What to read while traveling is not such an easy choice. Completely frivolous versus serious fiction or non-fiction related to regional destinations? For my round-the-world venture last year the central theme was Russia and the trans-Siberian trains so I opted for the serious side, downloading volumes of important Russian literature and Robert Massie’s Peter the Great. Imagine how they bloated the insides of my tiny Nook? And how’d that work out for me…fairly well actually. While the greatest of Russian novels are still tucked unread into that pretty little tablet, I spent quite a few hours on Peter the Great, enough to see him into battles with those dastardly Swedes. Reading and pondering Russia’s rich and formidable history while gazing at the passing taiga was truly a lazily-invigorating intellectual experience. But that was then…. I do fully intend to finish Peter the Great this winter on Albuquerque’s one snowy weekend.
This year in the north, it was mostly a different story. I started at the very light end of things with Six and a Half Deadly Sins by Colin Cotterill, the latest in a series of light and lively detective novels about a retired Laotian coroner, quite perfect for a small read by the light of the midnight sun on a skimpily-mattressed bunk bed at the end of a long day in Greenland’s rocky hills.
Having begun One of Us: the Story of a Massacre in Norway—and its Aftermath by Asne Seierstad before I left I couldn’t stay away from it too long. Started back again on the flight from Greenland and didn’t put it down until we reached Neset Camping. What a fine and brilliantly-researched and written book about a monster of the first order. Anders Breivik, a psychologically-damaged (possibly with a combination of personality disorders, including narcissistic [just like Trump], borderline and antisocial) and very smart, with an unstable family life and unlimited time on the internet-of-all-that’s-good-and-bad, slaughtered 77 people, most of them young kids at summer youth camp. Seierstad probes deeply into his life, his character, his upbringing, his place in Norwegian society as well as exploring the social and political world in which this horrendous human being was brought into being. What a thorough and tantalizing character study Seierstad has written—rivals the best of the best of true crime literature and social/psychological non-fiction…think Capote.
I absolutely recommend this book to anyone interested in how mental illness, societal structures and access to weapons and the internet come together to create the kind of mass killings with which we are growing increasingly familiar.
The truth is I stopped reading just as Breivik is heading into Oslo to begin his killing spree. I was in Norway, visiting family, and spending a few days at the most peaceful of all places, Neset Camping, the spot where my dad was born. I could not bear to read of the horror of the day, having come to know a few of the victims through Seierstad’s beautiful and intimate profiles of some who lost their lives that day. I will go back to the book in the next few days as it’s too important and too well-told of a story not to read to the end.
Meanwhile in Oslo, walking by…no I mean into…a bookstore I found a book I had overlooked entirely—The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction this year. I started it immediately after putting One of Us down and just finished a few nights ago after getting home. It has plenty of killers, fictionalized it’s true, but at least as believable and probably as close to non-fiction as we care to go when probing the inner workings of the Vietnam War. It is a mystery, a comic novel in some ways, and a novel of places and times with which the author has intimate knowledge. I believe this may be as true of an account of the end of the war in Vietnam, the immediate aftermath, and some of the cast of Vietnamese and American characters as I’ll ever read.
I didn’t quite know where to go with The Sympathizer originally. It is immediately obvious it is smartly written and an original. It took me just a little while to accept it as a fine novel with comic interweavings; it took me a little longer to believe it’s a crime novel which some reviewers call it—and I’m not sure I still get that although there’s no shortage of crime of the greatest variety. Actually, contemplating it with just a few days hindsight, I believe it’s a brilliant novel full of truths about war and peace; Southeast Asians in their homeland and in America; the American brand of war-making; and basic human nature. And all the time you’re reading you just know you’re getting a straighter story (underlying the fictional comedy of death and destruction) than any of us would care to admit. I’m going on line right now to order the non-fiction companion, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War. For more about the author, go to