non-fiction

Lenin the Dictator: An Intimate Portrait by Victor Sebestyen

My history education back in Russia fell on the period where, in my primary school during the last years of the Soviet Union, we were fed the rosy idealised stories about “Grandfather Lenin”. There were school excursions to lay the flowers at the city’s Lenin monument, the red star-shaped pins with Lenin’s portrait in the middle that every kid had to wear at school, and so on. Once the USSR was no more, immediately after there came a weird transitional period where they couldn’t quite figure out what version of history to teach; as an example, my history book somehow managed to have one oblique mention of Stalin in the entire post-revolution part. My idea of Lenin therefore was always rather lopsided; I figured that the idealised version wasn’t true but had little to replace it with, especially after moving to Australia. I was then quite interested to read this biography by Hungarian-born, UK-raised Sebestyen; while complete objectivity is non-existent I thought that the book provided a fairly balanced view of Lenin’s undeniably remarkable life.

The prologue opens on Tuesday, 24 October 1917, the eve of the Revolution (not quite the impeccably organised operation it was later portrayed to be), then follows the more conventional structure, starting with Lenin’s family background and childhood, and finishing with his death and the embalmed rest inside the Red Square mausoleum. What made this biography more easily digestible than some heavier biographies I’ve read is its arrangement into relatively short and tightly focused chapters (54 in total), each covering a different aspect of Lenin’s life and the greater social and political events of the time. It’s pretty blunt in regards to Lenin’s darker aspects, among which cynicism and ruthlessness stand out the most, though it’s not out to paint him as a total monster either:

Lenin thought himself an idealist. He was not a monster, a sadist or vicious. In personal relationships he was invariably kind and behaved in the way he was brought up, like an upper-middle-class gentleman. He was not vain. He could laugh – even, occasionally, at himself. He was not cruel: unlike Stalin, Mao Zedong or Hitler he never asked about the details of his victims’ deaths, savouring the moment. To him, in any case, the deaths were theoretical, mere numbers. But during his years of feuding with other revolutionaries, and then maintaining his grip on power, he never showed generosity to a defeated opponent or performed a humanitarian act unless it was politically expedient.

Most people who met Lenin seemed to find him thoroughly unimpressive, but he was an astute leader and good at image-making. One example is Lenin’s appreciation of the fact that a rival socialist political party, Mensheviks, stuck with a name derived from a Russian word for minority, in contrast to Bolsheviks whose name suggested the majority. Hmm which one makes for the smarter brand-building I wonder?

The first chapter, devoted to Lenin’s parents, remarks that the most important relationships in Lenin’s life were with women, while close male friends were very few and inevitably lost to politics. Other than Lenin’s many political allies and enemies, the book covers his personal relationships with his wife Nadya and Inessa Armand, his mistress for many years and the most glamorous of the female revolutionaries, who his wife accepted in an unusually civil menage a trois. There are other details and trivia that flesh him out as a person, such as his deep lifelong love of nature, and strong dislike of most modern art and literature (I was amused to read that Lenin considered Mayakovsky’s poetry garbage, though the latter was at pains to glorify him).

The biography also paints the picture of the broader Russian society at the time, and outlines the causes that ultimately led first to the abolition of monarchy and then to the Bolshevik October Revolution that paved the way for the Soviet Union. They include a weak and incompetent Tsar presiding over a country in desperate need of reforms, yet unwilling to change and maintaining the grip on the autocracy, under the delusion that repression and censorship would preserve the Romanov dynasty. Lenin’s older brother Alexander, whose execution at the age of twenty-one for plotting an attack on the Tsar is cited by the author as the main reason for seventeen-year-old Vladimir Ulyanov’s own immersion in politics, was one of the many radicals eager for change. The author’s view is that Russia’s involvement in World War I was Tsar Nicholas’ most catastrophic decision which in the end cost him his throne and his life (though he’s not entirely without sympathy for the Tsar’s terrible final fate). While the pre-revolutionary period is well-covered, the civil war that erupted soon after the Bolsheviks took power is unfortunately sketched in rather thinly.

Overall, I found this a very accessible and readable account of one of the most important figures of the 20th century. While not as massively detailed as some other biographies I’ve read, it gives enough of the historical background and insight into Lenin as a person.

The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell

danish.jpgAnother I-moved-to-another-country book, this one by a London woman who moved to Denmark after her husband got offered a job with Lego – and rather than exchanging one capital city for another, they move to the “real” Denmark, a tiny town of 6,100 in the rural Jutland (the European peninsula part of Denmark). Unlike many other books of the similar sort, which are rather rambling in nature and simply concern themselves with the author’s experiences in a foreign country, this one has an actual focus: uncovering the secrets of Danish happiness. According to the statistics, the potential new home of Helen and her husband (nicknamed Lego Man) is officially the happiest country in the world, with most of the Danes Helen interviews in the course of the book ranking their happiness at 8, 9, or even 10 out of 10. To Helen, who is supposedly living her dream with a high-flying job as an editor on a glossy magazine but instead feels overworked and overstressed, this is an attractive mystery to explore.

What follows is a very entertaining and endlessly insightful account of Helen and Lego Man’s new life in Denmark. Helen’s position as a journalist allows her to interview the various specialists in the social, financial and cultural fields who help shed the light on the Danish education, interior design, childcare, working culture, food etc. And the number one reason for the Danish happiness? High levels of trust – trust in the system as well as trust in the random stranger on the street (according to the book, it’s common for the Danish parents to leave the prams unattended outside cafes or homes). Denmark’s inhabitants pay crazy high taxes, but what you get in return is free healthcare, free education (including university), a welfare system, subsidised childcare and unemployment insurance where you’re guaranteed 80 per cent of your wages for two years. There’s an interesting observation made in passing about the correlation between the welfare state and Danish atheism – when you have faith in the state taking care of you, the need for God is lesser, it seems. The high sense of community also means that some things around your house is everybody’s business – if for instance you happen to sort the rubbish into the wrong bins, your neighbours will think nothing of telling you off about it.

Of course it’s not all smooth sailing and scrumptious Danish pastries all the way for Helen and her husband – the language barrier and social isolation are big issues, and for all its virtues Denmark is not quite the equality-for-all feminist utopia and faces the similar difficulties over immigration issues that other European countries do. There’s also the Danish winter, the bleak prospect of SAD, soul-crushing darkness and bitter cold (though, as a former denizen of Siberia, the author’s comment about -20 Celsius made me snort. -20? Try -40 lady!) Also, while the Danish order and stability are fine things, there’s a chapter where Helen and Lego Man go away on a holiday to the Mediterranean and she realises that she missed the chaos and dirt of a less organised society. Overall though, plenty of things about the Danish Way make perfect sense and everyone else could benefit greatly from living a bit more Danishly.

Unfortunately there’s not much I can do about creating a Danish-style welfare state here in Australia, but at the very least, I’ve resolved to try and burn more candles at home during winter for a touch of Danish hygge. Hygge by the way is one of those untranslatable words which can be described as, “the absence of anything annoying or emotionally overwhelming; taking pleasure from the presence of gentle, soothing things”, or “creating a warm atmosphere and enjoying the good things in life with good people”. Sounds good to me.

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

into-thin-air-978144720018501I ended up reading this book twice, because I didn’t feel like I gave it justice the first time around: I read it in a terribly rushed, haphazard manner and this is simply not a book to read in 15-minute bites. Plus I have a bad habit where sometimes I get impatient about two thirds into the reading, and start scanning and skipping through the final pages in a race to the finish.

The previous non-fiction I’ve read by Krakauer, Into the Wild, was one of those rare books that really got under my skin and haunted my imagination for a very long time afterwards; also I’ve just watched Everest, which, like the book, tells the story of the disastrous guided ascent in May 1996 when eight people lost their lives in the terrible storm. Krakauer, who was sent to write about the expedition by the Outside magazine, was one of the survivors, so this book was also an incredibly personal account, written not long after he returned home. In the preface, he says that, rather than waiting to put some distance between himself and the event, he wanted his account to have a raw, ruthless sort of honesty, and the book certainly drips with it. The very first paragraph immediately sets the mood: Krakauer describes arriving at the top of Everest, looking down at the spectacular sight beneath him, yet instead of feeling elation over achieving a long-held dream, he is simply too tired to care. There’s your romanticism slaughtered right away.

Movie vs book comparisons are always interesting to make, and while the book doesn’t have the power of the visuals, it has remarkably vivid descriptions and the advantage of a far greater breadth of details. It delves into the history of Everest climbing, mentioning such prominent figures as George Mallory and Edmund Hillary; the culture of Sherpas, the Nepalese ethnic group whose livelihood came to revolve around the business of organised climbing; and Krakauer’s own obsession with scaling mountains which never completely went away even after he got married. I think that this personal insight into what drives people to suffer hardship and risk their lives out in the wilderness is what makes this book and Into the Wild so compelling. It is not a drive I can personally relate to but reading these books gives me a kind of understanding. This paragraph I think sums up his experience at Everest:

I’d always know that climbing mountains was a high-risk pursuit. I accepted that danger was an essential component of the game – without it, climbing would be little different from a hundred other trifling diversions. It was titillating to brush up against the enigma of mortality, to steal a glimpse across its forbidden frontier. Climbing was a magnificent activity, I firmly believed, not in spite of the inherent perils, but precisely because of them.

Until I visited the Himalaya, however, I’d never actually seen death at close range. Hell, before I went to Everest, I’d never even been to a funeral. Mortality had remained a conveniently hypothetical concept, an idea to ponder in the abstract.

The second part of the book, which deals with the events of the day Krakauer’s group made the final ascent to the top of Everest from Camp Four, was harrowing to read. Krakauer made it back to the camp before the weather got really hairy, but even so his experience brought him to the utmost brink of exhaustion, yet he still was luckier than some of his fellow climbers who got caught in the storm. Their suffering was especially heartbreaking considering that some of them were a mere 15 minutes away from the safety of the camp, had their vision not been completely blocked by the snow and lacerating wind. Krakauer gives a full account of the mistakes and ill judgements (including some of his own which came to haunt him later) that were made on the day, without putting the blame on any single person, and stressing that the oxygen-depleted atmosphere of Everest does not encourage lucid thinking. One also has to keep the extremity of the situation in mind when reading about some of the life-and-death decisions the group had to make on whether a still-living person was beyond rescue. As one of the members from a different Everest expedition bluntly puts it, “above 8,000 meters is not a place where people can afford morality”, but even so this story is not without examples of courage and selflessness. There’s also a story of survival concerning one of the climbers which is so improbable that if you saw it in a movie you’d probably cry bullshit. As the additional chapter shows, some of the readers considered Krakauer’s book a slander against one particular guide, but personally I never got this impression while reading the book, which to me retained an impartial tone at all times and didn’t stress one person’s mistake over another’s.

In the end, I was really glad that I gave the book a more thorough second reading, as it deserves it.

Books I’ve read lately

goldGold: The Final Science Fiction Collection by Isaac Asimov

I’ve only read one other short stories collection by Asimov before, so this bunch of previously uncollected stories probably wasn’t a great place to start for a relative Asimov beginner. The stories are rather hit-and-miss; there’s a couple which are more like sci-fi jokes culminating with rather unfunny puns; while others are really good, like the first story in the collection called Cal, about a domestic robot who wants to be a writer just like his master.

Far more interesting was the second half of the book, which is a collection of Asimov’s essays, taken from various anthologies he edited or introductions to his own work. In them he muses on all sorts of things to do with writing and/or science fiction: his own creative process, the women in science fiction, the relationship between sci-fi and real-life science, the possibilities of space travel, his opinion of the book reviews, his view of dystopian genre (apparently he found George Orwell’s Animal Farm an abominably bad book, because in his view dystopian stories which do nothing but repeat how awful everything is are just as dull as utopian stories in which everything is wonderful, wonderful, wonderful), among others. I was also interested to read that he was a big fan of P. G. Wodehouse, because to me the story-within-the-story in Cal definitely seemed to channel Wodehouse a bit. Again, some essays were more interesting than others, but what really endeared me to them was Asimov’s down-to-earth, familial style of writing, personal charm and (often self-deprecating) humour that really shine through.

napoleonNapoleon: His Wives and Women

This historical biography was in a way a polar opposite to the recent one I’ve read; if Caesar’s biography was all politics and military achievements and very little on the personal side, this one was all personal. It still gives you a general outline of Napoleon’s rise and fall, but you won’t find detailed analysis of the crucial battles or descriptions of Napoleon’s political life. Instead, as the title suggests, this biography concentrates on Napoleon’s relationships with the women in his life: his strong-willed mother, who outlived him and many of his siblings, his sisters, his many mistresses, and his two wives: Marie-Josephe-Rose who he was to call Josephine, and Marie-Louise of Austria.

The book then is rather gossipy by nature, but wonderfully entertaining to read, with tons of personal anecdotes, details and descriptions of Napoleon’s family life, and his own habits and character quirks. His portrayal here as a private man is often far from flattering; he was capable of great personal charm and acts of love and devotion, but he could also be selfish, domineering, cruel, petty and crude. He had a nasty habit of pinching the members of his family and servants, sometimes so hard as to leave bruises. Naturally one must take into account the times Napoleon lived in, but all the same it’s hard not to wince when you read of him referring to women as ‘mere machines for making children’. Despite all of this, he really seemed to inspire devotion on the part of both of his wives, even though neither of them married him for love initially, which depending on your view is either romantic or depressing. Still, it was hard not to be moved by the scenes of Napoleon and Josephine’s divorce, which by all accounts was harsh on both of them and was mostly motivated by Napoleon’s desire for an heir that Josephine could not give him. Very late in the biography, it also briefly touches on Napoleon’s possible homosexual tendencies, which I kinda wondered about since the earlier episode in the book, where he remarked that, had Tsar Alexander of Russia been a woman, he would have made him his mistress, he was so pretty.

Julius Caesar by Philip Freeman

cvr9780743289542_9780743289542_hrI love me a good historical biography and I really enjoyed this account of one of the greatest figures in history. As with any serious historical non-fiction, you can’t just skim over it casually and it requires your full concentration, but it was so absorbing I finished it in a space of three days, abandoning the usual distractions of TV and internet. It also helped that it was written in a very straightforward, accessible language.

In the preface, the author states that his aim was not to praise Caesar nor to bury him, but simply to tell his story as it happened. While it’s true that overall the biography keeps a neutral tone and doesn’t gloss over Caesar’s mistakes and the less-than-admirable episodes, I still got an impression that the author had quite a bit of liking for his subject. It’s not hard to see why though. Caesar was a truly great man, a skilled politician, a brilliant orator and a general. He was capable of both careful, cautious planning, and acting boldly when he needed to (there are so many occasions in the book when Caesar sprung surprises on his enemies by doing something completely unexpected that no one tried before). His psychological hold over his loyal armies was exceptional, with numerous occasions when he was able to bring his men back from the edge of mutiny by, paradoxically, not giving in an inch. He also had a policy of clemency and forgiveness towards his enemies that was unusual by the standards of the day, even if it was calculated and politically motivated most of the times (on the other hand, he rarely if ever showed mercy to the same person twice, and never had a problem destroying an entire city if he felt it was necessary). Plus he just had style. There’s an anecdote early on about the time when young Caesar got captured by the pirates on his way to Rhodes, and raised his own ransom by more than half because he found the initial sum insulting. It is fair to say that his ambitions and military exploits brought a huge amount of death and suffering, but on the other hand, you can’t really separate his actions from the world he lived in, in which war and conquest was a normal part of life. Romans were just much better at it than most.

The biography can be said to be roughly split into three sections: Caesar’s early life, his campaigns in Gaul (modern France), and the civil war which ended with his rise to the ultimate power (which in turn ended with one of the most famous assassinations in history). Unfortunately, the only good source on the childhood of Caesar available to the modern historians begins with his sixteenth year, but the author does a great job evoking the time and place in which Caesar grew up, and making educated guesses as to what his childhood might have been. This section of the book also has the most interesting details about the society of ancient Rome: politics, education, structure of the Roman households and family life, the ancient view of homosexuality, religion etc. The middle chapters on Gaul were probably the least compelling (though still interesting) partly because they shift much of the focus away from Rome and its political life, but then it comes back with the vengeance in the last third. As an aside, it was interesting to see how many details the TV show Rome (one of my all-time favourites) got wrong and right about that period. Pompey’s death, for instance, was pretty much spot-on in the series. I wish the book gave more details of personal nature, such as Caesar’s relationships with the people closest to him, but I guess these details could be hard to come by when the person in question lived more than 2,000 years ago. It was rather amusing to read though that, just like many men throughout the ages, Caesar was quite self-conscious about his baldness and tried to hide it by combing his hair over. Some things never change, haha.

The only thing that really annoyed me was the amount of grammatical errors in my edition of the book, just really stupid stuff like saying “really” instead of “rally”. I found at least five and that’s absolutely unforgivable in a professional publication. Grrrrr.

books I’ve read lately

headerCMYKHoly Cow! by Sarah Macdonald

I’m usually not a huge fan of travel books – to me they can often feel like sitting through a stranger’s long tedious slideshow of What I Did on My Holiday. This author though spent some time actually living in the country, and India always fascinated me (and ok, I really liked the colourful book cover). I’ve been to India about nine years ago, and if I hadn’t travelled to Egypt a couple of years previously I’d probably have found it as much of a culture shock as Sarah did on her first trip. It leaves her absolutely hating India and she swears to never return again; however when her partner moves to India for work she follows him to New Delhi and tries to make a life there.

At first Sarah pretty much hates India all over again and is appalled by the poverty, noise, pollution, sexism, but after a near-death encounter with double pheumonia she decides to go on a sort of a spiritual quest and explore the many faiths present in India – Sikhism, Judaism, Hinduism, the beliefs of the Parsee among others. It made for an interesting reading, though I couldn’t help but feel that in the end all of her religion-hopping was rather superficial (though to be fair, she might have simply intended her book to be light reading rather than Religions 101). Though her partner is the reason for her moving to India, their relationship isn’t explored in great depth either and he remains a very sketchy presence. But you can see how Sarah warms up to India and learns to appreciate it, and overall the book was very entertaning.

Before-I-Go-Sleep-resized2-193x300Before I Go to Sleep by SJ Watson

This was one of those insanely addictive books where you skip a TV program you’d normally watch because you just have to know what happens next dammit. The premise certainly grabbed my attention – it is about a woman in her late 40s who, because of a past trauma, had lost most of her memories past the early childhood and is unable to form new ones for longer than a day. Every day, Christine wakes up as a clean slate, with no memories of the past day or the last week or the last twenty years. Her only human contact is with her husband Ben and a neuropsychologist who is interesed in her case and encourages her to keep a journal, which she finds and reads anew every day at his prompt. The journal in fact is most of the book and we follow Christine from day to day as she tries to piece her life and her past together. It’s to the writer’s credit that the journal entries avoid being too repetitive and instead feel like each one builds on what happened the previous day.

I find the themes of identity and memory absolutely fascinating, what are we after all without our memories? Because Christine is the sole point of view of the book, it always makes you question everything: are her memories what they appear? Are they real or simply projections and wishful thinking? How much can she trust anyone, or herself even?

Unfortunately, the ending was a letdown. I figured that a book like this must have a big dramatic twist somewhere, and I half-guessed it without trying too hard. The reason I only half-guessed it was because the full twist was too far-fetched and silly to even consider. It got more improbable the more I thought about it, and though the book ends on an ambiguous note the resolution still feels far too neat and happy. Shame because, until the last few pages, the book had me 100%.

1421010234753On Writing by Stephen King

I thought it was a fantastic craft memoir on par with William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade. It’s split into halves: the first one is where King recounts the events from his life which shaped him and his writing, and the second section is advice to budding writers, served in an engaging, no-nonsense manner. I wouldn’t call myself even a wannabe writer; though I’ve always had a vague ambition of writing my own fantasy novel one day I just don’t have the kind of burning desire and need to write King is talking about. Still, I love reading about the craft of writing, why particular stories work or do not work, how to structure sentences and paragraphs etc. My two favourite peeves of King’s in this book were the passive tense (really how much more gormless a sentence like The meeing will be held at seven o’clock sounds as opposed to The meeting’s at seven); and the use of adverbs in dialogue attribution. I wonder what he thought of Harry Potter books because J.K. Rowling freakin’ loves her adverbs.