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.
“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.”