Brussels is heading for partial lockdown again, and this brings a warming smugness to a Finn’s chest: we own the pandemic lifestyle ever since our forefathers erred North at the Leningrad Oblast junction about million years ago. If you don’t believe me, look up “Finno-Ugrian suicide hypothesis“. It’s a thing. And yes, us merry people include Estonians and Hungarians, in addition to Mordvins, Udmurts and Vepsians.
We can’t run fast and are genetically less fortunate than, say, the Swedes, but goddamn it if we weren’t born to do pandemic right. It’s as if our Uralic family was put on earth specifically for this. (And looking at our collective impact on the World so far, it’s very possible that this has been the Grand Plan all along.)
Suddenly everybody is depressed, suicidal, alcoholic, overweight from eating junk and socially lethargic. The world has become one big Baltic paradise.
So, let’s do the Second Wave, kids.
I wrote in an earlier post that I was circumstantially separated from my books for weeks this summer. It was not good for my mental stability. I advise you not to try such thing at home.
You must read books in the current situation.
There are no exceptions to this.
If your brains can only process 1,5-2 minute video-clips of baby animals, try the Pomodoro-technique or whatever it’s called: concentrate for 25 minutes, then take a break for a couple of minutes to check your super-urgent Twitter-alerts. Repeat.
I hear you wailing that you don’t have the time. Be honest. Your smartphone is so smart it will tell you exactly how much time you spend on social media every day (mine does, and it’s fucking mortifying).
Read any books that take your fancy, this is not the time to be snobbish. (I am, but that’s another story.) We live in the age of ultra-individualism and exhibitionism, which means that most new books are either self-help or auto-fiction. I have no problem with either. Herewith a couple of recent reads from different genres:
Marcus Aurelius: Meditations.
If you feel like everybody is reading this, it’s because everybody is. The Greek original by the Roman Emperor and philosopher, written in about 180 AD, has become a pandemic hit because of its lockdown-compatible Stoic outlook. It is freakishly timely thousands of years after. Big recommendation.
“The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane.” See! That’s 2020 in a sentence!
Maria Konnikova: The Biggest Bluff
I have written about this book earlier, and still consider it to be among the top books I’ve read this year, self-help or not.
Pandora Sykes: How do we know we’re doing it right?
I read this in the summer and wrote about it here. It’s probably technically not self-help, but does offer woke food for thought, even if you’re no longer a millennial child.
Elif Shafak: How to stay sane in an age of division
A beautiful essay you will read in an evening (seriously, it’s a short one). There’s a beautiful bit about emigration, which, especially during a pandemic, is sure to strike a chord in many a Finno-Ugrian:
“Adamant though we may be to abandon our motherlands, because God knows we have had enough of them, enough of their stupidities and absurdities and hostilities and cruelties, the truth is they will never abandon us. They are shadows that tag along with us to the four corners of the earth, sometimes they walk ahead of us, sometimes they fall behind, but they are never too far. That is why, even long after our migrations and relocations, if you listen carefully, you can still detect traces of our motherlands in our broken accents, half-smiles, uncomfortable silences.“
Biographies and similar:
Alex Schulman: Forget About Me/Glöm mig/Unohda minut.
Chosen the Book of the Year in Sweden, it’s an absolutely beautiful and heartbreaking memoir about Schulman’s relationship with his late alcoholic mother. Much recommended. Schulman’s other books, which also deal with his childhood family, are also worth reading.
Schulman is extremely annoying in that he’s very smart, very good looking, very funny (his podcast is the most popular in Sweden) and has a gorgeous wife, stunning home and all the trimmings, such as a lot of money. It would help if he didn’t write good, intelligent books in addition.
(This is why Swedes are not part of the Finno-Ugrian gang.)
Demi Moore: Inside Out
This was a random pick at a Helsinki bookstore, but rather unexpectedly I really liked it. Moore had a famous ghostwriter to do the job, Ariel Levy who is brilliant, so there’s nothing cringeworthy left inside. Even if it’s a very classic from rags to riches-deal, there’s some interesting punch in Moore, which I never really thought about before.
Hilary Mantel: Mantel Pieces
As we have all finished Mantel’s 3000 pages of the Thomas Cromwell-trilogy by now, it’s time to move on with her other oeuvre. Mantel Pieces is a new collection of her book reviews and the already legendary lecture about British Royalty. Her topics range from Madonna to Marie Antoinette and Salman Rushdie, and the essays are a delight.
(About Rushdie’s fatwa-comments made by British politicians: “We do not expect our legislators to be able to read, but we do expect them to be able to distinguish between a private man’s private difficulty and a matter of vital public interest”. Ouch.)
(About Christopher Andersen’s book In Bed With Madonna: “Madonna is not a subject for easy writing. She is a commentary on something, but God knows on what. Andersen doesn’t, that’s for sure.” BOOM.)
Complicated and fucked-up relationships:
Niamh Campbell: This Happy.
I don’t know what they feed people in Ireland, but the place seems to be spewing out brilliant, young writers like there’s no tomorrow. If you’re done with watching attractive young people enjoy lots of sex in BBC’s Normal People, based on Sally Rooney’s novel, have a go at This Happy.
(I was too fragile to watch Normal People precisely because it centers around young, attractive people having lots of sex and I’m middle aged and in lockdown.)
This Happy is kind of strange and sad (in a non-depressing way), and very good.
Megan Hunter: The Harpy.
Oh, this was exquisite. Husband cheats on wife who finds out. They agree to stay together on the condition that she gets to hurt him three times without him knowing when and how.
A legendary cat-and-mouse follows.
Kate Reed Petty: True Story.
An epic headfuck about a survivor, her story, how to get it out, should she get it out, what happened, whodunnit, who is lying, which character is invented?
A campus novel on steroids. Warm recommendation.
Then, finally, there’s a mini-series The Undoing coming soon on HBO, which I don’t have, but will probably have to organise if just for this. It’s stars the magnificent Nicole Kidman (and the dashing Hugh Grant) and it’s about all kinds of complexities that occur in marriage and relationships and all that (read Kidman’s excellent, recent interview in the New York Times, btw).
Kidman has become a pandemic love as of late, as she seems to be getting it right on screen. While she’s done the blockbuster or two, she hasn’t gone down the romcom-route, but kept a very distinct portfolio. You could argue that she’s thus ended up playing the same character over and over again, but choosing a particular style of films has set her slightly apart from the mainstream.
This is it for today. Remember, no one needs bars and cafés to live a fulfilling life (except I do, as I don’t own a coffee-maker).