Friday, June 09, 2006

A Disclaimer

I don't, in fact, like every single thing I read. The only things I see through to the end are things that hold my attention, and that's why most of the book reviews are as glowing as articles on the new Pitt-Jolie "more popular than Jesus" baby. But there's plenty I dislike -- Stephen King once related a Stanley Kubrick anecdote, in which the secretary to the filmmaker SK would hear the regular "thunk" of dissatisfying books being thrown at the door. I'm just like that, except I don't have an office or a secretary, and I don't actually throw the books, because I've got a small place. They'd break something.

I also do read things that aren't Russia/Eastern Europe-related. Honest to God.

Naturally, now, a Soviet-related book that I'm going to slobber all over:

#17 -- "The Lost Heart of Asia" by Colin Thubron

My first experience with Thubron was "Journey Into Cyprus," which I picked up in the same London store where I found Fermor's "A Time of Gifts." That may be the most literarily profitable trip to a bookstore I've ever made. My interest in Cyprus is/was negligible, but Thubron wrote so well that I wanted to retrace my steps. So I figured his loose trilogy on Russia/the former USSR would be even better.

Not quite. The first book, "Among the Russians," was good, and insightful, but I got he took a bit too much joy in pointing out what shits he thought all the people were. It seemed somewhat lacking in generosity and a bit too self-satisfied. Both things that can be applied to me, probably, but I'm not being read by tens of thousands.

It took me 'til now to decide to pick CT up again, and the second volume in the trilogy is so much better. On the first page, I was struck by a passage so beautiful, so perfect, that I meant to take it down as a reminder of how great words can be. Then I came upon another, equally good passage a few paragraphs later. Then another. And on and on, scattered through the book -- a few lines of such perfect description and haunting beauty that I just shook my head.

"Lost Heart" retells Thubron's travels through Central Asia -- the "Stans" -- in the years immediately after the breakup of the USSR. A confusing time, and the book's full of confused people -- residents with a set idea of where they want the future to lead, that dissolves into uncertainty almost immediately.

History and the 1994-present run together, and that's where this book is most spectacular -- ancient empires and conquerors fallen under the region's sands are more real than the just-dispersed Soviet leaders. Central Asia's extremes seem to come through the pages of this book, lending the tale a beguiling air of mystery and opacity.

Next up: something NOT Russia-related. Promise. Next two, in fact (I've got a book lined up in the on-deck circle).

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