25 February 2016

Book shorts

As usual, I'm reading three books at the same time. Since I'm enjoying all of them -- though for very different reasons -- I thought I'd comment on them briefly. No danger of getting genuine reviews from me (or spoilers -- but be careful when checking the linked reviews). I'm nowhere near finished with any of them, but they all look like they're going to hold me through to their respective ends.

The first of the three books on my current turntable is Alexei Yurchak's Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation. It's by far the most scholarly book I've read in a long time. (By "scholarly" I mean it uses the word "constitutive" a lot.) But all the academic terminology, drawn from the fields of social anthropology and linguistics, serves a worthwhile purpose: helping us understand how habits of public behavior and communication were formed in the Soviet Union, how they served the purposes of social and political control, and how they were, at the same time, transformed and even subverted (usually with total innocence) to create private space and social freedom.

Yurchak helps me understand why so many of my Russian friends are able to look with searing clarity at the oppressive aspects of the Soviet Union while at the same time expressing deep nostalgia for that same Soviet Union. He explains his goal for the book:
A critical examination of such [often contradictory] retrospections is essential to an understanding of Soviet socialism. Without understanding the ethical and aesthetic paradoxes that "really existing socialism" acquired in the lives of many of its citizens, and without understanding the creative and positive meanings with which they endowed their socialist lives--sometimes in line with the announced goals of the state, sometimes in spite of them, and sometimes relating to them in ways that did not fit either-or dichotomies--we would fail to understand what kind of social system socialism was and why its sudden transformation was so unimaginable and yet unsurprising to the people living within it. For the analysis of this seemingly paradoxical mix of the negative and positive values, of alienations and attachments, we need a language that does not reduce the description of socialist reality to dichotomies of the official and the unofficial, the state and the people, and to moral judgments shaped within cold war ideologies.

... This book is ... an attempt to look for such a language and thereby to reconstruct some ethical and aesthetic complexities of socialist life, as well as the creative, imaginative, and often paradoxical cultural forms that it took. The challenge of such a task is to avoid a priori negative accounts of socialism without falling into the opposite extreme of romanticizing it. By showing the realities of actually existing socialism--where control, coercion, alienation, fear, and moral quandaries were irreducibly mixed with ideals, communal ethics, dignity, creativity, and care for the future--this book attempts to contemplate and rehumanize Soviet socialist life.
When Yurchak got into actual case studies and interviews, I was fascinated by the number of continuities I found between experiences of the last two decades of the Soviet Union and present-day Russia. For example: I loved reading about the Communist youth league meetings that were, for students' convenience,  never actually held -- the minutes were just boilerplate text -- and then meditating on my own observations of today's racket of "virtual conferences" that exist simply to collect non-peer-reviewed papers to fatten CVs, to profit from their authors' anxieties, and to strengthen institutions' "scientific" credentials at accreditation time.

Another example: the young people who knew how to go through the ritual motions of Soviet culture but identified neither with the official mentality nor with the dissidents. Enthusiasts of either pole were equally alien to these self-identified "normal" people who spoke fluent "Soviet" but lived out their lives in their own private zones. We know so many of their present-day descendants. Thanks to clear terminology and this rich tapestry of case studies, I am happy to report that the book is a fascinating and useful success.

My second current fascination is Eugene Vodolazkin's Laurus. This novel of 15th century Russia feels like a merger of Frederick Buechner (Godric, Brendan) and Francis Spufford (Red Plenty). If it were made into a film, I'd want the Coen brothers to participate somehow.

There are several excellent reviews (example one and two) that will orient you to Laurus's place in contemporary literature and try to put words to its magnetic charm, but they wouldn't explain why I would go so far out of my own usual preferences to read a story of sweetness, tragedy, and earthy piety unblemished by any gloss of false perfection. The thing is, the herbalist and pilgrim Arseny may be about as far away from a modern Western character as you can get, but he's also living in me and maybe in you -- the part of us that intuits how far we are from understanding incarnation, but hasn't given up the hope that we can learn more.

I'm less than a fifth of the way into the book -- Arseny has just met the young woman whose fate is a hinge in his story -- but I am utterly captivated. I'm in it for the long haul ... and from reading reviews I know something of the extended pilgrimage that awaits me. What better reason could there be for reading? This is one of those books (another being Liudmila Ulitskaya's Daniel Stein, Interpreter) where I can take aboard a few minutes, or even a few chapters, but then have to break away and stare at the wall a good long time while my spirit processes the contents of its buffer.

Finally, for total escapism, I've been nibbling away at the novels of Greg Iles. Most of his novels (at least so far) are connected with the state of Mississippi, and the current trilogy (Natchez Burning and The Bone Tree and next year's third volume) that got me acquainted with him in the first place are connected with Civil Rights-era murders. I've read dozens or hundreds of crime and science fiction thrillers, and what makes them work for me isn't just sympathetic characters and interesting plots. More important than all that is a heart of kindness that doesn't yield to the requirements of hard-edged, even cynical worldliness, and clean writing that doesn't get in the way of the story.

So, this evening, after I've made one more connection between the "new Soviet man" and today's Russia, and Arseny has settled down by his fire for the night, I'll see how far Dead Sleep's heroine, combat photographer Jordan Glass, gets toward discovering whether her twin sister's disappearance is part of a chain of Louisiana kidnappings and murders, or if she's, however improbably, still alive.

Just in case my elders are reading this, I'm also keeping up with devotional reading, but it's not in the form of a book. It's the daily-email version of the Fruit of the Vine devotional quarterlies from Barclay Press. Recommended! If you've been among Quakers for a while, you probably know some of the writers.

Fair or unfair? "The pragmatic narrative on Russia is usually based on an idealized portrait of Russian domestic developments." Lilia Shevtsova, "The Western Pragmatists Explain Russia."

Theology doesn't get more actual than this: Kate Bowler discusses the strengths and fatal flaws of the prosperity gospel from her unique point of view as a terminally-ill cancer patient. Here's her article in the New York Times that originally drew my attention.

"You Can't Lose What You Ain't Never Had." (Dessert after reading Laurus.)


Mindful Searcher said...

Glad you're enjoying the Greg Iles books. Have read all that you mentioned and enjoyed them. Hope you enjoy Dead Sleep as much as I did. If you've never been to Natchez, you should go when you get the chance. You'll appreciate the Iles books even more.

Johan Maurer said...

Glad to report that Dead Sleep ended satisfactorily!