book by Gessen and others, for instance the one on Putin. I have watched an interview with her, she is so articulate.
    I read A Walk in the Woods and then we listened to it in the car, on our way to a portion of the Appalachia trail (in Georgia). We loved that walk! I sometimes have a really hard time with his kind of humor, which I often find really disrespectful, but it was ok in this one.
    A warning: forget about the movie, really bad, too focused on the relationships between the 2 guys, and not the walk experience itself

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the warning, I didn’t think the movie looked all that appealing but that confirms it!

      The Gessen book about Putin is quite good too, I just don’t always the style, I guess..it can be a bit information-heavy at points.

      I agree, it can be a disrespectful and even mean-spirited kind of humor. When he’s being self-deprecating it works but when it feels like everyone is the butt of his joke it’s uncomfortable.

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