What memory will you leave behind

I must admit that I based my recent book purchase on the cover, or rather on the author's name. How could I resist the description -- the planned flooding of a village, written by Rasputin! Why, that sounded like James Dickey's Deliverance. Turned out however, that  Valentin Rasputin's novel, Farewell to Matyora, is a beautiful and lyrical tale of the changing world, departing of the old, and the coming of the new. It's an absorbing story about human destiny, penned by the author who has devoted his writing to spiritual dilemmas, and ethical and environmental issues. It's about the inhabitants of Matyora, farmers who must leave their village, and move to a city.

The following is my [imperfect] translation. Grandma Darya to her grandson Andrey:

"You praise the machine. That machines are working for you. Well, well. They no longer work for you, but you're working for them. And they have a lot of needs! Machine is not a horse, which you can feed oats and let it out to pasture. Machine will tear your veins open. Look how fast it runs, how it plows, scoops the earth. You're drawn to it. Machines get away from you, and you pursue them. You either catch up or not catch up with them, and these machines have created the next, without your input. Self-born, iron from iron. These new ones are faster. And you have to rush furiously so as not to be left behind. You no longer have time for each other... soon you'll ride over each other on the road, in pursuit of living faster. You know, in earlier times people had worked too, they did not sit with folded hands, but they worked leisurely, not like that. Now everything is done on the run. You run to work, and to the table - there is no time for anything. Even children are born in a race. And these children barely had time to be born, they barely stand on their feet, and are already out of breath.

You do not have to act like that, you do not have to rush blindly. Why not live your life in some order, think about the memory you leave behind. A memory remembers everything, it freezes the time, every little crumb of it…"


Why every citizen should support the wars

"Alba wondered where so many Fascists had come from overnight, because in the country's long democratic history they had not been particularly noticeable, except for a few who got carried away during World War II and thought it amusing to parade in black shirts with their arms raised in salute - to the laughter and hissing of bystanders - and had never won any important role in the life of the country. Nor did she understand the attitude of the armed forces, most of whom came from the middle and working class and had traditionally been closer to the left than to the far right. She did not understand the state of civil war, nor did she realize that war is the soldiers' work of art, the culmination of all their training, the gold medal of their profession. Soldiers are not made to shine in times of peace. The coup gave them a chance to put into practice what they had learned in their barracks: blind obedience, the use of arms, and other skills that soldiers can master once they silence the scruples of their hearts."

Isabel Allende, The House of the Spirits

Support the wars our mercenary armies are fighting overseas, because when they run out of external enemies the barrels of their guns will turn at you… ;/


Have books at home, will succeed in life

"For years, educators have thought the strongest predictor of attaining high levels of education was having parents who were highly educated. But, strikingly, this massive study showed that the difference between being raised in a bookless home compared to being raised in a home with a 500-book library has as great an effect on the level of education a child will attain as having parents who are barely literate (3 years of education) compared to having parents who have a university education (15 or 16 years of education). Both factors, having a 500-book library or having university-educated parents, propel a child 3.2 years further in education, on average. [...]

The researchers were struck by the strong effect having books in the home had on children's educational attainment even above and beyond such factors as education level of the parents, the country's GDP, the father's occupation or the political system of the country.

Having books in the home is twice as important as the father's education level, and more important than whether a child was reared in China or the United States. Surprisingly, the difference in educational attainment for children born in the United States and children born in China was just 2 years, less than two-thirds the effect that having 500 or more books in the home had on children (3.2 years)." source


Latin-American Literature, my reading list

I have been a great admirer of Latin-American literature ever since high school. Magical realism has that effect on teenagers that it sweeps them entirely off their feet. In my case it still keeps me on my knees. I read new writers, and re-read some old favorites. It's a fascinating journey into self, and a great retrospective on literary tastes. Some things just don't change, in other cases it's hard to believe the early infatuation:

Cortazar remains as fascinating as ever, Borges' philosophy seems shallow now, Marquez is as ambivalent as ever, Vargas Llosa still indigestible, Carpentier climbs to the top of the list, etc...

Of course, Latin-American literature is more than just magical realism. Here's my partial reading list for the next weeks and months, something new and something old:

Eduardo Galeano
Isabel Allende
Jorge Luis Borges
Macedonio Fernandez (mentor of JL Borges)
Ricardo Paglia
Enrique Anderson Imbert
Jose Agustin
Julio Cortazar
Maonica Lavin
Elena Poniatowska
Alfonso Reyes
Carlos Monsivais
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Adolfo Sanches Vazquez
Victoria Ocampo
Rebeca Orozco
Eduardo Mallea
Felipe Soto Viterbo
Adolfo Bioy Casares
Boris Vian
Octavio Paz
Farael Ramirez Heredia
Eladia Gonzalez
Ernesto Sabato
Jose Antonio Michel
Alejo Carpentier
Antonio Skarmeta
Gabriela Mistral
Ezequiel Martínez Estrada
Jorge Molist
José Ortega y Gasset
Carlos Fuentes
Raciel Trejo
Guillermo Cabrera Infante
Juan Carlos Onetti
Mario Benedetti
Manuel Peyrou
Jorge Semprun
Francisco Ayala
Leonardo Padura


Spying, nothing to brag about

"Life of spies excites the imagination by various adventures, exotic trips, luxury and everyday risk. As in the movies about James Bond. However, today the cult of spies seems to be declining: the attitude of media and society toward Bond‘s colleagues is mostly negative.

Although the roots of espionage or spying are very deep, it gained impetus only in 19th century. The role of spies has especially increased during the World War I, and the Cold War could be considered as the golden age of the military intelligence. Although today there are no global conflicts, local wars and international tension increases the importance of secret services. Though required to be more transparent and honest, these services at the same time must be more open to the society. Activities of the spies are no longer considered taboo for the media, therefore everybody must have heard about at least one scandal related to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the British Secret Intelligence Agency MI6, Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) or Israeli „Mossad“.

The society‘s aspiration to influence secret governmental political spheres is mostly expressed in the struggle against terrorism when radical actions are taken against independent actors. There the intelligence plays one of the key roles. CIA is active participant of this struggle, but at the same time it is one of the most criticized agencies out of the four secret services mentioned above.  The recent CIA‘s actions shocked the public when it became aware of the methods applied in the struggle against terrorism."

Continue reading


When a book is too long (don't blame the writer)

A columnist with The Guardian wonders why today's books are so darn long:

"Christos Tsiolkas's The Slap is almost 500 pages and Ken Follett's doorstopper Fall of Giants, if anyone's counting, is about 850 pages, probably to appeal to his American readers. Is anyone editing these books? The truth is that they all bear the imprint of marketing, not editorial, values.

Literary elephantiasis starts across the Atlantic. North America has a lot to answer for. In the "pile 'em high" tradition, US bookshops love to display big fat books in the window. The cut-and-paste technology of word processors must bear some of the blame, but overwriting is part of the zeitgeist. Jonathan Franzen's Freedom is highly enjoyable but who's finishing it? The novel is at least 100 pages too long."

Danny Finkelman, of the Finkelman's 45s, wondered about long books, and what happened to those 250 page novels of his youth? I read recently "A Choice of Enemies", by Mordecai Richler, a novel from 1957, set in Europe, and portraying Canadian and American artists exiled by McCarthy and his criminal disciples. The protagonist is a thriller writer:

"His agent in New York had sent him a copy of the letter from the publisher. They liked his latest thriller, but they wanted it expanded to a minimum of sixty thousand words."

60,000 words is about half of what one is expected to deliver these days. Let me rephrase it: a writer might not even be considered by a publisher unless her novel is looong enough. A book's length doubled in just 50 years even though the days of Charles Dickens and being paid by the word are over. When a book drags on and makes a reader yawn it may be, just may be, that a perfectly good story was made indigestible in order to fulfill the publisher's word count requirement.


Reading literature helps you understand life

Feeling foggy about the world around you? Read literature:

"Literary works are portrayals of the thinking patterns and social norms prevalent in society. They are a depiction of the different facets of common man's life. Classical literary works serve as a food for thought and a tonic for imagination, creativity and national integration. Exposing an individual to good literary works is equivalent to providing people with the finest of educational opportunity". source


Cold War cultural propaganda

"For decades in art circles it was either a rumour or a joke, but now it is confirmed as a fact. The Central Intelligence Agency used American modern art - including the works of such artists as Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko - as a weapon in the Cold War. In the manner of a Renaissance prince - except that it acted secretly - the CIA fostered and promoted American Abstract Expressionist painting around the world for more than 20 years.

Why did the CIA support them? Because in the propaganda war with the Soviet Union, this new artistic movement could be held up as proof of the creativity, the intellectual freedom, and the cultural power of the US. Russian art, strapped into the communist ideological straitjacket, could not compete.

The existence of this policy, rumoured and disputed for many years, has now been confirmed for the first time by former CIA officials. Unknown to the artists, the new American art was secretly promoted under a policy known as the "long leash""... source

Let's not forget that Hollywood was a propaganda weapon too, intended, and quite successfully, to spread American values abroad.


Mass Media on trial

The Institute for Economics and Peace and Media Tenor have released "Measuring Peace in the Media":

"The results show broad inconsistencies across geographies and networks, with US broadcasters much more focused on violence and conflict than their European and Middle Eastern counterparts. Al Jazeera was found to be the network providing the most balanced coverage on Afghanistan. BBC World led the way when it came to breadth of coverage. ...

Positive-peace stories make up just 1.6% of the total number of stories examined in the study.

CNN International, BBC World and Al Jazeera English all had similar number of reports on the topics that received the most total coverage – warfare, elections, crime and international politics.  However, Al Jazeera had the greatest breadth of coverage, including more coverage on topics which related progress in creating peace."


November 11, a memorable day for literature

November 11th is a memorable day for literature... Some of the greatest writers were born on this day:

"Well, I've worried some about, you know, why write books ... why are we teaching people to write books when presidents and senators do not read them, and generals do not read them. And it's been the university experience that taught me that there is a very good reason, that you catch people before they become generals... and presidents and so forth and you poison their minds with ... humanity, and however you want to poison their minds, it's presumably to encourage them to make a better world." Kurt Vonnegut

"I think the devil doesn't exist, but man has created him, he has created him in his own image and likeness." Fyodor Dostoyevsky

"Don't classify me, read me. I'm a writer, not a genre." Carlos Fuentes

The One Book to read on Veterans Day / Remembrance Day

If there is a single book that one ought to read on this Veterans Day / Remembrance Day, then it ought to be the All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque. You will gobble it up and ask for more. In which case go for The Road Back, Arch of Triumph, A time to Love and a Time to Die, Three Comrades, and The Black Obelisk, by the same author.

"But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me. I thought of your hand-grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony--Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy?"

"He fell in October 1918, on a day that was so quiet and still on the whole front, that the army report confined itself to the single sentence: All quiet on the Western Front. He had fallen forward and lay on the earth as though sleeping. Turning him over one saw that he could not have suffered long; his face had an expression of calm, as though almost glad the end had come."

Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front


The Lost Russian Tsar, one of the CIA's greatest ass[ets]

"Colonel-General Michael Goleniewski is widely credited as being one of the most important Western agents ever to have operated within the Soviet KGB and its satellite agencies. He was the vice chairman of Communist Poland's military intelligence when he escaped to the West in 1960, bringing thousands of Top Secret Soviet documents as well as information identifying hundreds of highly placed Soviet agents in western governments and intelligence agencies. Among the important communist agents Goleniewski exposed were Kim Philby, George Blake, Gordon Lonsdale, Morris and Lona Cohen, Henry Houghton, Ethel Gee, and Stig Wennerström. So strategic, timely, and reliable were his revelations that the House of Representatives of the 88th Congress passed House Resolution 5507 to honor Goleniewski's exceptional contributions to American security."

"Goleniewski later made the claim that he was Tsarevich Alexei Nikolaevich, who, by most accounts, was killed with his family by Bolsheviks at Ekaterinburg, Russia on 17 July 1918. Goleniewski claimed that Yakov Yurovsky, one of the assassins, saved the family and helped them to escape. The whole family supposedly traveled to Poland via Turkey, Greece, and Austria. According to his story, the family lived in hiding in Poland. As author Guy Richards (one of Goleniewski's supporters) has pointed out, he was not the first Tsarevich Alexei cliamant to emerge from Poland; several decades earlier, in 1927, a pretender named Eugene Nicolaievich Ivanoff had appeared from the same part of that country and generated a brief flurry of publicity in Europe and North America.

Tsarevich Alexei, who was born in August 1904, was a haemophiliac. Goleniewski, whose identity card gave his date of birth as 1922, making him eighteen years younger than the Tsarevich, claimed that the haemophilia made him appear younger than he really was and he had been "twice a child." He claimed that his haemophilia had been confirmed by Dr. Alexander S. Wiener, who had co-discovered the Rh factor in human blood. This claim was never confirmed.

He met one of the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia claimants, Eugenia Smith, in 1963. The meeting was covered by Life magazine. Goleniewski claimed that Smith was his sister Anastasia. Smith also recognized Goleniewski as her brother Alexei, even though she had claimed in her book that she had been the sole survivor at Ekaterinburg.

Goleniewski's claim was an embarrassment to the CIA. He was put on a pension and his employment with the agency was ended in 1964.

In 1942 Wehrmacht soldiers transiting through Lemberg were told that near the town of Radom an old Polish landowner named Goleniewski lived on a large estate guarded by the SS and that he was in fact Tsar Nicholas II..."

sources: 1, 2.


Literacy rates by country

Literacy rates by country, top 10:

Georgia, Cuba, Estonia, Latvia, Barbados, Slovenia, Belarus, Lithuania, Ukraine, Armenia... (see complete list).

World Map of Literacy:


Military Intelligence Interrogation Secrets

In 2003, during the Second Gulf Invasion, the US military intelligence came up with a strategy to extract sensitive information from captured Saddam's soldiers and intelligence operatives.

The advanced technique the US Military devised was: forcing the enemy to listen to heavy metal music, such as Metallica's "Enter Sandman", interspersed with children tunes from the Sesame Street, or Barney the Dinosaur.

As one official reported to the Newseek: The strategy worked.

I do not doubt that it did, because it makes me want to admit to anything, as long as they stop that music!

Most horrific tools of torture:


Sesame Street



How to Persuade a Literary Agent or an Editor to reply to your Query Letter

So, you wrote a book, and want it published. You follow the established path: query literary agents, only to find, and likely to great perplexity, that most don't bother to reply. You may be puzzled, or angry, and wonder what to do next.

Turn to psychology. Randy Garner presents details of an interesting study, published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology (2005).

Researchers studied the art of persuasion based on similarity. They mailed surveys of varying information on the cover letter: one set of surveys where the name of participants matched the name of the scientist, and the other set where the names did not match.

In the matching surveys, the name of the researcher was Fred Jones, and the participants' names were Fred Smith, Fred Something-or-Other, etc. On the non-matching surveys the names of researches were different from the participants'.

"Four studies examine the influence of attaching a seemingly insignificant Post-it note to a survey packet on the likelihood of completing the survey. Participants who received a packet with an affixed Post-it note request had significantly higher return rates than participants who received the identical survey with (a) no sticky note, (b) the same message written on the cover sheet but without a Post-it or (c) a blank Post-it with no message provided. Furthermore, they returned the materials more promptly with higher quality responses. A more personalized Post-it appeal increased returns when the survey was long and time consuming but was no more effective than a nonpersonalized Post-it when the survey was easy to complete. Results suggest that the Post-it leads the request to be interpreted as a solicitation for a personal favor, facilitating a normative compliance response."


  • Surveys sent to non-matching names resulted in a 30% return rate

  • Name-Matching surveys were returned by 56% of participants

What's behind it? Another study concluded that we like people who share certain similarities with us, such as name, dress, habits, political preference, background, etc.

Thus, one may conclude that by finding literary agents, or editors, who share your name may result in higher response to your query letters. Adopting a pen-name makes the list virtually limitless...

The point: Never address your queries to "To Whom it May Concern", or "Dear Agent". Always address your recipients by their name. It's not just common courtesy. There's basic psychology in it, too.

More tips in: