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Book Books: What Are You Reading?

Haven't read it yet, but want to. I rather suspect it may call to mind some of Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy.
I thought it very good, - and well worth reading, and very well written - but nowhere nearly as good as Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy (which I thought outstanding), and not quite as good as Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks.
By Rebecca Clarren: The Cost of Free Land: Jews, Lakota and an American Inheritance

cover art - The Cost of Free Land - Rebecca Clarren.jpg

More American history that damn few of us ever learned about in a school setting. Ms. Clarren's ancestors emigrated from eastern Europe to escape the pogroms and eventually (by way of first NYC, then Iowa and finally South Dakota) landed on 160 acres of their own ("free" to homesteaders), but which land of course had already belonged to someone else: Native Americans.

The eastern European immigrants in the early 1900s were unwanted in the Northeast as their numbers grew and it became apparent that many were totally impoverished and therefore different from earlier arriving German Jews, many of whom had left Europe with more than the clothes on their back. So some philanthropic organizations of those earlier arriving immigrants decided to help the later arrivals move out west and "help settle" the frontier territories.

And really, who cared if some of the land set aside via treaty with Native Americans got repopulated with other "foreigners" anyway? The US government itself was fine with the idea. There were Homestead Act applications available to anyone over the age of 21.

The irony of being forced from one's own land in a foreign country only to be shooed away from Eastern US cities to settle on someone else's stolen land out west is inescapable, and a lingering burden of conscience for some Americans in modern times.

Ms. Clarren began her study of the Lakota and their lands as a journalist, but was aware of some of her ancestors' stories about their emigration from Europe and history in the USA. She has ended up delving into the deeper questions of responsibility for helping to resolve injustices resulting from past events in which one personally has had no part.
Fun read. "Inside Story: Politics, Intrigue and Treachery from Thatcher to Brexit" by Philip Webster.

A dishy book on British politics by a career political reporter for The Times. Somehow Webster managed to round up info from all manner of aides and principals from within and across parties, even during the titanic clashes of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in the heady and then anxious days of New Labor. Pity the ordinary pols, party leaders and PMs under the microscope of British journos...

cover art - Webster - Inside Story.jpg
I have been reading Independence Square by Martin Cruz Smith, the latest book (No 10, actually) in his Arkady Renko series.

Okay, herewith some thoughts on this book.

As an aside, I wish to mention that I have (now) read the entire Arkady Renko series, and, as is the mad way of the world, in my professional life, I have had occasion to visit a great many - but not all - of the locations in these books (including Moscow, St Petersburg, Chernobyl, Minsk, Kyiv, Kaliningrad, some of the steppes of central Russia, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Germany among others).

I cannot be alone to have been absolutely bowled over by Gorky Park - the first of the Arkady Renko books - when it was published. This was an absolute tour de force.

This was an incredibly well plotted and well researched thriller, set in an extraordinarily well realised world (and remember, when it was published, the Cold War was still very much a part of our lives and world).

More astonishing still, instead of a clichéd western hero, Smith gave us a sympathetic Russian protagonist, a classic flawed and frustrated hero - a thwarted idealist, an educated and cultured man with a rich and detailed and fully formed interior life, a nuanced, richly textured and compellingly credible background, one freighted down by the weight of his family's history (and his country's history) while haunted by the ghosts of his own personal past. Even with the secondary characters, we are given glimpses of fascinating backstories, of lives lived and accommodations reached with the culture, context, and with the very world where those lives were lived.

And - in common with the very best such stories, the place where almost all of it takes place - in this case, Moscow - is also a distinct character, a gloomy, brooding character, whose blood drenched history and habits haunt the plot, and whose inhabitants came in a multitude of shades of defensive grey, morally, psychologically and physically. And then, there were the asides, acerbic, barbed, brilliant, and bitter sweet, informed by insights and knowledge and a complicated compassion wrung from Russia's history, culture and politics.

This was Soviet Noir, - a wholly new landscape of the mind - tapping into centuries of deeply depressed yet surreal Russian literature and culture - and it was brilliant.

Even the romance - awkward and edgy, tense, yet with real sparks - was credible, - charting, as it did, Renko's agonising change of orbit professionally and personally - while the breakdown of Renko's own marriage - which happens, in real time, in this first novel, is also sadly, all too believable in that context at that time.

And, as a thriller, as a murder mystery (or murder mysteries), it was still brilliant, compelling, and gripping, yet also morally and narratively satisfying.

Now, to my mind, none of the other works came close to the sheer power of this first work, although, taken loosely, the first three - which form a sort of trilogy - (Gorky Park, Polar Star, and Red Square), are all excellent, and form a sort of over-arching natural narrative arc, one which comes to an end - a natural conclusion - with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. And they are very, very, very good, terrific stories, some great characters, wonderful settings.

However, I would imagine that publishers and readers demanded more, and I am at least as guilty of this as everyone else, as I continued reading each of these books as they appeared: What happened to Arkady once his old world collapsed?

The next three books (Havana Bay, Wolves Eat Dogs, and Stalin's Ghost) weren't at all bad, in fact, at times and in parts, they were very good, sometimes, very good indeed, but weren't anything like as good as the first three had been.

And, unfortunately, ever since then, - with Three Stations, Tatiana, The Siberian Dilemma, and now, Independence Square (among the weakest of them all), sadly, and unfortunately, this downhill trajectory - deterioration in content and quality - has become more marked, and even more pronounced with each book.

In terms of plot - narrative - plot development and character development, Independence Square is one of the weakest of the entire series. Actually, I would rate it as deeply disappointing.

The cultural context - those sly and acerbic asides rooted in a deep historical knowledge and understanding of Russian history - always one of the most fascinating elements of these books - is almost entirely absent here.

Worse still - the book is peppered with careless and inexcusable elementary errors (such as when Renko and his latest love interest are strolling through Kyiv discussing the Dnieper river - which flows through Kyiv - with the remark that the Dnieper (one of Europe's great rivers) empties into "the Baltic Sea in the south" (p. 123 in the edition I read); of course, it does nothing of the sort; it makes its way to the Black Sea.

Moreover, during that same conversation, a reference is made to the fact that the Dnieper river - at one point - flows close to Chernobyl; yes, it does, but this misses entirely Renko's own narrative history, or background, for he knows this - or, ought to know this - perfectly well, as he spent almost all of Wolves Eat Dogs (book 5) in Chernobyl, while books five and six (Stalin's Ghost) saw him commence (and continue) a relationship with a doctor from Chernobyl, who had herself walked through that radioactive cloud, as a child, in the notorious May Day Parade (in 1986) that took place in the immediate aftermath of the explosion in the Chernobyl nuclear reactor.

Now, for what it is worth, I have actually been to the very shores of the Black Sea - several times, when I spent two years in Georgia with the EU, - and, some years earlier, I had spent several months in the Baltic states on an EU travelling fellowship, - and yes, visited the Baltic Sea, standing on its shores - so, yes, I do know where these places are, and the difference between them. And yes, as it happened, I have also been by the Dnieper in Kyiv. In fact, there are a number of photographs taken where I am standing (with colleagues) on a balcony in Kyiv with the river Dnieper elegantly forming the backdrop to the image as it winds its merry way towards the Black Sea - these were taken during a coffee break in a day of briefings prior to deployment to the regions when I was present to observe the Presidential elections in Ukraine in 2019.

And with this latest book, the romance is - to be candid - risible.

Actually, apart from the first three books, (and, to a lesser extent, the fifth and sixth books) Renko's romances are becoming tedious, for the story is thought to require a fresh love interest in almost each book, (something I, personally, do not believe necessary to the narrative plot).

Moreover, these romances lack any sort of credibility supplied by the context, culture, or character, and that is not even mentioning Renko's age, for, while he ages, he ages considerably less than the real world where his investigations take place, while the age of whatever woman he romances for that book slides correspondingly, making the age gap between them ever greater, and the story (and romance) ever less credible (and not even interesting from a narrative perspective).

I suppose that one could argue that the early death of his mother may have conditioned Renko to accepting (or seeking) a life where women leaving him (through death or other forms of departure) is his version of normal. The problem is that too many of the books open by letting us know that the love interest from the previous book has simply left, (without showing us how this happened, - not even in flashback - which would have been an interesting story), which means that the plot must somehow contrive to furnish Renko with a fresh love interest.

Actually, most of the female characters in this work are poorly written, and poorly conceived, while the male characters aren't much better; the rich worlds and briefly sketched but fully realised (or guessed at, or glimpsed) backgrounds of the secondary characters that were such a delightful feature of the earlier books are absent.

Even Zhenya, the child chess prodigy who came into Arkady's life as long ago as Wolves Eat Dogs, and with whom he has had an almost inarticulate, at times awkward, but close and affectionate relationship, plays but a small role.

And Renko himself is tired, worn out, and a shadow - mentally and physically and narratively - of his former self.

Now, Martin Cruz Smith has revealed that he has Parkinson's Disease, - and - in one of the few sections of the book that actually works well, and is quite powerful, Renko comes to learn that he suffers from the condition, too, and spends some of the book attempting to come to terms with this.

Nevertheless, and very much against my better judgment, needless to say, of course, I'll still seek out, and read Arkady Renko No 11 if it is ever written and published, but, I feel that I must say that - for the first time ever - I sincerely hope that it isn't written, and isn't published and that it doesn't ever make an appearance on our shelves or in our libraries or book shops, book stores, or Kindles.
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Now, to my mind, none of the other works came close to the sheer power of this first work, although, taken loosely, the first three - which form a sort of trilogy - (Gorky Park, Polar Star, and Red Square), are all excellent, and form a sort of over-arching natural narrative arc, one which comes to an end - a natural conclusion - with the fall of the Soviet Union. And they are very, very, very good, terrific stories, some great characters, wonderful settings.
I loved those first three books, and then think I never got around to most of the rest (except Stalin's Ghost). By then I was burning the candle at both ends in a hamster wheel of 80-hour weeks, struggling even to leave time for friends and family (and eventually commuting upstate to work on my version of "this old house").

Movies and books of those times were destined to become my catch-up project in retirement: I missed about 25 years' worth of both when they were current. For awhile there, about all I read on my own time were dismal airport newsstand purchases, the kind you don't mind leaving behind unfinished when you deplane. Once in awhile with advance notice of travel requirements, I'd run up to the sidewalk sale bins of the bookstores near Columbia University, and snag a used paperback of one of the John D. MacDonald "Travis McGee" series, tales that in contrast to the airport newsstand offerings were literary classics.

Sorry to learn that both Martin Cruz Smith and his writing have seemed to enter decline. Nothing can take away from the merits of those first three books though. They'd be worth a re-read if I let myself go there!
Books in three completely different categories. November always scatters my wits and this is what happens.

Meme Wars (Donovan, Dreyfuss, Friedberg). Reports from disinformation researchers on the memetic warfare of the far right in American politics. It's exasperating to read, really. But in the wake of the Trump's 2020 re-election campaign, the January 6th insurrenction and ensuing events online, in the streets and in courts of law, I have wanted to know more about "where the hell these people come from." The book helps, if you can stand it.

The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus (Charles King). A look at territorial, tribal, religious, political and social convergence / divergence in the countries and provinces of the Caucasus Mountains that help mark the fluid boundaries of Europe and Asia. Picked this up while thinking about the recently evacuated Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan, and remembering learning when I was in my 20s about the Christmas Eve 1933 assassination of the head of the Armenian church in the western disapora. His church was up the road apiece from where I lived in NYC, and his funeral services had been held in my own neighborhood at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, with over 5,000 people attending or crowding the cathedral grounds. The archbishop had been assassinated in his own church by other Armenians, politically dissident from those who had emigrated to either the USA or to Lebanon. When I first learned about it I was stunned that it was such a little known event. I had not much knowledge then of the many-faceted tribalisms of the Caucasus that continue to plague the region today, and at the time thought it more of an East-West thing, a precursor of "the Cold War". Anyway the King book is an eye opener.

Absolution (Alice McDermott). I was deeply affected personally by events of the "Vietnam Era" as some in the USA still call it, or "the American War" as the Vietnamese call it. It was a long time before I could bring myself to read historical accounts or novels about it. McDermott's novel is from the interesting viewpoint of American women --wives and "helpmeets" of American miliary advisors-- in Saigon in the waning days of French (and Roman Catholic) colonialism. Those were the early days of US support of Diem's regime in what by 1954 had become South Vietnam after the French collapse and ensuing negotiations in Geneva. In more than a few ways the book reminds me of Philip Caputo's Acts of Faith: an exploration of what the hell else goes on when Americans show up in foreign lands to "do good" in the name of faith or freedom.
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Steven Benen is the producer of Rachel Maddow's show. I'm re-reading his 2020 book The Impostors: How Republicans Quit Governing and Seized American Politics, It's a lucid and alarming reminder of how the Republicans have lost their interest in governing (and their ability to do so) while focused on obstructing any policy formulations presented by Democrats.

I was playing the audiobook for awhile today while doing some tedious hand-sewing. Had to quit and switch over to some pop music for awhile to keep from getting too angry to pay attention! Anyway it's a great book, a chapter at a time. Good for remembering what besides EXASPERATION makes me so dislike today's Republicans. It's that they are entirely policy-free and not even ashamed of any cognitive dissonance in their stated beliefs when they're in power versus when they are not, e.g. their insistence on looking into what programs cost only when they're not tax cuts for the wealthy. And they don't mind telling lies as big as the ones Trump pitches. And they don't mind voting for amendments to poison a bill to the point where not even Democrats will vote for it... but just in case the Dems do still support it, the Rs after trashing it with crap amendments vote against the final thing anyway. And we pay these guys to do this?!

Just started reading The Kennedy Imprisonment: A Meditation on Power by Garry Wills

Garry Wills is a fascinating writer--an example of someone who started out as a Buckley conservative but moved leftward during the course of his life (much to the ire and disappointment of Buckley, his mentor). Wills is known especially for his writings about American politics and Catholicism and what better melding of the two than the story of the Kennedys and their rise to power? Though this book was written in 1982, a recent podcast review I listened to indicated it is very much still relevant, and might help make sense of the context of RFK Jr.'s rise and appeal.
"The Wren, The Wren" by Anne Enright.

Excellent: Beautifully written and observed and - at times - laugh out loud funny.
Liz Cheney's new book. Oath and Honor: a Memoir and a Warning.

cover art - Liz Cheney - Oath and Honor.jpg

If you're a Democrat, you won't be likely to forget that while reading this book, because Liz Cheney is an old-school conservative Republican, albeit she is clearly also a devoted small-d democrat, highly educated lawyer and student of American political history.

The book is an excellent read. One may learn things about not only the US Constitution, The Trump-era GOP and the US House of Representatives, but also some not widely reported details of behavior and utterances of swell characters like Jim Jordan and the former GOP House speaker Kevin McCarthy. She was in the #3 slot of House GOP leadership during the the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the US Capitol, and in the wild times of its immediate prelude and aftermath. Whatever levels of betrayal of oaths and GOP internecine warfare one may have imagined were going on during those days, Cheney makes it clear that the fraying of tempers and previously taken-for-granted principles was even more ferocious --and dangerous-- than had come to light via contemporary press reports.
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Now reading Tim Alberta's book The Kingdom, the Power and the Glory: American Evangelicals in the Age of Extremism.

cover art - Tim Alberta - The Kingdom, the Power and the Glory.jpg

This is a book that doubtless annoys (or may even put the fear of God into) a large subset of American right wing pols and high profile pro-Trump evangelist preachers. Not to mention all the ancillary hangers-on who make a living by selling Trump fans assorted, often militant (but supposedly God-fearing) books, videos, fridge magnets and "Praise God for Trump" trinkets that infest some of the festivals and rallies supposedly oriented towards advancement of protestant Evangelist values. The book might be scorned --at their peril-- by many of the lesser-known evangelicals who have also turned into hard core Trump fans. It will not be written off by beleaguered pastors facing splintering churches, or by former churchgoers who themselves have walked away preciesely because of the efforts of so-called "conservative" pols to co-opt Christian values into a platform to support their own lust for power.

The book dares to ask questions like "if evangelism is supposed to attract people to a Christ-centered life, why are so many mega churches failing, and even so why are there so many openings for preachers, why are so many pastors burning out over political schisms in their congregations, ending up just leaving the field?"

And the book dares to inquire how the hell the Evangelical churches can square up the commandment to avoid idolatry with their succour for the personality cult that is the current iteration of the Republican Party. Is it right for Christians to play the "persecuted victim" card in the USA under all the constitutional protections of (in particular) the First and Fourteenth amendments, but at the same time to strive at our southern border and in the halls of Congress to turn away those who are literally fleeing persecution in their own countries?

The author grew up in the evangelical church and so is prepared to meet these preacher-politicans where they supposedly live. The collision of what they say to the public and how they stumble through interviews with Alberta is instructive. Being called out by the author sometimes draws blank looks, and sometimes slightly embarrassed smirks in the case of operatives like Ralph Reed. Tim Alberta is not asking typical "left-loaded" liberal press questions for which these preacher-pols have all manner of talking points reaching back to the seminars of the 1990s offered by Republican politicians to pastors. Tim Alberta is picking apart Bible citations. He offers his own, and inquires about whatever happened to emphasis on Christian admonitions --from the Bible-- about paying your taxes and following civil laws? And how exactly did that morph instead into support for Trump's Big Lie, into the rhetoric and actuality of political violence, even into trying to overturn the unwanted results of an election? Yeah. Annoying question time has arrived. He asks why Trump's "locker room talk" about grabbing the vagina of a woman without her consent is forgivable, but it's unforgivable to discuss Black history in American classrooms, or to have books in a library that might help an LGBTQ+ student not feel so isolated?

Tim Alberta started the field work on this book very shortly after his father died. In fact, its genesis apparently occurred when an elder of the church where his father's funeral was held came up to him on that very day and started berating him for having written a previous book, American Carnage (one quite critical of former President Donald Trump). That incident and a number of similar ones caused the author to decide to look into exactly how American evangelical voters were being affected by the far right's obsession with using themes of religious and family values as a herding mechanism to keep them in the Republican fold. Not how their politics were affected. How their relationships with family and friends were affected by the mingling of secular politics and religious values, and how participation in the focus of their local church was changing.

I had thought I knew something of all of this just from reading widely and by living in a politically conservative county and near one of its tiny villages for about half my life. I was mistaken. The book was eye opening for me. It is alarming -- the levels of harassment by hard-right pro-Trump extremists of traditional evangelical figures like Russell Moore and conservative attorney and writer David French are horrific-- but the book is also heartening: by now they and some other disillusioned and noted writers and preachers have quietly begun to organize paths back for burned out evangelical leaders, pastors burned out not just from the Trump era's excesses but from the last forty years worth of the Republican Party's soul-destroying combination of a lust for secular power and a perversion of Christianity.
I'm in chapter 10 of Michael Kulikowski's The Tragedy of Empire: From Constantine to the Destruction of Roman Italy

cover art - Kulikowski - The Tragedy of Empire.jpeg

So, although Chapter 10 ("The Fall that No One Noticed") is set in the fifth century, one could mistake the politics of the those times for last October in the GOP aisles of the US House of Representatives when those guys were booting a Speaker and then trying to choose a new one:

"This was a full-fledged crisis of political legitimacy in which everyone had a stake, in which no candidate for the throne was self-evidently more legitimate than any other, and where all the lines between what was and what was not a permissible part of the political game had disappeared – or seemed to have disappeared until you found yourself on the wrong side of one on which everyone agreed."​
Yeah. Almost sixteen hundred years have passed since the year 468 and still the world hasn't learned a f'g thing. Good to know, even if the truth hurts.

The book is full of names and dates but then that's what I was after... and it's entertaining, which is a bonus.

I'm setting what should be a low bar for the New Year: may we all have a boring one. But never fear, I think that tongue-in-cheek wish is doomed to failure!
“Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor; and if one is a member of a captive population, economically speaking, one's feet have simply been placed on the treadmill forever.”James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name

Finally reading Poverty, By America by Matthew Desmond. It topped plenty "Best of" lists and was read by several friends. I enjoyed Desmond's EVICTED a while back and like his spare, straightforward reporting. He pulls no punches. About halfway through and it's quite depressing. Many of the stats and stories are similar in tone from the past few decades. We have a GD long road to hoe to make life better for tons of Americans.
Finally reading Poverty, By America by Matthew Desmond. It topped plenty "Best of" lists and was read by several friends. I enjoyed Desmond's EVICTED a while back and like his spare, straightforward reporting. He pulls no punches. About halfway through and it's quite depressing. Many of the stats and stories are similar in tone from the past few decades. We have a GD long road to hoe to make life better for tons of Americans.

Thanks for posting that. I had borrowed Desmond's Evicted from the library twice and finally bought it. Looking forward (grimly) to his Poverty, By America.
Well, I was reading a collection of Thomas Mann short stories until I got to page 138 and discovered five pages were missing, and the entire rest of the book is out of alignment so that the even and odd pages appear on the wrong sides. The book is now in the recycling bin.

If I hadn't bought it months ago, I would've tried to return it. This was a brand new copy we're talking about too.
Well, I was reading a collection of Thomas Mann short stories until I got to page 138 and discovered five pages were missing, and the entire rest of the book is out of alignment so that the even and odd pages appear on the wrong sides. The book is now in the recycling bin.

If I hadn't bought it months ago, I would've tried to return it. This was a brand new copy we're talking about too.
You could have kept it. Would still work for a Zoom backdrop:)