Nonfiction From Chilly Places: White Fever, Black Square

Is it cold where you are? Egads, it’s freezing in New York City right now.

A good excuse to round up some of my long-overdue reviews of books I’d love to share but haven’t managed to writing reviews for. That’s been a pattern the last year plus.

And when is the best time to read about Russia? The middle of coldest winter. Let’s go to there.

I love a good story from Siberia. The Polish reportage genre is also a major favorite, one that gets a decent amount of translation into English but a non-decent amount of attention. If you like a sort of travel writing combined with investigative reporting and set in unique locales, or the digging up of uncomfortable historical areas long ignored, Polish reportage is for you.

So Polish reportage from Siberia sounded massively appealing. Jacek Hugo-Bader has written several books of reportage now in English, and in White Fever: A Journey to the Frozen Heart of Siberia (2012, translated from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones), he travels in a modified Russian jeep across the frozen region in the middle of winter. Not my idea of a vacation, but one I like reading about nevertheless.

This is a fascinating look at the post-Communist landscape, in the same vein of personal stories from a post-Soviet landscape as in The Future is History, but with Hugo-Bader’s outsider’s eye. I’ve read a lot from this region so felt well-prepared, but this is unusually bleak. It has its humorous moments for sure, but the reality of the region is not a pretty one. It’s economically imperiled, plagued by HIV/AIDS, drug use, and heavy alcoholism, as well as an almost endemic depression, not to mention the deaths associated with this combination of factors, including murder and suicide.

I know I’m not exactly selling this as something upbeat, but it’s very worth reading. Ignoring problematic parts of the world because they aren’t pretty isn’t the right thing to do, and Russia is long misunderstood. There are those in the US, including among our former (feels so good to write that!) dipstick president’s crowd who think Putin is doing a bang-up job. Here’s a magnified look at why that’s not true, as well as what ignoring HIV epidemics and rampant addiction can do. Need I remind you that’s what Mike Pence did in Indiana?

The title itself refers to an illness, the “drunken insanity” following a drinking binge. This should set the tone for what to expect in the author’s encounters.

Hugo-Bader also looks sensitively at other coping mechanisms arising in a difficult land under bad policies and ignored social needs — namely, a proliferation of strange and culty religious figures, shamans and healers. Among many other colorful and intriguing figures, again helping to put faces to the landscape.

Parts did read a bit slowly or overly focused on travel details, which hampered my enjoyment — I just don’t care that much about the mechanics of the car he traveled in — but overall it’s effective and takes a hard look at an area that’s badly suffering and ignored by its own government and much of the population.

Bonus: the photos were fabulous. I still laugh when I think of one of a little girl side-eyeing while watching village men moving a piano (again with pianos in Siberia!) Some complaints aside, this remains the kind of work I love seeing get translated: a spotlight trained on people, culture, and problems that don’t get as much attention in the English-speaking world.

Black Square: Adventures in in Post-Soviet Ukraine, by Sophie Pinkham (2016)

Pinkham, a scholar who spent 10 years traveling in Russia and Ukraine, writes impressionistic looks at pre- and post-Maidan Ukraine, with plenty of readable history and context.

It’s interwoven with memoir, but the author mostly stays out of the story and only shares impressions, however when it becomes too personal it’s somewhat uncomfortable and I could’ve done without it entirely.

She comes across, although I don’t think she means to, as incredibly privileged. Which, fine, your privilege is what you have and I don’t think it’s worth jumping down anyone’s throat over unless it’s wielded egregiously. But the problem is that she seems unaware that the professional trajectory she describes herself as being on — and unsatisfied with — is one that a lot of people would love to be on.

After college, working for George Soros’ Open Society Institute, she laments being just like every other dark-haired, petite, pashmina-wearing girl in her office, just working until it’s time for grad school. WHAT. So much about that professional opportunity is out of reach of others that her attitude is bothersome (yes, this is coming from my bitter place of graduating from a public university and for years when I applied to jobs and internships, it felt like every door slammed in my face and opened to someone from an Ivy, so I definitely didn’t want to hear it. But I think it’s somewhat tone-deaf in general even if you’re not extra-bitter like me). Of course you can be bored with your work and want something that feels more meaningful, or hands-on, or whatever, but emphasizing the ennui only feels out of touch.

The parts I found most interesting were around her work in Ukraine in HIV outreach and harm reduction NGOs, work carried out to varying degrees of success and sustainability. I knew that the HIV rates in Ukraine were extremely high, but Pinkham excellently highlights the reasons for this and some of the locations where it’s especially prevalent. Learning about this was the book’s most worthwhile element to me, along with some vibrant portraits of Ukrainians she interacted with, those who are trying to shape their nation’s future for the better despite difficult political and social structures and unforgiving Russian influence.

It’s also harmed a bit by the fact that she wasn’t actually in Ukraine when the Maidan protests began in Kiev, so it lacks any kind of on-the-ground view from these pivotal events and rather summarizes them, albeit with useful context. It’s a decent read overall, but I wanted something more.

16 thoughts on “Nonfiction From Chilly Places: White Fever, Black Square

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  1. Thank you for this. I do worry – on your ‘too personal’ point above, that much so called reportage is becoming too personal. So many articles I read in my supposedly quality newspaper seem to begin with ‘I’. Reportage is not the same as creative non-fiction which does involve elements of the authorial perspective I think.

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    1. That’s something I think is really changing. It’s become very much the norm to insert oneself into reportage. It’s a fine line between justifying your own interests and backgrounds and making the story about you. It seems very often that reporters really want to write a memoir but need to pass it off as a broader story. These two weren’t so bad in that respect, but it did kind of ruin it when it intruded too much. I agree it’s so weird to read in a newspaper outside out an opinion column and immediately the writer takes center stage instead of the story! Not a fan.

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  2. Excellent reviews. You haven’t discouraged me from reading White Fever. It sounds fascinating. I’ll probably pass on Black Square but am happy to know a little about it from your post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I’m glad I didn’t discourage – sometimes when I’m writing these I’m thinking wow, no one is going to want to read this once I describe it! Happy I could show you one that piqued your interest 🙂

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    1. Winter in Michigan makes me cold just thinking about it! Hope you can find a good nonfiction read soon. I always think winter’s a good time for nonfiction…maybe easier to concentrate without the outdoorsy distractions.

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  3. Great nuanced reviews, not ones I would need to read necessarily but I’m glad these issues are being discussed and highlighted. I really don’t like when the author intrudes too much as we know but it seems impossible to get away from!

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  4. Your review of White Fever has convinced me to launch out into reading about post-Soviet Russia. Also have never read any Polish non-fiction. It is so true, my diet is very Anglo-US centric. Am not going near the other book as could not cope with pashmina ponderings.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You know I wholeheartedly support further reading in any area of Russian stuff. And if you think it sounds interesting definitely look into the Polish reportage genre, it’s one of my favorite areas and one I always mean to write a full post about. Witold Szablowski has written a few of my favorites (Dancing Bears is a fantastic one to start with!) And lol @pashmina ponderings, just ugh! Maybe I’m particularly bitter, in fact I’m sure I am but the sentiment just bothered me so much.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I too love a good story from Siberia (and I also agree that traveling in a Russian jeep across the region during winter time wouldn’t me my idea of the ideal holiday 😉). I have no doubt, White Fever is relatively bleak reading, nevertheless, it’s such a fascinating region and despite of all their issues, I think the people must have some strength, just to make a life for themselves in this tough environment. Anyway, I may have to pick up this one at some point. Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so glad I could introduce you to that one! I sometimes feel when I’m writing these that I’m making them sound too terrible to appeal to anyone, but it is a really worthwhile read despite the bleakness. What you point out, of how tough and resilient the people must be was a really interesting element here. It’s another kind of person completely who can cope with those specific stresses of environment + government there, and no wonder there are so many problems considering.

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  6. Although it’s currently snowing outside my window as I type this, I really cannot complain about the cold here in Missouri. We’ve been remarkably mild this year. However, I’m practically freezing just looking at the cover for White Fever … Which, wow. Definitely adding that to my TBR pile. I’ve really been interested in more travel writing, and I appreciate that this doesn’t shy away from some of the harsh realities of the region. That’s something a lot of travel writing I’ve read in the past glosses over, especially when it comes to government, but it makes for such a rich reading experience—and can even punch up the humorous sections—when done well.

    Black Square sounds interesting, but some of the problems you highlight probably makes it a nonstarter for me. Too many flashbacks of applying for jobs in DC after graduating from public school to listen to that … Though I kind of love the cover…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ooh I’m so glad I could add that one to your list! It was a really interesting perspective on the region. I agree, it’s not helpful when travel writing glosses over darker realities, it makes for a much richer and more meaningful experience to consider those things. The dark humor worked really well too, and he selected great photos to accompany it as well.

      And ugh, yes, it was giving me flashbacks too and I kept rolling my eyes. I really try not to jump down people’s throat about unappreciated privilege because I believe we all have that to some extent in some way, but it touched a nerve, for similar reasons you have…we’ll have to discuss this work life post-public school someday, it’s a topic I’m really interested in…although I’m sorry you’ve had to have that application experience too!

      I’m glad you’re having a mild winter there! NY has been so cold and icy and snowy this year after getting lucky with a mild one last year. It’s kind of exhausting at this point, really…

      Liked by 1 person

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