In Love Songs of the Revolution, I have a minor character, Adolfas the baker, who has given up drinking as a way of resisting the State. The idea of temperance as a revolutionary act may surprise you if you don't know the history of alcohol in Russia.
I've recently been reading Vodka Politics by Mark Lawrence Schrad. It's about the role of alcohol - especially vodka - in Russian politics.
Today's high levels of alcoholism and related health problems in Russia isn't because of something innate to the Russian soul or even the climate, as some have argued. Schrad lays out a history of how vodka and other forms of alcohol have been used by the Russian state for hundreds of years to earn tax revenues and keep a potentially restive population passive and compliant.
It's also been a great tool to keep pretenders to the throne under control. Schrad describes how leaders from Ivan the Terrible to Peter the Great to Stalin the Soviet would force night after night of drinking-until-dawn parties on courtiers, sycophants and diplomats to get them to spill their darkest secrets. It also ensured they were either too drunk or too hungover most of the time to organize a coup.
Back in the 16th century, the Russian government established village taverns - кабак - that functioned as "rent farms," turning cheap surplus grain into relatively expensive vodka and selling it to villagers. Over the years, the share of government revenue that came from vodka grew. As the State became increasingly dependent on vodka taxes, they established policies that encouraged villagers to drink ever more.
Round about the 19th century, the temperance movement made its way from England and the US to Eastern Europe, and became entangled with the anti-colonial struggle against Russia, which has tried to control smaller countries at its borders since time immemorial. The movement found particularly fertile ground in Lithuania, where a "Brotherhood of Sobriety" was established, though this movement only discouraged vodka. Beer, wine and mead were still okay to drink.
Within a year, membership in the Brotherhood topped one million people, some three-quarters of Lithuania's population. Liquor sales plummeted, as did taxes paid to Moscow. Then the movement began to grow within Russia. The great Russian author Leo Tolstoy, author of War and Peace and well-known Christian anarcho-pacifist, earned the enmity of the State for his outspoken views against alcohol. The situation got so bad that the Russian government tried to make sobriety a crime, going so far as to put people in jail for refusing to drink.
Many Lithuanians took this position in the Soviet era as well. Refusing to drink kept their money out of Moscow's pockets, and kept them sober and ready for a revolution.
The new-and-improved Brand Library in Glendale really is all that. The 5,000 square foot mansion - named Miradero when it was built in the early 1900s - has been part of the city's library system since 1925. Over the years, many of the original interior features had been covered over by cheap architectural treatments, and bookcases full of books and audiovisual materials in a rather hodgepodge layout. The Brand Library is known for its music and art collection, including books, sheet music, CDs and videos.
The renovations have made quite a difference. Drop ceilings have been removed. Original murals have been recreated. Window frames have been restored. Where the space was once dim and a bit dingy with fluorescent lighting, it's now bright and airy. The front rooms are filled with comfortable chairs and tables that I'm going to check out next time I need a quiet place to write. The floors are covered by what look like early 20th century-style rugs. Be sure to take a look at the small, framed recreation of what the original walls looked like in the front room. Library materials and the check-out desk have been moved to the back of the building, where they connect with the art galleries.
The only sad note was that the front doors to Miradero are no longer the main entrance to the building. It's worth walking around to the front for a look at those doors, the historical marker, and the palm-lined view down to Grandview Avenue. (That's where I took my newest author photo.)
Today, you enter through these modern glass doors on the side:
If you think the Jewel City is only about the Boulevard of Cars, the Americana or great Middle Eastern food (and it is all those things too), visit the Brand Library too. Just be sure to save one of those comfy chairs for me.
I'm not talking about my Want To Read shelf on Goodreads, or my Wishlist on Audible. I mean the books I already own, piling up on various flat surfaces around the house, waiting to be read. From where I sit right now I can reach out and touch
Not so long ago, it dawned on me that I won't live long enough to read all the books I want to, perhaps not even all the books sitting right here in my house. That was a sobering brush with mortality. With all the busy-ness going on in life, sometimes I forget to set aside time for reading. Then I find myself in a bookstore making some amazing discovery, and I walk out the door with another gem (or two) in my hands. I reckon that's how they pile up. At least they're not lonely while they sit there, waiting for me to find time for them.
I'll keep buying books, that's for sure. And listening to them, downloading them and checking them out from the library. They'll keep piling up, and I'll be happy to see them every day.
What books are waiting for you?
If you're having trouble tracking sides and positions in the current Ukraine crisis, you're not alone. It's a complicated place that doesn't usually get a lot of media coverage in the West. A trio of political scientists recently surveyed Americans and found only about 16 percent could place it on a map with any accuracy. They also found that the more wrong Americans are about where Ukraine actually is, the more they want the US to intervene militarily.
The whole region of Central and Eastern Europe has a complicated history. Empires have risen and fallen over many hundreds of years. Wars have been fought and borders have moved back and forth across the map.
Then there's also the pesky little problem of the nation state, which boils down to this: a state is a political entity, while a nation is a self-identified group of people. During the Treaty of Versailles negotiations in 1919 at the end of World War I, the idealistic US President Woodrow Wilson proposed the idea that every nation in existence should get its own state, unless the winners of the war decreed they weren't smart enough to manage themselves. It was more complicated than that, of course, and was glossed over in more polite terms, but in its essence, that was the basis of many terms of the treaty.
It didn't work out for everyone. For example, Ho Chi Minh led a group that went to Versailles to petition for an end to French colonial rule in their nation and establishment of the independent country of Vietnam. The Western powers ignored him, and we see how well that went for both the French and the Americans.
The Paris Peace Talks that led to the Treaty of Versailles met 145 times, during which the winners of the war debated where lines would be drawn that separated, for example, the state called Romania from one called Hungary, Austria from Czechoslovakia, and so on. They divided up Africa amongst themselves, and decided the Kurds didn't need their own homeland. Trouble was, the lines they drew didn't line up nicely with where "nations" lived, because people have a habit of moving around and mixing amongst themselves. As a result of how lines were drawn, many thousands of people had to pack up and leave the homes where they'd lived for generations because the "state" allotted to their "nation" was on the other side of a border from where they lived. Margaret Macmillan's terrific book, Paris 1919, describes the positions and negotiations in a way that clarifies many of today's political troubles.
While the idea of providing a homeland (or state) for every self-identified group of people (or nation) might sound fair or reasonable, nationalism itself tends to be thuggish. Its most extreme manifestations have been genocidal, as in Rwanda in 1994 or Germany from 1933-1945. State borders created by the Versailles treaty were meant to diminish conflict between nations. Some argue they did exactly the opposite.
In the wake of World War II and the Holocaust, the Marxist argument for ending the nation state entirely found fertile ground in some circles. At least in theory, the Soviets sought to build a single international union that would ultimately become one big happy family where differences of nation, language and culture fell away and all would be treated equally. As part of that plan they sent large numbers of Russians to settle in places from Ukraine to Lithuania to Turkmenistan. They also rounded up hundreds of thousands of nationals of those countries and shipped them off to Siberian work camps, where more than a million people died.
This isn't the only explanation for what's happening in Ukraine right now, but it's one point that should be better understood. Many Ukrainians - as well as nationals of other former republics - have bitter memories of when their parents or grandparents were sent to the camps. At the same time, Russians whose parents and grandparents were moved to one of the far-flung Soviet republics, were born and have lived their whole lives there. Other Russian-speakers in Eastern Ukraine have even deeper roots there.
As the Treaty of Versailles taught us, drawing lines between states in a way that will please nations is a difficult task at best, fraught with risks that may not be fully understood until it is far too late.
I've always said that for every NaNoWriMo there should be at least three NaNoEdMo's. Churning out 50,000 words isn't all that hard once you get some momentum going. Editing your WriMo down to 10,000 words worth reading is what separates the w̶h̶e̶a̶t̶ ̶f̶r̶o̶m̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶c̶h̶a̶f̶f̶ m̶e̶n̶ ̶f̶r̶o̶m̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶b̶o̶y̶s̶ w̶i̶n̶n̶e̶r̶s̶ ̶f̶r̶o̶m̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶l̶o̶s̶e̶r̶s̶ benjamins from the bitcoin. (Or should that be the other way around?)
I probably love editing more than I love the struggle of putting one word down after another on a blank page. Sharpening up a workaday sentence that communicated the basics into one that glitters just enough to make you smile without distracting you from the story: that's what I love to do.
When I'm writing, I'm focused more on plot and character. When editing, I have Chekov's gun and Orwell's directive to never use a long word when a short word will do. I'm looking for every word that ends in -ly and asking it to politely (oops, there's another one) take its leave.
There must be a million and a half blog posts out there like this one, authors extolling the sublime pleasures of killing their darlings, hacking away at the words until the text is lean and ripped as an Olympic swimmer.
I'm currently in round three of line edits on Love Songs of the Revolution. It's amazing how you can find errors to fix or improvements begging to be made on every pass through a manuscript. Every single one!
A friend recently asked me how could I edit my own work. The honest answer is a rather dull one: practice. It also comes from knowing that the editing and even the deleting is the writing just as much as the original task was of putting those first words on virtual paper. The rather more metaphysical answer I'd like to give you is that I'm forever chasing an idealistic vision in my mind of the book I'm trying to write. Perhaps one day I'll get there.
One of the books I referred to while doing research for Love Songs of the Revolution was this little tome, a travel guide to Vilnius from 1981.
The book was written in Russian by Lithuanian author Antanas Papšys and translated into English by J.C. Butler. It was published by Progress Publishers in Moscow. Here's an excerpt from the introduction:
"Vilnius is a city whose rich past is marked by the most important historical events in the life of the Lithuanian people. It is rightly famed for its revolutionary and international traditions; its name is dear not only to Lithuanians but also to peoples of other nationalities living in Lithuania since time immemorial."
Some of what's in the guidebook is standard travel material: recommended walking tours, information about the opera and ballet, and what to see if you have only one, two or three days in town.
Then there is the uniquely Soviet material, like the full-color photo of a Shop in the Drill Factory. There's a two-page spread devoted to Lenin Square, with both a bird's-eye shot of the park and a closeup of the central statue of the man called Leninas in Lithuanian.
During the Soviet era, I learned, the Church of St. John, housed a Museum of Scientific Thought. In 1981, a bus ride from the airport to Vilnius city center would set you back 20 kopecks. If you preferred a taxi, you could order it on the plane from a stewardess.
The other great find in this book is this old library card and sleeve inside the front cover. I wonder if anyone else has checked it out since the last time I did.
The final page of the book is devoted to this rather charming request to readers:
"Progress Publishers would be glad to have your opinion of this book, its translation and design and any suggestions you may have for future publications. Please send all your comments to 17 Zubovsky Boulevard, Moscow, USSR."
I was sad when Google maps couldn't find that address, though I did stumble upon this little gem of a website instead.
Here are a few more images from this wonderful time capsule of a book:
This weekend marks the 18th annual LA Times Festival of Books, an event that draws some 150,000 introverted book people out in the open to politely share their affection for the written word. It's one of the top book festivals in the US.
I love the book fest and attend almost every year, even when it frustrates me. As I was going over the schedule the other day to plan my weekend, it dawned on me that in many ways, the LATFOB is a microcosm of the things I love and hate about LA. By which I mean…
In 1989, neocon political scientist Frances Fukuyama published an essay arguing that the impending breakup of the Soviet Union marked “the end of history.” It was highly controversial in its day and generated plenty of ink. We still used ink to print newspapers and magazines back then.
The phrase “end of history” sounds ridiculous on its face, and Fukuyama didn’t mean it literally. Of course time would march onward and stuff would continue to happen. What he was arguing instead was that all the great “isms” had been tried and proven to be failures. He believed what was left – what every country in the world was on its way toward – was Western-style liberal democracy.
From there on out, he argued, the major battles in society would no longer be over Great Ideas like communism versus capitalism, but over small mechanistic things, like increasing worker productivity and figuring out how to access Game of Thrones without having to pay for fifty other channels of crap.
Recent events in Ukraine might suggest that the demise of history has been overstated. Residents of Crimea and eastern Ukraine, we’re told, want to reunite with Russia, while those in the west of the country want to join the European Union. The current crisis was set off when then-president of Ukraine refused to sign a free trade treaty with the EU during a November summit in Vilnius.
Does Ukraine signal a return to grand ideological struggles? Kleptocracy versus technocracy? Or are we simply feeling the aftershocks of the end of Cold War? Which may themselves be aftershocks of the end of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires.
Or are we looking at a fight over who will control the oil and natural gas resources needed to fuel the globe’s insatiable appetite for power of an electrical kind?
Many countries calling themselves democracies certainly aren’t. There are others that have refused to become Western-style liberal democracies and are doing fairly well for themselves, like Iran and China. Arguments against Fukuyama’s thesis on the end of history have come from both the left and the right.
It’s been nearly 25 years since his essay appeared. Eliane Glaser - not a fan of his work - has a thoughtful piece at The Guardian about it. She looks back on the past quarter century and explores some the things Fukuyama may have unfortunately gotten right. It’s definitely worth a read.
“Ah, my beloved Vilnius, how I miss you.”
That’s how it begins, the first line in my novel, Love Songs of the Revolution. Martynas, your not-so-humble narrator, is in love with his city, even after he is so many years gone from it.
Vilnius is the capital of Lithuania, the southernmost of the three Baltic nations (the other two are Latvia and Estonia). It’s 115 miles northwest of Minsk in Belarus, 283 miles northeast of Warsaw in Poland. For those of you watching the news these days, it’s 450 miles northwest of Kiev in Ukraine.
Grand Duke Gediminas established the city of Vilnius in the 1300s. While out on a hunting trip, Gediminas dreamt of an iron wolf howling on a hilltop, which a priest interpreted as a call for him to establish a city on the hill. Today, the downtown historic center of Vilnius is officially designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, for its beautiful mix of Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and classical buildings.
Lithuania was the last pagan country in Europe to convert to Christianity. It’s said that Napoleon called Vilnius the “Jerusalem of the North,” as it was a flourishing center of Jewish culture in Eastern Europe for many years.
It's is one of those cities like Reykjavik or Kinshasa that you’ve never thought of visiting, though you probably should. TripAdvisor says there are at least 165 different things you can see and do, from the "miracle stone" in Cathedral Square to the statue of Frank Zappa in the Užupis district. (Yes, that Frank Zappa.)
Lately I've been making zines. For a limited time, you can see my first zine on exhibit at the Irvine Fine Arts Center. Read more.