Peter Pomerantsev - Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia

I picked up this book thinking that it would be like a male-narrated, Russian version of Unreal. I wasn’t even sure if it was nonfiction until I looked it up about 1/3 into the book. (It is.) 

Turns out, it wasn’t like Unreal at all. That’s not a bad thing. It was actually a shocking look inside Russian culture (not in a “my culture is so much better than yours” kind of way, but definitely voyeuristic). 

A favourite part of the book was the focus on the individual stories of Russian people - pulling from the author’s documentary days. Those personal stories and experiences were really interesting (and often tragic) and would have been so had they happened to people from any country or background. I feel like narrating an individual’s story in long-form is a bit of a dying art, and I really appreciated the way Pomerantsev found characters with interesting stories and brought them into focus. I feel like I have a better sense of Moscow after this than I had after all the lengthier, more detailed historical fiction I read last winter.

I had no idea, for example, about the suicide epidemic that challenges former Soviet societies:

Six of the seven countries with the highest suicide rates among young females are former Soviet republics … Emile Durkheim once argued that suicide viruses occur at civilizational breaks, when the parents have no traditions, no value systems to pass on to their children.

Some quotes that reveal the basic premise of the book:

Many in the Russian public, cynical after living among Soviet lies so long, often assume the Kremlin’s reality is scripted. There were indeed some grounds for skepticism: the Russian security services had been caught planting a bomb in an apartment block (they claimed it was a training accident); the speaker of the Duma had publicly announced one of the explosions before it had taken place.

and,

The great drama of Russia is not the “transition” between communism and capitalism, between one fervently held set of beliefs and another, but that during the final decades of the USSR no one believed in communism and yet carried on living as if they did, and now they can only create a society of simulations.

So the book wasn’t funny and it wasn’t a satire and it was true, not fiction, but it was a fascinating read and absolutely something students of Western (esp. US) politics and media today should scan. 

William Finnegan - Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life (Q)

This is one of the most highly rated memoirs of the last year, and I’ve been looking forward to reading it. Unfortunately, the audiobook is poorly made (an example of why most authors shouldn’t read their own audiobooks). I almost didn’t read it, but the reviews kept pulling me back. 

Depending on how much you love surfing, the book wanders from good to fantastic. Thirty years of waves around the world are described in great detail, and if the topic of surfing is interesting to you then the book will be an incredible read. This is not one of those books where the memoir is a vehicle for a larger point about life - there is no universal theme that will draw in readers who don’t care about surfing. It’s not a metaphor. It’s a well-written chronicle of the adventures of a surfer. 

What you take from it is that surfing isn’t like other sports and hobbies. You’re at the mercy of waves and weather. When they call, you go. And if you don’t heed the call, you’re not a real surfer. Towards the end of the book, there are descriptions of how waves change - hurricanes, dredging, construction. When that happens, the use of the shore changes. The people who use it change. The local economy shifts. (Granted, I read a lot into a short chapter.) Only surfers would see this. Because only surfers are there, on the water, looking back to shore. 

What’s Next?

More water. But this time, back in Canada.

Christina McDowell - After Perfect: A Daughter’s Memoir (11)

After getting bogged down in Murakami’s Wind Up Bird Chronicle, I wanted an audiobook diversion. At first, I wasn’t sure how I felt, but the book really won me over. 

It’s a memoir by Christina McDowell (nee Prousalis). She was the spoiled rich daughter of an American businessman who went to jail for nasty business dealings. It’s rare that authors read their own books well, but she’s a skilled audiobook narrator.

It’s a challenging book to start, mostly because McDowell and the world she comes from aren’t that likeable. As a reader, you’re not sure how you’re supposed to feel - is it okay to dislike them? do other people dislike them? does the author know the things they are saying make her dislikable? When it all goes to hell, are you supposed to pity her? Or is it okay to not actually feel sorry for these people now forced to live basically the way every other person in North America has to live (getting jobs, paying bills, making their own food, etc.)

It’s interesting - rarely does a book so obviously reveal as much about you, the reader, as this one. I found myself not super sympathetic to her, largely because I don’t think having to live like I do is a pitiable state of affairs.

But as the book goes on, more layers are peeled back. 

Her parents never taught her how money works, how credit cards work, how bill payments happen. They’ve basically stunted her ability to function in the regular world. 

But, at the same time, she comes from a large enough network that she was able to find help and support often (not always). She found friends, roommates, and peers who kept her (mostly) off the streets. This speaks to being part of a network of privilege or advantage that many children of criminals don’t have access to. 

But then, she also makes some poor choices, helped enormously by the surprisingly seedy and icky side of life in Los Angeles. (It seems that young, desperate females in LA are only ever a conversation away from prostitution.)

It’s all complicated by the insight that white collar criminals can also be manipulative sociopaths. Unlike the "money-hungry, ambitious business people who push the envelope too far” trope that usually fills out the white collar crime narrative, McDowell’s father comes off like a plain old fashioned manipulative criminal. A guy who thinks that rules just don’t apply to him. A guy who would steal his own daughter’s identity to fund the lifestyle he and his wife believe they deserve.

So what you’re left with is less the story of a privileged girl whose father was a white collar criminal and more the story of a daughter whose father was a plain old fashioned criminal. 

Palette cleansed. Back to Murakami.
 

Stephen King - On Writing (9)

Stephen King’s On Writing is part memoir, part “how to write” manual. I’ve seen it referenced a million times, and it seemed like a good follow up to Patti Smith’s writing-in-a-coffee-shop memoir. This book deserves the love it gets. 

The first half of the book is entirely memoir, which introduces people like me to the writer and would appeal to fans who don’t care a whit about writing. 

The second half is the writing tutorial. The gist is: read a lot; learn the basics of grammar and structure so you have control; write the first draft without concern for what anyone else might think; then edit ruthlessly. 

Favourite Quotes

“When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story,” he said. “When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”
One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones. This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes.

 

Observations

It’s a blue collar approach to writing, geared more towards describing how a solid writer can develop her skill and win the chance to keep writing. It’s not about the product so much as it’s about creating the conditions whereby someone who wants to write gets to spend most her time doing just that.

This approach likely offends people who want to write the Greatest Novel of Our Time. Given the choice, I’d take doing something I love for the rest of my life over hitting the jackpot one single time. 

What’s Next?

Dunno. I figured a Stephen King novel would be a good follow up, but the Audiobooks are unlistenable. I need to cross back over to audiobooks, but don’t know where to go from here. 

Patti Smith - M Train (8)

Oh, Patti Smith. This is the book where my audiobook thread flipped over to print. I started to listen to this about two months ago, but I adored Just Kids in print and felt like I was missing something without the text and images. Patti Smith is meant to be read. 

Favourite Quote/ Scene

Nostalgia, melancholy, aloneness, poetry, nomadic living ... I will read all of her books forever.

Truly, my favourite part of the book was when she woke up, found cat vomit on the floor, and cleaned it up before making herself coffee. That’s a work ethic/ commitment-to-cleanliness that I envy. 

Observations

What’s to deconstruct? It’s just honest, raw, flowy, introspective, coffee-fuelled goodness. She’s lost the people who were the biggest influence in her life, the people to whom she was deeply attached. Now, she’s roaming the world, sitting in coffee shops, writing in journals, giving speeches about explorers, snapping photos, slightly haunted. Equal parts rock ’n roll and domesticity. 

What’s Next?

Smith’s focus on her journals made me think about the craft of writing … I’m thinking of a highly-rated book that’s half-memoir, half writing tutorial. 
 

Mindy Kaling - Why Not Me? (7)

Mindy Kaling was my antidote to Going Clear. Bright, funny, and sarcastic, with nary a trace of hostages in trailers, visits to Mars, or lie detector test hobbyists. 

Favourite Quote/ Scene

This:

I glanced over at B.J. again to see if he was paying attention. He wasn’t; he was fast asleep. Worse yet, he had fallen asleep on the shoulder of an older gentleman sitting on the other side of him. If the man was bothered by B.J.’s giant head resting on him, he graciously didn’t make a big deal about it, which is crazy because B.J.’s head is like 30 percent of his total body weight. All the older gentleman did was throw me a look like: I guess this guy is just gonna sleep on me? I mouthed, I’m so sorry! and reached over to wake him up. The man shook his head like No, don’t bother, perhaps knowing that sleeping B.J. was better than fidgety B.J. We both turned back to the play to watch its dramatic conclusion (spoiler alert: I think the priest did it, and I think the nun had doubt about it?). 
Thankfully, at curtain call, the riotous applause and standing ovation woke B.J. up. He was pink-faced and disoriented, like a man who had been asleep for a year. In the cartoon version of this, he might have leapt out of his seat, saying, Who dat? Where is I? looking around, frightened, with a long gray beard. B.J. saw that he had been napping on his seatmate and apologized. The man nodded politely. 
As soon as the lights came up, several people rushed toward us. My first thought was that these were fans of The Office who wanted to talk to B.J. and me, and I was prepared to take a few photos. Ah, the trials of stardom! I thought as I touched up my makeup. I was wrong. They didn’t want to talk to us. They wanted to talk to the older gentleman seated next to us. Because it was Edward Albee. Edward Albee, our greatest living playwright, American treasure, who watched Doubt from beginning to end and loved it, all while a bored B.J. Novak slept on him. (Source)

This advice from Greg Daniels on finding a mentor:

“If you have the opportunity to observe someone at work, you are getting mentoring out of them even if they are unaware or resistant. Make a list of the people you think would make the greatest mentor and try to get close …”

Then she gets serious:

People talk about confidence without ever bringing up hard work. That’s a mistake. I know I sound like some dour older spinster on Downton Abbey who has never felt a man’s touch and whose heart has turned to stone, but I don’t understand how you could have self-confidence if you don’t do the work... I have never, ever, ever, met a high confident person and successful person who is not what a movie would call a 'workaholic.' Because confidence is like respect; you have to earn it. 

 

Observations

Some similarities to Shonda Rhimes' book, but different tones, different people (obviously), different arcs. They scratch the same itch.

What’s Next?

Finally finished my e-reader book, so I can get to the memoir I’ve been waiting for ...

Philip Glass - Words Without Music: A Memoir (4)

Philip Glass is one of my favourite composers of all time and certainly my favourite living composer. I arrived at this book because I was digging memoirs but wanted something that would carry on the philosophical thread of The Glass Bead Game. Words Without Music was astonishingly perfect.

My music education ended after high school, and I don’t profess to know anything about composition. I can’t explain my love for Glass’ music on academic grounds. I just really love it and would basically listen to it 24/7. 

That said, I know virtually nothing about the man. I think he’s related to radio’s Ira Glass. I think he’s based out of NYC. He’s still alive. That’s about it. 

Favourite Scene/ Quote

It’s not so much the quotes that stand out as the adventures and the perspectives. It would fit right in with a collection of Kerouac and beat-era road-trip-turned-religious-cultural-exploration books. He takes off to Europe to study music, then backpacks through India before returning to New York City. He lands a gig working on a movie with Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha, who introduce him to non-Western musical traditions for the first time. He tests the acoustics of Greek amphitheatres with Allen Ginsberg. He flies to London for lunch with Doris Lessing. 

There is the obligatory deconstruction of his major works, for fans of his music. He walks through the thinking behind his music, the ideas he was testing and exploring, with enough detail to make any process-nut happy. 

There is a vivid depiction of the NY art scene and its players in the 1970s (Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham, for example). This part was the most surprising - how blue collar Glass and many of his artist friends seemed. They drove cabs, ran a moving company, cleaned houses, and did plumbing work to pay the bills. The moral of the whole books seems to be that plumbing is a very useful trade.

It worked out for Glass, who apparently spent a great deal of time in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia and frequently seemed to be fixing up one cottage or studio or another. 

That’s another favourite part - honestly, could you just imagine living in small town Cape Breton and hanging out with Glass and his friends every summer? I feel like there’s another story in there, waiting to be told by a Canadian storyteller.

Observations

Memoirs are problematic because, honestly, the authors can spin their lives however they want. But they can also do what biographies can’t: they can take you inside the author’s mind and show you a thought process. This is so fascinating when the author is someone who has been chewing on an idea for a long time, experimenting, and reflecting. 

What’s Next?

I know exactly what book I want to read next, but I want to read the print version, and I’ve just cracked Margaret Atwood’s Survival so it needs to wait. Something completely different, I think.