DieFledermaus in 2012 - Part III
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1.) Minotaur - Benjamin Tammuz
2.) Prague in Black and Gold - Peter Demetz
3.) Fording the Stream of Consciousness - Dubravka Ugresic
4.) Conversation with Spinoza - Goce Smilevski
5.) Memento Mori - Muriel Spark
6.) 1Q84 - Haruki Murakami
7.) The Moro Affair - Leonardo Sciascia
8.) Lodgers - Nenad Velickovic
9.) Dora, Doralina - Rachel de Queiroz
10.) My Cousin Rachel - Daphne du Maurier
11.) You Better Not Cry - Augusten Burroughs
12.) The File on H - Ismail Kadare
13.) The Golem - Gustav Meyrink
14.) Varieties of Exile - Mavis Gallant
15.) A Short History of Myth - Karen Armstrong
16.) Corrigan - Caroline Blackwood
17.) The Courilof Affair - Irene Nemirovsky
18.) Apollo's Angels - Jennifer Homans
19.) The Cyclist Conspiracy - Svetislav Basara
20.) The Librettist of Venice - Rodney Bolt
21.) David Golder - Irene Nemirovsky
22.) Brooklyn - Colm Toibin
23.) Death and the Dervish - Mesa Selimovic
24.) 28 Artists and 2 Saints - Joan Acocella
25.) Winter Sonata - Dorothy Edwards
26.) The Centaur in the Garden - Moacyr Scliar
27.) The Master of the Day of Judgment - Leo Perutz
28.) Weep, Shudder, Die: A Guide to Loving Opera - Robert Levine
28.) The Mirador - Elisabeth Gille
29.) School for Love - Olivia Manning
30.) Virgin: The Untouched History - Hanne Blank
31.) Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality - Hanne Blank
32.) Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness! - Selma Lagerlof
33.) Wildwood - Colin Meloy
34.) A Kid for Two Farthings - Wolf Mankowitz
35.) On the Natural History of Destruction - W.G. Sebald
36.) All Our Worldly Goods - Irene Nemirovsky
37.) Cleopatra: A Life - Stacy Schiff
38.) The Means of Reproduction - Michelle Goldberg
39.) In the Freud Archives - Janet Malcolm
40.) A Journey Around My Room - Xavier de Maistre
41.) The Origin of Satan - Elaine Pagels
42.) Death on the Nile - Agatha Christie
43.) Memoirs of an Anti-Semite - Gregor von Rezzori
44.) A History of Marriage - Elizabeth Abbott
45.) The Power of Myth - Joseph Campbell
46.) Some Prefer Nettles - Junichiro Tanizaki
47.) Bury Me Standing - Isabel Fonseca
48.) Apocryphal Tales - Karel Capek
49.) The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread - Maria Balinska
50.) My Brilliant Career - Miles Franklin
51.) Why Mahler? How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed Our World - Norman Lebrecht
52.) Journey to the Moon - Cyrano de Bergerac
53.) A Journey Round My Skull - Frigyes Karinthy
54.) A Fairly Honourable Defeat - Iris Murdoch
55.) I Am A Pole (And So Can You!) - Stephen Colbert
56.) Gilead - Marilynne Robinson
57.) Journey By Moonlight - Antal Szerb
58.) Verdi's Shakespeare - Garry Wills
59.) Crows: Encounters with the wise guys of the avian world - Candace Savage
60.) Quicksand - Junichiro Tanizaki
61.) Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire - Amanda Foreman
62.) Poem Strip - Dino Buzzati
63.) The Roaring Silence: John Cage, A Life - David Revill
64.) Death's Dark Abyss - Massimo Carlotto
65.) The New Jim Crow - Michelle Alexander
66.) Our Spoons Came From Woolworths - Barbara Comyns
67.) Last Trolley from Beethovenstraat - Grete Weil
68.) Status Anxiety - Alain de Botton
69.) Silence - Shusaku Endo
70.) The Late Mattia Pascal - Luigi Pirandello
71.) The Land of Green Plums - Herta Muller
72.) Russian Winter - Daphne Kalotay
73.) Dom Casmurro - Machado de Assis
74.) On the Overgrown Path - David Herter
75.) Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar - Simon Montefiore
76.) Nothing Grows by Moonlight - Torborg Nedreaas
77.) The Dream Life of Sukhanov - Olga Grushin
78.) Gulag: A History - Anne Applebaum
79.) The Letter Killers Club - Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
80.) Immortality : the quest to live forever and how it drives civilization - Stephen Cave
81.) Memoirs of Berlioz - Hector Berlioz
82.) Just Kids - Patti Smith
83.) Fatale - Jean-Patrick Manchette
84.) Leonardo's Judas - Leo Perutz
85.) Children in Reindeer Woods - Kristin Omarsdottir
86.) White Bread - Aaron Bobrow-Strain
87.) The Psychopath Test - Jon Ronson
88.) The Case of Comrade Tulayev - Victor Serge
89.) The Sociopath Next Door - Martha Stout
90.) The Ship of Widows - I. Grekova
91.) The Heliotrope Wall and Other Stories - Ana Maria Matute
92.) Behind the Scenes at the Museum - Kate Atkinson
93.) The Passion of New Eve - Angela Carter
95.) The Woman Watching - Paola Capriolo
96.) Young Stalin - Simon Sebag Montefiore
97.) Child 44 - Tom Rob Smith
98.) The Devil in Love - Jacques Cazotte
99.) Thank You For Not Reading - Dubravka Ugresic
100.) The Magical Chorus - Solomon Volkov
101.) Ballerina: Sex Scandal and Suffering behind the Symbol of Perfection - Deirdre Kelly
102.) Under Wildwood - Colin Meloy
103.) The Great Bagarozy - Helmut Krausser
104.) The Doll - Boleslaw Prus
105.) The Foundation Pit - Andrey Platonov
106.) The Rising Tide - M.J. Farrell
107.) Censoring an Iranian Love Story - Shahriar Mandanipour
108.) Saplings - Noel Streatfeild
109.) Crow Planet - Lyanda Lynn Haupt
110.) Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe - Anne Applebaum
111.) A Game of Hide and Seek - Elizabeth Taylor
112.) Little Apple - Leo Perutz
113.) The Expendable Man - Dorothy Hughes
114.) Anansi Boys - Neil Gaiman
115.) Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore - Robin Sloan
Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore
In Young Stalin, Montefiore looks at Stalin’s life from the 1880’s to the 1920’s – the story of which is picked up in his The Court of the Red Tsar. The story is involving and the portrait of society and the institutions of the time – the underground organizations, the tsarist secret police, the Okhrana, prisons and exiles – was well-drawn. Montefiore is usually clear about his sources and he makes use of some that were previously unknown or unpublished. He often examines the Stalin myths floating around – Stalin was an Okhrana agent, his father was someone else, his second wife, Nadya, was his daughter – and mostly debunks them. Sometimes Montefiore provides almost too much detail and he has a habit of referring to everyone by occasionally shifting nicknames. As in Red Tsar, the focus is on Stalin and his relationships so sometimes the political and historical background is rushed or only lightly covered.
Stalin’s mother, Ekaterina “Keke” Djugashvili was overbearing and sometimes violent but she always put her son first and had high ambitions for him. His father Vissarion, a cobbler, eventually became a violent drunkard who abandoned the family. They were poor but Keke made sure her son had a good education. She was able to get multiple wealthier or well-placed men to help them either through sympathy for the poor abandoned mother and her intelligent son or through relationships. Montefiore examines possible fathers for Stalin, and the evidence, but says most likely Vissarion was his biological father. Various influences are also suggested though not in a heavy-handed manner, one being the brawling culture of the Georgian town of Gori where Stalin grew up. In the seminary, Stalin devoured forbidden books and started dabbling in political movements. Even as an adolescent, he always had to be the leader of his groups and would undermine those who opposed him or weren’t sufficiently enthusiastic. Dropping out of school, he disappointed Keke but started getting more seriously involved in the underground Georgian socialist groups. In this section, I did speculate several times – when his illnesses or accidents were described – what would happen if he had died, hadn’t gone to the seminary, had become a cobbler or had his life changed in a major way.
Stalin led a peripatetic life – staying with friends, on the move to avoid the tsarist secret police, the Okhrana. After inciting arson at the Rothschilds’ refinery and leading some violent strikes, Stalin became a wanted man and was arrested, imprisoned and exiled, just the first of many. Stalin escaped, as he would several times, and went back to the underground. He had amassed a number of followers and was in contact with a number of notable Bolsheviks including Lenin. He also met various people who would be his friends, family and in his administrations – the Alliluyevs, family of his second wife Nadya (there was a speculated affair between Stalin and Nadya’s mother, though the rumor that Nadya was his daughter was clearly untrue), Abel Yenukidze, Sergo Ordzhonikidze, the Svanidzes – family of his first wife.
Montefiore provides a counter to Trotsky’s assertion that Stalin spent 1905 scribbling uselessly – he was the leader of a Bolshevik faction that engaged in terrorist acts, protests and strikes and extortion for financing. Even with concessions by the tsar, he still promoted violence. Still, he was always writing articles, printing and distributing leaflets and participating in public debates between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. Stalin’s group held the town of Chiatura, but Mensheviks prevailed in most of Georgian. The Menshevik-Bolshevik relationship would go back and forth - sometimes alliances were formed, sometimes deadly enmity prevailed. Stalin himself would often be more conciliatory than Lenin, suggesting that they join forces with other Marxist groups. He met Lenin in person for the first time at a Bolshevik conference, the start of a long relationship. Stalin and Lenin would clash on many points though he quickly became important to Lenin as someone who could raise money, was brutally effective and loyal and also, despite views to the contrary, had intellectual weight.
Stalin funneled money to Lenin – money his gang obtained through robberies. They hit banks, public institutions, ships. Even though Stalin organized these attacks (he didn’t always participate) he had no actual military experience which Montefiore highlights several times – he was critical of Stalin and his amateurs during WWII in Red Tsar. One robbery in particular would trouble Stalin after his rise to prominence – in one of the conferences, robberies were banned and Stalin was denounced by members of the party in Georgia. Lenin was not bothered by this but Montefiore describes many things that Stalin did that could have been used against him. He often details whether these facts were known, were distorted, were rumored to be true or were discovered by the opposition or Stalin’s henchmen and what happened after (for example, the fate of a Stalin publication that put his views closer to Mensheviks – the author details how Stalin sent his men to collect copies or execute those who had one).
Stalin eventually tried to distance himself from his illegal past and moved on to Bolshevik politicking. He traveled to conferences, around Europe, met with Lenin and other Bolsheviks and continued writing and agitating. Stalin wrote one of his important works on the question of nationalities though I don’t think his thoughts were really summarized much. He spent the war in a long exile in Siberia. Stalin interacted with more of those close to Lenin, who would eventually become his victims – Trotsky, Kamenev and Zinoviev – as well his friends – Molotov and Voroshilov. Montefiore describes the Bolshevik seizure of power but makes it sound rather weak and pathetic (Lenin running around in a poor disguise, for example).
One of the most influential factors in shaping Stalin’s personality and methods was the underground life of konspiratsia, where anyone could be a spy and double or triple crossing occurred regularly. The surveillance methods of the head teacher at seminary acted as an early education in paranoia for Stalin. In all his groups, he was overly concerned with traitors of all kinds. He eventually registered on the list of the Okhrana and they began following him around. Another of the more persistent rumors is that Stalin was a tsarist double agent. Montefiore points out aspects of Stalin’s life that fueled that rumor but generally dismisses them. Stalin was frequently arrested. His stay in prison and exile was cushy compared to his own Gulag system. The exiles often seemed like reading holidays and boredom was one of the main concerns. Stalin would often accuse people in the Georgian party and while on occasion he was right, he also picked innocent people. A particularly significant double agent was Roman Malinovsky, who was close to Lenin and Stalin for a long time and even elected as a Bolshevik representative to the Duma. He regularly betrayed his friends to the Okhrana but surprisingly no one suspected him, even defending him from accusations of being a spy. Once he was in power, Stalin never stopped thinking with the mindset of konspiratsia.
Montefiore looks at Stalin’s many affairs, engagements and marriages. In The Court of the Red Tsar, Stalin’s relationships were positively tame compared to his cronies, some of whom were over-the-top womanizers or were perverse and debauched. However, in his early days he amassed a large number of ex-girlfriends, often his married landladies or the girlfriends of his fellow Bolsheviks. He also had several illegitimate children and a string of never-fulfilled engagements though in one case he seemed to want to marry but was transferred while in prison. Stalin was always on the run or in prison so he frequently abandoned relationships. His first marriage, to Kato Svanidze, was not always happy though he looked back on her with fondness. Montefiore, as well as Kato’s family, blames Stalin for bringing Kato to the city of Baku and leaving her in poor and unhealthy conditions. She died soon after and Stalin neglected to see their son Yakov for years. Probably one of the worst relationships occurred during Stalin’s longest exile in Siberia. He had an affair with a 13-year old girl, impregnated her twice and abandoned the second son who survived. However, that Siberian exile remained one of Stalin’s fondest memories. He was friendly with the guard assigned to watch over him and bragged about his hunting and fishing exploits. Likely he was bored and wanted to be where the action was (this was during WWI) but Montefiore suggests that it was one of the happiest periods of his life. He describes why Stalin’s dog, Tishka, was the perfect companion – “they provided selfless affection and passionate admiration yet never betrayed their masters (nor became pregnant by them), and yet they could be abandoned without guilt”. Stalin ends married to Nadya Alliluyeva but Montefiore hints at problems to come.
A very informative look at the younger Stalin; if I hadn’t already read The Court of the Red Tsar I would definitely want to after reading this one.
The Woman Watching by Paola Capriolo
The story of the artist who gets too involved in his work and starts to value art over life is an old one but Capriolo gives it a couple twists in her well-written and slightly creepy book. Vulpius, an actor in a provincial theater company, becomes obsessed with an unknown woman in the audience who appears to be looking only at him. Unable to discover her identity, he devotes himself to perfecting his role but gradually alienates the audience, the other actors, his girlfriend Dora and humanity in general. The boundaries between reality and illusion start to blur for Vulpius, who finds everyday life a pale imitation of the theater. The story is tense and addictive but also meditative; spare but lush; with a straightforward plot but an ambiguous and elusive meaning. Capriolo’s narrative is overt and frequently calls attention to the artifice of the story but it fits well with the overall theme.
Vulpius becomes obsessed with the craft of acting but not in the crazy, passionate Method way – instead he has cold, theoretical ideas which are more about repetitive rituals, transformation and a more perfect approximation of reality. He forces Dora to take part in his obsession in some slightly disturbing scenes. It’s almost like an abusive relationship except that his abuse is so bizarre and, as the narrator notes, he’s not cruel but coldly indifferent to other people’s thoughts and feelings. In his efforts to plumb the depths of the theater, Vulpius becomes an observer like the unknown woman. He also replicates her role as a tormenting specter – he can’t get her out of his mind and obsesses over her; likewise, he becomes a disturbing presence in the cheery actors’ company and regularly torments Dora. In the empty theater, he is almost like a priest of his own weird domain. In fact, the author explicitly draws comparisons with the church. At the opening of the season, Vulpius makes a memorable visit there and another significant scene takes place at the church. The statues and supports in the rococo theater are reminiscent of the ornately decorated church and Vulpius’ obsession with the rituals of the theater, empty or significant, have their counterparts in the church. Life and death are regularly played out on the stage and are of course the main functions of the church. The play that is performed at the opening is Don Juan which turns out to be very appropriate. Vulpius, in his cold detachment, is more like the stone statue which brings destruction than any of the living characters.
Capriolo has an idiosyncratic style – at once omniscient and limited. The narrator is overt about her role and there’s a verisimilitude in her describing that the story is only one possible explanation of what really happened to Vulpius, Dora and the company. There are frequent interruptions of the story, comments on what will happen or what has happened, speculations about what would happen if only something was changed or regret at the way things turned out. The view changes from the narrator to Vulpius or Dora and often these shifts are noted by the narrator. This style will not be for all tastes but fits well with the story. The artifice of the narrative echoes the artifice of the theater and the narrator is also a sometimes controlling observer. There is a strong use of symbolism but it is brought up simply and is not intrusive. In addition to the conscious commentary on the narrative, Capriolo favors long, complex, ornamented sentences. I don’t think her style is for everyone but it worked very well for me.
Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson
Excellent – one of those books that lives up to all the good things everyone says about it. Ruby Lennox narrates her childhood from conception on (like Tristram Shandy) with glimpses back to the lives of her mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and assorted relatives. The writing is dazzling – funny, memorable, wonderfully descriptive. Both the past and present narratives are involving and Atkinson is good at building suspense and leaving a trail of big and small secrets. Sometimes it irritates me when authors deliberately keep things from the readers but it works here because the narrators are often limited in their knowledge or other characters actively work to keep things a secret.
In the present, Ruby narrates a series of ingeniously constructed set-pieces – a drunken family get-together for the Coronation of the queen, a horrible and horribly funny co-neighbor vacation to Scotland, a comically dysfunctional wedding – as well as the everyday life of school, work, affairs, adolescence and deaths. In the past, we hear the stories of Ruby’s relatives which are described in the “footnotes” ostensibly to relate the origin and history of some object but really giving all the lives that have come before Ruby. Ruby’s family consists of her ineffectual philandering father, George, her difficult, frustrated mother Bunty, Patricia, the good sister who grows up to be a rebellious teenager, and cherubic brat Gillian. Bunty’s maternal line starts with her grandmother, spoiled Alice, who marries a drunken, neglectful husband and has too many children. The story of Alice’s children is told by her daughters Nell and Lillian who worry about their brother Albert during World War I and are both frustrated in their attempts to find love and build a family. Bunty, lost amidst another brood of children, tries to find an identity during WWII and also ends up settling for mildly unsatisfying married life. Besides these characters, many other relatives, friends, and partners work their way in. Life above a pet store, which is run by Ruby’s parents, also has its quirks. The setting, York from the 19th through the 20th century, is vividly described. Altogether very good and highly recommended.
I’m not going to include this in my review but I had some extreme frustrations while reading the book – not the fault of the author. When I got to page 128, it skipped to page 161. Then there was another 161-192 section so a whole chunk of the book was missing. Of course I was really annoyed as I was into the book at that point. I couldn’t return the book since I bought it from Powell’s several years back. The library didn’t have it as an ebook and there were multiple holds on the physical book. Google Books didn’t have that section. Luckily, I was able to get it in a couple days from the university library but if that hadn’t worked, I was going to go to a bookstore and read 30 pages or so. Annoying!
I have had that problem of missing or duplicate + missing pages three times in the past two years. It is very irritating, as you said, because books were often bought many years before. Usually, I am not so lucky: (university) libraries do not have the books I read.
>10 edwinbcn: - What bad luck - very annoying! This is the first time that I've encountered something so disruptive in a book, usually it's just a misspelled word or a weird font on one page or some fading.
>1 DieFledermaus:-4 You're having an impressive reading year, DieF, i love your choices!
>5 DieFledermaus: Excellent review of Young Stalin. I hope to get to that book at some point.
>6 DieFledermaus: I'm intrigued by The Woman Watching. I checked out the first pages on Amazon and liked what I read -- her style, and the subject, reminds me of Javier Marías, a favorite of mine.
Great reviews Dief, The Woman watching looks interesting and I am pleased you liked the Kate Atkinson as I have that one on my TBR pile.
Three great reviews already. Very interesting about Stalin's earlier life. I always figured that if Stalin hadn't been around, Lenin would have simply had to find a different thug. Wonder if it would have made a significant difference. Very interesting premise/analysis of The Woman Watching.
>12 deebee1: - Thanks deebee! Glad to see more people interested in Young Stalin.
I do like Capriolo's style, I've read a couple other books by her - A Man of Character and Floria Tosca - and they could all be described as well-written, slightly creepy books about obsession with various overt-narrator devices. I haven't read anything by Javier Marias yet but I have two on the pile - A Heart So White and Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me. Maybe I should push one of those up.
>13 rebeccanyc: - Rebecca - Young Stalin will be almost like light reading after the doorstop-y Citizens!
>14 baswood: - Thanks baswood, I'm hoping to read more Atkinson. I know she has a popular mystery series but it looks like the first one has the most holds at the library.
>15 dchaikin: - Thanks dchaikin. There were certainly a lot of interesting details about Stalin even though I read the quick summary of his early life in The Court of the Red Tsar - like he had webbed feet, was a weatherman at one point, for awhile believed Esperanto was the language of the future (though later would persecute Esperanto speakers) and frequently dressed in drag to escape the Okhrana. I'd agree with you about Lenin - it seemed like there was no shortage of thugs.
The Heliotrope Wall and Other Stories by Ana Maria Matute
Most of the stories in this collection examine the treacherous waters of adolescence, an uncertain place filled with violence. Matute writes in an elliptical style and often has narrators who don’t understand the full picture. Her sometimes vicious endings are like a good kick in the stomach. Occasionally, Matute’s pared-down prose can become too thin and sometimes the deliberately oblique narrative leaves the reader a bit confused. However, the best stories show that Matute is an artful writer of short works as well longer ones – I loved her novel School of the Sun (Primera Memoria).
The title story shifts perspectives between three boys whose friendship has an underlying tension of class differences. There’s a nice atmosphere of menace and Matute’s narrative switching emphasizes the similarity between the boys but this one is too oblique to match the impact of some of the others. “Very Happy” tells the story of a man who seems to have escaped the traps of adolescence and has a stable family, fiancée and career ahead of him. However, cracks soon appear in his story. “Math Notebook” excellently displays Matute’s technique; her narrator has recently come to live with her mother but is confused about the family situation. Gradually, both her past and the tangled relations in her new life are revealed. In the slightly creepy “Do Not Touch”, the main character, Claudia, is only seen at a distance – she’s cold, destructive, insatiable and inscrutable. Her story has a bit of a surreal ending. “The King of the Zennos” is also surreal or fantastic – it left me a bit mystified. “News of Young K.” takes Matute’s abbreviated style too far – it’s too short and choppy to have an impact though the story – a delinquent teenager who commits a violent act – is similar to others. “A Star on the Skin” nicely builds up the narrator’s messy, poor but happy childhood with her scattered parents before the real world intrudes violently.
Matute’s writing has a timeless quality since it is focused on the shifting emotions and interpersonal relationships of her young narrators. She deliberately cultivates this feeling by leaving locations and events hazy, even though one could speculate that some references are to the Spanish Civil War. Matute recreates the confusing period of adolescence by exploiting the tension between known and unknown, innocence and experience. However, experience, in her stories, is brutal and innocence is more like uncertainty or stupidity. Occasionally some of the stories go too far in using Matute’s favored techniques but the best stories were like the atmospheric, powerful School of the Sun and I will be reading more by Matute.
I remember really liking Matute when I read her back in high school. Silly enough though, I've never thought to took for other books by her. I should fix that.
Anna Maria Matute is another discovery for readers of you thread Dief.
Great reviews of Behind the Scenes at the Museum and The Heliotrope Wall and Other Stories, DieF. I had heard of Ana María Matute after she was chosen as the winner of the Cervantes Prize in 2010, but I haven't read anything by her. I've added this book to my wish list, and I'll look for it next month.
Glad to see the interest in Matute. Like lilsin, I learned about her in high school - we read one of her short stories in Spanish class and it stuck in my head. I later found her School of the Sun in a used bookstore. It's part of a trilogy though the other books might be hard to come by. I should really read those soon - Soldiers Cry By Night and La Trampa. I would highly recommend School of the Sun, the one I read was from the Quartet Encounters series. Have seen it in a couple used bookstores.
I have another Matute, Celebration in the Northwest on the pile.
Ship of Widows by I. Grekova
In the opening chapter of The Ship of Widows, the narrator, Olga Flerova, learns that her husband has been killed in the front and her apartment in Moscow is bombed soon after, killing her mother and daughter. A pianist, Olga can no longer work after she almost dies and her hands are permanently injured. She is assigned to teach music at an orphanage and moves to a new communal apartment where the plot really takes off. She describes living with her neighbors but the main focus of the story is her relationship with Anfisa Gromova and Anfisa’s bastard son Vadim. The author subtly examines the limitations of Soviet life and shows female friendship and motherhood as both sustaining and painful. Some character seem more like examples of types than people and almost all the male characters, except Vadim, get shortchanged but the focus on women and daily life sets this book apart and makes it well worth reading.
Grekova keeps the story on the relationship of Olga and Anfisa, and later the relationship of the women to Vadim, but also looks at life during and after World War II in Moscow.
Communal living, a ubiquitous feature of Soviet cities, provides the widowed women (some more widows than others) with a family life but also brings about nonstop quarrelling. They have to share the kitchen and who’s talking to whom or who shares their food with the others is an indicator of friendship or anger. There are the usual space problems and issues with male guests or residents. The all-female environment approximates what life would have been like after WWII – the high death toll meant many women would have been widowed. The German invasion resulted in deaths of even those not on the front line. Other factors – arrests, exiles and sentences in the Gulag never stopped during the war – meant that the traditional family structure could not always be relied upon and Olga finds one such solution. At Olga’s work, her supervisors – one who lets things slide and is more concerned with effectively running the orphanage, the other who is obsessed with regulations and conformation – represent various modes of dealing with the repressive Soviet system. As Vadim gets older, he has typical teenage feelings of superiority and being the only person who’s not a phony. However, all the examples he gives are of genuine phoniness – of his young Communist group saying one thing but making them do another, of people too concerned with conforming, of people pretending to be happy when they are not.
The novel also looks at the role of women in Soviet society. Olga’s other apartment mates are perhaps more like types than fleshed out characters. Kapa is a superstitious, religious ex-village woman, a busybody and gossip. Ada, a former operetta singer, is flighty, feminine and always engaged in some romantic delusion. Panka is frequently described as mannish and works as a fitter. She’s a true believer in socialism and equality for all, even if it means that everyone is equally miserable. Unhappy relationships prevail – drunken, abusive husbands and partners are common. However, they all behave differently when men are around and Olga notes that they are all unfulfilled having lost husbands and no children. For the most part, they fit into rigidly female roles and even work to support that – deriding Panka as mannish, shaming Anfisa for her pregnancy. There are also the positives of female friendship – emotional support and a sensitivity to balance out Vadim’s thoughtlessness. But the atmosphere that is described suggests that they have no choice and not even much of a conception that things could be different. Olga’s simple and resigned narration also gives the impression that they are stuck in their roles – men move in and out, become violent and expect to be given priority but this is just the usual way of life. Anfisa’s love of her son provides another example. Raising her son gives her life meaning after the war and she sacrifices everything for Vadim. The other women value their relationships with him as well. However, he is ungrateful and rude, causing Anfisa no end of worry. The ending highlights the ambivalent nature of their relationship. While Soviet society enshrined motherhood – women were mothers of the future generation of workers and Soviet citizen – those who stepped outside their roles, like Panka, were looked down on. Family also had to take place behind Stalin and the state. In such a time and place, family and friends are a mixed blessing.
Great review and interesting book. I am wondering when Grekova wrote this -- that is, if it was still within the Soviet period? (LT tells me it was published in 1983; I'm wondering if she wrote it then or if it was a manuscript that couldn't be published earlier.)
Enjoyed your excellent review of Ship of Widows. How difficult life must have been in post world war II Russia.
Thanks Rebecca, kidzdoc, Linda and baswood. Rebecca - the intro says that Grekova (a pseudonym to protect her identity as a mathematician) published it in Novy Mir in 1981 but it had been rejected for about a decade before that. It looks like she had some work published in the 60's and then more in the 80's though she was born in 1907.
I have a small pile of reviews to write but have to finish several books so they can go back to the library. So in the next 2-3 weeks these books should be finished -
The Magical Chorus: A History of Russian Culture from Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn - Solomon Volkov (finished)
Begin Again: A Biography of John Cage - Kenneth Silverman
Ballerina: Sex, Scandal, and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection - Deirdre Kelly
Little Apple - Leo Perutz
The Great Bagarozy - Helmut Krausser
Under Wildwood - Colin Meloy
I'll be going to Raleigh, North Carolina for work next week and thought I would ask the group for suggestions. Probably won't have a lot of time to do stuff but maybe suggestions for not-too-expensive places to eat. I'll also post on the message board.
The Magical Chorus by Solomon Volkov
Volkov’s account of Russian culture in the 20th century is ambitious and informative but occasionally jumpy, with a profusion of names and movements. While he covers visual arts, ballet and music, he spends the most time describing Russian writers. Russian writers, he notes, had a special place of power and influence not found in any other country. Tolstoy was like a living saint, Gorky’s relationship with Stalin gave him a wide influence and Solzhenitsyn created a government panic at the same time as he sent Brezhnev a letter outlining good governing strategies. Some special areas of focus include the Nobel prize controversies of Ivan Bunin, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Joseph Brodsky. Volkov has a number of interesting stories and does give clear background. He is especially good at describing how various artists were able to manipulate their own images at home and abroad. However, what with the large number of artists that he has to cover, it doesn’t help to give nonstop quotes of what writer X said about writer Y. When he focuses on one life or one arc, the analysis is clear and involving but the jumping from person to person makes the account lose momentum. I found his first person interruptions more distracting than helpful. It’s worth reading but could have been better.
Volkov starts off well by analyzing Tolstoy’s impact in Russian culture and the 20th century. It’s interesting because he is often seen as a 19th c author as Volkov notes. The section on Tolstoy touches on themes that the author will cover throughout the book – the relation of the Tolstoy to the public and government, his varying stances in his work and his effort to shape his self-image. Tolstoy will recur frequently in the history – authors will model themselves after him, comparisons are made to his funeral. After that, things get a bit scattered as Volkov covers a number of artistic movements and historical incidents, though the feuding actress/author pairs of Gorky and his wife, with Chekhov and his wife, were particularly interesting. It was also enlightening to read about other chaotic premieres, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera Kashchey the Immortal – usually Stravinsky is the only one mentioned. Of course any cultural history will be full of names and movements but as this is a relatively short book, things feel crowded. It doesn’t help that Volkov includes an abundance of quotes attributed to other artists and authors, some of who have been introduced, others who are just dropped in. There’s also the distracting mention of his personal experiences. After the Bolshevik Revolution, there were three main artistic camps and though many of the leading Bolsheviks had conservative tastes, the avant-garde camp was the one willing to collaborate which explains why a number of experimental pieces and productions were sanctioned in the 20’s. Anatoly Lunacharsky was the tolerant cultural minister until 1929 and he was able to smooth things over between the artistic community and Lenin and Stalin.
Stalin, though less formally educated than Lenin, was a voracious reader and loved classical music and opera (and he had been a poet back in Georgia). He sacked Lunacharsky and had been covertly shaping cultural policy even before his famous trashing of Dmitri Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk. Stalin loved the Russian classics of realism of the 19th c and soon everything had to be in the mode of socialist realism. Experimental art, “formalism”, was looked on suspiciously as anti-Soviet. This is a pretty interesting section and Volkov skillfully describes the motivations for a number of writers and artists. He looks at the nuances of the Stalin-Gorky relationship and changing attitudes towards ‘peasant writers’. In examining the first winners of the Stalin Prize (some odd ones such as Shostakovich and Eisenstein), Volkov illustrates Stalin’s control of culture as well as his capriciousness. Sholokhov, the author of And Quiet Flows the Don, was one of the winners. Contradictory things are often said about Sholokhov so it was good to see the story in detail. Several Nobel controversies are covered, the first being the politics behind the anti-Communist émigré Bunin’s prize. The Soviets had lobbied for Gorky and his loss was a clear message. The deaths, suicides and repressive atmosphere under the Great Terror, as well as the deaths, suicides and loosening of restrictions during World War II are described. Also well-done is Volkov’s portrayal of the balancing act of artists such as the poet Anna Akhmatova and Shostakovich.
Stalin’s personal, hands-on approach to artistic control was lessened under Nikita Khrushchev. Khrushchev did not have the personal interest and love of reading and music and he seemed to favor public humiliation and hounding instead of arrests and executions. Pasternak, a pariah after he smuggled his novel Doctor Zhivago out to the West and was awarded the Nobel, was targeted by Khrushchev, who he compared unfavorably to Stalin. To him, Stalin was powerful and terrible, a sort of Ubermensch, but Khrushchev was just petty and mean. Like Stalin, though, Khrushchev was very capricious, one day allowing the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s depiction of the Gulag in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the next yelling at and threatening artists. The Nobel aspirations of Sholokhov and Solzhenistyn as well as their efforts to shape their images at home and abroad are nicely detailed but some movements just get a quick summary. The controversies and struggles of three Soviet artists – the director Andrei Tarkovsky, the writer Joseph Brodsky and the composer Alfred Schnittke – are oddly and confusingly compared. However, the nuances in their fight against the government are interesting, as Volkov notes that Tarkovsky was difficult to work with, Brodsky carefully cultivated his martyr image, and Schnittke’s popularity was likely based on the fact that his music was banned.
In later years, some things are glossed over again, but most areas are at least touched on – popular folk singers, rock bands, experimental visual artists, ballet. One book that inspired controversy and worry in the government, one of the last, was Anatoli Rybakov’s Children of Arbat. With the end of the Soviet Union, a repressive artistic system was also dismantled but Volkov notes that nothing came to take its place. He is pessimistic about art and culture in the 21st century – not only is there less funding but also less government and public interest in the arts. A good overview of Russian culture but had some issues with the presentation.
Great review, DieF. Pity about the presentation issues, as Russian culture is an eminently interesting topic, I think. What you mention about the stature of writers in Russia as unique is something I came across also just recently in Sandor Marai's (the Hungarian author) memoirs of his experience during the Russian occupation of Hungary, a book I've been dipping in and out of. When the rough, illiterate Russian soldiers learned (through his neighbors) that he was a writer, and could converse with them about their beloved Russian authors, they began to treat him with such respect and humility, contrary to how they behaved towards the villagers in general. Just curious - does Volkov discuss the influence and the role of Russian artists in the world stage in the last century? Children of the Arbat has been on my wishlist for some time now -- thanks for the reminder.
Very interesting review, and probably something I'll read eventually. I'm familiar with a fair amount of Soviet era literature, but it would be great to understand more of the context and learn about the other arts too.
Just catching your last three reviews. Ship of Widows caught my interest. As for The Magical Chorus, despite your reservations, the info in your review is fascinating.
Really interesting review of what sounds like an excellent reference work despite the flaws you mention.
Will be interested to see your thoughts on Ballerina: Sex Scandal and Suffering behind the Symbol of Perfection, a book that has had mixed reviews, but sounds like a good one.
That's an interesting review of The Magical Chorus, which I happened to pick up at a bargain sale earlier this year. Pity it doesn't completely live up to its promise, but it still sounds worth the while.
Really enjoyed your review of The Magical Chorus the book seems to cover a huge amount of ground.
Thanks for all the commnets about The Magical Chorus.
debee - An interesting story - am planning to read more Marai. Volkov doesn't touch on the worldwide influence of Russian artists though there is a lot about various emigres and how relations with the West affected politics and art. I've meant to get Children of Arbat as well but it's hard to find at stores. Probably will have to go to the university library.
SassyLassy - I saw Ballerina when browsing the library and picked it up because I wanted to read more about ballet - haven't seen any reviews of it yet. Which ones are you referring to? I'd be interested to read them.
Recently got back from a work conference and didn't have much online time. I'll have to try to catch up with everyone's threads this week. I did get some reading in - finished Boleslaw Prus' The Doll and will review it soon.
Also need to review -
Ballerina: Sex, Scandal, and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection - Deirdre Kelly
The Great Bagarozy - Helmut Krausser
Under Wildwood - Colin Meloy
Thank You For Not Reading - Dubravka Ugresic
The Devil in Love - Jacques Cazotte
Child 44 - Tom Rob Smith
The Passion of New Eve - Angela Carter
The Sociopath Next Door - Martha Stout
The Case of Comrade Tulayev - Victor Serge
and some older ones. Need to get on that.
Deirdre Kelly is a Canadian critic, so here are a couple of reviews from Canada:
This one gives a bit of background to the book, http://www.cbc.ca/news/arts/story/2012/09/26/ballerina-book.html
Most of all, I was interested in Georges Balanchine and how he manipulated and controlled ballerinas, as well as how much he contributed to and transformed ballet itself, so I will be interested in what you have to say, as I haven't seen it yet.
>39 SassyLassy: - Thanks, I'll check those out. There was a lot about Balanchine and Kelly has a very negative view of him though she acknowledges the importance and quality of his work. It was interesting to read her interpretation of Balanchine's legacy after reading Apollo's Angels by Jennifer Homans and 28 Artists and 2 Saints by Joan Acocella - all three mention the same facts about him but have different levels of criticism and conclusions. There's also a biography of him - George Balanchine: The Ballet Maker by Robert Gottlieb that I can get as a library ebook.
Under Wildwood by Colin Meloy
(spoilers related to the first book in the Wildwood series)
The second book in Colin Meloy’s Wildwood series isn’t as satisfying as the first but it was still pretty addictive and I’ll read the third one. Part of the problem is ‘second book syndrome’ – there’s more left unresolved and a number of large plot points are mentioned but not touched on since they’ll probably appear in the conclusion. I also found the villains rather thin; this was a problem because more time was spent narrating from their POV compared to the first one. On the other hand, it was good to catch up with the characters and to go back to the setting – the magical woods located inside the city of Portland. The book is relatively long for a children’s book and it gives Meloy the space to follow his amusing tangents. There’s still some Portland-related local color and Meloy seems to be referring to current events in the plot turns and characters. The illustrations by Carson Ellis are again very nice.
It opens a couple months after Prue and Curtis saved Prue’s baby brother and led the overthrow of both the corrupt South Wood government and Alexandra, the former South Wood ruler bent on world domination. Curtis is still living the life of a Wildwood bandit-in-training and the scenes in the bandit camp are entertaining and humorous. Prue is bored in school and at home. She’s been practicing the ability she discovered in the Impassable Wilderness – hearing and communicating with plants. However, Prue soon finds herself in danger and has to return to Wildwood. The ineffectual new government of South Wood has brought on an economic crisis that has affected the Wildwood bandits and the North Wood citizens and a shadowy nefarious group has targeted Prue and Curtis. The pair goes on the run and eventually starts searching for some individuals connected to Alexandra. It was nice to see Curtis get more of a backbone – he challenges Prue and has his own motivations and loyalties now. In the other book, it seemed that his plotline was the boring one.
Another complaint I had about Wildwood was the dearth of female characters (pretty much just Prue and Alexandra) but in Under Wildwood, the second storyline follows Curtis’ sisters, Elsie and Rachel. I initially had some issues with their plot since the twists that land them in a Dickensian orphanage were unbelievable. While there’s a lot of suspense as it’s a standard evil orphanage, I found the first part of the Elsie/Rachel sections to be clichéd and weaker than the Prue/Curtis line. Later on, though, it becomes pretty interesting and we learn a lot more about the Impassable Wilderness. Elsie and Rachel have run-ins with one of the main bad characters, Joffrey Unthank, also Dickensian in name and occupation. He’s a generic evil businessman/industrialist which doesn’t make him very interesting (although amusingly he reads The 1% Journal). Alexandra was also a type, the evil witch/queen, but at least she had an over-the-top intensity and a baroquely tragic backstory. There also wasn’t too much narration from her point of view. The South Wood bureaucrats were petty and dull but they were supposed to be interchangeable as part of the satire of bureaucracy. There were too many Unthank sections for me though his girlfriend and partner in evil, Desdemona, a former Ukrainian actress with a passionate desire to make movies, is the most interesting of the various villains. Wigman, Unthank’s boss and another dull evil businessman, and Darla, a vicious Wildwood killer, are both rather boring and undeveloped.
There’s less humor in this one as the stakes are higher and many conflicts are left unresolved. Most of the middle section doesn’t further the ultimate plot but allows Meloy to develop the setting. He convincingly describes the labyrinthine pathways under Wildwood and the civil war that Prue and Curtis interrupt is almost funny and appropriately horrifying. The underground is related to Portland’s Underground Tour and further connections are drawn between the magical and ordinary worlds. Meloy alludes to current issues – the denizens of the Impassible Wilderness also have an economic crisis which isn’t being helped by squabbling politicians. Corrupt one percenters are broadly caricatured and the problems of starting a new government after the old one has fallen in a popular revolution are mentioned.
The Great Bagarozy by Helmut Krausser
Cora Dulz, a psychiatrist, has an unhappy life. She’s in a dead marriage with a tax consultant who only wants to cut out articles about freakish deaths and is bored and annoyed at her patients. Even worse, two patients of hers recently committed suicide. She assumes Stanislaus Nagy will be another boring and self-absorbed whiner but he turns out to have a rather unusual problem: he claims to see and hear Maria Callas, the long-dead soprano generally considered one of the greatest singers of the 20th century. While Cora attempts to process this and suggests the usual psychiatric causes – mother issues? sexual frustrations? – Nagy admits to further problems: he’s really the devil, was obsessed with Callas and is feeling empty and dull now that she’s dead.
In their sessions, he describes his observation of the singer from her time as a rebellious teenager in occupied Athens through her at first spotty, then triumphant career to her messy romance with Aristotle Onassis and her long vocal decline. The best part is Nagy’s description of his love-hate, one-sided relationship with the needy Callas, who he describes as perpetually insecure and in need of adulation. He reminded me of some opera buffs who get a little too involved in poking through the lives and abilities of various singers. Nagy/devil is sometimes angry with Callas for seeming to recognize and ignore him in his multiple guises (though he successfully inhabits her black poodle) and at times feels schadenfreude at her falls; other times her losses hurt him as well but he’s always fascinated by her and remains obsessive in the present. The narrative is light and entertaining at first – the interviews are sometimes written as transcriptions or include Cora’s jargony comments. The articles of Cora’s husband describing bizarre deaths further add to the morbidity. However, Cora starts to become obsessed by Nagy. At first, it’s a reflection of Nagy’s own story but when the book switches to Cora and her desperation, the momentum slows. Cora’s not as interesting and her husband, though he’s supposed to be dull, is really dull. Still, overall a bizarre, fun little book.
Thank You For Not Reading by Dubravka Ugresic
These essays are light, funny and entertaining but also insightful and serious. Ugresic writes about the current publishing industry and the experience of being an exile. It would seem that these two issues aren’t related but Ugresic draws a number of comparisons between her experience with a repressive Communism system and the fickle book market. Each piece is pretty short but it the whole book covers a wide range and touches on topics from philosophy (she clearly describes the interpretations of Jean Baudrillard) to pop culture (Joan Collins, Ivana Trump, reality TV shows). If anything, her thoughts on publishing, globalization and exiles are even more relevant today.
The first section looks at the odd publishing industry, the changeable tastes of the public and writers who are snobbish and entitled or sad and neglected. Ugresic has a bemused attitude towards celebrity authors, ineffectual agents and an industry which is more concerned with how an author can market their works. I had some contradictory thoughts on this section though it was always fun to read. The publishing industry certainly releases its share of crap but I do think it is in response to the public reading trends and I don’t think everything large commercial publishers promote is bad (sometimes see people who seem to think the choice is between commercial pap and creative independent works, but there’s everything in between). I also think another way to go is the way Ugresic has chosen – I’ve read three books by her now and they were published by three different small or university presses. Ugresic has an interesting comparison between socialist realism literature and the American market though the requirement for happy endings and uplift reminded me more of mainstream movies. She describes all the perplexities of being a Croatian/Eastern European etc author in the West – they’re all grouped together when they’re not being ignored, sold as something exotic or not currently trendy. However, American universities can preserve and study some authors or works which have been neglected in their country of origin. Writers come out for criticism as well – self-aggrandizing or self-pitying behavior, male writers who don’t respect their female colleagues but almost always have women to negotiate their daily lives for them.
The second half of the book looks at Ugresic’s experiences as a child living in Yugoslavia and later in the West. Again, there are funny anecdotes and odd comparisons – the relentlessly positive socialist realist messages and emphasis on reading of her childhood lead to a parallel with Oprah. She also criticizes globalization though her analysis is sprinkled with humor and never goes for a straight America=bad, smaller countries=good. An overall decline in intelligent discourse and reading is mentioned as worrisome but again related with a wry smile. I didn’t always agree with everything she said but her essays certainly made me think and they were very enjoyable to read.
Enjoying your reviews Dief. Dubravka Ugresic gets consistently good reviews on Librarything.
I've read Ugresic's The Ministry of Pain, which also deals with the idea of exile and in particular the idea of exile from a country that no longer exists. I found it thought-provoking, and loved her use of language, but I never became completely absorbed in the story.
Thanks baswood. I have enjoyed all the Ugresics that I have read so far. Will be looking for more of her work.
Rebecca - it does seem like there's a lot of jumping around in Ugresic's work; I could see that being a factor. I haven't read The Ministry of Pain yet but it's on the list - will have to see what I think about that one.
The Devil in Love by Jacques Cazotte
The Devil in Love is indeed about the devil’s romance with the narrator, a young Spanish soldier, Alvaro, who gets into black magic through a friend and gets in over his head when he summons the androgynous Biondetta/Biondetto. Instead of a dark Gothic tale, this is a light social romance, just with some devil love and temptation thrown in. Biondetto/a agrees to be Alvaro’s servant which starts some bedroom comedy – Alvaro initially wonders where he/she is going to sleep and others speculate about whether Alvaro’s new servant is really a man. There’s a feel of a picaresque in the parts where Alvaro and Biondetta wander around Italy and Spain and a melodrama when they get embroiled in a violent love triangle. Biondetta falls in love with Alvaro but he’s wary at first because she is, after all, a devil. However, Alvaro can’t resist and soon their relationship starts developing in a conventional way with jealousy, tears, fears about what his family will say. Alvaro actively deceives himself even without Biondetta’s help.
Cazotte made several revisions to The Devil in Love; this edition had the longer version which is preferable – the shorter one ends as a pat morality tale and even though the longer one has something of this, there’s a late scene that is a bit shocking considering when it was written. Cazotte influenced some more popular Gothic writers and works – Matthew Lewis’s The Monk, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Theophile Gautier. This version includes an account of Cazotte’s life written by Gerard de Nerval which is very helpful. Cazotte was executed during the French Revolution and his Revelations, where he compares the Revolution to the prophecies in Revelations, is given. It’s rather long-winded and an example of fitting pretty much anything to some given prophecy. The Devil in Love is rather odd but worth reading.
Ballerina: Sex, Scandal, and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection by Deirdre Kelly
Ballerina, as the subtitle suggests, looks at the dark side of the history of the ballerina. Ballerinas were thought to be the airy, ethereal embodiment of femininity and even today ballerina is often seen as the dream job of many little girls. Kelly looks at the various problems ballerinas faced from the start of the profession. Sexual exploitation was almost built into the job, as dancers in the 17th centuries were wards of the king and had more freedom than women of the time but were often poorly paid and needed powerful patrons to advance their careers. Some women were able to use the system to enrich themselves and gain power. However, the women who benefited were generally the most famous and talented dancers. The corps dancers were in an especially precarious position and in the 19th century were informally nicknamed ‘ballet rats.’
In the earlier centuries, Kelly illustrates the backstage atmosphere and troubles facing ballerinas through a number of lives. Some were the best-known ballerinas of their day, Marie Salle and Marie Camargo in the 18th century and Emma Livry in the 19th century. Others were ordinary dancers who managed to bump up against history – Livry’s mother was an undistinguished ballerina and Kelly follows the story of some of the dancers who posed for Degas. These narratives are very good, not simply presenting a one-sided story of ballerina victims, but stories of women who were in charge of their own lives and others who made the best of what they had. What with all the luxury and debauchery in the earlier stories, they are also quite entertaining. Sexual exploitation and poverty are the main concerns but Livry, a talented dancer who was the protégé of the great Marie Taglioni, died from injuries sustained in a gaslight flame accident.
Kelly’s take on the 20th century will probably be the most controversial as she is extremely critical of George Balanchine. The 19th century was all about the ballerina - male dancers disappeared from the stage but women were beloved celebrities. Through the 19th century, the ballerina courtesan was a common role. This changed in the 20th century, partly as the times changed but also due to the rise of the choreographer. Kelly sees Anna Pavlova as combining the celebrity of the ballerina from the 19th century and the destructive self-sacrificing behavior of the ballerina of the 20th century. However, Pavlova’s ‘all for dance’ attitude was her own. For Balanchine, it was something that he demanded of his dancers. Nothing that Kelly says about Balanchine – that he was dictatorial, that he punished his dancers for having personal lives, that he slept with/married his dancers in revolving door fashion – is new but she has a much harsher interpretation of his legacy. Other accounts of Balanchine include the importance and influence of his work, his history, descriptions of his ballets and put these against his bad qualities but Kelly doesn’t do this. She points to his preferences for tall, skinny dancers as causing the current anorexia problems in ballerinas and goes on to provide details, statistics and examples. Dancers and eating problems being linked is another thing that would probably not surprise many but Kelly’s more detailed look at the issue is helpful. It is still ongoing although many have recognized the harm in the stereotype – Kelly mentions two very recent events, a dancer who spoke out about the eating disorders at La Scala and a critic who called a ballerina fat, sparking a media firestorm.
I did wonder if Kelly put too much blame on Balanchine for eating disorders as I would imagine there was a general rise in the population as thin became the beauty standard. Kelly points to the rise of choreographer as harmful to ballerinas. She certainly provides a lot of evidence of ballerinas as expendable (especially in the next section, on employment issues) but I don’t necessarily know if it’s a simple one to one relationship. Still, Balanchine’s influence is felt both in his creations and cultures and Kelly does give an unusually sustained criticism though she is doing it for a reason. As she notes, awareness of the problem does lead to at least the start of some solutions.
The next section looks at another current issue – wages, employment, work conditions. I didn’t know much about this so this was an enlightening section. The workaholic ballerina is another stereotype but Kelly describes some harsh and uncertain working conditions – didn’t realize the average pay was so low. Ballerinas are often criticized if they publicly air their problems or, even worse, take legal action. Dancing is a subjective art so it is easy to cite “performance issues” or not getting along with the choreographer/director as a reason. Dancers can be essentially pushed out by not giving them any roles. Kelly is critical of Mikhail Baryshnikov, who led the American Ballet Theater, and showed favoritism to certain dancers. She goes into detail in a number of cases involving striking ballerinas or women who sued over terminations or working conditions, notably Kimberly Glasco who sued the National Ballet of Canada. Glasco won her case but faced heavy criticism from the public and other dancers. There were issues of whether ballerinas should be speaking up and making their employers look bad. In the end, Glasco did not return to dancing though her positions were vindicated. Dancers tend to have a limited amount of time to perform and life and employment after dancing can be difficult. Kelly nicely covers this issue with interviews and a look at some of the current solutions. She’s hopeful about the future but does note that the culture still needs to change. This is an informative book – the initial stories are interesting and Kelly gives a good amount of detail about current issues that are both expected and unexpected.
Your review of Thank You For Not Reading is very interesting, DieF. I have read essays and heard talks by other authors who are immigrants/exiles in this country and it is always thought-provoking to hear their perceptions of our society and their place in it. Ugrešić's thoughts on the publishing industry add a different aspect than others I have seen.
Great reviews also of The Devil in Love and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection. You finished a lot of books in that couple of weeks!
Amazing reading binge and more titles for the spreadsheet. Really interesting and thoughtful review of the Kelly book.
Enjoyed your review of The Devil in Love -- sounds intriguing. I also enjoyed your review of the ballerina books but am not likely to read it.
>51 rebeccanyc: - I have enjoyed Ugresic's thoughts on exiles in all her books - I agree it's good to get different perspectives and it usually makes me think about things I hadn't considered before or took for granted. It's great that you get to see so many interesting authors talk - as well as writing up informative reviews for the group.
Ugresic talks a lot about being a "Croatian author" and what it means - I know I've had thoughts on what books get translated and how they're sold/marketed. It does seem like certain types of books for specific areas are pushed - Scandinavian mysteries, Latin American magic realism, Eastern European Nazi/Communist-set books. (I think on another thread we were talking about Latin American "dictator" books.)
Thanks, I wanted to read various library books before leaving for my work trip but most of them were short. I think they were all less than 200 pages except for the Volkov, which was only about 300 or so. Under Wildwood is a children's book so even though it was 500 pages, it had big print and went very fast.
>52 DieFledermaus: - I added the Quill and Quire review you linked to upthread to the book page. I don't think a lot of the issues that bothered them bothered me although I suppose Kelly could have talked about sexual exploitation of ballerinas in the 20th c (Balanchine would be an easy target). I didn't mind the jumping but that might have been because I read Apollo's Angels so I knew the background.
>51 rebeccanyc: - Thanks Rebecca. The Cazotte is quite different in tone from The Monk though I could see some similarities. It reminded me of Gautier - I really enjoyed NYRB's stories of his, My Fantoms.
The Foundation Pit by Andrey Platonov
In the introduction to the NYRB edition of The Foundation Pit, Platonov is described as “doing violence to language” and that is an apt description of the book. It has a disjointed, surreal plot and isolated characters who react with numb indifference to violence or bizarre events. The story is told in extremely alienating language, both in the actual prose and the general disconnect of dialogue and plot elements. I can’t say it was an engrossing or enjoyable read. It’s perhaps admirable in the way Platonov uses these techniques to illustrate the misfortune of the Soviet state and the forced peasant collectivization.
I did enjoy Platonov’s Soul, which told its story of extreme deprivation in gorgeous language. Here, it’s the opposite – another story of deprivation but related in a deliberately bizarre way. The main character, Voshchev, is “made redundant” at his job and wanders until he is employed digging the foundation for what is supposed to be a great workers’ home. The foundation is never done and the unhappiness that prevails is the permanent state of things. Many of the characters look forward to some bright future – seeing it in various children and the girl that comes to join them, Nastya. Here, Platonov portrays the characters having accepted the state-mandated optimism in the face of actual hardship. Even though this idea comes from different characters, they are still unhappy – Voshchev worries about the meaning of life, Prushevky, the director, continually thinks of his death, the workers live in crowded, poor conditions. The futility of communication in such a society is shown through the disjointed conversations and notably unnatural language of the characters.
Some of the characters get involved in the collectivization of a nearby village (although place is kept ambiguous). Bizarre things happen here as well – there’s a random fight over coffins, which keep popping up, some people die in a random way (I thought they weren’t serious at first when the fact was mentioned), one character, Chiklin, keeps punching people with either no appreciable effect or deaths that spark minimal reactions, and a bear suddenly appears and points out kulaks. The division between kulaks (rich peasants, but often a term used for anyone you wanted to get rid of) and other peasants is a major event but the kulak liquidation is weird and again alienating. The notes and introduction point out that even Platonov’s oddest events have a basis in actual events, Russian philosophy and literature or Christian history and rites. Some I could see – the chickens who don’t lay eggs are “pro-kulak” and a windy day is also evidence of a conspiracy. Life and death hinge on a comma in an official document. And one kulak gets in this comment – ‘All right then, make the whole republic into a collective farm – but the whole republic will end up belonging to a single man. It’ll be his private holding!...Well you look out! There’s no me today, and there’ll be no you tomorrow…And that’s how it’ll end – the only person who’ll ever reach socialism is that one important man of yours.’
I am sure I didn’t get a lot of the allusions or references what with the translation (this is a book were every word is important) and my ignorance of the Russian philosophers, specific speeches and Christian traditions that were alluded to. This is one book where I would say the introduction should be read first. I didn’t really like it but it is interesting and admirable in a rather clinical way. I’ll have to see if my opinion of this one changes over time.
Sounds like The Foundation Pit is not the place to start with Platanov. Thanks for the enlightening review, DieF.
Fascinating review of the Ballerina book, and Thank You for Not Reading goes onto the wishlist.
Thanks Linda, Rebecca, baswood and detailmuse.
Linda - I would agree that The Foundation Pit isn't the place to start - go for Soul and Other Stories if you want to try some Platonov. Even though I had mixed feelings about The FOundation Pit, I'm still intersted in reading Happy Moscow which NYRB is putting out.
Rebecca - I could admire The Foundation Pit in a sort of technical way but it was difficult to read. I think even with the notes explaining the allusions, it's hard to read the scenes with a sense of recognition, even if it was recognition at the inversion Platonov used.
The Doll by Boleslaw Prus
Boleslaw Prus’ expansive and ambitious The Doll is a wonderfully entertaining 19th century triple-decker and should be better known in the English-speaking world. The main plot concerns Stanislaw Wokulski, a former waiter, clerk, student and haberdasher who makes a fortune abroad and returns to Warsaw determined to marry the beautiful and impoverished aristocrat Izabela Lecka. Izabela is spoiled, selfish and shallow, and it is possible to find both Izabela and the obsessive Wokulski irritating, but the author continually undercuts any interpretation of the story as one of an unworthy woman dragging down a productive, intelligent man. The romance is a means for Prus to examine the Polish state-of-society at the end of the 19th century. Wokulski comes into contact with a mess of useless though sometimes well-intentioned aristocrats through his pursuit of Izabela, middle class clerks and tradesmen through his occupation as a store owner, Jews through friendship and work and the lower class through his sporadic charitable instincts. He previously pursued science as an occupation and passion and also encounters several engineers and scientists whose ideas regarding technology suggest one way to the future – not an entirely rosy one. Wokulski’s faithful friend and employee Rzecki narrates some chapters in the first person and he recalls his family’s worship of Napoleon and his own experiences in battle. A profusion of ideas and movements are touched on – socialism, anti-Semitism, the question of women’s roles, class differences. Prus finishes the book with an oddly open ending but it is very appropriate – the novel looks at a society still in some ways stuck in the past and anticipates some of the convulsions of the 20th century.
Wokulski’s love for Izabela drives the plot and while he is much more sympathetically depicted, he is also culpable and in some respects blameworthy in his treatment of her. Wokulski is a self-made man but a moral one – Prus mentions several times that his business concerns are legitimate – and is active, intelligent and generous. He is also one of the few characters who is unconcerned with anti-Semitism, even the polite sort of Rzecki, though he acknowledges it. Izabela, on the other hand, is snobbish and prejudiced, concerned only with material things, flirting and having a good time. Part of the story is told from Izabela’s third person narration – it would have been good to have more of this as it helped show her motivations and feelings, shallow though they may be. Some of her thoughts, like her initial disgust at marriage after being the confidant to a number of women with cheating, neglectful husbands or the hurt at being a pariah when they have no money, are not entirely shallow. Izabela’s handling of the relationship is cold and selfish but Wokulski is at fault as well. He actively pursues her, sometimes in a creepy way as he makes all her friends and family dependent on his money. He has an extreme tendency to romanticize her and put her on a pedestal which causes disappointment, but one of his own making. It’s love – or an obsession – at first sight and Wokulski makes his money and worms his way into her life before even talking to her. He finds his first conversation with her and various others, as well as her behavior, troublesome but continues his pursuit. Many friends and enemies warn him and it’s not like he hasn’t thought about the issue so he goes in with his eyes fully open. Wokulski has some explanations for his foolishness – he’s never been in love before, in his mid-40’s, is unduly influenced by romantic novels and poetry, and, having married once before for money feels he has earned a stupid, expensive love. He is overtly compared to the unsympathetic and foolish Baron, an old man who first tries to court Izabela then another woman but whose only attraction is his wealth. It is certainly unfair of Wokulski to punish Izabela for being herself when she’s never tried to hide what she is from him. In fact, he encourages her to act spoiled and wastes vast sums of money on her. The aristocracy never quite accepts him and at times, to please Izabela, he acts servile as if he’s eager to be used. She treats Wokulski like all the men who flirt with her and plans to act that way if they marry. Knowing this, Wokulski hardly has a reason to complain.
Wokulski’s pursuit of Izabela allows the author to look at women’s role in society in the late 19th century. The question is raised and a number of characters provide a comment on the issue but, as with many things, it is left open. Knowing how things developed in the 20th century provides an “end” which makes the book more interesting as a portrait of a time of transition. Women were still subservient to their husbands in most ways, with the usual inequalities – men were allowed to cheat and retain their status, they controlled the financial decisions, women had to marry for money. The strict division of women as morally and spiritually superior to men was fading though – Izabela and some of those like her can hardly be moral models. Izabela’s opposite, the virtuous, hardworking and loving Helena, is repeatedly slandered and almost everyone accepts that she has loose morals. Virtue is no protection for her and her ending is lukewarm though not horrible. None of the marriages shown are happy and unhappy romances are suggested for some of the other characters. Women of Izabela’s class and temperament are punished for being too flirtatious, even though that’s the norm for their lives, and though the author never hesitates to show their light characters, it is suggested that the punishment is unequal (never happens to men) and unfair given how they grew up. Perhaps one of the most sympathetic and interesting characters is Kazia Wasowska, a rich widow who is one of the few to genuinely like Wokulski. She’s intelligent – she gets the better of Wokulski in a debate on women – and tolerant and kind – she forgives Izabela’s faults, reminds Wokulski that he knew what she was like and tries to get them back together. Her take on love is similar to many of the men as she loves frequently but never seriously and she has more independence than even some of the men who are trapped by love, obligations or money. Perhaps like Wokulski, she’s between almost everything – not a wife, not unmarried; not in love but not forbidden from having relationships; not bound by ties but not coldly rejecting the people in her circle. But Mrs. Wasowska’s situation can hardly be an ideal solution though it suggests one direction of greater independence and choice for women. The question of a woman’s status though changing is left open but there is a much evidence in the book that it needs to be addressed.
Other larger societal issues are also examined. Sometimes Prus seems to refrain from any judgment. Rzecki, still romanticizing the Napoleonic era, wars fought for noble causes, and a firmer class division, is a relic of the past though he is clearly a good man as well. Wokulski is caught between the old and the new, still idealizing the aristocracy but maintaining a pragmatic business-like approach to everything else. His divisions are shown in a number of ways – his back-and-forth relationship with Izabela, his frequent class-crossing, the changing attitudes of almost all the characters towards him. Ochocki represents the future, idealizing technology, an aristocrat who is somewhat outside the typical class divisions due to his obsession. Prus provides some criticism of this mindset through another dedicated scientist. The 20th century would be full of scientific advances that both improved lives and were abused for grotesque purposes, exemplified in the ambiguous portrayal of technology and science as a new form of class. The question of Jews in society is also raised but not answered, with some sympathetic characters and others more stereotypical. A range of options available to Jews is shown though – some trying to assimilate as much as possible, others sticking to their community and the stereotypical Jewish occupations, one, Wokulski’s friend Dr. Szuman, criticizing the Jews, still praising the community and noting that anyone who converted would be rejected by both Christians and Jews. The growing conflicts with Russia, socialist underground groups and Siberian exiles also anticipate 20th century convulsions. A number of other issues are also raised in this lengthy book but it is also quite engrossing and entertaining. Highly recommended.
Excellent and intriguing review of The Doll, which I've had on the TBR for years! Glad to know NYRB is putting out another Platonov; I'll snap that up.
Thanks for this excellent review of The Doll, a novel and an author I did not know. Perhaps if the Author Theme Read for 2013 includes nineteenth century authors (under discussion I think), this would be a good choice.
The Doll does sound like it should be better known from your excellent review.
Thanks, Rebecca, SassyLassy and baswood.
>61 SassyLassy: - I was trying to think of other 19th c. epics/state-of-society novels that aren't as well-known in the English-speaking world. I have The Maias on the pile (and have read several by de Queiros); possibly Green Henry by Swiss author Gottfried Keller and Martin Rivas by Chilean author Alberto Blest Gana. I wanted to read Fortunata and Jacinta by Benito Perez Galdos after reading Steven's review; that might qualify as well.
The Rising Tide by M.J. Farrell
M.J. Farrell (Molly Keane)’s depiction of an Irish estate in the first decades of the 20th century is excellent, well-written, involving and a good portrait of the changing times. The title refers to changing fortunes and fashions and the natural rise and fall of a number of characters that is the result of the unstoppable, dispassionate forward rush of time. The cold and controlling Lady Charlotte is contrasted to her daughter-in-law, Cynthia, whose rise is the main plot. Cynthia is the center of the book, at once appealing and fascinating and monstrously selfish. Farrell gets in the head of a number of her characters and her narration is distant and analytical as well gripping – the passions and misfortunes of the characters are clearly felt. The changing times move from a period where women had rigidly defined roles to a more open, but still treacherous, era. Excellent, highly recommended.
The main plot is taken up by Cynthia’s rise to power and her gradual decline in fortune but Lady Charlotte’s influence is felt throughout the book. It opens at the beginning of the 20th century, with Lady Charlotte firmly in control of the family estate, Garonlea. Garolea lurks as a charcter in the book – no one can escape its suffocating atmosphere though many try. Lady Charlotte is a principled, tightly controlled and dictatorial mother and wife who embodies repressed Edwardian views. She is often unsympathetic, but has her good qualities – she does genuinely think she does what is best for her children. She is also clearly able to see Cynthia’s bad qualities, which many others are blind to. Her four daughters are mostly unhappy under her reign – some escape to happy or unhappy marriages but the single daughters, Muriel and Diana, are left to suffer at home. Farrell is very effective in showing the stifling atmosphere in just a few quick scenes. Diana, the most rebellious, is the main narrator and her attraction to Cynthia is a defining point of her life. Desmond, the cheerful, easygoing only son, has had a better time of it as he is generally not at home and he marries Cynthia, an acceptable match and a woman that he genuinely loves. The conflicts between Cynthia and Lady Charlotte, Cynthia and Garonlea, Cynthia and despair, Cynthia and various lovers, Cynthia and her children and Cynthia and time take up the rest of the book.
In many ways, Lady Charlottes is compared unfavorably to Cynthia. Cynthia is gregarious, social and sympathetic, especially to Diana, who comes to Rathgrass, Cynthia and Desmond’s house, to escape the unhappiness at Garonlea. She represents a move away from the straitened Edwardian era what with her more liberated behavior – drinking, dancing, living a pleasant lifestyle instead of a rigidly adhering to duty. However, Farrell is merciless in her criticism of Cynthia – both in her perceptive analyses and the portrayal of Cynthia’s effect on others. At times, Cynthia’s good qualities are inseparable from her bad ones. For example, her true and lasting love of Desmond makes her judgmental towards other relationships and causes her to coldly hold herself apart from her supposed friends and even her children. In some ways, Cynthia triumphs over Lady Charlotte and Garonlea but by abandoning from the old principles of duty and obedience, and making her power based on her looks, her flirtatious inaccessibility and her ability to navigate the social world, she is left with much less during her decline. Lady Charlotte ruled with an iron fist until her end. Cynthia, in a different way, is also horribly cruel to her children. In a couple quick scenes, the author skillfully catches Lady Charlotte’s dictatorial cruelty at Garonlea as well as the nervous terror of Cynthia’s son and daughter. The conflict between generations is an important part of the book and it is effectively shown how difficult childhoods, and the restricted position of women, affect many of the characters throughout their lives.
>65 Linda92007: - Thanks, Linda!
>66 SassyLassy: - I have The Betrothed hiding somewhere in the pile. I do usually see it mentioned as one of the great 19th century Italian novels but I didn't put it on the list since it's historical fiction. Were you thinking of something by Giovanni Verga for a Sicilian novel? I have The House by the Medlar Tree (I Malavoglia) and some short stories, Cavalleria Rusticana and Other Stories.
Censoring an Iranian Love Story by Shahriar Mandanipour
Censoring an Iranian Love Story is just that – as the author tries to tell a love story set in modern-day Iran, he continually has to edit it, crossing out unacceptable bits, changing the plot and mulling over what euphemisms to use. His story follows Sara and Dara (whose names are something like Dick and Jane) as they uneasily meet and get to know each other. They’re opposed by societal strictures forbidding strange men and women from getting together and restricted family lives. The past of both, especially Dara, is one of repression and frustration. The changing fortunes of their friends and family are also related. The author frequently alludes to Persian classics, Western literature and pop culture – he’s clearly writing for a Western audience and often explains various references. In the metafictional, unbolded story, the author thinks about his difficult career, muses on how to write his story and tangles with the censor Mr. Petrovich, named after the detective in Crime and Punishment. The writing flows well, there are a number of humorous and ironic bits and the metafictional concept is interesting but somehow it failed to fully cohere for me. I really enjoy metafictional novels but while individual parts were engrossing, I didn’t have the usual desire to pick it up.
As I have difficulty with metafictional novels anyway, this sounds like a good one for me to avoid!
>68 DieFledermaus: Sounds like an interesting novel, even with the reservations you have given. There doesn't seem to be much available from contemporary Iran, so it might be worth a try.
>67 DieFledermaus: It's Cavalleria Rusticana and Other Stories that I have. I haven't read The Betrothed but the back cover had made it sound more state of society than historical novel: Reflecting Manzon's preoccupations with the suffering that is caused by tyranny in any form.... Maybe another case of not judging a book by its cover?
A very interesting review of Censoring an Iranian Love Story, DieF. I wonder how the book has been received in Iran.
SassyLassy, I don't think the book fully worked for me but it had a number of good qualities and other reviewers liked it. I can't quite put my finger on what didn't work so I would say give it a try if you're interested. I could see the the end might bother some people, especially if metafiction's not your thing, but I didn't mind that.
Could be possible that Manzoni was using a historical story to comment on the present.
Rebecca - your review of The Colonel was very good and it's available as a library ebook. I've only read a couple of the popular books by Iranian authors - Reading Lolita in Tehran and Marjane Satrapi's graphic novels. The Blind Owl (which was mentioned in Censoring an Iranian Love Story) and My Uncle Napoleon are on the pile
Linda - reading the quick blurb of Mandanipour's life in the book - it sounds like he won awards and was critically acclaimed in Iran but had a period where he was blocked from publishing anything. He came to the U.S. in 2006 and the book was published in 2008. It would be interesting to know the reaction in Iran as it was originally published in Farsi.
Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith
I picked this book up after reading Poquette’s review and wasn’t disappointed since she characterized it as a better-than-average procedural. Before that, I had heard of the book but usually mentioned with a lot of negative assessments since it had been nominated for the Booker. However, the setting sounded interesting - it fit with some reading I’ve been doing on the Soviet era – and sometimes you just want a solid entertaining read. This was indeed a solid entertaining read but also with more depth than your average procedural.
Leo Demidov has a good life working at the MGB, the Soviet secret police and predecessor of the KGB. He’s able to provide for his parents and has a beautiful and intelligent wife who he loves. The son of a colleague has been found dead and the man is convinced it’s murder, but Leo is tasked with telling him otherwise. This first glimpse of Leo at work is rather unsympathetic and sets up an interesting question – can the author sustain interest in a main character who works for such a hated organization? Leo had a meteoric rise as a World War II hero and even though he accepts the unpleasantness in his work, he tries to keep to his own moral code. There are some great early scenes where this tension is exploited. In one, Leo is chasing down a suspect who readers guess is innocent. If he fails, he’ll be at fault and some of his men, angry at his refusal to take the murder seriously, are subtly trying to undermine him. With them is the unpleasant Vasili, Leo’s professional rival, who is jealous and brutal and also wants him to fail. Here, one wonders not only what will happen but what they’d prefer to happen. Where should they place their sympathies? However, later on Leo has an epiphany moment and the book becomes a bit predictable in the idea of lone agent against either a corrupt or misguided organization – one that would be familiar in books/movies set in the West.
Leo’s relationship with his wife, Raisa, is very interesting. It’s troubled and the exploration of their problems raises a number of issues that would be common in Soviet society of the time. The author looks at the relationship from both of their POVs and while both behave very badly at times, he makes their behavior understandable. There is also time spent examining the daily lives of a number of Soviet citizens, including the killer. The killer is actually more interesting than Vasili who is very dull as a main antagonist. He’s pretty much just obsessively jealous of Leo and an all-around bad guy. He and another higher-up, a doctor, are too one-dimensional and are therefore boring. I have no doubt that there were many sadists and psychopaths who were allowed to obtain high-ranking positions (Leo even wonders why someone would go on a killing spree when there’s a legal, acceptable way to do it in the secret police) but I expect something besides a garden-variety psychopath in fiction. As in many other crime/mystery novels, Leo, while investigating the killings, also learns something about his past – another too-standard genre trope. The book is always very readable and addictive but some twists are unbelievable. The depiction of Soviet society is intriguing and there are enough interesting touches to make this one worth reading, especially as a slightly different take on the Soviet era.
Great review of Child 44, DieF. I've had it on the wishlist for awhile now and really should move it up to the TBR list.
> 53, 63
Great and comprehensive review of The Doll, DieF. I've had this on my TBR for some time and though I won't be picking it up any time soon (I see it needs dedication!), I'm happy to know from your review what to expect.
I'm glad you mentioned De Queirós, I loved The Crime of Father Amaro. Thanks for mentioning Keller and Gana, they are completely new to me.
Linda - it's a pretty engrossing read, even with all the issues I mentioned.
Thanks, deebee - The Doll was actually a quick read for its size. I took it on a work trip and was constantly reading it at night. Then I read pretty much nonstop on the plane trip home and when I got home, read for several more hours straight.
De Queiros is definitely another one who should be better known to the English-speaking world. I've enjoyed everything of his that I've read and have a couple more on the pile.
Saplings by Noel Streatfeild
Saplings is a smoothly written, engaging book, notable for depicting the British home front during WWII from the point of view of several children, but as the book progressed, there was a grating undercurrent of judgmental moralism. Some of the children’s behavior issues also seemed very schematic. While the author captures a number of nuances in her young characters’ behavior and reactions, the adults tended to be one dimensional. A quick and involving read but there were some annoyances.
In the opening chapters, the middle-class Wiltshire family is on a seaside holiday. The author nicely captures their happy, busy family life. It becomes clear that father Alex has planned this trip as one last good time before the war starts. He confides in his two eldest children, caring and intelligent Laurel and Tony, but tries to shield Kim, spoiled and self-involved, and Tuesday, the baby. Alex has to stay in London for his work but is determined to send his family to safety in the country. Lena, his wife, is rather selfish and shallow, preferring her husband to her children, so she refuses to go with her children and stays with him. The move is the start of a constant shifting, as the children move from one home to another, from school to various houses, and grow up with no stable home and family. Alex is killed and Lena falls apart, barely keeping things together. The trajectory of the family is traced as they try and sometimes fail to cope.
Lena becomes the center of the children’s home life after the death of their father but she is constantly criticized by comparisons that are made between her and almost every other adult in the book. Alex is an ideal father, almost too good to be true, and Lena resents the time he spends being a father rather than her husband. The children’s governess, Ruth, thinks of Lena’s love as more one of animalistic lust than a true love. Lena compares poorly to Alex’s loving, understanding parents, the more maternal/paternal servants, the motherly nanny and the perceptive, supportive Ruth. Laurel’s schoolmistress is more of a comfort to her than her mother after Alex dies. Even Alex’s harried, meek sister Sylvia, who makes meals that are pretty much toxic, comes off as better than Lena as she is able to effectively reach out to Tony. Lena is beautiful and fashionable but selfish, emotionally shallow, needy and unstable and jumps from relationship to relationship. She’s like a caricature of a bad mother even if she isn’t all bad. She occasionally likes to play with and comfort the children, as though they were toys or pets, and the author clearly thinks that the children are better off with her than without her. I will say that part of my annoyance might come from reading this book soon after The Rising Tide by M.J. Farrell, which also featured a beautiful and vivacious woman who prefers her husband to her children, loses him in a war, then engages in self-destructive behaviors and relationships. But Farrell makes her main character appealing as well as horribly selfish.
There is one character who almost makes Lena look good – one of Alex’s sisters, Lindsey. Lindsey is a successful and intelligent author but she is also a cold, selfish bitch. It’s notable that she is the only one of Alex’s siblings who is childless and her marriage is shown to be unhappy due to her controlling, bitchy tendencies. Lindsey is terribly one-note as a character and, along with Lena, is one of the obviously bad characters. At first it seems as though the “bad” characters are not only negative stereotypes of women, as Kim is also something of a selfish narcissist. However, school soon takes up most of his competitive, needy energy and he is less annoying in the latter half of the book. He comes out the least damaged of the Wiltshire children, suggesting those more sensitive and caring are hurt the most. Without Kim causing trouble, Lena and Lindsey are the ones responsible for further destabilizing and hurting the children even if at times they don’t mean to. The rather pat association of being “motherly” with being a good person is irritating.
The POV of the children is probably the strongest part as the author shows all the little frustrations brought on by the war and how, though they are not important, they mean everything to children who have only known comfort and love. Many of the adults try to protect the children by keeping things from them but they find out and this causes even more anxiety. The appearance of psychosomatic and behavioral problems is also realistically done at first. However, later on some of the problems seem rather too neatly set up. For example, Tony suffers a traumatic experience after Alex’s death. He has a number of symptoms but then after finally breaking down, confessing and being reassured, they all go away. Tuesday also has some issues due to the constant shuffling around but then her problems are immediately cured when all the family comes home. Of course the story is about the lives of the Wiltshire family but it almost seemed like there was too much focus on them. They have many aunts, uncles and cousins but the effect of the war on other families is only mentioned and never shown. Ruth has a service job but she is only shown being worried about her former charges. The Wiltshires make friends with some working-class children who have also been evacuated. They are later killed but this plot point is only there to show how it affects the main children and also to point out how wrong their mother, who called them back to the city because she couldn’t bear to be away from them, was. It almost made it seem like the problems of the middle-class were the most important thing about the war.
Crow Planet by Lyanda Lynn Haupt
Crow Planet isn’t an earth-shaking book but it is a pleasant and interesting read. I enjoyed the crow anecdotes and the glimpses of Seattle. The author decides to investigate the natural world that can be found in a city and while she looks at other animals and insects, the main focus is crows. There might be a bit much about the characteristics of the naturalist, especially in the first part, but the examination of crows as urban dwellers is nice.
In the first chapters, the author describes her ambivalence towards crows but, with a book assignment, she decides to seriously work on becoming an urban naturalist. This involves some reading (interesting crow research), staring at a stuffed crow for a couple days (odd, but gives good reasons for it) and maybe too much on the best naturalist qualities and how that title is no longer valued. She has her own crow stories and ones that she has heard from others. Crow communication, crow movement, crow nests and crow deaths are some topics. There is also a lot about the interaction between crows and people – though there is some bemoaning urban developments, the larger point is about responsible cohabitation and maintaining a connection to the natural world even in the city. A modestly enjoyable book with a somewhat different focus on crows.
I think that I should read Crow Planet, as our city is seriously overrun with crows. They come in by the thousands each night during the cold weather, filling the trees and making an awful mess beneath. I have more than a little ambivalence towards them!
Crow Planet sounds really interesting. I find these birds and the entire family Corvidae intriguing, yet at the same time, they completely repel me up close. One of the things that has always fascinated me about them is their dominance in folk tales and more especially in folk art. It suggests there are a whole lot of people out there who have more interest in them than you would think!
Thanks Rebecca, Linda and SassyLassy.
Crows certainly are intriguing but I did understand the author's ambivalence. I had a couple dive-bombing incidents near my place and I started getting worried that all the crows would hate me or one would start stalking me - a couple incidents that were related in Crows: Encounters with the Wise Guys of the Avian World.
>82 SassyLassy: - A cultural history of crows would be interesting - crows in mythology and folk art was only briefly mentioned in Crow Planet.
Catching up here and was startled when the first unread post was your review of the book by M.J. Farrell -- my maiden name! Ought to add it to my wishlist or get going on writing my own :)
I'm enjoying your intermittent series on crows. Their cawing used to wake us very early on Saturdays and then suddenly they were gone -- West Nile Virus wiped them out. I'm beginning to hear them again.
>84 detailmuse: - At least M.J. Farrell was a pseudonym for Molly Keane - you could still be the "real" M.J. Farrell.
There are a number of other books on crows that look interesting - the bird section at the local bookstore is mostly field guides + books on crows. We have a lot of crows around here and I haven't noticed any decrease - though anything sweeping from the south or east tends to hit Seattle a lot later.
Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe by Anne Applebaum
In her excellent book Gulag: A History, Anne Applebaum briefly summarizes the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe with a note that she can’t give it the attention it deserves. In this book, she has returned to the subject. While Applebaum starts at “zero hour” – the moment German troops withdrew and the Red Army replaced them – she notes that unsurprisingly the past continued to affect how things developed. She mainly focuses on three areas – Poland, Hungary and East Germany – and uses them to illustrate differences and similarities in the Soviet approach. For example, in many cases Soviet authority could be asserted openly in East Germany, as it had been agreed that it would be under their control. However, the proximity to the West and the worries of defection affected other aspects – no show trials in Germany. Sometimes this approach leads to some jumping around – through time and from country to country. In the second half of the book, life under Communist rule is examined, with more personal stories and descriptions of daily life. Some of the topics are so broad – socialist realist art, for example - that Applebaum can only choose a few examples. Still, everything is quite interesting, and this is an engrossing and informative work on an important, if extremely unpleasant, topic.
After World War II, the population of Eastern Europe was traumatized and many had been displaced – Applebaum provides statistics indicating an extreme disruption. Many no longer had any faith in their government, previous beliefs or nationalist ideas. Theft and violence were almost a way of life or at least no longer extraordinary. There was initial enthusiasm for the Soviets and at least at first, some people could come out of hiding or return. The notorious acts of theft, rape and violence perpetrated by the soldiers were not only in Germany but Hungary, which had been on the German side, and Poland, which had been oppressed by the Germans. No efforts were made to address the crimes, with soldiers who protested accused of siding with a German woman over their countrymen and higher ups indifferent or accepting – Stalin shrugged it off. Large-scale looting – of factories, valuables and documents – occurred as part of “reparations” which had more planning than the sporadic personal violence but was also haphazard. Applebaum describes the political maneuvering by Churchill and Roosevelt. Both took a pragmatic and cautious approach – they didn’t want another costly war. Roosevelt seemed convinced of Stalin’s good intentions and Churchill recognized that it would be hard to force out the Red Army when they were already occupying Eastern Europe.
The “little Stalins” of East Germany, Hungary and Poland are described. Walter Ulbrecht was a dull true believer who came to power after purges removed many charistmatic and better-educated German Communists. Boleslaw Bierut, a shady Polish Communist, seemingly came out of nowhere but had many links to the Soviets. There were speculations of collaborating with both the Nazis and Soviets – as Applebaum notes “anyone can lose their faith in communism, but blackmail is forever.” Matyas Rakosi was a well-known, rather notorious Hungarian Communist who tangled with the pre-war authorities. All three, along with other “little Stalins” (Klement Gottwald in Czechoslovakia, Josip Tito in Yugoslavia, Georgi Dimitrov of Bulgaria) had ties to the Soviet Union, had often been protected by them during the war, were trained in and sent their children to Soviet schools and were all deferential to Stalin. These “Moscow communists” were trusted over local. The Soviet Union sent their puppets out to form coalitions with other communist, socialist and leftist groups, camouflaging their Soviet allegiance.
While the governments initially seemed to be outside the Soviet influence, the secret police were not. In all the territories, Soviet agents, the NKVD and Soviet-trained Communists formed a group modeled on the NKVD (later the KGB). Sometimes the development of these programs sounded like something out of a spy novel – a big, overarching conspiracy of Communists seeking to infiltrate other countries, many people describing the day they were randomly picked up and given an assignment to the Communist party or sent the Soviet training schools. The partisans and underground Communists were likely used to this covert way of operating – others that were recruited were young and ignorant which was why they were chosen over older, experienced Communists. Violence was used to maintain control of the populations – it had started even before the end of WWII. The Red Army initially collaborated with the Polish Home Army but quickly betrayed them, arresting or killing the leaders and sending many to the Gulag. There were obvious targets of arrests and violence in Germany, but the Nazi label could and was extended to anyone. Usually the typical political/social enemies of Communism as well as those considered community leaders were targeted. In Hungary, many greeted the Soviets as liberators and enemies had to be made up. Applebaum relates stories about many innocent people caught up in the violence. It created an atmosphere of fear and the threat that anyone who didn’t conform would be next.
Applebaum looks at the ethnic cleansing that took place after WWII, a slight side trip as the influence of the Soviets isn’t the focus here, but rather the tensions between different groups. The post-WWII deportation of ethnic Germans is well-known outside of Eastern Europe. Applebaum provides a nuanced look at the situation as unsurprisingly many innocent people with roots in the respective countries or those who supported the Nazis under coercion were swept up with Germans who came to settle along with the Nazis, often taking over Jewish-owned homes. The brutal exchanges between Poles and Western Ukrainians are hard to read about but Applebaum clearly wanted to highlight this lesser known episode of violence and the resulting deportation. The uneasy existence of Jews in the destroyed landscapes of Eastern Europe is also covered. The personal stories made this section an engrossing read, if occasionally hard to stomach. For example, Lola Potok “a Jewish woman who had survived Auschwitz but lost most of her family, including her mother, her siblings, and an infant son – interrogated Germans about their Nazi affiliations, whipping them both when they confessed and when they didn’t, on the grounds that if they didn’t admit to collaboration they were lying. By her own account, she ‘recovered’ after several months, regained her composure, and began to treat the Germans like human beings. This was not because she forgave them but because, she said, she didn’t want to become like them.” The examination of the situation of Jews is illustrated by the life of Solomon Morel, who was accused of war crimes and started a conflict between Poland and Israel. “He was a Holocaust victim, a communist criminal, a man who lost his entire family to the Nazis, and a man consumed by a sadistic fury against Germans and Poles – a fury that may or may not have originated from his victimhood, and may or may not have been connected to his communism…In the end his life story proves nothing about Jews or Poles at all. It only proves how difficult it is to pass judgment on the people who lived in the most shattered part of Europe in the worst decades of the twentieth century.”
Besides the secret police, the Soviets and Moscow Communists targeted youth and civil organizations and worked to control the radio. They were naturally suspicious of other organizations – who could tell what anti-Communist things they were planning – and also saw young people as a group that needed to be controlled. The story is the same for the Polish YMCA, the East German Catholic youth group and Kalot, the Hungarian Catholic youth group. As the Communist youth groups had a later start and much less grassroots support, they languished in comparison to other groups. Their leaders tried to organize an umbrella youth group or tried to take over leadership of other groups, but this proved fruitless. The opposing group members were then persecuted and arrested or the group would simply be banned. The overt efforts of the Communist leaders would almost be funny and pathetic, a bit like astroturfing, if not for their methods and the unhappy ends. Not only youth organizations were seen as dangerous – chess clubs, adult education courses, folk dancing groups were all under a cloud of suspicion. The radio was also an area of concern – the Soviets immediately took control of East German facilities, rebuilt Poland’s destroyed radio stations and transmitters and dispatched Gyula Ortutay, a Moscow communist, to control Hungarian radio. A quick summary is provided, and I was amused by reading about the programming concerns of East German radio – listeners would write in and the reaction to the growing Communist propaganda was negative. “‘Dear Radio,’ wrote a listener in 1947, ‘you have slowly started to become boring.” The response to this was often more ideology, not less.
Controlling the radio and other organizations, the Soviet-backed Communists thought they had a good chance to win in elections though some states – Bulgaria and Yugoslavia – made it a one-choice election. One of Applebaum’s main points is that it was not the Cold War that led to the overt oppression but the loss of elections which decided it. The Communist party often had little support before the war and the candidates were unknown to the general public. The economy was still bad and many were naturally suspicious of the Soviets for their actions during and after the war. After losing elections – or proxy elections meant to show Communist support – the opposing candidates and party members were persecuted and driven out or arrested. Applebaum looks at the imitation Gulags that sprung up in the countries, singling out for shame Rudolf Garasin, the Hungarian communist who imported the Soviet gulag system, and Recsk, the most notorious labor camp.
In the second section, Applebaum examines life under Stalinist regimes through personal stories. Sometimes this meant that less was covered but the stories were always interesting and made me want to read more on a variety of topics. Persecution, as in the USSR, could affect anyone, rightwing, leftwing, ordinary people or the highest officials. For reactionary enemies, Applebaum only looks at the church but her comparison of the Cardinal Mindszenty of Hungary and Cardinal Wyszynski Poland is very good. They took opposite courses. Mindszenty publicly denounced the government and fought against them at every turn. He was subjected to a show trial and imprisoned for years, emerging as a hero later on. Wyszynski compromised as much as he could and tried to work with the Communists while attempting to maintain some independence. The author notes the pros and cons of each approach, and, as in earlier case of Solomon Morel, is remarkably nonjudgmental. For the chapter on internal enemies, Applebaum looks at the attacks on Communist party members and government officials. For example, Gomulka, the longtime rival of Bierut who would eventually replace him, was arrested and repeatedly interrogated. Many in the Eastern European satellites were targeted and a bizarre conspiracy was formed around Noel Field, an American State Department official who had worked for the NKVD. The whole thing seems so farfetched, like something out of fiction. But it was probably not out of the ordinary given the destruction and betrayals of the war and the Communist efforts to undermine all aspects of society. Applebaum also tells the sad story of an ordinary man who happened to be a Freemason, a suspicious group. Someone close to him regularly informed and his last years were poisoned with fear and suspicion.
Children were blank slates that could be turned into ideal Communists and the nonstop educational propaganda that was designed is described. Workers were also idealized, with extremely productive “shock workers” something to aspire to. The planned cities also demonstrate on one hand the idealism but on the other, the rejection of the past. Planned cities were supposed to be Communist utopias, built from scratch, away from the actual cities filled with so much inappropriate history. Sites were chosen often haphazardly and build around steel mills or other industrial workplaces. Unsurprisingly, things did not turn out to be ideal and Applebaum details the problems – outdated plans, crowding, inefficiency. The socialist realism movement was pretty much the only artistic movement that was allowed under Stalin though, like everything, the meaning was amorphous. Applebaum looks at several artists and movements – Max Lingner’s cartoonish mural Aufbau der Republik, the Polish arts and crafts movement led enthusiastically by Wanda Telakowska, Polish architecture, dominated by the Stalinist Palace of Culture, and the Hungarian film industry. Obviously there was a lot more that could have been covered, but all the stories were interesting, illustrated different trajectories and compromises (for example, folk art got a boost under the Soviets, Hungarian films refined the art of nonverbal messages).
The majority of the population just wanted to get on with their lives, working, supporting a family, going about their daily business. Applebaum describes many who realized the falseness of the regime but stayed quiet out of fear, not only of the authorities, but of others who they thought actually believed the messages. All the stories are involving and range from well-known opposition politician Boleslaw Piasecki, whose public Catholicism and regime collaboration caused many to hate and fear him but allowed him to survive, to the obscure. Collaboration could be anything from informing, to being a mouthpiece for the regime, to singing and marching in the nonstop parades. Applebaum’s descriptions make one wonder how they would behave. For example, a printer had to comply with the censors – “He could comply with the law and print only what was permitted. Or he could break the law and lose his printer’s license, and therefore his livelihood. For most people, it just wasn’t worth it…He might dislike communist ideology, but when presented with the collected works of Stalin, he would agree to print them. He might dislike communist economics, but when presented with a Marxist textbook, he’d probably go ahead and print that too. Why not? There were no consequences: no one would be hurt or go to jail. But if he said no, then he and his family could have real problems, and someone else would soon print it in any case.” Opposition was often low-level and passive – jokes, fashion, spontaneous religious outburst. Escapes were possible but most likely in Berlin. In the end, Applebaum gives a quick summary of the revolutions that followed the death of Stalin in 1953 and the differing paths taken by the countries. One hopes she will write another book describing this later period as well.
A thorough and fascinating review, DieF, of an important topic. This book is right up there on my wishlist. Just curious, did Applebaum also give some kind of analysis or comparison among these countries, of the economic "crushing" that occurred in parallel?
Excellent summary of Iron Curtain, DieF. Deebee, if I can speak for DieF, as I recall there was information about the economics and I especially remember the section when, after Stalin died and people in these countries were exposed to communists from the west and elsewhere for the first time, they were astounded by their better health and clothes because they had been told the east was so far ahead of the west.
Yours is another great review of Iron Curtain, DieF. I had itchy fingers yesterday, as I saw it at the bookstore, thought I might buy it as a present for my partner (no hidden agendas there!) but decided against hard copy prices. Later I was tempted at the library by Gulag: A History, but felt I wouldn't do it justice through the holidays. Two books that I would definitely like to make room for in the new year, thanks to you and Rebecca.
A fascinating subject Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe and a great review Dief.
Outstanding review of Iron Curtain, DieF. After reading your reviews and Rebecca's I'll plan to read this early next year, as a compliment to the Reading Globally 1st quarter theme on Central and Eastern European literature.
Another book I would recommend, although it is exceedingly grim, for background on 20th century central/eastern Europe, is Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin. It is horrifying, chilling, stunning, and revelatory.
Thanks deebee, Rebecca, Linda, bas and kidzdoc.
deebee - nice catch there, I was somewhat tired of my review at that point so I didn't include anything about the economics but Applebaum did have a chapter on that. She discussed the land redistribution and why it often didn't work - dumping ill-equipped families on an unfamiliar area and expecting them to be productive being one example. There was also a section on the crackdown on private enterprise, which led to a flourishing black market and frequent shortages of almost everything. I remember one interesting quote where Applebaum says that many other countries utilized some of the totalitarian tactics mentioned, but that none would try to emulate the ruinous Stalinist economic policies.
Linda - yes, I really wanted to read Applebaum's new book but hardcover prices are a bit much. I got in the library line when her book was announced as a nominee for the National Book Award.
kidzdoc - I might try to fit in some nonfiction for the Central/Eastern European theme read. Had been hoping to read Prague in Danger before the end of the year but I'm not sure if that will be happening so that might work for the theme read.
Rebecca - Bloodlands is on the list to read and I will be prepared for horrific. Does it cover the Polish-Ukrainian violence mentioned by Applebaum in the section on ethnic cleansing? Another one I was looking at was Postwar by Tony Judt and I noticed you had that one as well - have you read it yet?
I'll be leading the discussion for the Reading Globally 1st quarter theme read - 20th and 21st century Central/Eastern European lit. Picked up some books today -
The Good Soldier Svejk - Jaroslav Hasek
The Appointment - Herta Muller
The Door - Magda Szabo
Ashes and Diamonds - Jerzy Andrzejewski
Bohin Manor - Tadeusz Konwicki
Bloodlands does talk about the postwar efforts to make the countries that emerged ethnically "pure" -- whether it specifically included the Polish-Ukrainian violence I just don't remember, but I suspect it did. I haven't read Postwar yet although I've had it on the TBR for many years.
Loved Ashes and Diamonds, and have The Good Soldier Svejk and another Konwicki on my TBR.
Little Apple by Leo Perutz
Georg Vittorin, an Austrian returning from a Russian POW camp, is burning with a murderous obsession. He and several other POWs agree that all will finance the return of one to kill the brutal camp commandant, Selyukov. However, when Vittorin returns to Vienna, his fellow POWs forget about vengeance and he is distracted by family affairs and his childhood sweetheart. When he finally goes alone to Russia, he gets sidetracked, stumbles into war zones, is mistaken for an agent provocateur, fights for and against the Bolsheviks and always seems to just miss Selyukov.
Vittorin’s obsession appears out of proportion to Selyukov’s actions. All the men agree that he was responsible for the death of another soldier, but in private, Vittorin furiously plays in his head a scene where Selyukov dismissively insulted him. At first, it seems that Vittorin will succumb to the love of his girlfriend, the needs of his family, and his comfortable life in Vienna like the other POWs. This would not be unexpected – as one POW remarks, the hatred kept them going and made them feel just and separate from their captors in the camp, but it is no longer necessary at home. Vittorin, having a personal reason to hate Selyukov, keeps his rage longer but it too would have gradually faded. However, characters and events conspire to send him to Russia. The section in Vienna did seem a little long but is necessary in the end.
After starting his revenge quest, Vittorin meets a number of characters, many of whom help him, and most of whom have bad luck with him. Bent on obsession, Vittorin forgets them and quickly moves on. He always imagines Selyukov, powerful, sadistic and living a good life, almost as a torture to his own unpleasant circumstances. In time, Selyukov starts to take on the appearance of whoever happens to be his current enemy. He fights for and befriends White Russians and Bolsheviks. One of the best parts of the book is the confused, messy setting of revolutionary Russia. Selyukov comes to represent every feared soldier or hated person he hears about. Vittorin mistakenly acts in some circumstances, deluded by hatred, which causes death and destruction but he keeps rolling on – much like the apple in the marching song that gives the book its title. What does Selyukov represent? Certainly an exaggerated version of the enemy in war – emphasized by Vittorin being on both sides. Also the personification of evil, where the object loses almost any connection to reality and is more about the person doing the hating. And the kind of goal that has been with one for so long it no longer inspires passion but can’t be forgotten – something that can dictate a life without much reflection, which could really be almost anything. More than Selyukov, though, Vittorin becomes an unpleasant and carelessly cruel person through his obsession – he abandons his family, women he loves, his fellow soldiers in war, those who helped him on his way.
This book is perhaps a bit of a departure from Perutz’s usual historical fiction with twisty, circular plots and issues of identity and fate. It takes place in the near-past for Perutz (though there are a couple others that do also) and seems a straightforward tale of repeatedly denied revenge. It’s a bit puzzling as there is plenty of violence and death but somehow, it’s handled with a light touch and the end is ironic but not horribly unhappy. The end is neatly tied up and some earlier issues – where perhaps one wonders why he was spending so much time on them initially – come back to wrap up the conclusion. Some of the themes – of an obsession that destroys a person and the relative importance of the journey versus the goal – are old ones but Perutz gives them slight twists. The obsession dominates Vittorin’s life but in the end doesn’t destroy him even if it makes some things in his life worse. Even war and death are things that he moves on from – as is the usual reaction where there’s violence and unhappiness, but the world continues. Often, the message in novels is that the journey is more important than the goal but here Perutz questions if either was that important. His usual idea of fate follows Vittorin around, spurring him on but keeping him alive and throwing a number of ironies in his path. This is certainly an odd book – as part of Perutz’s oeuvre and in general – but in this case that is a compliment.
Great review that sent me off to order it. It seems to only be available used and will be reissued in June according to amazon.ca and book depository. Will do some more checking.
Interesting review. I already have Perutz on my mental TBR, thanks to your earlier reviews of his works!
I finally caught up with your thread, DieF, and thoroughly enjoyed reading all of your reviews. I added several books and/or authors to my list. I also found the Reading Globally theme read and am so impressed with all your work on the thread. Thank you! I'm inspired to dig into some of the Central European fiction that has been hanging around the house unread. :-)
>98 SassyLassy: - Interesting - I hadn't heard about any of Perutz's books been reissued. I found one (The Marquis of Bolibar) in a used bookstore but everything else has come from the public library or university library. There have been repeated requests on the NYRB thread for some Perutz.
Thanks Rebecca and bas. Hope you enjoy Leonardo's Judas baswood - you'll have to let me know if the historical depictions are accurate.
>101 labfs39: - Thanks! I'm hoping to reduce the pile during the theme read also - although I've been using it as an excuse to add to the pile.
Thanks, Linda. I really enjoyed the Swedish Cavalier - it was the first one I read and while it seems straightforward, I was puzzling over it for days afterward.
I've been in a book slump for most of the month but finished some popular/light/genre books so hopefully I'm over it. I want to try to put out reviews for all the backlist for this year - they'll probably be short.
The Passion of the New Eve by Angela Carter
Angela Carter’s bizarre, psychosexual romp through an apocalyptic America on the brink of collapse is definitely not going to be for all audiences. As in her stories and novels, Carter takes aim at male/female/sexuality stereotypes and various genre tropes, providing odd and ironic twists. Evelyn, a somewhat misogynistic British man, comes over to America for a job but falls into a torrid affair with Leilah, a stripper. It ends badly and to get away from her, he decides to take a road trip across America. After his car breaks down in the desert, he’s captured by a group of religio-militant women and undergoes an operation to become the perfect woman, Eve. He continues on in a picaresque adventure, encountering characters with distorted and extreme or fluid sexuality/gender roles, who are also personifications of various aspects of America – violent individualism, Hollywood transformations, a profusion of religions, all sorts of rebirths.
Plenty of the storylines didn’t end the way I thought they would and sometimes I would wonder if some of the characters were stereotypes, only to find the author upending their roles. As there are multiple rapes and bizarre sexual couplings, this isn’t a book for all tastes. Carter was clearly an extremely smart person and I probably didn’t pick up on all her references or symbolism but the book was quite involving anyway. Even with all the weirdness, the best part of the book is Carter’s lushly descriptive and exuberantly purple prose.
A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor
Harriet has known Vesey, the nephew of her mother’s best friend, since childhood, but one summer friendship turns to love. The course of true love does not run smooth – not only due to circumstances (Vesey eventually goes off to university) but due to Vesey’s personality, a mix of affected carelessness and cruelty, and Harriet’s shyness and passivity. Harriet is devastated when he leaves. Eventually, she finds employment as a shopgirl and meets the solid and upstanding Charles, who loves her even though he knows about Vesey. After years of marriage to Charles and a teenage daughter, Betsy, Harriet encounters Vesey again. She is thrown into confusion and uncertainty while Charles clumsily tries to prove he’s the better man, Betsy is strongly affected by discovering her mother’s past, and friends and relatives attempt to meddle. Through this, Harriet is only certain of one thing: her unshakeable love of Vesey.
Taylor’s prose is wonderfully sharp and the characters and setting are vividly portrayed. The book is short but even the side characters are sharply delineated. Harriet’s mother, Lilian, Caroline - Vesey’s aunt, Betsy’s teacher and Charles’s mother are only briefly in the book but are strong and interesting characters. The relationship between Harriet and Lilian is also well done, with Lilian’s disappointment and Harriet’s inability to communicate creating a wide gulf between them, as in this quote -
“Harriet’s own diary, which had no lock and key, would have told her mother all she did not want to know…Harriet had not described her love in writing; but Vesey’s most trivial doing or saying, crammed up and down the margins, obliterating headings about Pheasant Shooting and the Phases of the Moon, would have plainly revealed to her mother the pitiful and one-sided truth.”
Vesey is not the most appealing character but in a couple of quick strokes, Taylor shows why he cares for the seemingly dull Harriet. She’s badly hurt by his sarcasms but he usually manages to make it up to her. One imagines that others in his life would not be so tolerant and that his ability to form long-term relationships would be impaired.
The title is initially seen in the charged game of hide and seek that Harriet and Vesey play with his cousins, where the pair hides together though nothing happens except a meaningful silence. Later, of course, it refers to their parting and meeting over the years and the relationship that they carry on after Vesey comes back. But it is also their own retreats and tentative steps during that last summer, and the hidden side of them both – their intense connection – behind the façade of the dully dutiful housewife and the careless, unsuccessful actor.
This is a very good book but I found it hard to concentrate unless I had a good chunk of reading time and was relatively unstressed. When I was in the right mood, though, the book was absolutely captivating.
Two excellent reviews Dief. The Elizabeth Taylor sounds like it might be for me. I would probably have to be in the right mood to read the Angela Carter
Hope you have got to the other side of your reading slump.
Enjoyed both reviews. Elizabeth Taylor comes up a lot on LT with positive reviews, will keep that title in mind.
I was meaning to read Elizabeth Taylor this year (another centenary I missed!), but I've had A Game of Hide and Seek on the TBR all year. Will look for a time when I can concentrate on it to read it.
Thanks bas, dchaikin and edwin!
Rebecca - I tried to read a couple other Elizabeth Taylors that I had on the pile early in the year, but they weren't grabbing me. I think I was comparing them to Angel, which I read in a slightly queasy frenzy. For the other ones, I'll remember to start them when I'm in the mood.
Still finishing up the year!
The Expendable Man by Dorothy Hughes
A tense page-turner, this book has a twist about 1/3 of the way through which is subtly done, fits well with what came before and changes the direction of the book. The whole book, even the parts where the characters are doing mundane things, is very suspenseful because you never know what’s going to happen. It opens with Hugh Densmore driving to Phoenix for his niece’s wedding. He’s a medical intern, poor and careful, but also from a comfortable, loving, supportive family with deep roots in Phoenix. In an out-of-character move, he picks up a young female hitchhiker. Hugh finds her hard to comprehend as she’s sly and manipulative and he can’t believe that her family could be so neglectful. He finally drops her off in Phoenix but has uncomfortable feelings that his good deed will come back to haunt him – he’s proven right when she turns up murdered. From then on, Hugh, though innocent, is constantly on the line between innocence and guilt – he wonders if he’s acting the way an innocent man would, tries to keep his family from discovering that he’s under suspicion, and when the investigators start to focus on him, he is forced to try to discover the truth. The writing is tight and nicely characterizes the thoughts of an accused but innocent man. Hughes also captures the heat and occasionally the claustrophobia of Phoenix as well as an America on the brink of change. Recommended.
Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
Clay Jannon, an unemployed graphic designer with an obsessive roommate who makes giant models of imaginary landscapes and a millionaire best friend with a company devoted to CGI boobs, takes a job in the titular bookstore. The owner, Mr. Penumbra, is an old and very odd character, as are many of the ‘customers’ – even odder people who check out old books that can’t be found in any database. At first Clay listens to Mr. Penumbra’s warnings to not snoop in the books, but soon he stumbles onto all sort of mysteries as well as the secret society that Penumbra and the others belong to. Along with his nerdy friends and Kat, a brilliant Google worker who stumbles into the bookstore one day and starts a relationship with Clay, he has to figure out the secrets of the society.
This book is one long nerd-gasm and I mean that in the best way possible. It’s all about obsessive, weird but good-hearted and appealing nerds trying to solve puzzles and coming up against an unpleasant techno-Luddite. The book mixes the dusty, mysterious old bookstore setting and secret societies having some origin in history with the cyberpunk genre, though everything is set in the present and has a light, comic feel. The whole thing is a lot of fun though I could see complaints about all the company mentioning (Google has a prominent role) or things being too frantic or cutesy.
I was a big fan of The Expendable Man too, and I then read some other books by Dorothy Hughes, although this was the best.
Looks like a fun way to end the year. (or are there still more). Both books sound interesting.
I've always been intrigued by the title The Expendable Man with no idea whatsoever what it was about. It sounds somewhat as if it addresses the same concerns of a book I only started yesterday: William Boyd's Ordinary Thunderstorms. I think I will have to read your book as a comparator.
Thanks for a great year of adding to both my reading and my wish list!
Rebecca - your review for her In a Lonely Place sounded tempting, I'll have to read that one as well.
dchaikin - Also read Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys as part of my fun end of year attempt to get out of the slump. Will post some comments but there are already tons of reviews.
SassyLassy - It does sound a little like Ordinary Thunderstorms - innocent man has chance encounter that leads to murder accusations - but in The Expendable Man, he doesn't go on the run - the opposite, he's determined to stay and clear his name.
Hmmm....still finishing up this year, might have to wrap up over the weekend
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Finished - sometime back
This book has tons of reviews, so just some short comments – I loved the writing, simple but lyrical, the plot, which had some unexpected turns, and the feeling of something both intimate and domestic as well as epic and American. It treats religion respectfully but not without questioning many aspects. There’s also a Biblical and mythological feel. A couple important memories act as touchstones throughout the book - a sort of wandering in the desert that becomes an epic event to refer back to, Ames’s memory of the community pulling down the burned church, a sort of destruction/redemption/baptism with the endless rain. Ames’ family line of preachers – from his blood & thunder, extremist, one-eyed grandfather, promoting violent rebellion, to his pacifist father, to his own questioning, frail self – seems to echo mythological developments from the old gods being replaced by new ones, then different ages of weak humans. In addition, his grandfather’s identification with John Brown’s rebellion and frequent references to history or allusions to people such as Jonathan Edwards place the narrative in the context of an unbroken line of American history. Ames has chosen to stay in his small town, despite being educated, having other choices and having travels to compare to – a nice contrast to the usual story of growing up in a small town and leaving as soon as possible, as both his brother and even parents do eventually. Really wonderful.
On the Overgrown Path by David Herter
Finished - sometime back
I have a pretty strong obsession with Leos Janacek, the greatest Czech composer of the 20th century, so was happy to read Herter’s book which has him as a protagonist. He’s called J___ but the references are obvious – some of his actual operas are listed, for example. Herter has a nice mood of understated creepiness and some good descriptive writing. Janacek, travelling on a train, gets stranded in a small town. There are some puzzling events but things take a turn when he finds a horribly mutilated dead body. The isolation of the town starts to feel dangerous and the townspeople often behave in odd ways. However, Janacek’s overriding concern is, as usual, catching the speech melodies of the people he interacts with and the music of everyday life, which he notes down in his book. I need to read the next book in this series, which features the Capek brothers.
The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout
Finished - sometime back
The title of the book is The Sociopath Next Door and while Martha Stout, a psychiatrist, does discuss how sociopaths manage to fit into society and appear normal, she is also interested in the development and functioning of conscience. I didn’t find this uninteresting but sometimes it seemed to go on a little long. Stout does give good suggestions for recognizing sociopaths, while mentioning that it is hard to detect them, and also has tips on dealing with sociopaths. She describes a number of studies – some of them I had heard of, like the classic Milgram experiments, but she also looks at the nuances in various studies. I think Stout was too certain when describing sociopaths – she repeatedly refers to a study citing 1 in 25 people as sociopaths so that 4 out of 100 people you meet will be a sociopath. Her language makes it a case of us vs. them, but I would imagine that there are grey areas and that there are some people who, while not sociopaths, are just selfish assholes. There are a couple personal stories that seemed somewhat random. Overall though – an informative book about people to avoid.
Stout tells several stories – composites based on her work as a psychologist. They’re certainly interesting and describe how sociopaths “work” though I think perhaps she adds too many similar details – one being that sociopaths have dead, empty eyes. “Skip”, the destructive, manipulative, animal killing, sexually harassing evil-CEO type seems like your classic sociopath but “Doreen”, the seemingly successful, sweet animal lover – who on occasion does something odd and backstabbing – would be harder to recognize. “Luke”, the lazy but not overtly harmful (except to his family) sociopath might also confuse those who think he is just depressed or has issues. Though different, they all have no empathy and often see conscience as an impediment to getting what they want. Skip wants power, money, women – the usual – and has no problem doing immoral or illegal things to get them. Doreen is chronically jealous and has to sabotage others to get a high. Luke just wants to not have to work and laze around and has no problem sponging off other people to get it. Stout often refers to these people as well as the conscience-having Joe, who forgoes an important business meeting to take care of his dog. She uses them to analyze the workings of conscience – for example, questioning whether Joe has a conscience or whether his decision is due to societal pressure or worry over what the neighbors will say. Though she comes out in favor of Joe having one, she looks at occasions when the conscience is absent in normal people – when they are sick, tired, have been trained to think of other groups as evil (as in a war) or when pushed by authority.
This section was interesting – for example, Stout describes in detail the Milgram experiment and I learned some things I hadn’t known before. The Milgram experiments were famous for showing how “ordinary people could do bad things” – volunteers were told to shock a subject (really an experimenter) who failed at a test – most did it to what they thought were the highest levels of shocks even when the subject yelled in pain and said they wanted to stop. The person in charge told the volunteers to continue and most did. However, people would “cheat” (shock at a lower level) or stop if the experimenter wasn’t in the room with them or looked like an ordinary person (wasn’t wearing a lab coat). Apparently, compliance in war (killing others) also goes down if the person in charge is absent (I didn’t know this though I took several psych classes and everyone starts talking about Milgram and Zimbardo whenever mass bad behavior occurs). Stout takes from this that peole should not blindly listen to authority (for example, Skip had a high position in a company and Doreen fraudulently obtained a psychology position) and should question some societal assumptions – girls should be polite and not create conflict, boys should be obedient and respectful to authority.
Stout goes on to examine sociopaths and conscience scientifically – describing studies on brain functioning, twin studies, hormonal changes and suggests evolutionary and sociobiological origins. She compares sociopathy to some similar conditions – narcissistic personality disorder and attachment disorder (e.g., Romanian orphans). In describing warning signs, Stout gives one I would not have expected – frequent appeals to pity. She has a number of suggestions for dealing with psychopaths – only giving people a limited number of chances, never covering up evidence of psychopathy, refusing to allow them to gaslight you. Stout seems to be asserting that most bad behavior was attributable to sociopaths but that normal people were blind to them because they think good, normal people can do bad things. Well, I think that, so I don’t know if I’m blinded by my non-sociopathy or if Stout is oversimplifying and blaming everything on a small percentage of people – a percentage that she keeps repeating in a very concrete way – as in, if you meet 100 people, 4 will be psychopaths. This black vs. white view seemed a little extreme (not the avoiding psychopaths part – people should do that – but the bad things in general are due to psychopaths worldview). In the end, Stout gives various examples of why it is better to have a conscience. Certainly an interesting and useful book though I questioned that oft-repeated statistic and some of her views.
Great end of year clean-up reviews, DieF! The Expendable Man is on my wishlist. I was also very interested in your review of Gilead, as Marilynne Robinson will be coming to the NYS Writer's Institute this semester. I hope to attend, although I started to read the book once and set it aside fairly quickly. I'm not sure if it was just my mood at the time or the fact that I seem to often not connect with epistolary style novels. I think I should give it another try.
#118 Oh yes, I did love In a Lonely Place too; less impressed by The Blackbirder, but still worth reading.
Interesting about the sociopaths. I once worked with someone who I became convinced was a sociopath -- or at least that he was what I thought a sociopath was. He definitely had the appeal to pity bit, as he was convinced everything bad that happened to him was because other people were out to get him, and he was a habitual liar too.
Fascinating review of The Sociopath Next Door. Also glad you liked Gilead, not everyone does. I didn't really pick up on how dynamic Ames grandfather was until I re-read the book. What a character?! (He's based on a true historical character, but I forgot who.) Interesting about the rain and the echoing of mythology.
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