Weekend Reading

Some unusually fine articles to tease your mind this weekend, along with a little music. I only learned of the Canadian band The Tragically Hip this week on the occasion of the death of lead singer Gord Downie, and I’m at a loss how a band can thrill an entire country for 33 years and 16 albums, become such an institution that their final concert (the public aware of Downie’s terminal illness) was broadcast nationally by the CBC, cause the Canadian prime minister to cry while eulogizing, and yet evade wider recognition down here, across our friendly, relatively open, 2500 kilometers long birder. How does cultural iconography like this not penetrate?

Since I dialed in The Hip, they’ve been on my Spotify nonstop. Maybe I’m the last one to find out about these guys, but by all means, if they have escaped your attention too, go and fix that little situation this weekend with your music streaming service.

And now, on to excellent reading.

Here in the Appalachians we’ll be burning some firewood and reading by the hearth this weekend. Wherever you are, please help yourself to one or two of these.

Thinking Like a Mountain: On Nature Writing by Jedediah Purdy at N + 1
America’s Imperial Unraveling by Ash U. Bali at BostonReview.net
Joni Mitchell: Fear of a Female Genius by Lindsay Zoladz at TheRinger.com
Northern Exposure: Brexit reveals Shetland split by Peter Geoghegan in Politico.eu
Not Britain’s Finest Hour by Denis MacShane in The American Prospect

Lost in Translation

Published at the beginning of this year in the U.S., The Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold: Adventures Riding the Iron Curtain, by the British writer Tim Moore, tells the story of his bicycle trip from the top of Europe, 400 kilometers above the Arctic Circle in Kirkines, Norway, all the way down to the Black Sea, in Varna, Bulgaria. En route he passes through a slice of Russia, skirting the Baltic Sea between the Finnish and Estonian borders, and finds himself outside St. Petersburg, ordering dinner in the town of Гостилицы, aka Gostilitsy.

I hope Mr. Moore won’t mind my excerpting this episode at some length. This passage by itself is worth the price of the book:

“The ordering process was memorably conducted by Tatiana, who dictated the Russian menu into a translation app on her phone. With the halting, toneless authority of a digitised train announcer, this device then offered me suggestions it was very difficult to listen to politely.

‘Meat Beach Gardens.’

‘Children’s Alexander.’

‘Tea Pork with JW Boils.’

‘The Sultan Episode.’

Tatiana’s enthusiasm for this technology did not ease the ordeal; battling my features into respectability, I looked up at her open, expectant face and falteringly ordered support beef with titles of mushroom. She smiled and scribbled, then spoke once more into her phone.

‘What is not a drink?’ it mused in response.

Pivo,’ I said.

With a flustered look she shook her head and a free hand, then held the phone to my mouth promptingly.

Pivo,’I told it.

The device said something in Russian that seemed to disappoint her. She pressed the screen a number of times then showed me its suggestions, translated back into English:

‘You knew. Pencil case. Peugeot.’

We tried again.

‘Beer,’ I said.

‘Bill,’ offered the phone. Then: ‘Pace of the warp.’

‘Heineken!’ I blurted, launching into a strident roll-call of ales that began with Champions League-grade ubiquities and very very sharply downwards, ‘Amstel, Budweiser … Skol … Carling Black La-’

‘Ah, piva.’


Reminds me of an experience in Tibet, recounted in Common Sense and Whiskey. At the end of another bone-jarring day-long ride we pulled up at the town of Lhaze, at a no-name hotel that wouldn’t have power until 8:00 that night.

“Not much use being there unable to see, so we found a restaurant across the street where there was power, and talked with some men from Guangdong on their way to China’s Everest base camp for holiday.

We asked for cold beer and one of the guys tried to translate. The waitress looked puzzled, was gone too long, then came back smiling triumphantly, buckling under a big metal tub of raw meat. Thought we asked for ‘cold beef.'”


Weekend Reading

Here are a few wild and exotic titles to help you head off on a bold reading safari this weekend.

Trollhättan by Andrew Brown in Granta
My Drowning (And Other Inconveniences) by Tim Cahill at Outside Online
Kurds Need A Street: A (Classical) Liberal Case for Kurdistan by Jonah Cohen in Quillette
If It Keeps on Raining by Micah Fields in Oxford American
The Coming Software Apocalypse by James Somers at TheAtlantic.com
The effects of a single terrorist nuclear bomb by Matthew Bunn at thebulletin.org

Weekend Reading

Articles I’ve enjoyed this week. Load them on your mobile device and enjoy them at the beach.

A Swap for Zanzibar by Neal Ascherson in the London Review of Books
The Paradox of the Elephant Brain by Suzana Herculano-Houzel at mitp.nautil.us
The Origin Story of Animals Is a Song of Ice and Fire by Ed Yong at theatlantic.com
Once upon a time in 1989 by Slavenka Drakulić at eurozine.com
What to Expect When You’re Expecting Zapad 2017 by Michael Kofman at War on the Rocks
Understanding Moscow: The Mysteries of the Russian Mindset by Christian Neef at Spiegel
This Pacific Island Is Caught in a Global Power Struggle (And It’s Not Guam) by Daniel Lin at nationalgeographic.com

Visit with Presidents Niinistö and Putin

We’ll be heading an hour or so up the road to the lovely little town of Savonlinna, Finland, this afternoon for opera with the Presidents of Finland and Russia. This year President Putin attends the annual Savonlinna Opera Festival  to mark Finland’s centennial anniversary, celebrating 100 years from it’s 1917 declaration of independence from … oh … whoever.

The performance, and dinner for dignitaries beforehand, will be held in this castle:

As we are no dignitaries, we will not be dining. Maybe just some maalaisperunalastu in the car over (they’re mighty good). We are just hopeful the tickets we bought online several weeks ago will get us into the same room as the Great Men.

Looks like the Russian and Finnish armies have pretty well taken over Savonlinna:


According to the President’s Office, Putin and Niinistö are not in sight in the Savonlinna region. President’s spouse Jenni Haukio is not involved in the visit. Presidents do not meet the ordinary people at any stage.

and: the police of Eastern Finland have distributed a newsletter where residents are asked to avoid staying on the balcony and opening the windows between 15.30 – 17 and 20 to 24 (on 27 July). The residents have been told these two slots.

  • From Itä-Savo, the local paper

We’ll be back here tomorrow to report.