Self Important Authors II

I’ve written three self-published books (this one and this one and this one), I’m proud of them and I’d love it if you bought them, and I wish all my fellow authors, self-published or published by diminishing-by-the-day publishing houses, all success. I support you.

A cooperative spirit, I think, may be how we get through this up-in-the-air transitional period in publishing. Alas, there is the question of authors whose egos run well out in front of them. There are two or three specifically that I can think of tonight, and why wouldn’t it be fun to go ahead and call them out?

In my yet-to-be-read stack sits The Economists’ Hour by Benyamin Appelbaum. I understand it to be a study by a journalist of the rise of market-favoring economists since the 1970s, their embrace by policy makers, and the resultant mayhem.

Fair enough. A topic that interests me enough to buy it, and we’ll see how it turns out as a read. What grates is a blurb on the back of the book jacket by Tyler Cowen, who is an economics professor at George Mason University, someone who has become well-known over the last decade through hard work, prolific online output and savvy use of new media.

George Mason University is a libertarian bastion and a Koch brothers-funded favorite, which is a required negative mention in all the lefty press. Nevertheless I applaud Mr. Cowen’s accomplishments, hard and sustained work on his online presence, and the interesting stuff he has turned up

Just this one thing: There is an unfortunate contagion among people who have an established audience. They seem to want to make it all about them. This is not just a product of the internet.

Mr. Cowen in a moment. First the prime example of all-about-me-ism, the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman, who wrote compelling books early in his career. Alas, for some time now our former hero has been all about himself.

Friedman has been prolific. His early work, in particular From Beirut to Jerusalem, before he went off on his world-is-flat neo-lib jag, compels admiration. He was there. Did that.

But it’s hard to read Friedman’s NYT review of Samantha Power’s The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir without cringing. The first seven paragraphs, before any consideration of the book, before anything else, are steadfastly Friedman about Friedman.

I’ve written about this kind of hubris before as regards another author I otherwise admire, Robert Kaplan, author of a 2005 book that was seminal for me, Balkan Ghosts, in an article I called Big, Important Writers Embarrassing Themselves).

Back to Tyler Cowen. He blurbed Appelbaum’s book this way:

“I very much enjoyed reading The Economist’s Hour, an entertaining and well-written look at how market-oriented ideas rose from the acedemy and transformed nations. I do not agree with each and every perspective but found this a valuable and highly recommendable book, which I devoured in a single sitting.”

Takeaway here: Cowen is such a polymath that he can digest a 332 page book in a single sitting. It’s not so much about the book. It’s about Cowen’s reading prowess.

To George Will: Anytime. Happy to Help.

George Will is starting to follow me around. He wrote Wednesday that

“The Islamic State is a nasty problem that can be remedied if its neighbors, assisted by the United States, decide to do so. Vladimir Putin’s fascist revival is a crisis that tests the West’s capacity to decide.”

He’s right. I wrote here on CS&W on August 13th that

“at bottom ISIS is a band of thugs with an archaic worldview that a willful president and his or her allies, if they had a mind to, could clobber using Colin Powell’s overwhelming force commensurate with ISIS’s brutality. The challenge to Ukraine, on the other hand, is an assault on the world’s organizing principles, with the potential to collaterally undermine both NATO and the Obama administration.”

I had no idea, George, that you were a Common Sense and Whiskey fan, but I welcome you to follow me on Twitter @BMurrayWriter. Would have saved you three weeks on Wednesday’s column. I’ll help you with today’s huge Baltic news in a couple of days.


Happy to help, George. Cheers!

Recommended Reading: Where the West Ends

WherethewestendscoverFun new book from Michael J. Totten. Fun, that is, if your idea of thrills is a drive from Turkey into Iraq for lunch.

Where the West Ends expands on Mr. Totten's Dispatches blog for World Affairs Journal. There are sections roughly grouped as the Middle East, the Balkans, the Caucasus and the Black Sea.

Many authors seem to believe they won't be taken seriously unless their work is laden with ponderous history. When well written, like in some of my suggestions below, that's  worthwhile. When it's not, it's the reason tons of books are returned to the shelf half-finished.

In Where the West Ends, Mr. Totten mostly allows a cursory sketch of the past to suffice. I suspect that satisfies armchair travelers. Then he gets on with the travel writing I like best, what it feels like to get up from that chair and actually go to a place, and what it's like, personally, to be there.

Should Mr. Totten's book pique your interest, here are some suggestions for deeper reading:

Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War by Thomas de Waal

Azerbaijan Diary by Thomas Goltz

Georgia Diary by Thomas Goltz

Towers of Stone: The Battle of Wills in Chechnya by Wojciech Jagielski

Bread and Ashes: A Walk Through the Mountains of Georgia by Tony Anderson

Rebel Land: Unravelling the Riddle of History in a Turkish Town by Christopher de Bellaigue

In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs: A Memoir of Iran by Christopher de Bellaigue

Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a Tragic Anglo-American Coup by Christopher de Bellaigue

Black Sea by Neil Ascherson

The Black Sea: A History by Charles King


Along the Georgia Military Highway, Republic of Georgia

And here, in five installments, are excerpts from Common Sense and Whiskey, the book,  about our trip through the southern Caucasus:

1: Getting to Armenia
2: Yerevan to Tbilisi
3: Tbilisi and the Georgian Military Highway
4: The High Caucasus & the Russian Border
5: Baku

Order the entire book for $9.99 at, at, or the Kindle version (just $4.99).

See many more photos of the South Caucasus in the Armenia,
and Azerbaijan
Galleries at


Siberian Travelogue


The notion of "service" isn't quite the same in Russia as it is in other parts of the world. And beyond that, things in general just don't always work all that well. When a group of us visited Moscow in 1986, which was early-Gorbachev, we came home thinking, "THIS is the country we spend billions defending ourselves against!?"

Which is all part of the allure for Ian Frazier, whose book Travels in Siberia recounts a drive from St. Petersburg across the continent. Here's a paragraph that jumped off the page as summing up the whole "Russia" thing. People who have visited will nod knowingly:

"We joined the queue of waiting vehicles beside the train station about two in the afternoon. Asking around, Sergei learned that we would be able to get on a train leaving that night at nine thirty. If I thought I could pleasantly while away the afternoon reading, sketching and jotting in my notebook, I was mistaken. The misery bubbling up everywhere in Chernyshevsk blotted out any idea of calm. Sitting in the van was difficult because of the heat. The widely strewn trash and garbage guaranteed every person an individual corona of flies. Strange guys in warm-up suits loitered the premises at large and hit on any stranger they saw. Even Sergei and Volodya, when they strolled from the van, had to dodge them. The couple of times I ventured among them I was like a crouton in a goldfish pond. The public bathrooms had overflowed some time before, so most people who needed them employed instead whatever out of-the-way or not-so-out-of-the-way corner of Chernyshevsk they could find. The train station itself was devoid of services or information of any sort. Apparently all departure and arrival announcements were relayed solely by word of mouth."

Of course the train never came, and Ian, Sergei and Volodia were left to fend for themselves overnight.

(Photo from a 1990 trip to Leningrad, which reclaimed the name St. Petersburg in 1991. More photos in the Russia Gallery at


On Hotels: Why People Stay Where They Do

Everybody knows what they like. Everybody has their own approach to where to stay on the road.

Compare this gentle rant against high-end hotel properties with this list of favorite high-end properties. What we have here are two writers headed in different directions.

But I agree with both.

We've all got our stories on the anti-expensive-hotel side. In December, 2006 the hotel just outside the O. R. Tambo International terminal at Johannesburg (which was not then an InterContinental Hotel as it is now) charged us for every last beer, orange drink and tonic water in the minibar. All of them.

That was because we cleared all of them out and placed them in the cabinet beside the minibar so that we could store food we brought back from their restaurant. When it was time to go we reassembled the minibar, but it was one of those pressure-sensitive models which charges you for anything that's lifted from its assigned place.

Of course we were adamant that that wasn't right and would not stand, and it didn't. But we had to send a member of the front desk staff up to confirm all their Pepsis were in place, all momentum came to a screeching halt for fifteen minutes at checkout, and the ill will transformed what had been a pleasant enough stay to an experience I'm still writing about today. Just far, far too mercenary.

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China #2: Beijing Hutongs

Down at the far end of Tiananmen Square, opposite the grandiose Forbidden City and Great Hall of the People, both built to larger-than-life scale to intimidate the mere citizen, and past the Mao-soleum, ditto, a warren of alleyways and lanes shuffles off to the east. Built to intimately human scale, this hutong, or old traditional neighborhood, is the subject of a book written with extraordinary warmth and good humor, called The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Back Streets of a City Transformed, by Chinese-speaking American school teacher Michael Meyer.

On our most recent visit to Beijing, Olympic trinkets were all the rage. Precisely those Olympics, and the rush to modernize Beijing in time for the games, caused the downfall of many of these old traditional neighborhoods. Meyer rents an apartment (sort of), in a hutong, becomes a teacher at the neighborhood school and tells us the stories of his friends and neighbors with grace and a really good nature. You're pretty sure you'd like Meyer if you knew him.

In this photo, from the China Gallery at, we're just about bowled over by a man carrying a tub of water out of his food shop in the hutong just southeast of Tiananmen Square.

China #1: Train T-27, Beijing to Lhasa Reviewed

250014138_1999-tibetlhasapotala01Train T-27, daily service between Beijing and Lhasa, has been in operation for a couple of years now. A recent story called On the Train to Tibet: Railroading the Roof of the World, on, has a review with lots of pictures.

In 1999, well before you could take the train, we drove to Lhasa from Kathmandu, Nepal. Read that story here
This photo of the Potala in Lhasa is from See more Tibet photos in the China gallery on

Impressions of Oman as a Travel Destination

370629139_dsc_0791crop Photo from’s Oman gallery

In no particular order:

– The government appears to have been watching the neighboring U.A.E. and now means to cherry-pick the best of its development schemes. They’ve obviously moved more slowly, and more cautiously, but now it looks like they’re ready to embrace tourism. For example, a $2.6 billion, 4000 unit residential project on the beach a few minutes from the airport called The Wave is under development (and heavy advertising) and will surely afford blocks of rental properties. It’s being developed in low-slung, anti-garish, Omani style.

– The Muttrah Souk near Muscat is smaller than souks and markets we’ve visited in Marrakech, Cairo and Calcutta. It is possible not to get lost in the Muttrah Souk. Nonetheless, it’s an absorbing couple of hours.

– Dubai is Muscat’s big brother, and connection to the rest of the world. I don’t know how many people proudly noted that it’s only four hours (some said five) drive up the highway.

– Everybody is fascinated with water.

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New Nikon D700


At we use Nikon gear, specifically, a D200 body backed up by an older D70. We’ve expected to upgrade to a D300 next, but suddenly, now comes the new D700 reviewed here by Stille Photographie. Thanks to PhotographyBlog for the link. Also see Ken Rockwell’s review.

Today, the D70 body sells for maybe $700, the D200 around $1000, the D300 $1600 – $1700, and the D700 looks like shipping for around $3000, starting in a couple of weeks. By comparison, Nikon’s pro D3 runs something between $4000 and $5000.

Michael Palin’s New Europe


Albania’s national museum in the days before Michael Palin.

Michael Palin’s latest travelogue for the BBC, which aired six months ago on the Travel Channel, somehow eluded us until we discovered it while posting our blog about Ballooning in Cappadocia. So we bought and have just begun watching the DVD.


We found mostly admiring reviews in The Age and elsewhere, including an adoring World Hum interview. Still, it’s hard to escape the strong first impression that Michael is slowing down. There’s lots of interminable round-the-table discussions with Authentic Drunkards in one Balkan land or another, and more than one feature of questionable cosmic relevance, most painfully the never ending talk with the mysterious reader of coffee residue in Turkey.

We reserve judgment for now because among other thingss, we haven’t seen the episode including Moldova yet and Moldova’s on the long list of places Palin has beaten us to. We hope he’ll convince us to hasten our visit there.

We had the pleasure of seeing Michael Palin give a small talk in Atlanta some time ago. When we asked him where he likes to go for private time off, he talked about his house in the French countryside.

It was fabulous to see Palin’s visit to Tirane, Albania. When we visited in 1993, Albania was still a slightly eerie Former Communist Land, as the picture above suggests. We saw in Michael Palin’s New Europe that that museum’s still there, and looking good. Palin did an interview with that same facade – and nowadays loud, jammed, jostling traffic – in the background. Put us down for another visit to Tirane – soon.


See Albania fifteen years ago on