Buck's Reviews > Journey into the Whirlwind

Journey into the Whirlwind by Evgenia Ginzburg
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Aug 29, 09

bookshelves: in-captivity, life-writing, russians
Read in August, 2009

After beavering away like a good little boy on a review of Into the Whirlwind, I got so disgusted with the falseness and inadequacy of my response (even more so than usual) that I eventually gave up in despair. Instead, I’ll take this opportunity to elaborate on some comments I made below, since I’m still kind of hung up on the ethics of reading ‘survivor literature’ – a topic of zero interest to anyone who’s not a complete tool like myself. So fair warning.

Despite all my prissy scruples, I think I could offer a plausible justification for this weird gulag obsession I’ve developed. The standard defence would be to claim that books such as Into the Whirlwind are educational in the truest sense, admitting us into a reality so incredibly, so monstrously alien to our own.

And there’s something to this argument. Speaking personally, I am – I have to face it – the spoiled and sheltered product of a relatively enlightened society. Don’t get me wrong: I’m grateful, extremely grateful. But what, frankly, do I know about evil? About suffering, injustice, degradation? As a matter of real, lived experience, almost nothing. When it comes to moral knowledge, I’m a mere child, a big, happy, thirty-something child. Of course, many of the people I see around me every day are similarly infantilized, but that doesn’t give me much comfort, since it only means there are fewer viable models out there. Lacking what you might call the ‘tragic sense of life’, I compensate by getting it second-hand from those who’ve acquired it the hard way -- in a Soviet labour camp, for instance.

It’s very tempting to just leave it at that, writing off my gulag fascination as a tax-deductible, personal improvement expense. But the very neatness of the self-justification makes me suspicious. I love literature; I take it more seriously than almost anything else in the world, but I’m very sceptical of the proposition that we can learn anything essential about life just by ingesting a certain quantity and quality of printed matter. It’s an illusion to which intellectuals are prone: the idea that all the answers are buried away in books, waiting to be excavated – when the really important lessons are the ones that are branded and beaten into you by life itself.

Conclusion? Dunno – I haven’t got that far in my thinking yet. I’m certainly not giving up on books, nor am I abandoning the gulag just yet. I suppose I’d just like to live a little more in the world and a little less in my head, to keep literature in its place.

Somebody should write a book about that.


What does it say about me that I've created a separate shelf for Soviet prison memoirs? And that I can think of at least three others I want to read? This can't be healthy.
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message 1: by Eric (new)

Eric I got a bookstore gift certificate for my birthday a few weeks ago. Browsing Russian History I suddenly thought: No, I've had my fill of Russia's Nightmare 20th Century, at least for now, and moved on. I ended up selecting, among other things, Andrei Platonov's novel The Foundation Pit, whose introduction now informs me that it's a surrealist allegory of Stalinist agricultural collectivization. I guess there's no escape.

message 2: by Jim (new)

Jim Healthy? No. Hilarious? Yes.

Buck I'm quickly reaching my saturation point, too, I just realized. Plus, I'm beginning to question my own motives in immersing myself in this stuff (profound and eye-opening as it is). If you're not careful, it can become a form of intellectual rubbernecking, you know? I'm always wary of those people who lap up all the Nazi-related material they can get their hands on, however lofty their avowed intentions. The literature of the Gulag can exert the same dangerous fascination, don't you think?

So, hmmm, I've almost talked myself into putting this one aside. Still, if I can find the Tertz memoir I just added, I might give it a try before taking a vacation from that whole awful world.

Buck Hey, Jim. Haven't seen you around in a while. You must have a life or something. What's that like?

message 5: by Eric (new)

Eric I’m not worried about becoming a Gulag-lit addict. A few unauthenticated but evilly vivid images of Mandelstam’s last days—-insanely convinced that his food was poisoned, he stole rations from other prisoners, was savagely beaten by them in retribution and finally expelled from the barrack, to “live,” feed and rave, maddened and filthy, in the camp’s garbage pile—-brim with the sufficient horror. (Not that my sensibilities are so refined. Stalingrad, Kursk, Bagration? I eat that up.)

message 6: by Jim (new)

Jim Have any of you read Varlam Shalamov's Kolyma Tales (available in Penguin). It's the ultimate in Gulag Lit. And yes, I'm an addict, too.

Buck I haven't got around to Kolyma Tales yet, but I'm aware of it and, God help me, it's on my list.

On second thought, I might stick with Into the Whirlwind for a while. I don't think I've ever used this word without scare quotes, but it's strangely...uplifting.

message 8: by Eric (new)

Eric I recall the last sections of Amis's Koba The Dread as one long paraphrase of Shalamov.

message 9: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell What does it say about me that I've created a separate shelf for Soviet prison memoirs?

It says that you are AWESOME, particularly because I don't have to read them and can have fun with A.S. Byatt instead. Heh. (No, seriously, I loved Nadezhda Mandelstam's memoirs, but it's been such a long time since I read them, and I'm not sure I could pick them up again, at least not now.)

message 10: by Buck (new) - rated it 5 stars

Buck It's true: I am pretty awesome. More to the point, though, I'm still a little conflicted about my interest in the gulag. If I get around to reviewing the book, I think I'll try to address this issue, meaning it'll be a total snooze-fest for everyone but myself.

message 11: by [deleted user] (new)

I'm going to have to go with Moira on this: you are awesome. I love your new thoughts on your love of the gulag, partially because you used the word "beaver" as a verb, and I'm immature in several ways.

Several years ago, I traumatized the crap out of a close friend and my husband by renting and screening the movie Requiem for a Dream. Jeremy wouldn't talk to me for like a week after that. Although arty, well-acted, and pretty well put together, the movie's one of those films where you watch several people descend into drug abuse & then become crack-whores & other degrading things. (See also: Trainspotting, Drugstore Cowboy.) I swore by the glass of wine in my hand that I would never watch another one of these. I get it. Drugs are bad.

Now, before everyone jumps down my throat about the message of these films being "drugs are bad" - this is not Reefer Madness after all - I think eventually, in their narrative pedigrees, these stories do owe something to government anti-drug propaganda. I feel divided about propaganda. (Jeez, really?) On the one hand, it's often laughably naive and silly, but then, when it works, it makes me tremble with the knowledge that I have a collection of cultural buttons that can be pushed without my consent.

So, I don't know, I guess that point I'm trying to make is that these gulag narrative are written during the full flower of the Stalin propaganda machine - a machine so effective that there were mass suicides when Stalin died, because Soviets couldn't imagine life without Uncle Joe. Even as anti-propaganda tracks - a personal record of the cruelties of the collective - they are told in the shadow of that propaganda, unwittingly absorbing some of the terms and phrases, just to mix metaphors as usual. Does this make any sense?

I haven't sworn not to read any more gulag stories though, so it's not like I'm consistent or anything, also as usual.

message 12: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell Several years ago, I traumatized the crap out of a close friend and my husband by renting and screening the movie Requiem for a Dream. Jeremy wouldn't talk to me for like a week after that. Although arty, well-acted, and pretty well put together, the movie's one of those films where you watch several people descend into drug abuse & then become crack-whores & other degrading things. (See also: Trainspotting, Drugstore Cowboy.)

OMG! I love that movie! It is so good! ....well, it is one of those movies that are so well-made, and so good, and you want to see them just once and never again, and after viewing it watch Mary Poppins for a year or something. (Just a spoonful of sugar -- oh, dear....) (As for the DRUGZ R BAD aspect, well yeah, DRUGZ R BAD, for addicts. Everyone else, not that much.

I think you have a really good point about the gulag memoirs -- I was just reading in his new biography about Cheever and other writers visiting the Soviet Union, and remembering how little information used to get out, how much we really didn't know about what was happening to the people there. Propaganda sinks deep into the water table on all sides.

message 13: by Buck (last edited Aug 29, 2009 07:01PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Buck Ceridwen, your point is a really subtle one, even by your standards. If I understand you correctly, you're saying that writers can be subconsciously tainted by the very power structures they oppose, and this contamination can create subtextual ripples in their work. Have I got that right? If so, that's very Derridean of you, I must say.

I'm going to go away and chew on that one for a while. In the meantime, though, let me throw out a stumper of my own on the subject of 'narrative pedigree' (nice phrase). It dawned on me while reading Into the Whirlwind that a lot of these memoirs take the form of the classic bildungsroman: you know, a journey from innocence to wisdom via trials and suffering. But an indiscreet question arises: do memoirists adopt this form because it accords so well with their experiences, or do they chop and mould their experiences to suit the form? Or is there some weird dialectical thing going on between the two?

Any takers?

message 14: by [deleted user] (new)

Ceridwen, your point is a really subtle one, even by your standards. If I understand you correctly, you're saying that writers can be subconsciously tainted by the very..

Fuck, do I have subtlety standards? I did mean this, although I really couldn't Derrida my way out of a wet paper bag. But I also meant, and I didn't say this, that as an American, my reading of these gulag narratives gets weirdly bound up with my own country's propaganda about the eeeeevviiiils of communism, just as it is informed and shaped (kind of) by the propaganda of Mother Russia. Watch the current haranguing about health care, and you can see that Red Panic is still alive and well and circling Wal*Mart. I have no idea what the Canadian experience is with regards to Red Scares and all that, but I imagine that "Red Dawn" opened the same weekend in all of North America. (Wolverines!) (Sorry, no more jingoistic outbursts, by gum.)

Re: bildugsroman. This is an awesome question, and one I will have to go think about too.

message 15: by Buck (new) - rated it 5 stars

Buck "Red Dawn", eh? You're really tossing off those 80s references tonight. Beautiful movie in any case. Chillingly prophetic. But why did I always think Rae Dawn Chong was in it? Just because of the near homophone? She should've been in it, damn it.

I'm still no closer to responding to your original point, and just to wander further off-topic, I have to mention here that, on top of everything else, this book contains possibly the bleakest joke I’ve ever heard:

A new arrival at a Soviet labour camp is sent to the infirmary for the standard medical exam. The doctor takes out his stethoscope and says, ‘Breathe.’ Just to make conversation, he asks, ‘So, what are you in for?’ ‘Article 58,’ answers the prisoner. ‘Ten years.’ The doctor puts down his stethoscope. ‘In that case – stop breathing.’

Compare that with the funniest doctor joke I’ve ever heard, as told by Billy Connolly. Soon after joining the British army, Connolly goes in for a physical. The doctor tells him to drop his drawers. ‘Not very big down there, are you?’ says the doctor. To which Connolly replies, ‘I thought we were just going to fight ‘em, sir.’

Why do I find that joke so consoling? Odd…

Where was I?

message 16: by globulon (new)

globulon Interesting points you are raising Buck. I wonder if part of what you are objecting to in yourself is the voyeuristic aspect of it. In a post above you compare it to intellectual rubbernecking but then you sort of sidetrack with the Nazi business. I understand the point you are making but isn't the issue more that in this particular case, rather than just being fascinated with horror in general you are afraid that you are deriving pleasure specifically by the awful suffering, which by rights should never be exposed to that second sort of exploitation.

I think though that it must be said that sometimes the way to overcome something is to go through it. Perhaps the way to a truer understanding of this stuff is to go through a phase where your motives aren't pure. How often are motives pure?

I also think that we read to make life more fulfilling. That is to say, just reading doesn't get you anywhere, but neither does just throwing yourself into the meat grinder (at least past the age of like 25 or so). I mean raw experience is good up to a point, but it's a fairly limited point. And I am a firm believer that past that point, you will run in circles, and make not only the same mistakes YOU always make, but the same ones your parents made. So it seems to me it's the combination of the two that's powerfull.

But, I also think it's true that what I wrote in the last paragraph is the reason reading is important, but is not by any means the only reason we read. We also read because things fascinate us, or just for escapist pleasure sometimes. Reading isn't simple anymore than life is. And I think following your nose is an important skill in both life and art (either as creator or receiver).

message 17: by Buck (new) - rated it 5 stars

Buck You’re right: I dropped the thread of the whole voyeurism argument, which is actually one of the biggest problems I have with my gulag thing. On some level I must enjoy this stuff; I must get off on reading about real horrors inflicted on real people. And that’s not cool. I can live with it, but it’s not cool.

But maybe it's not only voyeurism. The realities of Soviet Russia being so different from my own, maybe it's also a species of exoticism. Of course, that's another reason we read, as you mentioned: to escape. But the same sort of ethical question applies, i.e. Is it okay to escape into somebody else's suffering? With fiction the question is less urgent; but when you're dealing with real atrocities, it gives you pause.

message 18: by Steve (new)

Steve I'm still trying to recover from my Hope Against Hope summer reading on the banks of the Somme. For what it’s worth, I don't know if I'd categorize reading such books as voyeurism, or the experience necessarily being one of enjoyment, but simply sensing that such books are more substantive than most. And as I get older, I find I’d rather spend my time wrestling w/ such books. I can read a beach book today, enjoy it, and forget it quickly. I can read, for example, Hope Against Hope, find each page excruciating, but at the end, have it for life. Btw, great review and thread. (I think I saw somewhere that Red Dawn is being remade.)

message 19: by Buck (new) - rated it 5 stars

Buck Yes, that’s certainly part of the appeal: the sense that these books are ‘more substantive than most’. I sometimes wonder why people even bother reading novels when there’s enough horror and drama in Russian history alone – to say nothing of the rest of the world – to satisfy the most jaded appetite.

I’ve somehow resisted the temptation to hurl myself into Hope Against Hope, even though it’s pretty much the granddaddy (or grandma) of the whole genre. I’m sort of saving it. Anyway, once I finish the Tertz memoir I’m currently reading, I’m planning to take a much-needed break from the gulag. Next up, something frothy. I’m thinking the Armenian genocide. Sorry, I shouldn’t joke about these things. But I’m laughing at myself, not genocide.

The banks of the Somme, eh? Well, I don’t mean to brag, but I spent part of my summer vacation on the shores of Lake Ontario. I like to think of it as the North American Riviera. Nobody else does, though.

message 20: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Sep 02, 2009 09:10AM) (new)

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Buck wrote: "On some level I must enjoy this stuff; I must get off on reading about real horrors inflicted on real people. And that’s not cool. I can live with it, but it’s not cool."

I'd continue with further introspection and reconsider this. I don't know you, but I can't imagine that what gives you pleasure is actually the suffering that you're reading about. There are just so many more options I'd consider before that. If you want to be self-effacing a bit you could consider that the pleasure you get from reading about the Gulag is in how it might make you appear favorably to others--that it makes you look fearlessly scholarly, able to press on through the unpleasant in the name of knowledge, etc. Or to appear admirably sensitive and empathetic to the plight of people you've never known who died long ago. I'd sooner blame myself for having those kinds of unconscious self-aggrandizing desires before I'd start wondering about truly nasty sadistic impulses. But who knows. There very well could be something to the notion that even the most kindly and peaceful of humans has some attraction to violence that is expressed not merely through the obvious channels like warfare simulating sports or video games, but also through the academic, bookish fascination with serial murderers, Nazis and the Gulag.

Great topics and an interesting thread here.

message 21: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Sep 02, 2009 08:40AM) (new)

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio The other thing is that human beings simply appreciate novelty. We've cultivated what is generally a good impulse, which is a fascination with that which is unusual to us. I say that the search for novelty is a mostly good impulse because it's essentially the opposite of and antidote to us-them thinking when coupled with certain ethical precepts and extrapolated far enough--and is the basis for artistic and scientific creativity and innovation as well.

message 22: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Sep 02, 2009 09:12AM) (new)

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Buck wrote: "It dawned on me while reading Into the Whirlwind that a lot of these memoirs take the form of the classic bildungsroman: you know, a journey from innocence to wisdom via trials and suffering. But an indiscreet question arises: do memoirists adopt this form because it accords so well with their experiences, or do they chop and mould their experiences to suit the form? Or is there some weird dialectical thing going on between the two?

Any takers?"

I'd say there are elements of both, but I'd say that what has primacy is that it's simply customary to write memoirs when things are going well in one's life, so from that vantage point, no matter what, it's going to being a rather bildungsroman affair.

I can't imagine a memoir ending on a miserable note. We'll read about people's failures, humiliation and misery all day long but we still want our feel good ending, dammit! It's an interesting feature of mass psychology to think about there...

And it seems that most books (discounting a lot of fiction and probably near 100% of really technical textbookish things) do this bildungsroman thing as well. Even if there's some melancholy there it's often dolled up with some sort of "look to the future/hope for a better day" sentiment. Even books about historical atrocities do this more or less--these usually grab a hold of the expression of "learn from the past/not let history repeat itself" or something in that vein.

message 23: by Buck (new) - rated it 5 stars

Buck I see I stopped capitalizing 'Gulag' at some point. That was wrong.

My Flesh, I'm as intellectually vain as the next guy, but I hope that's not the whole story. I mean, I was into this genre before I ever started sharing my reading lists with the world (or with that tiny fraction of it represented by my 40 GR friends).

But I will say this: I wouldn't have bothered to examine my own motives so scrupulously if I weren't reading in such a public space. I do feel a stronger need to account for my tastes now that they're on display. Even if nobody else really gives a shit.

I agree with Globulon: our reasons for reading are all very messy and compicated -- a mixture of high-mindedness and base curiosity, with a bunch of others thrown in.

And about the bildungsroman: it's true, this type of structure satisfies a basic human need (psychological as well as aesthetic). But that's ironic, in a way, since life ALWAYS ends badly. Or maybe that's the explanation: failure being such a cosmic imperative, we take our revenge in art and narrative.

message 24: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Sep 02, 2009 10:00AM) (new)

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Just to really be clear, I was only throwing the vanity hypothesis out there as a better (but still not so great) alternative to getting pleasure from the suffering of others.

It's a really interesting issue being raised though. It's also hard to really parse out all these motivations and determine with any completely satisfying precision how much each of them contributes to things like taste and pleasure derived from unpleasant subjects--at least after a certain depth of analysis has been breached, or at least this is my experience. But it's fun to think about nonetheless.

And I agree with your points about the bildungsroman. It's interesting how pervasive it truly is. This reminds me of this thought-provoking contrast between cyclical thinking and linear thinking that I'm sure has been analyzed to death in academic writing. One book I read on this general subject was The Myth of the Eternal Return: Or, Cosmos and History by Mircea Eliade.

message 25: by Buck (new) - rated it 5 stars

Buck Yeah, it is surprisingly fun to think about this stuff. But man, all this navel-gazing is giving me a stiff neck. Reminds me of the time...ah, forget it.

That book you mentioned looks kind of awesome. Academic, but awesome.

message 26: by [deleted user] (new)

I seem to have wandered off this thread, and in my absence, it became even *more* awesome. I just had a weird thought I might share.

I've noticed there's a whole sub-genre of young adult fiction that sort of the kiddie fiction of miserablism: heart-rending tales of abuse by parents, homelessness, suicide, killing your dog because it's gone rabid, etc. I'm trying to come up with some titles, but I'm having a hard time because I only read this stuff under duress when I was 12. This is the stuff that tends to win the YA awards and get assigned in classes, while kids actually read stuff like Harry Potter or Twilight if given half a chance. And if you're 12, and above this reading level, then you go onto actual adult miserablism and resent the kiddie stuff, as I know from personal experience - ahem.

So where am I going with this? I think it's interesting that this baby pool cruelty gets assigned as some sort of suck-it-up PSA - kids, life is nasty, brutish and short, and you are *not* wizards and your boyfriend is *not* a vampire - there are real dangers that are not magical and fun and there is no sweet outfit to match.

As usual, I'm having a hard time wrapping up my thoughts, but I wonder if some of my interest in these adult cruelties isn't as some counterpoint to the SFF I hoover up like pixie sticks. I don't think you read as much garbage as I do, Buck, so maybe this has no bearing on your intentions. SSF offers me vistas of ideas, while a good Gulag narrative gives me the grain of hard reality. Although, I keep thinking of the proverb one of my picture framer friends liked to repeat: don't mistake symmetry for balance. Now that I type this, I realize he was kind of an asshole, but whatever.

And, I don't have the brain power to get into this now, but I love the point you make about the whole public reading thing changing your perceptions, because I've noticed this myself. I wonder what books people keep from their feeds, because it's too darn embarrassing, and then I wonder why?

message 27: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Sep 03, 2009 09:19PM) (new)

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Ceridwen wrote: "I've noticed there's a whole sub-genre of young adult fiction that sort of the kiddie fiction of miserablism: heart-rending tales of abuse by parents, homelessness, suicide, killing your dog because it's gone rabid, etc. I'm trying to come up with some titles, but I'm having a hard time because I only read this stuff under duress when I was 12."

One title that almost immediately entered my mind that might fit into this miserablist sub-genre (we'll call it "Kiddie Miserablism" for kicks) is one I read when I was probably either 11 or 12 and is called After the First Death.

message 28: by Buck (new) - rated it 5 stars

Buck You and your fancy acronyms, Ceridwen. I had to call on Wikipedia to help me decipher them:

PSA – Prostate Specific Antigen
SSF – Small Shelly Fauna
SFF -Special Frontier Force (a special operations force of the Indian Army composed exclusively of Tibetans)

So now your comment makes perfect sense and we can get on with the discussion.

Bridge to Terabithia was about as hardcore as things got in the Mulligan household when I was a lad, though I also recall a real downer about a boy with leukemia who just wants to bag a deer before he dies. Does this ring any bells with anyone? Or has my brain fused The Deer Hunter and the Dudley Moore tearjerker Six Weeks into a YA novel?

One of my many inconsistencies is that I criticize Beckett for his (very adult) miserablism and then I go chill out with some Russian intellectuals freezing to death in Siberia (‘chill out’ was an unfortunate choice of words). I don’t know how to explain this except by referring to the narrative arc of survivor’s lit., which My Flesh and I were fleshing out above (somebody shoot me). Logically and by definition, the writer has survived his or her ordeal, and this gives the story a certain upward curve, however dicey things might get in the middle.

I really have no stomach for the critical-theory cottage industry that has sprung up around the Holocaust, but people in that business like to make the point that the Holocaust cannot be written about—is unrepresentable—because the ultimate victims are, unavoidably, silent. They can only be ventriloquized by the ones who made it out. Of course, that’s true of history in general, isn’t it, so where does that leave us?

Um, can I tell some more penis jokes now?

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Synopsis of After the First Death, the previously mentioned candidate for the label of Kiddie Miserablism:

A tough, double-barreled thriller which immerses readers, alternately, in the unexplained torment of young Ben Marchand and his father, who await each other in a prep school dorm, and in the tension aboard a hijacked school bus diverted to a rickety unused bridge. The driver is a young girl with a nervous bladder, her guard a teenage terrorist (his mentor nearby in a van) who is looking forward to his initiation: his first kill. Early on, one of the tranquilized child passengers dies of a drug overdose, and after the first death there are many others: three of the four terrorists are eventually shot; the wariest, most promising of the children is killed in retaliation for the first of the three; a soldier gets his while participating in a rescue attack; and then, crouching with him in the woods when it's almost over, the girl makes a false play for the young gunman's emotions and he shoots her. (We leave him, stepping off the last page, preparing to kill again for a getaway car.) Ben's death comes later, at his own hands, after we learn that he had been sent as envoy to the terrorists and set up by his father, a general in charge of negotiations, to "betray" his country with false information. Cormier does not so much refuse to mourn as refuse to compromise - which his merciless choice of victims and his tight-lipped projection of the Army side makes smashingly clear. (Kirkus Reviews)

message 30: by Buck (new) - rated it 5 stars

Buck Wait, I saw that movie. It's called Toy Soldiers. Sean Astin's in it. A young, Brando-esque Sean Astin.

How many crappy movies have I referenced in this thread?

message 31: by [deleted user] (new)

Wait, I still haven't fully spazzed out about there being a remake of Red Dawn.

Also, I feel like we need more dick jokes. More dick jokes!

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio I didn't know they made it into a film. I liked the book quite a bit when I was 11 or 12 and read it of my own will (not under duress, like Ceridwen mentioned) and read it again for a class freshmen year in high school and I still liked it.

message 33: by Buck (last edited Sep 03, 2009 09:44PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Buck No, no. Toy Soldiers just has a very similar premise. Some terrorists take over a prep school. Then it basically becomes Red Dawn. Why am I even talking about this?

message 34: by Sparrow (last edited Sep 09, 2010 10:35AM) (new)

Sparrow Buck wrote: "Sean Astin's in it. A young, Brando-esque Sean Astin."

HA! I don't know how I missed this thread before. I say again, hahaha - Brando-esque Sean Astin! Also, I'm going to see Sean Astin chased by criminals this week at the movie theater (Goonies flashback). Do I get sadism points for that, or does it go in the self-righteously compassionate category? Or is it propaganda? I love me some good propaganda, and no one dishes it out quite so thick as Spielberg.

I don't have anything helpful to say about Gulags, though. Except, I think the appeal of most memoirs (Gulag or otherwise) is that they give some perspective on the tragedies in our own lives and how petty or meaningful they actually are.

message 35: by Buck (new) - rated it 5 stars

Buck This thread is so two weeks ago, Meredith. Do try to keep up with my obsessions.

Goonies, eh? The crappy-movie tally keeps rising...

message 36: by Rose (new) - added it

Rose I think part of the explanation may be that cycle in some of us, in which reading about something makes us want to read more about it and explore the topic further. It lets us draw connections, compare and contrast, and use the knowledge and understanding gained from one to enhance what we take from the other. It lets us read books from a perspective shifting increasingly away from that of a layperson (bringing to mind the sad thought that if you read even one book on a subject, you're likely to be better informed about it than the vast majority of the world).

This accounts for a lot of the clustering of my reading around particular topics. I have always been someone who enjoyed reading series fiction, and the same trend seems to be apparent in my non-fiction reading.

If it makes you feel better, I see you have 4 books on your "in captivity" shelf. I just did a quick count and this year, I've read 18 books about WW2/the Holocaust, both fiction and non-fiction, and I'm reading 3 at the moment. As a young woman, I'm not really in the typical demographic for an obsession with military history; it's more just that reading about one thing spawns an interest in reading about another. Like life in the USSR, it's such a huge topic that it has an almost endless capacity to fascinate, unless you are being taught about it at school.

message 37: by Sparrow (new)

Sparrow I am giving you a very serious look right now, Buck. This is one of the best moments in cinema history: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q5UG7I.... Don't be a hater.

Rose - that is so impressive!

message 38: by Rose (new) - added it

Rose Um, if you meant about the 18 books, I actually meant it as a "don't worry, I can embarrass myself more than you through my excessive reading of books on a particular subject!" point. It wasn't meant to be any kind of boast, and I only really realise that now looking back (in fairness to me, that would be a pretty rubbish boast on a site like this). To stray from the topic somewhat: perhaps that's a measure of how ingrained the notion is that being interested in reading and anything other than pop culture is deeply shameful and should be downplayed or explained away.

message 39: by Sparrow (new)

Sparrow Oh, it didn't occur to me that you would be bragging. I took it as just helpful, factual information. I'm still impressed.

message 40: by Rose (new) - added it

Rose Phew!

message 41: by Buck (new) - rated it 5 stars

Buck Thanks, Rose. I feel comparitively normal now. You've got some serious issues, though. Good luck with that (kidding, of course - I'm obviously in no position to judge.)

message 42: by Rose (new) - added it

Rose Watch it. You might tip me over into an insane re-enactment of the Normandy landings on your ass.

message 43: by Buck (new) - rated it 5 stars

Buck Is that a threat or a come-on?

message 44: by Rose (new) - added it

Rose The terrifying part is...it could be either.

message 45: by Beth (new) - rated it 5 stars

Beth I just read this entire thread nearly a year to the date later, and I have to say, it is possibly the number one most entertaining thing I've read in days (I'm not enjoying the book I'm currently reading, clearly). I don't know any of you, but I just wanted to say, kudos to you all for such a real, interesting, and funny convo.

I've read quite a bit on the Troubles in Northern Ireland/the general crappiness of living in Ireland up until about ten years ago. So if you want to talk Depressing Lit, I can help you out. But I love this notion of exploring your reasons for doing so. You've all come up with extremely interesting explanations, I have to say. I happen to be Irish Catholic with a father who grew up in 1950s Tipperary, Ireland, so I attribute a lot of my interest to a combination of reasons that stem from those facts. But also, and I believe someone said this above, I also walk away from these stories (once the chest pains have subsided) with a renewed sense of delight that I am living my life...not there. Not in that space, and not in that time, and not with those rules governing my every thought.

Nicely done, folks.

message 46: by Buck (new) - rated it 5 stars

Buck You're right, Beth: this is an entertaining thread. We were all so witty and vivacious back then, before life chewed us up and spat us out. (I guess I should speak for myself here, but I think I can also speak for Meredith).

I'd never really thought about Northern Ireland in this connection. One thing Russia and Ireland have in common (aside from the cascading tragedies) is a highly-developed literary tradition. So in both countries you had people capable of describing how history was screwing them over, of bearing witness with the utmost articulacy. As far as I can see, this is what's lacking in places like Afghanistan and the Congo today, probably because the intelligenstia got the hell out of both places ages ago. And if they didn't, they were exterminated. The little I've read about these countries has come from Western sources, which is fine, but sometimes I want an insider's perspective, you know?

message 47: by [deleted user] (new)

I'm still effervescent and refreshing. Except for the mild hangover, that is.

message 48: by Sparrow (new)

Sparrow Please, speak for me. But I didn't have much of a hand in this thread. :'( I think this was one of the first ones I missed because of school and the circus wedding. So sad! I would have had so many brilliant things to contribute otherwise . . .

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