Review 1357: Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea

In the early 20th century, Teffi was Russia’s most famous writer, a journalist, short story writer, and playwright. In 1918, after the October Revolution, an impresario persuaded her to travel to Odessa along with a troupe of actors and other performers to give some readings. She ended up four years later in Paris, where she lived the rest of her life. This book relates the beginning of her journey.

The dangers of revolutionary Moscow convinced her to leave, but she never meant the move to be more than temporary. People had been disappearing from the city, and it wasn’t clear whether they left voluntarily, were killed, or were deported to Siberia.

The journey to Odessa was harrowing. Conditions were chaotic. At one stop in Ukraine, only their status as performers saved them from the authorities, who were murdering train passengers to take their valuables.

In Odessa, Teffi found almost a holiday atmosphere, meeting some of the people who had disappeared from Moscow. Soon, though, everyone was panicking at the approach of the Bolshevik army.

This book is written in a lively, quirky style with a great deal of humor. Although Teffi herself is sometimes naive, she observes events with a satirical eye. Yet, at times, she is lyrical in her longing for her homeland.

I put this book on my Classics Club list because I was unfamiliar with it and it sounded interesting. Then it came up for my Classics Club Spin. I am glad to have read it. I am interested in Russia, and it gives a much more accurate idea of the effects of the Russian revolution than books like A Gentleman in Moscow.

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Review 1348: The Ukrainian and Russian Notebooks

Cover for The Ukrainian and Russian NotebooksFor anyone who has not followed recent Russian history very closely, The Ukrainian and Russian Notebooks are eye openers. Drawn and written by acclaimed Italian graphic artist Igort, they are the result of two years he spent traveling in the Ukraine and Russia listening to people’s stories.

The Ukrainian Notebook focuses on the Stalin-era Holodomor. This was a government-caused famine imposed on the Kulaks—the Ukrainian farmers who owned their own land—to force them into collectivization. At the time, Ukraine was a rich agricultural region, but by the time the Soviets had finished, millions had starved or been deported to Siberia and the land was a desert. The notebooks tell some stories of the survivors as well as stories about the modern effects on the country.

The Russian Notebook focuses on state-sponsored assassinations, rapes, and kidnappings that are going on under Putin. In particular, it starts with the murder of human rights activist Anna Politkovskaya and her attempts to help the Chechens. Then it goes on to explore the cause of the Chechens.

Finally, the book ends with an epilogue about the more current situation in Ukraine and the Russian “mandate” to take it back.

Since my husband and I are interested in Russia, these notebooks didn’t surprise us, but they may surprise people who are less aware of the recent history of Russia. Igort has written about a lot of other subjects, but his drawing style particularly suits this one.

One small comment about the cartoons. The text is translated, I assume from Italian, and very well done. The text in the illustrations, however, has an occasional typo, and the transliterations of some words from the Russian alphabet are nonstandard with Russian typos, too. For example, on one page, the Russian word “gazetta,” or magazine, is written with the character for “n” instead of “g.” This is a quibble, however, for what is a pair of effective and shocking graphic novels.

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Review 1307: The Revolution of Marina M.

Cover for The Revolution of Marina M.The first thing readers should know before plunging into this 800-page novel is that it is the first of at least two books. There was no hint of this in any of the reviews I read of the book. Still, I was such a fan of Janet Fitch’s first novel, White Oleander, that I probably would have read it anyway.

Marina Makarova is at sixteen a child of privilege, the daughter of a member of the Russian Duma. She has a rebellious streak, though, which she exercises with her friend Varvara, who is working toward the revolution. She also begins an affair with Kolya, a dashing young officer.

Marina is sympathetic towards the plight of the working people, especially the starving families of soldiers at the front. So, she gets involved in revolutionary work without regard to what will happen to the bourgeousie, including her family. Soon, she is excited to be witnessing historic events.

In truth, Marina is not very likable. She is a lousy friend and family member. She throws herself into one situation after another, making one bad decision after another, usually swayed by whoever her lover or closest friend is. She marries a proletariat poet, Genya, only to throw him over as soon as Kolya reappears. She snatches Kolya back out of the arms of her friend Mina. Under Varvara’s influence, she betrays her father to the Bolsheviks.

And that’s part of the problem with this novel. Marina is supposed to be a modern, liberated woman, but she is tossed from one situation to another without much control of her own. She goes from schoolgirl to factory worker to sex slave of a criminal, and takes on the disguise of a boy, a photographer’s assistant, lives with a group of elderly astronomers, pretends to be a peasant wife, and then lives in a commune of a cult. The reviewer from the Chicago Tribune questioned the point of all this. I’m not sure if Fitch is presenting us with an adventure odyssey with a female protagonist or maybe trying to show the effect of the revolution on every strata society (or what?). In any case, all of this happens before Marina’s 20th birthday.

The book has some more problems. Sex is extremely important to Marina, and we get to hear about it in excruciating detail, particularly excruciating when she is imprisoned by a sadistic criminal (a situation that she walked right into). The writing is also over-burdened with metaphors—Fitch never uses one when three will do. Then there is the poetry (ala Doctor Zhivago?). There is lots of it. I am no judge, but it doesn’t seem to be very good.

Strangely, however, despite these flaws, the novel kept me interested, even the part about the cult, although I found parts of that boring. Whether it was interesting enough for me to read part two, though, I doubt. Maybe that will depend upon whether its last words are “End of Part 2.”

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Day 1282: Snowdrops

Cover for SnowdropsBest Book of Five!
At the beginning of Snowdrops, A. D. Miller explains that “snowdrops” are what Russians call the bodies that emerge from the snow after it melts. Sometimes these bodies are of drunks who have fallen asleep in the snow, but sometimes the explanation is more sinister. This note at the beginning of the novel is not the only hint that things are not going to go well for someone.

Nick Platt is a British lawyer who has been transferred to Moscow during the reckless years of the 2000’s. He thinks he is worldly and sophisticated, but he has a lot to learn when he meets Masha and her sister, Katya, in the metro one day. He is soon involved in a love affair with Masha, who asks him to help with the paperwork for her elderly aunt’s purchase of an apartment.

During the same time, Nick’s bank is shepherding an investment in oil managed by a character he calls the Cossack, a typical example of the gangsterish businessmen he and his boss have to deal with. Finally, Nick’s elderly neighbor, Oleg Nikolaevich, is worried about the disappearance of his friend.

It doesn’t take much to guess that all three of these situations will go badly wrong, assisted by Nick’s willful blindness because of his infatuation with Masha. It is getting there that is the pleasure of this engaging, slowly unfolding thriller and absorbing character study. Snowdrops is a novel I read for both my James Tait Black and Man Booker Prize projects. It’s really good, teeming with the atmosphere of those lawless days in Moscow.

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Day 1228: The Great Railway Bazaar

Cover for The Great Railway BazaarBest of Five!
Although it was not his first published book, The Great Railway Bazaar was Paul Theroux’s first to be profitable. Written in 1975, it describes the journey he took from England through Europe and southern Asia to Japan and then back through Russia almost all the time on railroads. On the journey, he travels on some fabled railways, such as the Orient Express when it still went to Istanbul and the Trans-Siberian Express.

This isn’t a traditional travel book. For the most part, Theroux isn’t interested in describing tourist destinations. There is some description, but Theroux is mostly interested in the people he meets on the train and the glimpses of life beyond.

The book is interesting but especially for me in describing countries as they no longer are but were during my lifetime. He describes a Middle East not torn by war, as it has been since the 1980’s, an Iran ruled by the Shah, a Vietnam abandoned by Americans but still at war. He dismisses Afghanistan as a country to be avoided in future but not because of war.

His descriptions of conditions he finds are graphic, and his conversations on the train are sometimes funny. He is a keen observer of human behavior.

This book just zipped by for me, I was so interested. I was surprised to find that at that time, the Orient Express was one of the least luxurious trains he takes. It is more luxurious now, but sadly it no longer goes to Istanbul.

The Folio Society edition I have is full of beautiful photos of people traveling on trains. Unfortunately, none of them were taken by Theroux on his journey.

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Day 1223: To Kill a Tsar

Cover for To Kill a TsarI have such a struggle with reading eBooks that I often put them aside while I’m charging my iPad and pick up a paper book, only to not return to the eBook until I finish the paper one. This is what happened with To Kill a Tsar, which was the paper book I picked up. Sometimes, the reason for continuing with the paper book is that I’m engrossed in it, but this time, it was just because I was finding the eBook no better.

The main character of To Kill a Tsar, Dr. Frederick Hadfield, is a Russian of British ancestry whose uncle is high up in Russian political circles. Hadfield has recently returned from studying in Switzerland and has liberal tendencies, which in Russia makes him a radical.

At a radical social event, he meets Anna Kovalenko and agrees to help her on Sundays at a free clinic. He is drawn to her, but he realizes very soon that she is part of a political group who just attempted to assassinate Tsar Alexander II. Does he avoid her despite his belief in nonviolence? No, of course not.

For me, this is one of the many places where the novel breaks down. To keep us interested in this story about terrorists, we are presented with a wholly unconvincing love story. Then, there is the question of what the author is asking of us. Are we supposed to sympathize with these people, who don’t care how many people are killed, as long as they make their point? Certainly, Williams doesn’t spend enough time revealing the characters of the police for us to sympathize with them. In fact, there is a subplot of an informer inside the police, but when his identity was revealed, I didn’t even know who he was.

I honestly couldn’t figure out what Williams was thinking when he made his choices. There were lots of things he could have done to make this novel interesting. He could have, for example, worked more to make us sympathize with one side or the other instead of assuming, in this age of terrorism, that we would think “No rights? Of course, kill the tsar!” never mind that, as tsars go, Alexander II was one of the most liberal. If Williams simply wanted to report what happened without following a side, he could have left out the lame love affair and spent equal time with both sides. If he wanted us to sympathize more with Hadfield, then make his reactions more understandable.

This is one of the books on my Walter Scott Prize list that I didn’t enjoy that much. That has happened before, but in this case, I also didn’t think it was a very good novel. I don’t think that has happened before.

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Day 1189: Speak, Memory

Cover for Speak, MemoryAlthough I admire Lolita, I went into Nabokov’s memoir with some trepidation. The three of his novels I read showed such a preoccupation with what he calls “nymphets”—beautiful preteen girls—that it was disturbing. It’s one thing to write a novel about a sexual predator and quite another to have the theme recur in all of your works. So, even though I knew that his partially autobiographical novel, Look at the Harlequins!, was ironically meant—that is, he depicted himself as people thought he was, not as he was, I’m wasn’t sure what to expect from Speak, Memory.

And it is unusual. Instead of narrating his life in a linear fashion, as you might expect, it instead explores themes in his life. So, there are earlier chapters listing the accomplishments of his ancestors, describing his governesses and tutors, later ones about his obsession with butterfly collecting, his efforts to write his first poem, and so on. The result is an odd dichotomy—for we still understand little of the day-to-day of his life while gleaning lots of details about the things he loved best and a vague understanding of the larger arc. I think he truly doesn’t want to tell much that is personal.

I most enjoyed the earlier chapters about life on his family estate outside St. Petersburg. His life there is depicted as idyllic, and it’s hard to know if it actually was or if it is in memory because he can’t return to it. Because of course his wealthy, elite family had to flee Russia after the Russian revolution.

As in Look at the Harlequins!,  he tells nothing about his wife, Véra, although he addresses her directly at times. He does tell about his feeling for his son and about the parks in Europe they visited when his son was small.

So, I found large portions of this book interesting and beautifully written. The man has the largest vocabulary of any writer I’ve ever encountered. Other chapters, like the one about the butterflies, where I would have had to look up every other word to understand it, or the one about chess puzzles, were not so compelling. Still, I started another book before this one and set it aside to finish this. Such is the power of a great writer even when you’re not always interested in the subject matter.

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