N & P: David Halberstam Edition

Friday, October 16, 2020

As I've been writing a biography in recent years, I also read a lot of biographies. Many of these are more scholarly or academic-type volumes, but a lot have been trade-press works of varying quality. Especially with regard the latter, I pay particular attention to the writing and what you might call the "storytelling" aspect of the book. I pick biographies mainly based upon how interesting I find the subject, regardless of how closely connected they might be to my interests in the Turkic-Russian borderlands. This year I've read bios of Charles Schultz, Vladimir Mayakovsky, L. Frank Baum, Jim Henson, and Rudolph Nureyev, to name just a few. 

For the past couple of weeks I've been reading David Halberstam's book on Michael Jordan, which was first published over 20 years ago. I love Halberstam's writing, and have read probably eight or nine of his books over the years. Breaks of the Game is, of course, a classic, but others like War in a Time of Peace and The Best and the Brightest are also really impressive. 

In Playing for Keeps, Halberstam's book on Jordan, I found the organization of the writing--and the chronology of the book--particularly exceptional. It starts in Paris in 1997 and ends in Chicago one year later, but throughout its 32 chapters the book goes backward and forward constantly. Some might complain that Halberstam was "jumping around" too much, but not me. In fact, I'd say that this work was masterfully put together. It's a cliche to refer to a book as a "tapestry," but that's really the effect here. Whereas most biographies plod slowly forward, Playing for Keeps zooms in and out, hitting at different moments of Jordan's life and then circling back in time in a manner that kept me interested. The chronology of the book also had the effect of tying together Jordan's playing career in a much more coherent manner than simply telling the story from beginning to end. 

I'm not trying to write the kind of book that Halberstam would have written. As an academic and scholar, I've received too much training on specific areas of the world and developments in modern history to do that. Trying to say something bigger and important about an era, as opposed to talking about a single individual in a vacuum--or simply recounting the details of a person's life--will usually slow down a narrative to a certain extent. But still, it's so inspiring to read the books of such a beautiful writer. I actually shed a few tears when I got to the very end of Playing for Keeps this morning. 

One last thing--I couldn't help but notice how much the much-ballyhooed 10-part Michael Jordan document released this summer picks up on so many threads from Halberstam's book. I really liked the documentary, and it's one of the reasons why I ended up finally buying this book a few months ago. But still--I kind of think Halberstam should have gotten some credit here. Obviously, if different creative types are working on the same subject, there's bound to be a lot of overlap. But the insights of the documentary--I see a lot of them in Halberstam from more than 20 years back. 

David Halberstam died 13 years ago in a traffic accident at the age of 73. He had published 20 books, of which Playing for Keeps was one of his last. What a career that guy had. I wonder if anyone's ever considered writing a biography of him. 

***

Meanwhile in the Eurasian borderlands, the world continues to turn. Stories from the region which caught my eye this week include: 

N & P : Padre Possibility Edition

 Friday, October 9, 2020

While I'm a stalwart supporter of the Detroit Tigers baseball team, I occasionally engage in flirtations with various National League temptations. This occurred for the first time when I was a university student in Montreal. The 1$ (Canadian) bleacher tickets in the late 80s-early 90s at Olympic Stadium and easy access via the metro made the Expos my National League mistress of choice for some time. These loyalties, such as they were, were eventually transferred to the Washington Nationals. 

This year I've been meeting up furtively with another team in the hours after the Detroit Tigers have lost yet another game. While Dan Dickerson and Jim Price are packing up their microphones in Detroit, I've been listening to a different radio broadcasting team on the Pacific coast. I've been fooling around with the San Diego Padres.  

Why the Padres? Family connections--my maternal grandparents lived there for many years. Moreover, because the Tigers crushed the Padres in the 1984 World Series, I've always felt a certain patronizing magnanimity toward their squad. I've never feared them, and the Tigers rarely play them anyway. 

And I've always liked the idea of San Diego. It seems like a nice place to live. It reminds me vaguely of the Crimea. Nice weather, a lot of Navy people, proximity to the ocean, little green men. That kind of vibe. 

Out here in Montana, moreover, I like listening to the West coast radio broadcasts late at night. The Padres tend to be one of the last games of the evening to finish up, so I usually end up with them. A lot of great relationships have started off with far less. 

So don't call it an affair: I was just enamored by the lure of possibility. 

Alas, while the Padres made the playoffs this year and extended their season beyond Detroit's, they lost in the--which series was this again?--to the Dodgers. So now I've lost my baseball mistress as well.

***

And what about the Eurasian Borderlands, you might be asking? A lot has been going on this past week, including: 

N & P: Farewell, Tigers Edition

Friday, October 2, 2020

The Detroit Tigers' season has come to an end, and I sure will miss them. True, the team hasn't been good in recent years. And this season was something of a joke--just 60 games, with all sorts of weird rule changes and a couple of franchises swimming up to their necks in Covid. 

Nevertheless, listening to the Tigers on the radio--or at least an internet-based radio feed--has been so great this summer. As I mentioned in a post devoted solely to baseball this summer, I've always preferred baseball on the radio over TV, and this year especially. For long stretches, it's been great to these games, piped-in crowd noise and all, and forget about everything that's been going on. 

No, it hasn't been perfect. But Dan Dickerson and Jim Price, the Tigers' radio broadcasting duo, have done a great job this season. As I've written elsewhere, I love listening to them--they seem to genuinely like one another and always talk about the Tigers--and even their opponents--in a generous, positive, yet quite nuanced manner. Even though the Tigers have been pretty bad in recent years, listening to their games with Dan and Jim has been such a pleasure. They're great. 

I was listening to an interview the other day with Tiger Pitcher Daniel Norris. The "Van Man" is one of my favorite players on the team. Somehow, he was able to talk about how this was a good year for him because he regained confidence in his arm and developed a new pitch. It was so great to hear someone describe their life in terms other than the relentlessly negative narratives that--understandably, of course--have dominated this year. 

But that's baseball for you--it's a game of yearly rejuvenation, even as we get older--and even if the seasons don't always go the way we'd like them to.  

***

All of this fun and games notwithstanding, a lot has been going on in the Eurasian borderlands over the past week: 

N & P: End of Summer Edition

Friday, September 25, 2020

Summer is over. And what a summer it's been! Actually, I can't complain. Bozeman is a beautiful place, and I always felt like I had plenty to do. Luckily, I was at a stage in my book project in which just staying at home and writing was probably the best thing for me. 

Now the weather is getting colder. It's not crispy--the way it gets in New England around these times--but rather more like a big deep wind that brings darker and colder climes. 

N & P: Leonine Woes Edition

Friday, September 18, 2020

I'm having a difficult time masking my disappointment in the 2020 version of the Detroit Lions. Honestly, I figured that with the way this year has been going, it would kind of make sense for an historically inept franchise like the Lions to finally pull through. 

But no--and I should have known. Once again, this team would find ways to lose in some crazy way, as happened again versus Chicago in their season opener. And it seems like these collapses always happens against the Bears. Even the Lions' best player, kicker Matt Prater, had a bad day. 

Before Detroit's loss on Sunday, over the past 15 years NFL teams leading by 17 or more in the fourth quarter had been a combined 779-3

So, nothing has appeared to have changed with this team. But at least the Lions have managed to bring back some consistency--a sense of normalcy, you might even say--to our confused world. 

N & P: Early September Fire-and-Snow Edition

Friday, September 11, 2020

The big news in Bozeman this past week was the fire that broke out in the Bridger Mountains last Friday. The fire had started just over the big "M," a well-known (if a trifle Hoxhaesque) Bozeman landmark located outside of town, about six miles to the north of the MSU campus. 

I had, in fact, just gone for a hike at Drinking Horse Mountain, which is located across the road from the "M" (which you can see just to the right of the rooftop in the picture above). After riding my bike back home, I noticed small wisps of smoke just above it. By Saturday, however, the Bridgers had become an inferno. On Saturday night I could see the fires burning orange up top.   

Sunday was also hot, and the fire grew to over 7000 acres, but on Monday we got something of a reprieve. It being Labor Day, temperatures dropped by about sixty degrees to hit the low 30s, with rain turning into snow overnight. Somehow, we ended our 3-day weekend both freezing cold and on fire, but I guess that's pretty much the way things are rolling in 2020. 

N & P: Truculent Times Edition

Friday, September 4, 2020

These are truculent times. People's fuses are running short, a by-product of too much stress and, in some cases, maybe too much screen time as well. Now that I'm teaching full-time online, and all of my meetings are screen-based as well, I'm making more of an effort than usual to give myself large chunks of time offline either outside or on my balcony or couch with a book. 

Last weekend, I had the refreshing experience of reading Phuc Tran's Sigh, Gone. The book arrived in the mail on Friday afternoon and by Sunday night I'd finished it. Sigh, Gone  reminded me a bit of Elif Batuman's work through the connections it makes between overcoming feelings of social isolation, sorting out one's own psychological garbage, and engaging the big ideas found in classical literature. 

Sigh, Gone isn't one of the "great" books that both Tran and Batuman valorize so much, but it is quite powerful. Given the times, especially, it was nice to read something so absorbing and smart.   

Smoky End of Summer N & P

Friday, August 28, 2020

It's been hot and smoky up here at the Borderlands Lodge for the last couple of weeks. This isn't so out of the ordinary for the northern Rockies, as we typically find ourselves ensconced in the smoke of not only local fires, but also those burning in other western states. This year seems worse than normal, though. 

Biking through the birch tree forest,
in Bozeman

Still, I've been getting out, trying to enjoy the outdoors even with the school year opening up. Classes have been going well--no electronic glitches so far--so in my free time I've been trying to get out and away from screens. Given the alternatives, I like online teaching, but it does give me headaches from looking intensely into computer screens for so many hours per day. I find myself giving small--five minute--breaks in my classes so that we can all get away from the screen.  

News & Propaganda: Back to School Edition

Friday, August 21, 2020

School started up again this week, bringing an end to a weird summer. Actually, were it not for the conditions surrounding my summer, I could say that it has been a good one. There are worse things one could be stuck doing than hiking, biking, and writing in Montana. 

Beautiful days in Montana











Opening Day

Friday, July 31, 2020

It's been a pretty quiet summer up here at the Borderlands Lodge. Like everybody, I had plans, and like most people I canceled them. 

Lava Lake outside Bozeman

















I don't feel like I've got anything to complain about. I had the whole summer to write, read, and enjoy the outdoors--hiking and biking, mostly--in a place that isn't densely populated. 

New article out: the Letters of Münevver Andaç to Nâzım Hikmet

Friday, May 8, 2020

Münevver Andaç
A new article of mine has been published. It discusses a series of about 500 letters--housed in archives located in Moscow and Istanbul, respectively. The letters were written to the Turkish poet Nâzım's Hikmet, who was living in Moscow at the time, by his fourth (apparently common-law) wife Münevver Andaç, who was then still in Istanbul. Scroll down to the bottom of this post if you're interested in gaining access to the article. First, however, I'll tell you the story of how I came to work with these letters.  

Hunkering Down at the Borderlands Lodge

Friday, April 24, 2020

Well, it's been five weeks---no, wait...I just checked my calendar and actually it has been six weeks. Six weeks indoors, with a few exceptions. On the 12th of March, the day of my last classes before Spring Break, we got the news that we were switching to online education. Then, after a week of "break" that included more emails from my workplace than possibly any other workweek I've ever experienced before, we came back and started to teach online. 

We're just trying to stay above the fray
here at the Borderlands Lodge
It's been okay--I certainly can't complain. Given everything that's been going on, I frankly just feel lucky. I'm still getting paid, I can do my job from home--maybe not the way I like doing it the most, but I can still read, teach, and write. 

Turkey, the Kurds, and Northern Syria: Early Impressions

Sunday, October 13, 2019

It's been a snowy couple of weeks, on and off, up here at the Borderlands Lodge this October. Normally the snow doesn't start sticking until November, but this year they came early. The bike and hiking trails are snowy and muddy, but we're doing the best that we can. The upper peaks have been frosted since the end of September. 

On the trail up to Storm Castle Peak. 
But of course life is simpler here in the northern Rockies. Given the state of the world these days, we're simply grateful to have the opportunities to lead our quiet lives in peace.




Not everyone can say that these days, especially in northern Syria.

*
There's been a lot of chatter in recent days over the Trump administration's decision to give Turkey the green light to invade northern Syria. What's going on? 

I have a few thoughts on these developments. 

Review of Elena Campbell's "The Muslim Question and Russian Imperial Governance"

Friday, October 4, 2019


Below you'll find another book I've reviewed in recent years. Elena Campbell's Muslim Question was one of a series of books that came out about Muslims in Russia in 2014. 

This was originally printed in the Russian ReviewVol. 75/1, January, 2016, 155-6

***
Elena I. Campbell’s The Muslim Question and Russian Imperial Governance is the latest of several books to be published over the past fifteen years that deal with the issue of Muslim administration in imperial Russia from the perspective of tsarist authorities.  Campbell draws upon several of these studies to provide a thorough and well-organized discussion of Muslim-state interactions across the Russian Empire, focusing particularly upon the final decades of the imperial era.  The book draws upon an impressive array of state archival material, and in particular uses the reports produced by tsarist officials responsible for the administration of Muslims in the empire. 

Review of Charles King's Midnight at the Pera Palace

Friday, July 19, 2019


Charles King’s Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul is an excellent book that is highly enjoyable to read. Especially for readers with little or no familiarity with Turkey’s early republican history, Midnight at the Pera Palace provides a fascinating look into aspects of Istanbul in the 1920s and 1930s. Using examples that draw mainly from the lives of individuals from the country’s Jewish and Christian minorities, as well as the experiences of foreigners living in Turkey, King tells the story of what he calls the“hidden origins of modern Istanbul” (377). The book has seventeen chapters in all, as well as a prologue and epilogue, but no introduction or conclusion. The organization of the book is narrative-based and loosely chronological, using the lives of both the famous and relatively unknown to introduce the reader to the interwar history of Turkey’s biggest and most important city.

Decompressing in the Bozone

Friday, July 12, 2019


I got back to Bozeman earlier this week after ten weeks on the road. It's good to be back, of course. Sleeping in my own bed, being surrounded by my books and things in my own place--it's a great feeling. I've been unwinding, too. I had a massage on Wednesday, and I'll probably schedule another one next week. I've also been spending a lot of time lying around with my feet up. 

The Winding Road Back to Michigan

Friday, July 5, 2019

An ordinary middle-aged man was on his way from the archives of Moscow to Amsterdam, in the province of North Holland. It was the height of summer, and he planned to stay for ninety minutes. 

(Apologies to Thomas Mann). 

Mountains in Central Mongolia
I've been reading Magic Mountain for much of this trip, so these were the words that came to mind when, just five minutes before we were to begin boarding, an announcement came on over the loudspeakers at the airport in Munich, telling us that the 7 pm flight to Amsterdam had been canceled. It was the latest unexpected development in a week of travel that has had its fair share of them. Not the end of the world by any stretch of the imagination, but certainly a disappointment. After a month in Moscow, two weeks in Mongolia, and a week in Istanbul, I had been looking forward to a couple of nights in Amsterdam--where I research at the International Institute of Social History by day and prowl the Spui at night. Instead, I was headed for an evening at the Munich Airport Hilton. 

My wooden shoes would have to remain in their bag for one more night. 

Leaving Mongolia/Searching for Lost Youth in Istanbul

Friday, June 28, 2019

Friday the 21st was a very long day. It started at 4.30 am in Ulaanbaatar with a knock on the door of the guesthouse where I was staying. Juje, the guy who had driven me down to the Gobi desert twelve days earlier, was back--through an arrangement I'd made with the guesthouse to drive me to the airport. 

I'd come back to Ulaanbaatar after having spent ten days in the Gobi and central Mongolia. While I'd been somewhat dismissive of Ulaanbaatar's charms upon my first arrival there, by the time the desert tour was over I had become much more enthusiastic about the city's advantages. I spent my last two days in Mongolia there, visiting some of the sites that I hadn't managed to see the first time around--like the Dinosaur Museum and the Black Market, where I bought some pretty cool Mongolian duds. I had a really great last dinner, and event went to a small music festival that was taking place close to my hotel. 

Now, however, it was time to leave. I was heading back to the land of my youth. I was flying back to Istanbul.

10 Days in the Gobi and Central Mongolia

Friday, June 21, 2019

I'm baack in Ulaanbaatar after a thrilling--but quite physically taxing--ten-day trip through the Gobi desert and central Mongolia. 

Rough route that we took through
Gobi desert and central Mongolia
I'm frankly still processing the trip, which in many ways passed in a blur. Nevertheless, I took careful notes, and will make an attempt to piece things together once I'm back in Montana later in the summer. At that point, I plan to write things out here in more detail. For now, however, I can add just a few telegraphic points, as I am still in Ulaanbaatar at present. 

Ulaanbaatar

Friday, June 14, 2019

It's been a busy week. On my last day in Moscow, I got up early and headed to the archive to work on my last set of documents. Then I headed back home, had a quick lunch, then set off for the airport. My destination? Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. 

Central State Department Store, Ulaanbaatar
Why Mongolia? Good question. I had originally been thinking about taking the Trans-Siberian Express out from Moscow, because I'm really interested in seeing Irkutsk, Lake Baikal, and Ulan-Ude. The idea had been to drop down into Mongolia for 2-3 weeks after Ulan-Ude. For a variety of reasons, though, such a trip wasn't really possible for me this year. So, I'd pretty much resigned myself to forgetting about Mongolia, and trying to get here some other time. 

But then I remembered Lebanon. Several years ago I was invited to give a talk at the American University of Beirut. For reasons I won't get into now I declined--and I've regretted it ever since. I'm turning 50 this summer and, while I seem to be in pretty good health, nothing is certain at any age, let alone now. Even though spending just two weeks in Mongolia strikes me in some ways as a bit silly and self-indulgent--how much of such an enormous country can one expect to see in such a short time?--I decided to do it. So here I am in Ulaanbaatar. 

Moving on from Moscow

Friday, June 7, 2019

This is my last full week in Moscow. Given that I love to dish out banalities on this blog, I'll provide one more: the time here has really flown by. I've been busy--most of my time in Moscow was spent at the archive, but I also tried to catch up on other work. I finished a couple of articles that I'd been working on for a while and sent them off to journals, and I had about a million photographs on my computer--rare books that I'd found in Amsterdam, Moscow, and Istanbul, as well as archival materials from Amsterdam and Istanbul--so I've been spending a lot of time sifting through these. I'm not really in a position right now to do a lot of writing on my book, so I've been trying to take care of what I can in the meantime.   

Moscow Routines

Friday, May 31, 2019

Stadium from the 1980 Olympics
This was my third week in Moscow, with just one more to go. The time has been flying, as they say. Mainly, I've been settling into routines and trying to get my work done. I've been battling a cold, but otherwise have spent most of my time writing and walking around town. 

Getting my Moscow on

Friday, May 24, 2019


These first two weeks in Moscow have been busy but fun. Frankly, it's great to be here again after two years, although I did feel some sense of trepidation prior to arrival. For one thing, my Russian was rusty. Whereas I speak Turkish on Skype to friends and, to be honest, never really feel uncomfortable when communicating in a Turkic language, the fact that I hadn't had a real honest-to-goodness conversation in Russian since returning to the US from my sabbatical two years ago weighed heavily on my mind prior to coming back to Moscow this year. How would I do? 

Lighting out for the territory again...

Friday, May 17, 2019

School got out a couple of weeks ago and I headed out of town as quickly as possible. That's been my m.o. the last couple of years. By May, the snow in Montana is no longer so charming. The joke has worn off, and the fact that it has snowed in May and June  every year that I've been in Montana during these months does nothing to make me want to stick around. The weather is typically blustery and chilly, even when it's not snowing. So I reckoned it was time I light out for the territory, as they say. 

Montana isn't the only place with open roads
And what territory might that be? Why, the Eurasian borderlands, of course. There's research to be undertaken and knowledge to be produced, not to mention a few places to visit along the open road. 

Children of Trans-Empire: New Article re Nâzım Hikmet

December 12, 2018

It was springtime in Moscow, 1922, and Nâzım Hikmet was signing up for classes at the Communist University for the Toilers of the East.  KUTV, as the university was known by its Russian initials, was the Moscow-based school for communism where Nâzım Hikmet would study and teach for most of thenext six years.  Nâzım, who would go on to become one of Turkey’s most beloved yet controversial writers, was just twenty years old when he arrived in Moscow. The university had been opened the year before, in 1921. 

Nâzım Hikmet (left) with his friend 
and boon companion Vâlâ 
Nâzım had arrived in Moscow from Batumi, Georgia, with four comrades— Vâlâ (Nureddin), Şevket Süreyya (Aydemir), Şevket’s wife, Leman (Aydemir), and Ahmet Cevat (Emre)—whose surnames are all well-known to students of modern Turkey. The questionnaires that the five filled out were a couple of pages long and relatively straightforward, focusing mainly upon the prospective student’s family history and recent past. “What is your family’s social position?” “Did you participate in the civil war and, if so, in what capacity?” “What is your party background?”

“Do you write?” asked the questionnaire. “If so, then what?” 

“I write everything,” responded Nâzım.


“What is your street address in Moscow?”


Gde ia zhivu, Nâzım wrote. “Where I live.”
 


New Projects, New Writing: Getting Caught up at the Borderlands Lodge

December 10, 2018

Over the past year or so, a number of people (okay, two) have asked me why I'm not keeping up with the blog as much as I used to. In truth, there are a lot of reasons behind this--not least of which the fact that I've been researching a lot in Turkey and Russia, and feel like I should probably be a bit more careful about what I post. So, a lot of the sort of writing that used to appear on this blog has gone into abeyance. And frankly, the less time I spend on this blog, the less I get caught up in daily politics and the online world more generally--which is fine with me.

Trying to stay offline and out of doors...
Mainly, though, I've been trying to focus on my professional writing, and have perhaps been a little reluctant to discuss this work until it had begun to yield results. I put up a handful of posts during my sabbatical in 2016-2017, but even then I was mainly interested in getting work done in the archives and keeping a low profile (well, mostly). Up at the Borderlands Lodge, after all, that's something we can do pretty much without even trying.  

Iceland: The Return

June 29, 2018

I made a trip back to Iceland after finishing off my research in Amsterdam, Budapest, and Istanbul. All in all, my travels in May and June lasted for about seven weeks. Most of the time was spent researching, but I also spent about 10 days in various places in Iceland at the beginning and end of the trip. Shots from my first visit to Iceland, which took place in the first half of May, can be found here and here

On the ferry from Heimaey back to the "mainland"
June is apparently high season in Iceland, and my guidebook had advised me to arrange accommodation ahead of time. I'd therefore decided back in Turkey where I was going to stay--I booked a night's stay in Hveragerði, followed by two nights in Heimaey, on the Western Islands. Last I'd spend one night in Vik, on the southern coast, before driving back to the airport outside Reykjavik to drop off the car and fly back to the US. Ultimately, my trip would take me as far east as Jökulsárlón before I turned back.