Book Notes: Ivan Bunin’s Cursed Days

Ivan Bunin was a great Russian modernist writer and the first Russian author to get the Nobel Prize. In 1918-1919 he wrote a secret diary where he recorded his impressions about the October Revolution and many years later published it under the title Cursed Days.

This is a devastating read at any time but today it reads in a particularly poignant way. There’s something very recognizable in the destruction of the cultural legacy by a mob that’s screaming ridiculous slogans, the sincere efforts of the revolutionaries to create a completely clean slate and wipe away the entire civilization they perceive as evil, the smart careerists who encourage the mob, the contempt of the crowds towards anything that isn’t about satisfying the most primitive appetites, and the horror of an artist, an intellectual who doesn’t know how to exist in the midst of this brutishness.

Of course, it’s not “just like” what we are experiencing. Nothing is ever “just like.” Bunin was keenly aware of the limits of historical analogies as he thought about the parallels between the tragedy of 1917 and the French revolution. Still, there are enough similarities to make us think about what we are allowing to happen.

As the horror around him deepens, Bunin finally manages to get rid of the enormous sense of guilt that every Russian intellectual carried towards the narod, the former serfs or their descendants.

The people who manipulated the angry mobs “kept giving them handouts, trying to butter them up.” But that’s not what Bunin finds hard to stomach. “Three quarters of people easily relinquish their conscience, their soul, and their humanity in exchange for handouts, for a permission to rob and loot.” Like most people, Bunin never realized how thin the veneer of civilization was and how easily the seemingly normal people around him would turn into animals that rape and murder for fun. It wasn’t exceptional for a regular person to turn into a rabid animal. It was exceptional not to.

And mind you, Bunin isn’t describing a totalitarian regime. These are the first several months of the revolution. There was no regime. An enormous number of people chose to do horrific things not because somebody made them or terrorized them or brainwashed them. No, they did it because they could. It was fun.

Continue reading “Book Notes: Ivan Bunin’s Cursed Days”

Ozarks, Anyone?

Has anybody here been to the Ozarks on vacation? Since Florida is complicated, I’m thinking we should try something more local.

Of course, it won’t be easy to persuade N to go because he’s a big fan of the TV series The Ozarks and now thinks the place is teeming with drug cartels.

We want a very quiet family vacation in a place where we can swim a lot. We are very anti-excitement. For us, fun consists of staring at each other beatifically.

If not the Ozarks, does anybody know of any other place where people can swim that’s driving distance from St Louis? All recommendations are greatly appreciated.

Book Notes: Ruth Ware

When I get into an author, I usually go and read everything by them. So I read all of Ruth Ware’s novels. They are entertaining but not worth writing a separate review for each book.

People always ask why I read such trashy novels. But where else can one find a novel written entirely from the perspective of a breastfeeding mother who has an infant clamped to her breast throughout the 400 pages of the novel? And not because the author is trying to make some point but because it’s a large part of life for women. Women spend years keeping their kids in their field of vision while doing everything else. It’s nice to read about that even when it isn’t great art.

Out of all the novels by Ware that I read, Lying Game is my favorite because it has the breastfeeding mother in it.

The second favorite is The Death of Mrs Westaway because it has extreme poverty, precariousness, and in spite of not being a great artist, Ware treats people who live in poverty and the often dubious choices they make with great tact and non-sappy kindness. Writers have such trouble finding the right tone to depict poverty but Ware does it surprisingly well.

In a Dark, Dark Wood is my least favorite. It’s about a woman who can’t get over a teenage crush, and I’m simply too old for that kind of thing. Fussy, neurotic women fighting over high school sweethearts are not my cup of tea. The novel’s only saving grace is a short appearance of a character who is a mother to a small child and who finds the squabbling neurotic women to be complete idiots.

The Turn of the Key was the first Ware novel I read and I really enjoyed it. There’s this whole surveillance capitalism aspect that I’m into, so it was fun.

The Woman in Cabin 10 was one of the weakest but not as bad as In a Dark, Dark Wood.

Ware knows how to create suspense. She’s good at building a Gothic ambiance. But she’s weak at denouement. The last 30 pages are always the weakest part of her books. So if you read thrillers for the ending, she’s not your author.

Book Notes: Almudena Grandes’ Frankenstein’s Mother

Here’s a true story for you. A 1930s feminist murders her own daughter because the daughter wants to live what we today call “a traditional lifestyle” and not be a feminist. How can you possibly go wrong with this kind of material? You can’t, right?

Well, if you are Almudena Grandes, you can.

Grandes is a Spanish writer who keeps churning out doorstoppers about the Franco dictatorship. Again, the Franco dictatorship offers tons of fascinating material. But Grandes’ thing is that she populates Franco’s Spain of the 1950s with characters who think and feel like extremely liberal people of year 2020 and they spend 780 painful pages feeling outraged about how everything around them is not progressive enough for their liking.

Grandes is a good storyteller, so I can usually get over this annoying habit of hers but in this novel Grandes as a storyteller loses out to Grandes the ideologue.

But wait. There’s more.

As a good 2020 liberal, Grandes hates religious people. The religious people she chose to tear into in this novel are Jews. She approves of the Jews who are completely secular, who have changed their names, and don’t even observe Sabbath.

But practicing Jews really get her goat. She goes on, page after painful page, ridiculing the speaking of Hebrew, the kippah, the Sabbath, the hair, the food, everything. Now, please remember that it isn’t just any Jews she’s ridiculing. In Grandes’ novel, it’s 1953, and the Jews are German Jews who have just survived the Holocaust. If there’s ever been a group of people who are not funny, it’s these Jews. Seriously, lady, first you create characters whose son was murdered on Kristallnacht and then you ridicule their yarmulkes? Why is that necessary?

There’s a terrible scene where the novel’s angelic protagonist who’s so tolerant he supports gay marriage and abortion in 1953 taunts a sad Holocaust Jew, telling him it’s stoooopid to experience any discomfort to avoid converting. The Jew isn’t given an opportunity to respond, of course.

It gets so bad that Grandes even uses the expression “a final solution” to describe the thought process of a kindly character who is trying to figure out how to make these annoyingly Jewish Jews less Jewish. I don’t believe Grandes used this expression consciously but I’m not surprised that it pops up when people are indulging their feelings of annoyance against Jews.

What’s particularly bizarre is that this plotline is completely unnecessary. The novel is already very long and tiresome. There’s absolutely no need to bring in a character who is a Rabbi in the last 80 pages only to ridicule him. The poor Rabbi clearly has nothing to do with the murderous feminist.

The treatment of the murderous feminist (who is a real historical figure) is also bizarre. The way that the murder of her daughter is dismissed and the killer mom is presented as completely justified brings to mind the trope of “post-birth abortion.” Since the novel is passionately pro-abortion, one begins to think that the fictional treatment of the daughter-killer is pointing in the direction of “hey, I mean, if the kid is really annoying and doesn’t even share your very progressive values, there are all sorts of good final solutions…”

It’s a bad novel, people. I don’t think it makes sense to write about an era you so thoroughly despise with the sole aim of communicating how much you despise it because you are so much more progressive and evolved. Especially if you aren’t even that evolved and think that Holocaust Jews make a good subject for ridicule.

Almudena Grandes is the real Frankenstein’s mother, and this novel is her deformed, ugly child.

#1 Sign You Are Living with a Russian…

… is that after every YouTube video he watches he says, “You know, after seeing how much this YouTuber enjoys [whatever the YouTuber’s specialty is], I realized that something must be deeply wrong with me if I have no interest for [whatever it is the YouTuber is YouTubing about.]” Then a long discussion ensues of how his life could have gone so completely off the rails that he’s incapable of being like the blasted YouTuber.

Everything is an existential dilemma with the Russians. People who don’t believe in cultural differences should observe me and my husband. We are a pair of walking stereotypes.

In Defense of Intersectionality

So you know how every time I say that mass immigration is not the bee’s knees, somebody brings up that I’m an immigrant and that I seem to be enjoying it a lot? Because obviously there can’t possibly be any difference between the immigration experience of a hyper-educated, multilingual, academically gifted person who emigrates for fun and the experience of somebody who is forced to migrate because of gang violence and poverty?

Noticing this difference is what in my job is called “intersectional analysis.” The term has gotten a bad rap because a bunch of Shakesville-type bloggers made it sound completely stupid but it refers to a useful skill.

When you are talking about “people of color,” do you mean people like Michelle Obama or the woman of color who cleans her toilets? By “women,” do you mean women like Ivanka Trump or like the sweet old lady we all saw on TV whose neighborhood was destroyed by looters leaving her with no grocery store for miles around?

Normal people don’t need to make a special effort to see these differences but academics really do. As all teachers, we have a strong narcissistic component and tend to see everything in terms of ourselves, our lives, our friends, and our experiences. It’s very useful to be able to step away from this unhealthy self-centeredness.

As an example, I’m quoting in my book a pair of academics who gush that the transformation of Central America into one huge borderland “opens up possibilities for reimagining our categories and creating new paradigms.” That there are people whose lives are being devastated by this process isn’t even noticed because, hey, there’s a reimagining of categories going on, step aside, you dumb proles.

Against this type of typically academic cluelessness an intersectional analysis is very helpful.

The reason I’m writing this is that my book on intersectional feminism and transnationalism will come out later this year and I don’t want people to dismiss it out of hand because the title sounds icky. Yes, it does sound icky. But the argument itself is actually good.

Book Notes: Platform Capitalism by Nick Srnicek

If you fell into a coma in 1978 and only woke up today or if you’ve lived in the depths of the taiga and emerged out of it 15 seconds ago, I have great news for you. A guy called Nick Srnicek wrote a book that will explain, with a wealth of fascinating detail, everything you need to know about such things as Facebook, Google, Amazon, and even Uber.

You will learn that Amazon has a lot of warehouses, Facebook gets most of its profits from selling ads, and Uber is this fascinating thing that benefits from having more drivers AND more riders. Cool, huh? Who could have known. And Google? Guess what, you can search for information in it for free. Shocking stuff.

The single thing in this book that’s new for those of us who haven’t been lost in the tundra is Srnicek’s conclusion that, in order to counteract the monopolizing tendencies of Google, the state should build its own Google that will “belong to the people” but won’t spy on them. After reading about that brilliant plan, I was almost ready to go straight back to the tundra because I had no idea anybody took the “start your own Twitter” quip seriously.

In short, if saying the excruciatingly, tragically, embarrassingly obvious were an Olympic sport, Mr Srnicek would be a gold medalist.

P.S. If even this review generates no interest, I really give up. Nobody could have made anything as soporific as this book this much fun.

Literary Criticism in Ukraine

My article in the leading Ukrainian journal of literary criticism has come out! The journal is huge. It’s almost 300 pages long, which is why I only have the .PDF version for now. But it’s a very serious journal, super cool.

And it refers to me as “world-famous,” which is a little embarrassing but in a good way. The article is about Salman Rushdie and Lucy Ellmann and written entirely in captivity.

If anybody here reads Ukrainian and is eager to know what such a world famous person has to say about Rushdie and Ellmann, let me know and I’ll send you the file.

I also had an article on Eastern European immigrants in the Spanish crisis literature come out last week, so things are hopping around here.