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SassyLassy sails through 2013

This topic was continued by SassyLassy still sailing through 2013.

Club Read 2013

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1SassyLassy
Jan 2, 2013, 2:07pm Top

2012 was my first year in Club Read and paradoxically, although I read some excellent books, it was my worst year in terms of amount read. This year I hope to address that and have some broad categories to help me focus.

Ahoy
This is one of the tags in my LT library, indicating my love of books dealing with any and all aspects of life in, around and on the seas. An early book to read will be The Toilers of the Sea as part of a group read for Author Themed Reads.

China
If you followed my threads last year, you know that books from and about China are a big part of my reading and this year I hope to read some of the excellent recent non fiction about China, along with trying to complete all Mo Yan's books in the Read Mo Yan group.

Russia and Scotland
Two countries I love reading books from and about, although my attention to them has fallen off lately with last year's reading slump. I hope to address this in 2013. Club Read 2012 certainly added to my wish list on Russia!

The European Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries
One of my goals last year was to read more about these fascinating times when people were torn between the old beliefs dictated by religion and the new ways of thinking arising from contact with new worlds and the developing sciences. If ever there was a time for individual turmoil, this was it. I didn't achieve this goal at all last year, but since I'm still interested, I've rolled it over to this year.

Victorians
I am a member of Victoriana, a decorous group on LT. I have been amassing quite a collection of social history from this era in my TBR pile and want to get to it. This is also a favourite area for rereads, like going home again is supposed to be. There are always new books to read too.

Books from the Rest of the World
Like many other Club Read people, I'm also in Reading Globally and hope to keep up my reading from around the world. I'll probably be focussing on South America in preparation for the Reading Globally fourth quarter, but will also be participating in the Zola year long read.

All in all, reasonably ambitious. I wonder what it will all look like by December 31st because after all there's the

And Now for Something Completely Different category which always seems to come hurtling at me out of left field and throw all planning out the window.

2SassyLassy
Jan 2, 2013, 2:07pm Top

This was me last year:

My worst reading year ever in terms of total books read since I learned to read.

Total: 71
Fiction: 54 books or 76.1% (too high, need more non-fiction)
Fiction in Translation: 23 books or 42.5% of the total fiction read (good balance)
Original Language: 7 Chinese
2 each: Albanian, French (Canada), Italian, Spanish
1 each: Arabic, Hebrew, Hungarian, Japanese, Norwegian, Romanian, Russian, Yiddish
Fiction Rereads: 3 books of the total fiction read
Non-Fiction: 17 books or 23.9%

Authors with more than 1 book read: 3 Yu Hua, 2 each Andrea Camilleri, Henry James, Ha Jin, Ismail Kadare, Hilary Mantel, Kate Morton

Best Non-Fiction: Mao's Great Famine by Frank Dikotter
Worst Non-Fiction: The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch

Best Fiction: To Live by Yu Hua
Worst Fiction: The Autobiography of Mrs Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin (my book club made me do it)
Best Reread: Triste's History by Horacio Vazquez Rial (today's choice, all three were excellent)

Also completed Short Story Challenge: 30 Short Stories by 30 Different Authors in 30 Days

3SassyLassy
Edited: Mar 25, 2013, 4:52pm Top

Reserved for any lists I may thing of, a wish list from other threads comes to mind.

The Google Book V C Vickers 1913 edwinbcn
Fiere Jackie Kay edwinbcn
The Song of Everlasting Sorrow Wang Anyi steven03tx
A Walk on the Wild Side Nelson Algren deebee1
Firefly Severo Sarduy steven 03tx
One Day the Ice Will Reveal Its Dead avaland, linda92007
Communion Town Sam Thompson kidzdoc
Le colonel Chabert Balzac edwinbcn
Soldiers of Salamis Javier Cercas arubabookwoman
Decadence Mandchoue Edmund Backhouse tomcatMurr
Fanon John Edgar Wideman kidzdoc
Leonardo's Judas Leo Perutz baswood

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo rebecca
The Perfumier and the Stinkhorn Richard Mabey letterpress
My Century Aleksandr Wat rebecca
Machiavelli and His Friends: Their Personal Correspondence baswood
The Land That Never Was: Sir Gregor MacGregor and the Most Audacious Fraud in History NielsenGW
The Fears of Henry IV: The Life of England's Self Made King Ian Mortimer baswood
The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to the Ornamental Gnome Gordon Campbell NielsenGW
The Biggest Estate on Earth Bill Gammage Polaris Beacon
The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824 henkmet

4SassyLassy
Jan 2, 2013, 2:50pm Top

Trying to get as many categories as possible into one picture: Ahoy, Seventeenth Century, Victorians, Scotland.



A Victorian sailing ship at the Broomielaw, Glasgow. The Broomielaw was the first quay to be built there in 1662.

5marieke54
Edited: Jan 2, 2013, 3:26pm Top

Russia an Scotland. What about Dorothy Dunnett's Nicholas and Lymond? I look forward to following your thread.

6zenomax
Jan 2, 2013, 3:32pm Top

Ahoy, Russia, Scotland, the Victorians and Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries are also interests of mine.

Not sure I will have much chance to read on these subjects this year, so I'll have to learn vicariously through your thread.

7rebeccanyc
Jan 2, 2013, 3:40pm Top

I'm looking forward to your reading. Great picture!

8arubabookwoman
Jan 4, 2013, 4:23pm Top

You have some great reading categories, and I'll be following your reading again this year.

9dchaikin
Jan 5, 2013, 11:02am Top

Checking in, looking forward to your reviews.

10marieke54
Jan 6, 2013, 9:38am Top

Sassy I saw you own Elaine Feinstein’s Anna of All the Russias, which is on my TBR list for this year. Did you read it already, and when yes: what do you think of it?

11Linda92007
Jan 6, 2013, 10:44am Top

Very interesting reading categories, Sassy. I'm looking forward to your 2013 reading and your always excellent reviews!

12Lunarreader
Jan 6, 2013, 3:19pm Top

Hello, on your Scotland topic you should read the books by Robert Macfarlane : The old ways and The wild places, it's not all Scotland in there, but a big part of it. I am a keen Scotland traveller, with over 10 journeys over there and in my humble opinion, Macfarlane is by far the author who makes you "feel" Scotland.

13labfs39
Jan 6, 2013, 11:38pm Top

Great new thread! Hope to read more myself this year. Love your last category. ;-)

14DieFledermaus
Jan 6, 2013, 11:45pm Top

Interesting categories and an appropriate picture.

15SassyLassy
Jan 8, 2013, 2:15pm Top

>5 marieke54: to >14 DieFledermaus: Hello there. I've been so busy reading your threads I haven't done anything on my own. It's amazing how busy the 2013 version of Club Read is.

marieke, I would recommend the Anna of All the Russias. I read it as a biography in a social setting, which I often find is one of the best ways to explore social history, and Feinstein did a good job of this. I have not read Akhmatova's poetry, but if you are reading it as the biography of a poet, there may be less poetry than you would like. There is a copy of The Stray Dog Cabaret in the house which I haven't read yet, but you might enjoy that to if you are interested in the era.
I haven't read any Dorothy Dunnett as yet.

Lunarreader, the Robert Macfarlane books look interesting. I walked the West Highland Way some years ago and would like to walk the Southern Upland Way or the Coast to Coast Walk, but who knows what lies ahead.

DieF, glad you like the picture. I think it captures some of the gloom and threat inherent in some of my categories!

16SassyLassy
Jan 8, 2013, 2:25pm Top

New Year's Day with Rebus --- not a bad way to spend a lazy afternoon and start the New Year.



1. Standing in Another Man's Grave by Ian Rankin
first published 2012
read January 1, 2013

Rebus is out of retirement and working cold cases. His new lease on life seems to have cheered him up somewhat, as he seems more chipper than usual. Even though I missed his more extreme brooding cynicism, it was good to see him again.

I can't say anymore because this is a mystery, however, I suspect he will be back yet again, and that return should be enough to restore his full blown douleur.

17SassyLassy
Jan 8, 2013, 2:57pm Top

One from the TBR shelves. I actually had two copies on the shelves, so gave one away. I should enter more of my TBR pile into LT.



2. Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd
first published 2009
finished January 4, 2013

Imagine waking up in the morning completely on top of your game; a leading academic in your cutting edge field, going to be interviewed this very day for a position at a world renowned institute in London. Now picture yourself that same night, sleeping rough under Chelsea Bridge, wanted by the police for murder, and even more horrifying, wanted by persons unknown who clearly want to murder you.

How do such things happen to good people? Usually it's a simple decision made in the first instant of disruption. Then an inexorable logic takes over to defend that decision at all costs. Adam Kindred had stumbled across a murder in process. He was innocent. However, due to a set of completely innocuous circumstances, not only was he the most likely suspect, he was the only suspect. The decision facing Adam was whether or not to go to the police.
...he knew that his life was about to take a turning he could never reverse...So he made his decision, one of the most important decisions in his life...He turned and ran away...
He was a naturally law-abiding person--- he held in unreflecting trust the legal institutions of the countries he had lived in, but now, suddenly, everything had changed. It wasn't 'respect for the law' that seemed to him paramount and fundamental anymore. No: it was freedom that governed this instinctive choice---his personal freedom. He had to stay free at all costs, if he were to save himself, somehow.

Adam stepped away from the world of the twenty-first century and became one of the two hundred thousand people who simply disappear each year in the UK. Disappearing is difficult enough; surviving is even harder. Boyd strips Adam down to a man in search of the bare essentials: food, clothing and shelter. Expelled from Eden, Adam works to suppress all memory of life in the world before.

Keeping body and soul together doesn't offer much time for reflection though. While Adam may be willing to forget his previous life, it is obvious that there are those who will not forget him. If he is to survive, he must find out why they are maintaining this relentless pursuit when even the authorities seem to have forgotten him.

In his netherworld, he learns how to obtain a new identity. Adam becomes Primo. Step by step he starts his life again. Step by step he works through the mystery of why he is being pursued, his only reference a cryptic file belonging to the dead man.

In his epigraph, Boyd has a quote, ...even ordinary thunderstorms are capable of mutating into super-cell storms.This novel didn't quite make it.

I have been a huge fan of William Boyd since I first read Brazzaville Beach and The New Confessions. Ordinary Thunderstorms didn't work on that level. There was the trademark concern with how random outside events impinge on the private world, the concern for social justice, the humour, the deft portrayal of human foibles, the delight in playing with names, but despite all this, there didn't seem to be a focus. It seemed as if he couldn't decide whether to write a serious work or a thriller and so wound up with neither. While still a good enough novel, it was a disappointment from a writer whom I think of as the human Ian McEwan. I have more of his books on my TBR though, and I know one of them will deliver the super-cell storm.

Other books by William Boyd I have read:
A Good Man in Africa
An Ice-Cream War
The New Confessions
Brazzaville Beach
The Destiny of Nathalie 'X'
Armadillo
Any Human Heart
Restless

Having read this, I should read The Expendable Man by Dorothy Hughes: DieF

18labfs39
Jan 8, 2013, 3:05pm Top

Excellent review, Sassy. You had me going that this was going to be an intelligent thriller, but it seems like it turned our to be neither. Ah well, better luck next time.

19avaland
Jan 8, 2013, 3:08pm Top

>16 SassyLassy: Who's his sidekick in this one? Is Siobhan around?

20kidzdoc
Jan 8, 2013, 10:47pm Top

Great review of Ordinary Thunderstorms, although I'm disappointed that it wasn't a better book. I won't add it to my wish list, then.

21LisaMorr
Jan 9, 2013, 11:49am Top

I enjoyed your review also. And I'm intrigued enough to give it a shot - well, at least to put it on a list, anyway!

22Linda92007
Jan 9, 2013, 3:04pm Top

Great review of Ordinary Thunderstorms, Sassy, although I am also somewhat disappointed, as I already own it. I also have Restless and will try that first.

23SassyLassy
Edited: Jan 9, 2013, 3:09pm Top

>18 labfs39:, >21 LisaMorr:, >21 LisaMorr:, >22 Linda92007: labfs, doc and Lisa and Linda: I wouldn't say this was a bad book, I just had much higher expectations from this particular author as he is such a superb storyteller, but then none of us performs at peak level all the time. His off peak is still better than most.

If you haven't read any William Boyd, I would definitely recommend Brazzaville Beach: chaos theory, war in Africa (?Zaire), lots of good things. Oddly enough, I just looked at the reviews for this book (BB) and see that one reviewer has said about it The only disappointment in reading Boyd is the persistent hope that he might top his own masterpiece, in that reviewer's case A Good Man In Africa. Give him a try.

>19 avaland: avaland, Siobhan is indeed around, but sidekick, maybe not so much.

edited to include Linda

24rebeccanyc
Jan 9, 2013, 5:58pm Top

I have a number of William Boyd books because, in the distant past, a man I had set my sights on recommended him. Nothing came of that (fortunately), and I only read The New Confessions, which was the one he particularly recommended; however, I remember none of it. I do also have Brazzaville Beach, Restless, Armadillo, and The Blue Afternoon. I guess if I were to try him again I'd follow your recommendation and read BB.

25baswood
Jan 9, 2013, 6:10pm Top

Excellent review of Ordinary Thunderstorms. As i was reading your review the question that came to mind was how believable was Adam Kindred's story. I would have thought that Boyd would have had to nail this pretty well to make his novel work.

26SassyLassy
Jan 10, 2013, 11:18am Top

bas, I hadn't thought of that, so I suspect it must have seemed entirely believable to me and so as you put it, Boyd did nail it pretty well. I think the reaction would depend on the individual reader, however. Those who are able to resist antediluvian instincts like panic and fear, and instead think things through clearly and logically in a moment of terror would probably have more difficulty with Adam's behaviour than I did. I did have more difficulty with his story later when he had had time to think things through. I felt he should have gone to the authorities then. It would have been a completely different story, but perhaps more interesting as a renowned scientist having to make a case his entire future depends upon.

rebecca, funny the reading we get into that way! That's how I wound up reading all of Mordecai Richler and more Philip Roth than I cared for. The books and their recommender are still in the house in my case.

27avaland
Jan 10, 2013, 12:02pm Top

28SassyLassy
Jan 10, 2013, 12:33pm Top

This book was a present. I was familiar with "Speaking Bitterness', but had not encountered the idea of "Eating Bitterness before. While Eating Bitterness is a peculiarly Chinese sounding term, I suspect it is far more universal, applying to Mexicans in California and North Africans in Florence among others.



3. Eating Bitterness: Stories from the Front Lines of China's Great Urban Migration by Michelle Dammon Loyalka
first published 2012
finished reading January 5, 2013

In the chaos and turmoil of China in the 1950s, a household registration system was adopted, in part to prevent starving out of work peasants migrating to the cities, where food was more available. The registration system designated a person as urban or rural, based on the residential status of their parents. This all important designation governs residence permits, education and health. Until recently, it was also used to impose travel restrictions. Those restrictions have now been relaxed, perhaps only temporarily, but enough so that the urban population doubled in the past twenty years.

Continuing this trend, twenty-first century China is experiencing massive migration to the cities. In Eating Bitterness, Loyalka says three hundred million peasants will make the move in the next twenty years. What they will do when they get there, where they will live and what will happen to the countryside they leave behind are all questions with no answers as of yet.

As migrants reach the urban centres, they tend to congregate in neighbourhoods on the outskirts of cities. These areas are known as "city-villages", so called because they used to be villages but are now being swallowed up by neighbouring cities growing ever larger. Many of these city-villages are slated for demolition, to make way for superhighways, industrial estates and high rise blocks.

Gan Jia Zhia is just such a village in the middle of ever expanding Xian. About five city blocks in size, it holds an estimated thirty thousand migrants. It was already slated for demolition at the time this book was written, meaning the migrants would be uprooted and have to start live yet again. Loyalka followed eight residents for about three weeks each to get their stories. The circumstances each faced seemed to depend a lot on their age and family situation.

Wang Quanxi was the oldest. He doesn't know how old he is, but he was probably born around 1950. He is illiterate as school was neither a priority nor mandatory when he was a child. Wang works as a knife sharpener, carrying his tools on his bicycle. He mentally keeps track of when he last worked at a particular restaurant or house so that he can judge when it should be time to call around again. Unfortunately for him, other knife sharpeners are booking appointments and using phones, so he is losing out to them.Wang is cheated routinely by customers who refuse to pay the full fee after his work is done. Increasing prosperity in the middle classes also means demand is down for his services. People just buy new knives. He knows the demand for his services won't last much longer. When the time comes that he can no longer make money at it, he will go back to his village for good. Currently he returns twice a year at planting and at harvest.

Eating bitterness is the term used to describe the daily lives, privation and struggles of people who sacrifice their own lives so that their families in their home village and their children will have better futures. Wang's urban existence means his wife and four children have an eight room house in his village, the result of his lifetime of saving, existing on the most basic foods and living in meagre shared quarters with other men like himself.

Loyalka looks at people who support the very functioning of daily life in cities: recyclers, nannies, convenience store owners, small landlords, right down to Jia Huan who at age nineteen is just beginning her working life. She and her friends work as beauticians, a relatively new field of employment in high demand. Their problem is learning the intricacies of working commission and constantly generating new customers. Their employer feels girls from the country don't have enough ambition to progress up the ladder in what appears to be a pyramid scheme. To Jia and her friends, their work environment is safe and comfortable, a far cry from work in the countryside. While they don't see this work as a long term prospect, they have no idea of what might take its place.

These were interesting stories to read. Loyalka is a journalist, not an academic, and I suspect that contributed to the readability. Although she has provided the background of the Chinese urban/rural divide as context, you don't need it to appreciate the stories the peasants tell. In her epilogue, she touches on the uncertainties facing these migrants:
Those who undertake this journey are neither able to completely abandon their rural lifestyles nor are they able to fully join the urban ranks; they belong neither to the nation's traditional past nor to it modernized future. Though they navigate between these dramatically different worlds with varying degrees of success, as a people in transition in a nation in transition, they remain largely in limbo, stuck somewhere between their point of origin and their intended destination.

Loyalka seems to take a traditional western view of progress as a forward movement, suggesting that given the current Chinese economy, the need for migrants to eat so much bitterness is lessening. Given the history of upheaval in China and her figure of three hundred million migrants, a more guarded approach is probably more realistic, but overall a good book.

-----------

A related book I have read: The Last Days of Old Beijing by Michael Meyer, about an area of Beijing bulldozed for the Olympics
Two excellent documentaries on DVD dealing with migration: Up the Yangtze and Last Train Home

What I should read now: The Corpse Walker. I thought this was reviewed by possibly steven or edwin, but see no record of it. Whoever it was, thanks for the reference.

29baswood
Jan 10, 2013, 6:02pm Top

Great review of Eating Bitterness: stories from the Front lines of China's Great Urban Migration I am learning so much about China from reading these threads.

30edwinbcn
Jan 10, 2013, 7:07pm Top

>Re Eating Bitterness: Stories from the Front Lines of China's Great Urban Migration by Michelle Dammon Loyalka

From your review I gather that Loyalka's book is descriptive, but possibly muddled where analysis and background are concerned. With regard to the rural population, it should first be understood that China has a surplus rural population of about 800 million. Given that China, despite its size has only a small proportion of arable land (estimated at just 11%), it could only support a sustainable agricultural population of about 300 million farmers, and create work and a living for another 200 million (total 500 million). For the other 800 million, there is no work, and their "farming" takes place on such a small scale that it is not sustainable, creating problem for the whole rural population. Staying in the countryside means staying in poverty.

In China, wealth and development are centralized in the urban centres, with very little trickle down, and although inland cities are developing, their development in for example education, medical facilities and culture lags behind.

What the author does not seem to understand or misrepresents is that the Chinese government's policy is pro urbanization, but that this urbanization should take place in new urban centres, creating new cities, rather than expanding existing cities. The idea is that urbanization will create jobs in the service sector in such cities. There are some indications that there is little or no economic activities in these new urban centres as yet, however, over time, these cities will be formed.

Eating Bitterness: Stories from the Front Lines of China's Great Urban Migration however, seems to describe problems that have existed for about a decade, caused by migrants moving to existing big cities attempting to carve out a better existence. or simply working in the big cities to make money which they can send home. The Household Registration system was originally set up to stem this type of migration, but as the migrant workers supply labour needed in the cities, it is relaxed. The Household Registration system is not such an alien concept. In many urban centres around the world housing is scarce, and people intending to settle in a city must often prove that they have economic ties to that city. As in Chinese cities other facilities may also be scarce, there is no room to facilitate uncontrolled numbers of migrant families.

吃苦 (eating bitterness) generally refers to a person's ability to deal with personal hardship. The term can be expanded and used for migrant workers although their hardship is the result of their own choice.

I had a look at the author's blog. There was not much to read there, but the little she wrote about migrant subculture did not seem to indicate that she truly understands the dynamics of this Chinese phenomenon. However, I would have to read the book, to say more about that.

31labfs39
Jan 10, 2013, 8:00pm Top

Fascinating review of a fascinating book, Sassy. I can't decide which of the books you mention to put on my wishlist first. Have you considered posting your review to the book's homepage? No one has reviewed it yet, and only three people own it. It sounds like such an interesting book, your review might help bring it to the attention of others.

32japaul22
Jan 10, 2013, 9:22pm Top

Interesting review of Eating Bitterness and particularly interesting in light of edwinbcn's added information.

33Linda92007
Jan 11, 2013, 9:28am Top

Interesting review and discussion of Eating Bitterness, Sassy. It had me thinking about the long term trends in this country related to population migration - the rural poor moving to urban centers and the affluent moving out of cities and reconfiguring previously rural areas into seemingly ever-expanding suburban communities.

Edwin, are there any signs of suburbanization in China?

34deebee1
Jan 11, 2013, 10:57am Top

Interesting discussion here, Sassy. I appreciate the stories that the author documents, highlighting the plight of millions of Chinese, telling it from the point of view of these people. However, I'm a bit bothered by her rather simplistic and naive conclusion, as if to be one or the other is a moral dichotomy that needs resolving on the part of the migrant or would-be migrant.

Those who undertake this journey are neither able to completely abandon their rural lifestyles nor are they able to fully join the urban ranks; they belong neither to the nation's traditional past nor to it modernized future. Though they navigate between these dramatically different worlds with varying degrees of success, as a people in transition in a nation in transition, they remain largely in limbo, stuck somewhere between their point of origin and their intended destination.

I wonder what she meant by rural lifestyles that need abandoning, and what it means to fully join the urban ranks. From this view, it seems that becoming a factory worker would mean full integration, while becoming a knife sharpener would not qualify because it is something that would fall between the cracks -- neither rural nor urban? A migrant's decision to move to the city is economic -- work to be found, better income to be made -- but many do not lose their connection to their rural homes or communities, as we see in one example above. So, just what this "navigation" she refers to puzzles me, and the talk of limbo, origins and destination.

Edwin's points, however, are excellent, and I tend to agree with what he says.

I also appreciate that you have included titles of documentaries on the subject (the links, however, do not lead to them). I saw a very good one on this in 2010 in Doclisboa, an annual international documentary festival here in Lisbon. It might interest you. The title escapes me now, but will try to find it and let you know.

35SassyLassy
Jan 11, 2013, 11:44am Top

>30 edwinbcn:, >32 japaul22:
edwin, thanks for your comments and it looks like thanks from japaul too

From your review I gather that Loyalka's book is descriptive, but possibly muddled where analysis and background are concerned

I agree completely. She had difficulties with numbers and I often found myself referring back to previous figures. I just looked at the net after reading your comments and keep seeing "every year over 200 million peasants flock to China's urban centres...", which I did read in her book, but then decided this was an impossible migration figure as the countryside would be empty in less than a decade. I interpreted it to mean that at any given time there were 200 million rural people in the urban centres, but due to the confusion, left it out of my discussion.

For the other 800 million, there is no work, and their "farming" takes place on such a small scale that it is not sustainable, creating problem for the whole rural population. Staying in the countryside means staying in poverty. She mentioned the allocation of land for use by rural people after the collapse of collectivization, but did not link the two. She also seemed unclear on whether allocation was based on a per person or per family system. She does mention that agriculture is not enough to sustain the population in the countryside, but it seems to her to be somewhat of a necessary condition for migration to the cities, otherwise why would they leave? (my interpretation of what she thinks)

I was disappointed that she did not mention the new cities where people truly do seem to be "eating bitterness", but then she was focussing on the city where she lives.

All in all, not an analytic book, but an interesting group of people. She selected them from personal contacts, which biases the sample from the start. Again, an academic would have selected differently, but I don't think she set out to write a definitive book.

Can you recommend a more in depth book on this area?

>31 labfs39:
labs, I'm not sure which kind of book you would prefer. The Meyer's book had more analysis; he went into the history of his district, various proposals for the area, protests over the demolition and the lives of some of the people who lived there. Again, not an academic book, but it had more depth.

The documentaries are interesting in their depictions of the chasm between urban youth and their parent and grandparents in the countryside. They were quite depressing, but did leave a lot of room for thought.

>33 Linda92007:
Linda, I think migration is going to be one of the biggest concerns in this century. Wow, there's a statement!. Anyway, as you say, the conversion of some of the best arable land to living space, along with water problems (both flooding and drought), ever present wars with their attendant refugees, economic migrants, and a whole new group that I would call environmental refugees will see huge movements of people and I don't think anyone is ready.

36SassyLassy
Jan 11, 2013, 12:03pm Top

>34 deebee1:
Sorry deebee, I agonized so much over what I was saying above that your comment snuck in while I was dithering.

I thought that quote was somewhat odd too. It was in the epilogue and seemed like one of those summing ups you do on a paper when you're trying to make it sound cohesive.

I think when she spoke about rural lifestyles that need abandoning, she was speaking more of the difference in outlook between a pragmatic rural farmer or factory worker and a more consumer oriented urban person. Again, some western stereotypes here. I must say when I read "rural lifestyles" I suffered from what could only be described as a severe attack of cognitive dissonance! I had this picture of someone from the countryside suddenly being transplanted to the Sunday New York Times and it made no sense at all.

This book left me wanting a followup, but that would be in twenty years or so.

I always agree with edwin!

The links in LT didn't work, so here are some from Google:

http://www.pbs.org/pov/lasttrainhome/#.UPBMEI7FW3I

http://www.zeitgeistfilms.com/film.php?directoryname=uptheyangtze

Hope they work!

37Linda92007
Jan 11, 2013, 2:29pm Top

>33 Linda92007:, 35 I was mostly thinking in terms of whether there is any indication that the more affluent will see it as desirable to leave the cities for less crowded, more homogeneous communities.

38SassyLassy
Jan 11, 2013, 3:50pm Top

Linda, I have read of some gated communities, but more of huge estate like houses outside the cities in home villages, almost like some kind of pre revolutionary landlord fantasy.

Edwin would know more about this, so I hope he answers, as you rightly directed your question to him and I just jumped in.

39avaland
Jan 11, 2013, 9:08pm Top

Thanks for the review of Eating Bitterness and also thanks to edwin for his additional comments. I think both post will enhance my reading of contemporary Chinese literature (which has mostly been short fiction in recent years).

40edwinbcn
Jan 11, 2013, 10:31pm Top

>Linda (33)
long term trends in this country related to population migration - the rural poor moving to urban centers and the affluent moving out of cities and reconfiguring previously rural areas into seemingly ever-expanding suburban communities. (…) Edwin, are there any signs of suburbanization in China?

Yes, suburbanization is now a major trend. It should, however, be realized that suburbanization in China does not follow the same pattern as in the West. In China, affluent people move into the inner cities, while young people, whether or not new to the city, can only buy on the outskirts. The migrants can neither buy nor rent; they live in barracks, set up on construction sites, cellars, or are crowded into apartments with bunkbeds (12 – 15 people in a 60 sq.m. apartment). To protect their personal property the bunkbeds are constructed as a cage. In many cases workers have to rent a bunkbed-cage at prices like 800 yuan a month (1 US Dollar = 6.3 RMB), paying $127 dollars for a square metre a months: yes, like an animal in a cage.

When I came to Beijing 14 years ago, construction on the Fourth Ring Road had not completed. Within a decade they have added a Fifth and Sixth Ring Road. Taking Tiananmen Square as the city centre, the distance to the Fourth Ring is about 12 km, to the Fifth Ring about 30 km, and to the Sixth Ring about 40 km. In 2000, apartment prices in the inner city were about 3000 RMB per sq.m. and about 1200 per sq.m. in the suburbs. By 2012, the price per sq.m. in the inner city is about 70,000 RMB per sq.m, on the Fourth Ring about 40,000 RMB/sq.m and in the suburbs about 12,000 RMB / sq.m. (Prices in the suburbs fell 60% in one year from 2011 to 2012, due to policy measures). The rural districts of Beijing are being populated rapidly through suburbanization, especially in Tongzhou, Daxing, Changping and Fangshan districts. The population of Beijing has doubled over the period of a decade, from just under 14 million in 2000, to 22 million in 2012 or 30 million is the floating population (migrant workers) are included.

DeeBee (34)
what she meant by rural lifestyles that need abandoning, and what it means to fully join the urban ranks.
The migrant workers are temporary workers; they do not integrate well, and are obstructed from doing so, by limiting their access to medical care or education for their children; The majority of migrant workers are men who came to the cities, although there are many heart-wrenching stories of both parents going off to the cities, leaving 12-year old kids behind to take care of the (farm) house and younger kids for up to a year. These kids must in effect run the household, deal with all and any problems and complete their primary schooling. The migrant workers who do not find jobs, end up as peddlers on the streets where they “look very rural”.

Sassy (35)
"every year over 200 million peasants flock to China's urban centres..."
This statistic is actually correct, but it would have been appropriate if the author had explained properly. Most migrant workers go home each year for the Spring Festival; after the Spring Festival, they move back to the cities, so in that sense, yes, “every year over 200 million peasants flock to China's urban centres”. By the way, the migrant workers are only a fraction of the number of travelers during the Spring Festival period. An estimated 2.3 billion people travel to their hometowns during this period.

agriculture is not enough to sustain the population in the countryside, but it seems to her to be somewhat of a necessary condition for migration to the cities, otherwise why would they leave?
People in the countryside can sustain themselves, by growing what they need, and barter. Some people in China make only 100 yuan per annum (!). There is no work in the countryside with which they can make money. Working their heads off (12 hours per day / 7 days a week), each able-bodied person can make about 3,000 RMB a month in the developed cities. In their hometowns they would only make about 1,200 or less. Hence, the massive pull by the cities.

It is hard to recommend any better books. Try books that are not written by journalists.

41deebee1
Jan 12, 2013, 6:40am Top

Here are links to a description of and extracts from "Three Sisters", a documentary by Wang Bing, an acclaimed Chinese filmmaker, in 2012 which portrays rural poverty and the issue of children coping on their own when parents leave for work in the cities. The film is tough to watch, but it is the reality for millions.

http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/three-sisters-san-zi-mei-370573

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s906zbKn7ZY

42labfs39
Jan 12, 2013, 1:07pm Top

Thanks for sharing the links, deebee. And to think my daughter complains about folding the clothes out of the dryer. I'm going to try and look for the entire documentary on DVD. Have you seen the whole thing?

43deebee1
Jan 12, 2013, 1:23pm Top

Lisa, I saw the whole film during the DocLisboa (mentioned in post 34) in October last year. It won the festival's best film award. The film is long, 150 minutes and may seem to be dragging at times, but it brings home the message in a powerful way.

44labfs39
Jan 12, 2013, 1:43pm Top

Hmm, looking for all three: Last Train Home, Up the Yangtze, and Three Sisters.

45SassyLassy
Jan 14, 2013, 4:02pm Top

Thanks again edwin for the additional info and thanks deebee for the documentary reference.

avaland, I hope you get to read more Chinese fiction this year... nothing wrong with short. There seem to be lots of good short story writers from China too.

Now on to something completely different.

46SassyLassy
Jan 14, 2013, 4:36pm Top

Finally my book club chooses a winner! 2011 Governor General's Literary Award Winner, 2011 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize Winner, 2011 Man Booker Prize Finalist.



4. The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt
first published 2011
finished reading January 10, 2013

Don't be misled -- this book is not a western!

What do I know though? I don't have a clue what a western is. However, there were no cattle roundups, flights over the border to Mexico, fights with Indians or circling of wagons. The novel does start in Oregon City and travel to San Francisco and back during the California Gold Rush, so the setting is western, but the appellation ends there.

This is a chronicle of two brothers, skillfully told by Eli, the younger brother. The Sisters brothers make their precarious living the hard way. They are hired killers. Their current job is to find Herman Warm and kill him, after first extracting his chemical formula for finding gold in river beds. Charlie and Eli are mismatched right down to their horses, Nimble and Tub. The ride south takes longer than expected due to Charlie's predilection for brandy, whisky and any other spirits on the go. Many good travel days are wasted while Charlie sleeps it off, giving Eli time to ponder their lives and their relationship.

Eli's narrative skill fits the situation perfectly. DeWitt unobtrusively uses slightly more formal language to impart the sense of period. Considered yet literate, Eli has an eye for the detail in the world around him, a sense of humour, and a willingness to try new things. While their travels and travails have a feel of Cold Mountain about them, Eli manages to insert his personality into the tale, making it seem far more immediate to the reader.

Like so many miscreants before and after, Eli convinces himself this will be his last job. All he really wants is to open a dry goods store and settle down. Contemplating his relationship with Charlie, he wonders why he consistently falls in with him on these escapades, subjecting himself to keeping the peace during Charlie's binges.
...I left my brother and retired to my room across from the saloon. I do not like to argue and especially not with Charlie, who can be uncommonly cruel with his tongue. Later that night I could hear him exchanging words in the road with a group of men, and I listened to make sure he was not in danger, and he was not-- the men asked him his name and he told them and they left him alone. But I would have come to his aid and was in fact putting on my boots when the group scattered. I heard Charlie coming up the stairs and jumped into bed, pretending I was fast asleep. He stuck his head in the room and said my name but I did not answer. He closed the door and moved to his room and I lay in the dark thinking about the difficulties of family, how crazy and crooked the stories of bloodline can be.

Eli finally realizes that Charlie is so successful because he uses Eli's feelings for him, channeling them into a rage against Charlie's target, ensuring that Charlie can move in for the kill.

The brothers do finally find Warm, along with another man, Morris. Filled with amazement, they watch Warm's process for extracting gold. Eli's narrative pacing matches the events at Warm's camp beautifully. Here the balance between the brothers will alter dramatically and permanently, but their bond will endure.

This is an excellent book for a reading slump, or for breaking out of the same old tried and true.

What I should read now:
Doc by Mary Doria Russell: avaland and bragan
Deadwood by Pete Dexter, a favourite author and I was a fan of the series
Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks, another favourite author, for family dynamics in roughly the same time period: Linda92007

47Linda92007
Jan 14, 2013, 4:52pm Top

Great review of The Sisters Brothers, Sassy. I grabbed that a few months ago on some sort of Kindle sale, so it is comfortably on my TBR pile and I'll remember what you said the next time I go into a reading slump. And I'm so glad to see Cloudsplitter on your shortlist!

48baswood
Jan 14, 2013, 8:10pm Top

Excellent review of The sisters Brothers It sounds very readable.

49labfs39
Jan 14, 2013, 8:20pm Top

I listened to the audio, and I loved how John Pruden did the voices. What did you think of the ending, Sassy?

50dmsteyn
Jan 15, 2013, 7:20am Top

The Sisters Brothers sounds very picaresque, which is a genre that can work either very well, or very badly. I'll remember your excellent review when/if I get to the novel.

51deebee1
Jan 15, 2013, 7:37am Top

From your review, it does sound like a book good for getting out of a reading slump. I'm keeping note.

52StevenTX
Jan 15, 2013, 9:05am Top

Enticing report on The Sisters Brothers. I'm scheduled to read it later this year with another group, and I'm looking forward to it.

53rebeccanyc
Jan 15, 2013, 9:07am Top

I hadn't planned on reading The Sisters Brothers, but your review is making me think twice about that!

54wandering_star
Jan 15, 2013, 10:14am Top

I listened to the audiobook narrated by William Hope. I didn't like the book quite as much as you did, but Hope's narration was great! - when I read the extract you posted I could still hear it in his voice.

55dchaikin
Jan 15, 2013, 10:39am Top

Chiming in to echo, great review of The Sisters Brothers - your review gives me a great feel for what is positive about the book. Also, terrific review and discussion on Eating Bitterness. (Yeah, I was that far behind...)

56detailmuse
Jan 15, 2013, 7:55pm Top

The cover of The Sisters Brothers reminds me of a Christopher Moore novel and I've passed by it without looking. Your review changed that! Might even do audio per the raves.

57DieFledermaus
Jan 16, 2013, 1:29am Top

Informative discussion about Eating Bitterness. I had The Sisters Brothers on the list from last year - not sure who else reviewed it. Your review was quite entertaining!

58janemarieprice
Jan 16, 2013, 6:25pm Top

46 - Seen several good reviews of this one so onto the wishlist it goes.

59RidgewayGirl
Jan 16, 2013, 8:37pm Top

The Sisters Brothers is a fun romp of a read. It's not deep, but hugely entertaining.

60SassyLassy
Jan 19, 2013, 8:59am Top

Interesting to hear about the audio versions of The Sisters Brothers. I should start thinking of audio, this would be an excellent book for it.

Thanks all and keep this book in mind. Ridgeway Girl was right; it is a fun romp of a read and I would add, well written.

labs39, difficult to say without giving anything away. I think it could have ended after the scene at the camp and I would have been happy as a reader, but for readers interested in the long term, it did supply answers and give yet another perspective on the characters. Does your question imply you didn't like the ending?

61SassyLassy
Jan 19, 2013, 9:32am Top

Historiography for artists would be my synopsis of this Early Reviewer book:



5. The Eleven by Pierre Michon, translated from the French by Jody Gladding and Elizabeth Deshays
first published as Les Onze in 2009
finished January 18, 2013

In the month of Nivôse, in Year II of the Revolution, the artist Corentin was summoned by a quartet of Sans Culottes in the middle of the night and taken to local revolutionary headquarters. After several hours of anxious contemplation, he was surprised to discover the reason for the summons: a commission to paint the eleven, the members of The Committee of Public Safety. The trio who offered this commission had two conditions: it must be kept completely secret until the completed painting was collected from the artist, and Robespierre, Saint-Just and Couthon must be the focal figures.

This is a beautifully written work, a meditation on art and history, on how artistic style shapes the images of History. It is the tale of Corentin as he was forged by the history of his forbearers into the artist he was to become. The language is pure imagery. The nameless narrator is speaking to a present day visitor to the Louvre, come to see its most important work, The Eleven. The narrator supplies the information that those printed descriptions in galleries never provide. He tells of Corentin and the Limousin, the Enlightenment and the proletariat, of Venetian cherubs and German princelings, weaving them all together into a fable.

Michon skilfully uses paradox and contrast to give a fictional discussion of reality, where each of us can view the same object,
but it was not the same, not in the same place, because each real thing exists many times, as many times perhaps as there are individuals on this earth.
If this is so, how can we have History? History in fact is its very representation and so changes constantly as we see different representations. What The Eleven represent are the powers, yet at the same time, these eleven men, "fixed in the dread and slow expectancy of beasts" , eventually became the hunted.
This is Lascaux, Sir. The forces. The powers. The Commissioners.
And the powers... are called History.




A conversion chart for the Revolutionary Calendar

62Linda92007
Jan 19, 2013, 9:39am Top

Wonderful review of The Eleven, Sassy!

63kidzdoc
Jan 19, 2013, 9:52am Top

Thanks for your lovely review of The Eleven, Sassy! I'm glad that you enjoyed it as well.

I meant to mention on my thread that several years ago I read one of Michon's books that was previously published by Archipelago, Small Lives, which I enjoyed more than The Eleven.

64rebeccanyc
Jan 19, 2013, 11:01am Top

I'm definitely looking forward to reading The Eleven, which I received as part of my Archipelago subscription. Thanks for your review, and for the conversion chart!

65baswood
Jan 19, 2013, 8:10pm Top

That's another excellent review of The Eleven. It is definitely going on my to buy list now

66SassyLassy
Jan 23, 2013, 10:12am Top

Linda and rebecca, thanks and I hope you both get to read this; I think you would like it.

doc, I read your review after I posted mine (my usual process with reviews) and was interested by your comments on how it might read in the original French. I just read the LT reviews in French, one of which was quite funny, and the four reviewers seemed evenly divided over it. Have noted your recommendation of Small Lives (touchstones have died in both official languages).

bas, perhaps you could read this in French? It's not that long. I'd like to know if the verbs and subordinate clauses are as complex in the original as they would appear to be if rendering an English to French translation.

67SassyLassy
Jan 23, 2013, 11:05am Top

A fortuitous present just as the Balzac read started. Just after I finished reading this, I saw it mentioned in dchaikin's thread where he posted a list of Literature's 50 Greatest Hits.



6. Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac translated from the French by A J Krailsheimer
first published 1834-35
finished reading January 18, 2013

Real love and real money. You may have neither, you may have one, but is it ever possible to have both? This is the question at the heart of Père Goriot, set in the Paris of 1819. Throw in social standing and the conundrum becomes almost impossible to resolve.

Balzac asks on the very first page, "Will anyone understand it outside Paris?" The dilemmas in this most heart wrenching of novels can be understood by all readers. The times may have changed completely, but each new generation faces these quandaries anew.

Madame Vauquer runs a barely respectable boarding house in one of those districts you would never notice, because you would have no reason to go there. She has a group of long term boarders who breakfast and often dine together in the communal dining room. Monsieur Goriot was one of those boarders. At first Madame welcomed him enthusiastically for his fine linen and his ample rent. He had one of the best apartments in the house, but in the two years preceding the novel, his financial situation had altered drastically. He was now in a garret in the attic; he was now Père Goriot.

In his introduction, the editor and translator A J Krailsheimer refers to other translations where the novel and Goriot are called Old Goriot. He makes the case strongly that this does Goriot and the book a disservice, for without his role of father, both real and symbolic, there would be no story.

In his working life, Goriot had been a highly successful vermicelli merchant. His wealth had allowed him to provide munificently for his two daughters. He was able to marry them off, well above what could have been expected of his social position, but not into the elite, for after all, although wealthy, he was "in trade". Unfortunately, Père Goriot had never taught his daughters restraint. They used and abused his love for them, manipulating it to bankroll their affairs. This incessant drain had led to the decline in Goriot's fortunes, reducing him to the penury we find him in at the beginning of the book.

Eugène de Rastignac, a young law student, also lives at Maison Vauquer. Poor and from the provinces, he is dazzled by Parisian life. Not the life he lives, the life he sees and dreams of on the Faubourg Saint-Germain. Eugène is clever enough to realize that only connections will get him an introduction there; only money will keep him there. Luckily for him, he is distantly related to Madame de Beauséant, a woman at the top of society. He has his entrée, now he needs money.

His yearning for society life and the money to get there are quickly intuited by a third resident of the boarding house, the mysterious Vautrin. Unbeknownst to his fellow boarders, Vautrin is a former convict, in hiding from the police. He has strong connections to the underworld and access to large amounts of money.

Père Goriot follows these three men, linking Rastignac and Goriot through the latter's daughters, and linking Rastignac and Vautrin in a psychological struggle testing Rastignac's limits. This novel of most decidedly secular concerns has suggestions of the New Testament: Vautrin's betrayal by a former prostitute while at dinner with his friends and his counsel as he is led away, Goriot's personal Stations of the Cross as his fortunes wane, the personal sacrifices of the meek. There is a definite ending here, but no happy conclusion. Did anyone learn anything? You'll have to decide for yourself.

While I have always been a devoted Dickens fan, Père Goriot seemed to me to be the novel Dickens wished he could write. If you love nineteenth century literature, this is highly recommended.

68rebeccanyc
Jan 23, 2013, 11:21am Top

I only skimmed your review, Sassy, because I hope to be reading this novel very soon, but I did pick up that you really liked it. My edition has a different translator, Olivia McCannon, who translates the title as "Old Man Goriot" so I'll have to see if this troubles me.

69dmsteyn
Jan 23, 2013, 11:59am Top

Great review, Sassy! I do love nineteentn-century literature, but I've always wondered where to begin with Balzac. Having read some of his short stories in anthologies, which I quite enjoyed, I wasn't certain where to begin with his immense oeuvre. This seems like the one. Thanks!

70RidgewayGirl
Jan 23, 2013, 12:34pm Top

Really good review. I'll have to read Balzac, it seems.

71zenomax
Jan 23, 2013, 12:38pm Top

You seem to have got more from Goriot than Idid. I preferred Eugenie Grandet, but I think I might be more interested in Balzac as a writer than I am in his writings.

I liked your review very much.

72VivienneR
Jan 23, 2013, 12:42pm Top

Excellent review Sassy. I went to the work page to look for it so that I could give it a "thumb" but don't see your review posted. I'll check again later.

73baswood
Edited: Jan 23, 2013, 7:32pm Top

Excellent review and thoughts on Pere Goriot. Yet another book that I must find the time for soon. I will read it in English translation.

Hmm..... reading books in French is not something I undertake lightly. I am steeling myself to read some Albert Camus in French and I am still struggling through Zola's Therese Raquin, both of which I might finish by the end of the year.

Glad to see you have put your review on the book page SassyLassy - c'mon folks get those thumbs out.

74Linda92007
Jan 23, 2013, 7:43pm Top

My thumb has been firmly planted. Excellent review of Pere Goriot, Sassy. Balzac is another classic writer that I have yet to read, although LT says I own The Wrong Side of Paris. I'll search for it, but honestly, it doesn't even look familiar. Could that mean I have too many books?

75VivienneR
Jan 23, 2013, 8:11pm Top

The review is there now so I have added my thumb, making a total of three!

76dchaikin
Edited: Jan 24, 2013, 12:03am Top

That is such a terrific review. The Book is on my list, I have a copy...and we have 19th-century french everywhere around here lately...tempted...

ETA - looked at my copy, an older, nice looking, illustrated hardcover.... which says "abridged for the modern reader" on the title page. bleh.

77letterpress
Jan 24, 2013, 4:15am Top

Fantastic review, my wishlist seems to be filling up with 19th century French classics. Uncharted waters, lovely!

78labfs39
Jan 24, 2013, 11:28am Top

Hmm, I read Père Goriot a long time ago; it may be time for a reread since your review made the story seem only vaguely familiar but enticing. I checked and I currently have an edition published in 1949 and translated by Ellen Marriage. Hmm, I would like to read this copy, it has nice watercolor illustrations and it's on my shelf. Anyone know whether this translation is any good?

79SassyLassy
Jan 25, 2013, 10:38am Top

Thanks Vivienne for the encouragement and thanks all for the thumbs. I had resisted posting on the book page in the past, as I had a technical question which made me reluctant to post. The good folks at Bug Collectors have now answered it and I feel much better.

Rebecca, I do the same thing, which is why I have been avoiding the Toilers of the Sea thread, since I haven't started it yet. I'll be interested to hear what you have to say on the "old" versus "Père".

dm and Ridgeway Girl, this book can stand alone in Balzac's work, you don't have to read the whole Comedie. It is also fairly short, so begin!

zeno, I hadn't heard of Eugenie Grandet, but if you liked it, I would say it is worth looking for. As dm, daniel and letterpress say, these nineteenth century classics are dangerous for the wish list. By the way, the introduction seemed to say that the character of Rastignac in Goriot was semiautobiographical, so I'll have to follow up. Do you have any recommendations for a biography?

bas, if you're reading Zola in French, you can certainly read anything else you like in English...you deserve the break.

Linda, odd when LT does that. Maybe you have it under the more interesting alternate title supplied by LT: The Seamy Side of History? I suspect you know the answer to your question... always and ever a resounding "No"

labs, I'm a firm believer in rereads and I suspect this one wouldn't disappoint. As to translation though, I don't know anything about your translator, but I love the old versions with illustrations. I suspect the characterizations of Vautrin and Mademoiselle Michonneau may be cleaned up somewhat in your version and daniel's. I found Vautrin to be a really interesting character and would like to read more about him.

80SassyLassy
Edited: Feb 4, 2013, 8:40am Top

More books from and about Russia and Scotland is one of my reading goals for 2013 in >1 SassyLassy: above. Here is my first foray back into Russia:



7. Just Send Me Word: A True Story of Love and Survival in the Gulag by Orlando Figes
first published 2012
finished reading January 23, 2013

It's amazing that Just Send Me Word was ever written, for rarely do the kind of primary documents on which it was based survive. The story had an ordinary enough beginning. Lev Glebovich Mishchenko and Svetlana Aleksandrovna Ivanovna met in the fall of 1935, when both were first year students in the Physics Faculty of Moscow University. They fell in love and by 1941 were on track for marriage and as successful careers as it was possible to have in Stalin's world. Then in June, Germany invaded the Soviet Union.

Lev volunteered for the army and was assigned to a supply unit, moving materials from Moscow to the front. His unit was overrun and its members scattered. Lev was captured by the Germans and sent to Smolensk, then to spy school in Katyn. When he refused to spy for the Germans, much to his amazement instead of being shot, he was sent to Oschatz to work as a translator at a POW labour camp. In June 1943, afraid that his fellow Russians thought he was a spy, he escaped and headed east to Russia, only to be recaptured on the Polish border. He was sent to another POW camp for Soviets, eventually winding up in a salt mine in Buchenswald-Wansleben. In April 1945, when the Nazis evacuated the camp, he escaped from the forced march and surrendered to Americans. He turned down an offer of work as a physicist in the US and was repatriated to the Russians. Once back in Soviet territory, however, he was imprisoned and tried as a spy for the Germans. In December 1945 he was sentenced to death, a sentence that was immediately commuted to ten years in the Gulag, a common practise as the Soviets were in dire need of forced labour. Lev's camp was to be Pechora, a wood processing plant near the Arctic Circle.

Meanwhile, Svetlana had no idea what had happened to Lev since his initial disappearance in 1941. She continued to study at the Physics Faculty, which had been evacuated from Moscow to Ashkhabad near the Soviet-Iranian border. On graduation, she returned to Moscow, working on rubber composition and tire development for military purposes. By 1946, when it seemed anyone who had survived the war must already be home, it seemed reasonable to give up hope. However, in June of that year, Lev wrote to his Aunt Olga, letting her know his situation and asking her not to tell Svetlana. Olga did tell Svetlana though and she wrote to him immediately:
Levi, if I didn't know that actions should be judged by their motives and not by their results, I would reproach you for your silence.

So began a steady exchange of letters, approximately two a week from each of them, that continued for the next eight and a half years. There are many incredible aspects to this exchange. Many of the letters did not go through the official censors. Self censored in case of discovery, they were smuggled in and out of the camp. Both Svetlana and Lev numbered their letters, so that the other would know if any had gone missing. Almost all got through. Both kept their letters at a time when most Russian civilians destroyed any evidence of communication with a political prisoner and many prisoners had their letters seized in searches.

Read in their entirety, the 1, 246 letters give a remarkable picture of everyday life in the camps and in Moscow. There is no attempt to embroider conditions, since neither anticipated their letters would serve any function other than a link between the two of them. They reveal a remarkable informal network of friends and relatives willing to help the couple maintain this link.

As time went by, Svetlana worked out an elaborate system of sending scarce items such as photographic paper and vitamins to trusted free workers in the camp. These people would then pay Lev, giving him some money to purchase extra food and clothing; items which could not be sent to him directly, as the guards who examined prisoners' packages would simply steal the contents.

Most astonishing of all, starting in 1947 Svetlana managed to smuggle herself into the camp for annual visits. This was exceptionally dangerous for both of them. Svetlana worked in classified environments and would not only lose everything if discovered, but would also face arrest. Lev would be moved to an even more remote camp with an extended sentence and would almost certainly die there.

Figes skilfully blends narrative and letter excerpts in this extraordinary account of one couple's life apart. He shows their determination not to lose hope, their lapses into doubt, their support for each other. Throughout, both kept their belief in the goals of the socialist state, although not necessarily in Stalin. Lev was granted an early release in 1954. Unusually for a former prisoner, he eventually found a good job. He and Svetlana married. The couple lived into their nineties, which was when Figes interviewed them. Their letters and photographs of life in the camp were donated to the Memorial Archive in Moscow, an institute documenting the lives of Gulag prisoners.

edited to correct spelling error

81SassyLassy
Jan 25, 2013, 11:34am Top

Just Send Me Word opens with a poem by Anna Akhmatova as the epigram. The title is taken from the D M Thomas translation in the book. I went to Elaine Feinstein's biography of Akhmatova and found a very different translation of this poem, written by Akhmatova to Isaiah Berlin after they parted never to see each other again. Given the recent discussions of translations in Club Read, I thought I would post them both here. It struck me sort of like reading the King James version and a modern translation of the Bible.

In a Dream translated from the Russian by Elaine Feinstein

I have to bear as much as you do
The blackness of eternal separation.
Why are you crying? Rather give me your hand.
Promise you will enter my dreams again.
We are like two mountains, you and I...
We shall never meet again in this world.
If only at midnight you would greet me
Across the stars, with just a single word.

In Dream translated from the Russian by D M Thomas

Black and enduring separation
I share equally with you.
Why weep? Give me your hand,
Promise me you will come again.
You and I are like high mountains
And we cannot move closer.
Just send me word
At midnight sometime through the stars.

82cabegley
Jan 25, 2013, 11:34am Top

Great review of Just Send Me Word! I have added it to my wish list.

83dmsteyn
Jan 25, 2013, 11:35am Top

An incredible story, Sassy, and an incredible review! I hope your other forays into Russian reading are as successful.

84labfs39
Jan 25, 2013, 2:33pm Top

I read Figes' The Whisperers and loved it. Then I read about his Amazon scandal and was so put off that I haven't picked up his other books. But this sounds right up my alley, complete with primary sources, so I added it to the list despite my reservations about his character. Tortuous, I know, but I have such a hard time admiring a book written by a schmuck.

85baswood
Jan 25, 2013, 5:49pm Top

Those translations of the poem by Akhmatova are interesting. The line in the Feinstein version We shall never meet again in this world sounds very final, but in D M THomas's version it is avoided completely.

We are nearly always in the hands of the translators.

Great review SassyLassy

86charbutton
Jan 26, 2013, 7:30am Top

Two great reviews, Pere Goriot is added to my wish list.

87Linda92007
Jan 26, 2013, 8:55am Top

Excellent review of Just Send Me Word, Sassy. What an amazing and touching story.

88rachbxl
Jan 27, 2013, 7:30am Top

Catching up - you've been reading some fascinating stuff, as usual. I'm mainly a reader of fiction but here it's two non-fiction books that have gone on my wishlist: Eating Bitterness and Just Send Me Word. I struggle to read straightforward accounts of things written by a third party, but really enjoy non-fiction when it's linked to individuals and their lives.

89kidzdoc
Jan 27, 2013, 12:47pm Top

Fabulous review of Just Send Me Word, Sassy!

90dchaikin
Jan 29, 2013, 6:06pm Top

Wonderful review and fascinating stuff. Also, very interesting about the poem translations in #81.

#84 - Lisa, I just looked up Figes' and his "anonymous" amazon reviews. Very strange.

91labfs39
Jan 29, 2013, 10:37pm Top

Wasn't that weird, Dan? And he convinced his wife to lie for him. He seems so unethical and slimy, yet his book The Whisperers was excellent. I'm a torn reader. I want to read his books, but don't want to encourage or contribute to his fame and fortune.

92dchaikin
Jan 29, 2013, 10:57pm Top

Lisa - He's clearly got a problem. He also appears to be intensely competitive. While I find it curious, it doesn't turn me off his books. I still hope to read The Whisperers one of these days.

93detailmuse
Feb 1, 2013, 4:30pm Top

>81 SassyLassy: sassylassy I so enjoyed comparing the two translations. I expected Feinstein-the-biographer to give a more accurate translation (and maybe she does) but it’s wordy. Thomas’s seems more polished and full of imagery.

94LisaMorr
Feb 3, 2013, 7:16pm Top

Just Send Me Word sounds awesome. Thanks for your very good review.

95SassyLassy
Feb 7, 2013, 9:54am Top

It seems I have completely abandoned my thread for two weeks. Sorry, >82 cabegley: - >94 LisaMorr: and thanks for responding.

Lisa, I had no idea about the controversy over The Whisperers. Your note sent me off looking for info on it. Here is an article from The Nation with a response by Figes and then a rebuttal by the authors of the article. It does say that at least one person at Memorial, the institute mentioned in my review above, wants to end the institute's relationship with Figes : http://www.thenation.com/article/168028/orlando-figes-and-stalins-victims#

I guess I would say that while I don't have any objection to reading well written books by nasty people as long as they are factual, I would draw the line at outright misrepresentation. Upsetting, as I had always admired his writing.

bas, dan, lisaM and detailmuse, translation is endlessly fascinating to me. Choosing between the two translations in >81 SassyLassy: would be like choosing between two favourite authors, each of whom is suitable for a particular mood, but not the same mood as the other. The Feinstein We shall never meet again in this world certainly captures the devastation of a woman separated from a lover for evermore, but the Thomas translation certainly captured the spirit of Just Send Me Word better. I just realized that Promise you will enter my dreams again (Feinstein) reinforces the idea of permanent separation, but that the Thomas equivalent line is Promise me you will come again, imparting hope and a future.

dm, just trying to decide which Russian idea to turn to next. I'm torn between the real world and a great novel!

Chris and Char, keep those wish lists growing. You'll never lack for inspiration. Chris, I see you're having a bit of a Russian binge yourself.

96SassyLassy
Feb 7, 2013, 10:33am Top

Still reading China.



8. The Garlic Ballads by Mo Yan translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt
first published as Tiantang suan tai zhi ge in magazine form, 1988
finished reading January 31, 2013

It's 1987 and supply management has come to the garlic farmers of northeast Gaomi township, Not only that, every farmer is now a garlic farmer, for the state is not buying any other crop. Garlic is not something that can be succession planted over long periods and harvested in waves like leaf lettuce. When it is ready, that's it. Off it goes in a race to the purchasing agents, for who knows how long it will take for them to fulfill their unannounced quota. If they stop buying before you get a chance to sell, your garlic crop and farming year are wasted.

As The Garlic Ballads opens, we know none of this. Instead, we meet Gao Yang as he is being arrested for being part of a mob that destroyed the county offices. Mo then takes us back to harvest time, when the peasants used whatever means they could to transport their garlic to the commodity exchange warehouse. Funnelling in from around the county to the one road leading there, a sense of urgency and controlled panic grows as the fear of a lost year catches up with each farmer. Carts break down, loads spill and eventually the road becomes impassable.

Venal petty officials trawl the trapped peasants, collecting unofficial taxes for such things as a highway toll, commodity exchange tax, and even sanitation fines when donkeys deposit their own contributions on the road. Can't pay? These helpful officials will take it in kind; just hand over a pound or two of that garlic. Suddenly, the announcement comes; the warehouse is full and no one knows when more garlic will be purchased. Go home and take your garlic with you.

After a week of this daily charade, the peasants protest at the County Office and a riot ensues when no one will hear them out.

Most of the story during the harvest and over this week of selling, but the narration moves back and forth over the events in a non linear fashion. We hear the stories of other farmers, especially that of Gao Yan's cousin, Gao Ma and his girlfriend Fang Jinju. Their horrific love story reveals a rural society still deeply mired in the old customs. Poverty, arranged marriages, beatings, threats and retaliations all work against them.

Despite the unrelenting sense of hopelessness about life improving, there it a humour and kindness between casual acquaintances in day to day life, that contrasts sharply with the deeper divisions that occur between people more closely bound together by family or circumstance. However, add incarceration and torture, several suicides, a condemned prisoner and corruption all around, and it is easy to see why this book was originally banned in China. Mo Yan has had an official change in fortune since then, but this novel shows him at the time of his most forceful criticism of the authorities.

Each chapter starts with a verse from the ballad of Zhang Kou, the blind minstrel who chronicles the garlic harvest, the glut and its fallout, sometimes criticizing, sometimes inciting, always narrating for the people's record.
Pray listen, my fellow villagers, to
Zhang Kou's tale of the mortal world and Paradise!

Green garlic and white garlic to fry fish and meat,
Black garlic and rotten garlic to make a compost heap...

Townsfold, stick out your chests, show what you're made of---
Hand in hand we will advance to the seat of power!...

Anyone not afraid of being hacked to pieces
Can unseat a party secretary or county administrator...

The Communist Party, which didn't fear the Jap devils---
Is it now afraid to listen to its own people?


-------------------

My edition, published by Arcade from the 1989 Taiwan Hung-fan edition, says "Parts of Chapter Nineteen and all of Chapter Twenty have been revised in conjunction with the author". Since these are the last two chapters, I'd like to know how they read originally.

97dmsteyn
Feb 7, 2013, 10:40am Top

Another great review, SassyLassy! I'm particularly interested in a book set in the year of my birth. Yes, yes, I know, spring-chicken, etc. Anyway, I enjoyed reading your review, which is a bit of an indictment of the Chinese system of that era. I'm sure things have changed, just not how much. Thanks!

98cabegley
Feb 7, 2013, 10:59am Top

Great review of The Garlic Ballads! On the wish list it goes!

99kidzdoc
Feb 7, 2013, 3:49pm Top

Fabulous review of The Garlic Ballads, Sassy! I have the Kindle version of this book, and I'll probably read it in the next month or two. I checked my e-book, and it includes the exact same quote as you mentioned.

100rebeccanyc
Feb 7, 2013, 5:08pm Top

The Garlic Ballads is already on my TBR! Hope to get to it soon.

101baswood
Feb 7, 2013, 6:08pm Top

Really enjoyed your excellent review of The Garlic ballads When I am growing my garlic this spring I can sing to myself:

Green garlic and white garlic to fry fish and meat,
Black garlic and rotten garlic to make a compost heap...


102labfs39
Feb 7, 2013, 8:21pm Top

I've been wondering where to start with Mo Yan, and Garlic Ballads sounds like it may be a good place. Yours was a fun review to read.

103SassyLassy
Feb 8, 2013, 2:36pm Top

dewald, great idea to read books from your birth year. What a way to learn about the world you entered! Some of the events in The Garlic Ballads are taken from real life, including leaving a corpse on the grounds/property of those held responsible for the wrongful death. I'm not sure how much has changed for those at the very bottom; I suspect very little.

bas, I can just picture you out hoeing and chanting this little mantra! Do you have walking onions?

labs, either this or Red Sorghum would be a good place to start with Mo Yan, but they are both bleak.

rebecca, chris and doc, hope you get to it in the Reading Mo Yan year.
-------------

This is my LT second thingaversary, so naturally I took the opportunity to order some books to celebrate. Book Depository prices seem to have gone up this week, probably due to the exchange rate changing, plus unknown factors that led to a 40% increase on one book. I had done my planning earlier in the week, so only wound up with two of my planned list from BD, then went to amazon, where some aren't available. I little bit of juggling was required and naturally I had to order enough for free shipping. Looking forward to getting my haul, but looking around, it doesn't seem as if any more books are needed right now!

104rebeccanyc
Feb 8, 2013, 2:48pm Top

This sounds like more fun than Red Sorghum, which I really liked, but it was pretty bleak! Sassy, I haven't checked BD this week, but I have noticed that sometimes BD US prices are different from BD UK prices, which doesn't make any sense because they're all shipped from the UK, but it's worth checking both. And I'm with you on ordering enough from Amazon to get free shipping!

105LisaMorr
Feb 11, 2013, 8:16am Top

Thanks for a great review of The Garlic Ballads; another one for the wishlist.

106SassyLassy
Feb 11, 2013, 8:56am Top

rebecca, thanks for the tip on the US site. I hadn't really looked there before. You're right, the prices do fluctuate from site to site for BD for the books I looked at: one was $11.17 in US vs $15.08 UK, both prices in Canadian dollars.

Hi Lisa ... always glad to contribute to a wishlist!

107SassyLassy
Feb 11, 2013, 9:41am Top

I was delighted to find this book included with an ER book from Bellevue Literary Press.



9. The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak
first published 2011
read February 1, 2011

The infant Jozef Vinich, born in the US to immigrants from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was taken back to the Empire by his father in 1901. When Jozef was nine, he started his journey from the world of a child to that of an adult. Every year from Ash Wednesday to the onset of winter, Jozef and his father took their flock of sheep high into the mountains above their village. Here they lived in a cabin far from nosy neighbours, speaking only in English, their summer language. They read Walden, Moby Dick and Thoreau.

They were joined by Zlee, a distant cousin one year older than Jozef, when the boys were in their early teens. Together all summer, they learned to hunt and track the mountain predators, learned how to survive in the mountains, and learned how to never get lost.

War came in 1914. During the summer of 1915, Jozef argued constantly with his father, who felt the Slavs were their own worst enemies.
My father was against the war. He was convinced that it was only a matter of time before the Americans came in on the side of the English and French, which would mean the end of Germany and Austria-Hungary....
He hadn't hatched these ideas on his own....black market back issues of
The New York Times and The Manchester Guardian...shaped his view that the Habsburg dynasty had reached its twilight and was about to be snuffed out....
I got it into my head that the man who had raised me, and all his views, were the ridiculous and subversive rantings of a drunken coward and it was time I rejected them.
The next spring Zlee turned eighteen. The underage Jozef obtained false papers and together they went off to war. Their shooting and tracking skills became evident in basic training. Together they were trained as snipers. Their instructor had a lasting message:
The sharpshooter should consider himself above rank and disregard it, as it is rank that ought to be hunted first, killing from the top down in order to leave an army leaderless and demoralized...To desire rank is to desire death.
After training, the pair were sent to the Italian front, alternating as shooter and spotter. Their world changed from light and idyllic summer pastures, to darkness, concealment and death.

The Sojourn is a beautifully written first novel. Written in English, the cadence is unusual at times. I wondered if it was a reflection of Slovak speech patterns, but soon fell into the rhythm. Whether in the Colorado mining communities of 1899, in the mountain camp, at the front in a brutal war, or wandering through the devastation of a collapsed empire and lost war in Eastern Europe, the novel, narrated by Jozef in 1972, rang true. It took me to worlds with which I was unfamiliar and I read it right through in a day. I hope Andrew Krivak writes another.

108rebeccanyc
Feb 11, 2013, 10:13am Top

Hmm, you liked The Sojourn more than I did; I had mixed feelings about it.

109dmsteyn
Feb 11, 2013, 10:17am Top

Nice review, SassyLassy! The Sojourn sounds good, but I'm a bit worrid about the unusual cadence you mention.

110avaland
Feb 12, 2013, 7:17am Top

>107 SassyLassy: Nice review. I've read two books published by Bellevue - Tinkers and The Polish Boxer (both of which I loved and I have another of their books in the TBR pile (short fiction). I'm glad they seem to be drawn to beautifully written and unusual books. The Sojourn sounds like another.

111labfs39
Feb 12, 2013, 12:26pm Top

Added to the wishlist! The sharpshooter bit reminds me of Three Day Road.

112SassyLassy
Feb 12, 2013, 5:19pm Top

rebecca, your comment made me think more about what appealed to me so much in this book and I was left with an odd answer. It was Krivak's sense of the outdoors, his linking of the events to the natural world around him. He went beyond that and integrated the story and the surroundings so completely that I now find it difficult to think of the narrative without that grounding. Thanks for making me think more!

dm, the novel was written in English by and American and I can't quite pin down what it was, but it was somewhat along the lines of listening to a German speaker in English still putting time before place: "I am going at four o'clock downtown" There wasn't much of it and nothing quite that obvious, but it was there. I wouldn't worry though; I suspect most people wouldn't even notice it, but I like to "hear" a narrative as I read it and it was coming across that way occasionally.

Thanks avaland. I remember your story about picking up The Polish Boxer and the positive reviews it received. Based on that and The Sojourn I would certainly look for more from this publisher.

labs, forgot to say this above, but what a great recovery you've made and welcome back. I hadn't made the connection with Boyden but you're absolutely right, especially when you throw in the connection to the land.

113rebeccanyc
Feb 12, 2013, 5:27pm Top

The problem I had with The Sojourn was that I couldn't imagine the uneducated narrator speaking in such beautiful language, and I also felt a little like the author had done a lot of geographical research and was showing it off. But I did think it was a beautifully written book and really created a sense of place, as well as of the devastation of war.

114fuzzy_patters
Feb 12, 2013, 7:15pm Top

I really liked The Sojourn and The Polish Boxer. From what I have read so far, I am very impressed with Bellevue. Those two books are two of the best that I have read in the past couple of years.

115dchaikin
Feb 14, 2013, 6:11pm Top

Enjoyed your review of The Garlic Ballads, and loved your review of The Sojourn...Goodness, I am tempted.

116detailmuse
Feb 15, 2013, 5:15pm Top

Sassy, happy to see your review of The Sojourn, reminds me that there are a few on Bellevue’s list that I’d like to get to. I do subscribe to their journal, the Bellevue Literary Review, it's wonderful.

117SassyLassy
Feb 19, 2013, 10:53am Top

>113 rebeccanyc: That thought occurred to me at one stage as I was reading (beautiful language from the uneducated narrator), but then I thought that we don't know what he was doing between the end of WWI and 1972 when he narrated his story, so I thought I would ascribe it to that period and to his father's obsession with nineteenth century American authors.

>114 fuzzy_patters:, you and others have recommended The Polish Boxer and it is one I will read.

>115 dchaikin:, I think you would like The Sojourn more than The Garlic Ballads, but I would certainly recommend both.

>116 detailmuse: Interesting to see the comments about Bellevue from you and others. Thanks for the link.

118SassyLassy
Feb 19, 2013, 11:43am Top

This discounted book grabbed me, as I've always been a fan of both short stories and T C Boyle. Actually, I grabbed it.



10. Wild Child and Other Stories by T C Boyle
first published 2010
finished reading February 1, 2013

Whether in his short stories or in his novels, T C Boyle leaves an impression. His novels often focus on individual obsession and its fallout, from the explorer Mungo Park in the wonderful Water Music to Frank Lloyd Wright in The Women. His short stories can always be counted on to take a seemingly ordinary event and skew it so that any complacency on the part of the reader is soon shattered.

Wild Child is a collection of short stories that bring individuals up against aberrations in the natural world. You may have read some of these stories elsewhere in places such as The New Yorker, The Kenyon Review and Harper's.

La Conchita, "a little town no bigger than a trailer court carved out of the hill where the freeway dips down to the ocean", is the site of a mudslide which completely blocks off the road in both directions. Trapped in the slide is a courier with a liver en route to a waiting transplant team. Courier, competitor and incredulous transplant surgeon all fight for their own preferred outcome.

Sin Dolor presents a young Mexican boy unable to feel pain; a dangerous condition for the child, a money making opportunity for his family. A local doctor tries to mediate.

Admiral is the $250,000 clone of a wealthy couple's dead pet. They strive to recreate the exact upbringing of the original pet, so that the clone's personality will be an exact match.

A Wisconsin woman finds a man on her doorstep campaigning for Question 62, a proposition to make cats an unprotected species, so that they can be hunted in order to save birds. Meanwhile, in California, her sister was killing snails in her garden in the early quiet of a Saturday morning:
And then she looked up. And what she saw didn't compute, not at first. Right there, right behind the wrought iron fence Doug had put up to keep the deer out of her garden, there seemed to be a big cat watching her, a big striped cat the size of a pony--- a tiger, that was what it was, a tiger from India with a head as wide across as the pewter platter she trucked out each Thanksgiving for the veggie cornucopia. She was startled, who wouldn't be? She'd seen tigers at the Zoo, on the Nature Channel, in cages at the circus, but not in her own back yard in Moorpark, California... It took her a minute, staring into the yellow eyes and the blistered snout from thirty feet away, her vision blurred, the hat slipping down over her eyebrows, before she thought to be afraid.


These and other stories in the collection all deal with outside interference in the normal course of things. Some of the intervention is well meaning, some is purely selfish, but the question is the same: what unintended consequences result from interference?

The title story, Wild Child goes back in time to Napoleonic France and is based on an actual event. A feral child is found in the woods. After several attempts, the villagers manage to capture him. Failure after failure results as well meaning people try to "civilize" him. He is sent to an orphanage, then to more and more prestigious institutions as learned men, anxious to further their reputations, compete for the responsibility for his care and for time to study him.
Speculation galloped through the streets and echoed down the alleys. Was he Rousseau's Noble Savage or just another aborigine? Or perhaps -- thrilling conjecture-- the loup-garou, or werewolf of legend? Or was he more closely related to the orangutan, the great orange ape of the Far East, an example of which, it had been proposed, should be mated to a prostitute in order to discover its issue?

There is no real answer to what approach should have been used with Victor. Was he a trainable animal, a human who could be taught, or a societal failure? What is the line that separates humans from animals? Can we shift that line? The rational and learned men of the early nineteenth century had the same problem we have today: the inability to recognize that there are times when nothing can be done when confronted by the "natural" world.

____________

Two views of Victor:

119SassyLassy
Feb 19, 2013, 11:55am Top

My book club's February selection. I realize others loved it.



Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh
first published 2008
Abandoned February 7, 2013, so I'm not giving it a number or adding it to my library

This book was so banal that even in my debilitated state I couldn't stomach it. Imagine colonial India in the age of sailing ships and the opium trade, throw in every cultural stereotype you can think of to populate this era, and you have the characters who float across this sea. Add some dreadful pidgin English for annoyance factor. It was a wasted opportunity to build an interesting plot, especially as I love the period, novels about these countries, and stories of the opium trade. Instead, it screamed "I was written for the book club market."

Abandoning books before they are finished is not something I do. Why, I even made it through The Autobiography of Mrs Tom Thumb for my book club last year. Part way through, I may put a book aside, sometimes for years, but inevitably I will finish it. This time around, I just couldn't do it, and after just over one hundred pages I stopped reading. Immediately a weight was lifted from my shoulders. Even better, a blizzard struck the day the book club was to meet and I didn't have to drive into town to confess all this.

120SassyLassy
Feb 19, 2013, 12:16pm Top

I just saw a wonderful description from linda92007 today: diversionary reading. I have been doing a lot of this lately as I spend too much time in waiting rooms and other unpleasant places. This book fits beautifully.



11. The Polish Officer by Alan Furst
first published 1995
finished reading February 12, 2013

When Poland was overrun by Germany at the start of WWII, Captain de Milja's commanding officer offered him intelligence work as an alternative to combat, thereby saving him from almost certain death at the Polish front. Recruited into the Polish resistance, de Milja struggles through the war, in Poland, Romania and France, losing too many accomplices to gain much credibility with his superiors. Eventually they send him into Russia, where they consider no one in particular is at risk, as everyone will die.

Leaving out masters like Le Carré, what set this book apart from so many other spy novels was the background to the plot. Through Captain de Milja, we see the tedium of almost endless watching and waiting contrasted with lightening fast actions. We see the necessary mistrust of others and its concommitant psychological toll, in a world almost completely devoid of meaningful relationships. There is the difficulty of constantly staying in a given role and the need to be able to shed that persona at the drop of a hat. Then there was the almost mystical belief on the part of the Polish Resistance that they would one day have a country again. The nation is defeated, but the idea of the nation mustn't be.

While other nations like France were overrun, they did not cease to exist in the war. Poland did. The idea of Poland was a difficult dream to maintain and Furst shows the powerlessness of a government in exile without a country.

121rebeccanyc
Feb 19, 2013, 2:28pm Top

I am sorry you didn't like Sea of Poppies, but I can commiserate because I was one of the few people who didn't like Ghosh's The Hungry Tide. Great sense of place, but I felt I was being hit over the head by Message.

122wandering_star
Edited: Feb 19, 2013, 7:08pm Top

Sorry to hear that you haven't been well. Just adding my voice to the less-keen-on-Ghosh side - I find his books interesting because of the setting, but I feel his characters are pretty wooden, and especially the women. I have Sea Of Poppies and River Of Smoke though (received as gifts) and I do plan to read them.

And to go back to an earlier discussion on Book Depository pricing - my mum and I have decided to read The Tempest together, and settled on the RSC edition as the one with the right amount of footnoting. I was delighted to find it on BD for £2.something, ordered one copy to be sent to my mum's address, then went back to the book page to order mine... to find the price had gone up to £6.something. I wonder whether it was a time-limited price or whether they only had a limited number of books available at the lower price.

123baswood
Feb 19, 2013, 8:23pm Top

Thanks for the warning about Sea of Poppies I won't recommend that for my book club, The T C Boyle short stories sound interesting.

124RidgewayGirl
Feb 19, 2013, 9:00pm Top

The Polish Officer is my favorite of Furst's books.

125tomcatMurr
Feb 19, 2013, 11:26pm Top

fascinating thread.

Don't be too quick to dismiss Figes. Sure, posting reviews on Amazon was pretty silly, but perhaps he was drunk when did it and later regretted it. Writers are people too. If you read through the comments section below the article linked to in post 95, you get a fuller picture of academic rivalry between the reviewers and Figes.

Whatever the truth of the allegations against Figes, his books are still paradigms of readability, of balance between the big picture created by impersonal historical forces and the small human touches of everyday life. His book about the Russian Revolution The People's Revolution is magnificent and unlikely to be bettered in our lifetimes. IF Figes had only written this book, he would still be counted among the great historians of our age.

Shame about Sea of Poppies, but I have heard so many mixed things about it, some good, some bad. I was looking at it in the bookstore a few days and decided not to buy. Glad I made that decision now.

126Linda92007
Feb 20, 2013, 8:44am Top

Great review of Wild Child and Other Stories, Sassy. I think I used to own another of his books and gave it away unread, although I don't recall why. I haven't read any of Furst's books yet, but am adding The Polish Officer to my wishlist. I am sorry that you are in need of diversionary reading, but glad that you are enjoying it!

127Nickelini
Feb 20, 2013, 12:03pm Top

You've done some good reading and commenting!

128SassyLassy
Feb 21, 2013, 9:59am Top

rebecca and w_s, thanks for the reenforcement. Good to know I'm not completely out of line! Agreed that Ghosh does have a great sense of place.

bas, if you're going to try Boyle, with your love of history and sense of humour, you might enjoy Water Music, the book that got me reading him. I'm not sure why there aren't more references to him here. One possibility might be that he's difficult to pin down with a quick word or two, another is that he is both an academic and best selling author, making neither side happy with the other.

RG, have to agree with your ranking of The Polish Officer. John and Effi were getting a little stale by the last book. I was surprised to see the date (1995) for The Polish Officer, so suspect it has been rereleased to follow up on the popularity of the "Station" series. Hope you get to read it linda, along with some Boyle.

Hello out there on the coast Nickelini and welcome tomcat. The discussion on Figes here sort of echoes the current question in the Questions for the Avid Reader thread: http://www.librarything.com/topic/148251. I don't tend to get caught up in an author's personality and I am inclined to agree with you, as I had always considered him as a sort of successor to Richard Pipes. I have Natasha's Dance on my TBR pile and am looking forward to it.

129SassyLassy
Feb 21, 2013, 10:05am Top

More T C Boyle from 1985, 2006 and The New Yorker:


130Nickelini
Feb 21, 2013, 10:28am Top

I've been wanting to read more of TC Boyle ever since I read a short story by him last year. He seems like he might be my type of author. He has several books on the 1001 list, but before that I have to say I'd never heard of him.

131tomcatMurr
Edited: Feb 21, 2013, 10:32am Top

sassy, have you read Billington?

The Icon and the Axe

132SassyLassy
Feb 21, 2013, 10:57am Top

Still reading short stories. I suspect this is the last collection for a while as I am now back to longer things.



12. Lust, Caution and Other Stories by Eileen Chang, individual stories translated from the Chinese by Julia Lovell, Karen S Kingsbury, Janet Ng with Janet Wickeri, Simon Patton and Eva Hung
This collection first published 2007
Finished reading February 12, 2013

The short stories in Eileen Chang's Lust, Caution take place in the 1930s and 1940s during one of the most tumultuous periods in Shanghai's history, yet with the exception of the title story, the outside world barely intrudes into these sketches of daily life. This has been used by some as a criticism of her work, however, it serves to remind us that although Shanghai was filled with intrigue and revolution, people continued with their routines in much the same way they always had. Change does not impinge here.

In the Waiting Room, middle aged women are lined up on benches, waiting in turn for their massage. At a stage in life where their children and husbands no longer need them, they compete with each other for maladies and injustices.
Mrs Bao was quite ugly; she had a long winter-melon face and strangely ringed, cartoon-like eyes with a fleshy, drooping nose. Because she'd never been good-looking, she'd always been consigned to the role of female companion, forever sympathizing with others. Feeling Mrs Bao's warmth, Mrs Tong started in, right away, on her sorrows.
Yet even in this world of shared misery there is a hierarchy of barbed insults, spoken and otherwise. A woman tells Mrs Xi, whose husband is with the army in Chongqing, "I've heard that your husband is doing very well up there in the interior...Maybe... your husband has another woman there!" People tire of waiting and pay extra to move up the queue, bumping those of lower status. The wait seems eternal, the room oppressive, until closing time shuts down one more bleak day.

Great Felicity sardonically details preparations for a dutiful wedding, about which no one is particularly enthusiastic. The family of the bride, Yuquing, is of higher social status than that of the groom. In comparison, the groom's sisters, Erqiao and Simei "were simply young ladies of the nouveau riche." However, each of the sisters
felt that hers was the most important role in the wedding. For Erqiao and Simei, Yuqing was the dazzling white caption to appear on the silver screen at the end of a movie -- 'The End'--, while they were the exciting previews...

Yuqing spends and spends for her wedding, while her future in-laws criticize. This frenzied acquisition is a desolate consolation for getting married. The wedding itself is business like in execution. The next day, as the groom's family sit around looking at pictures, his mother thinks back to the excitement and joy that accompanied the weddings of her youth, but has no idea why her son's didn't measure up.

Steamed Osmanthus Flower: Ah Xiao's Unhappy Autumn gives a look at the life of a domestic and the mutual obligations of employer and employee. In a rare reference to the outside, rationing is in effect in Shanghai. Ah Xiao's employer Mr Garter, sees her small son eating bread in the kitchen. Although she had bought the bread with her own coupon, she immediately knows her employer suspects her of using his. She flushes red, appearing guilty. He mentally calculates whether or not he should fire her. Just one more entry in the balance sheet between them.

These three stories have no definitive end. Come back tomorrow and life will still go on the same; nothing will have changed in the waiting room, the sisters will continue to carp at their brother's bride, Ah Xiao will still be struggling. What the reader is left with is a sense of mood and setting, of stages waiting for action.

The other two stories have more emphasis on character and plot. This collection has stories from 1944 when Chang was a young woman in Shanghai, to 1979, when she had been living in the US for almost twenty-five years. Unfortunately, other than the title story, the date of each is not given, so it is difficult to trace the development of style.

Traces of Love sees Mr Mi, an older man, explain to his younger second wife/concubine with whom he now lives, that he wishes to visit his dying first wife. Her imminent death has him sensing his own mortality. Still, however, he has time and the innate consideration to fulfill all the familial obligations of his second family.

Lust, Caution is a superb synthesis of mood, plot and setting. Jiazhi, a beautiful university student, is involved with a group plotting to assassinate a highly placed official collaborating with the Japanese occupiers. She has spent considerable time insinuating herself into the official's family as a companion to his wife. When the time comes to get him to the chosen location for the attack, she second guesses herself.
In the Editor's Afterword, Julia Lovell says Chang wrote and rewrote the ending over three decades. Chang's first husband had been a Japanese sympathizer and there are echoes of her ambivalence here. Whatever her doubts were, this ending is taut and final.

Even if you never read this story, I can't recommend enough Ang Lee's film version. Casting, cinematography and direction all combine to immerse the viewer in the languid world of the upper classes and the dangerous world of the student activists.

133baswood
Feb 21, 2013, 7:19pm Top

Good review of Lust Caution. I also thought Ang Lee's film was very good.

Thanks for the recommendation of Water Music I will give that one a try.

134DieFledermaus
Feb 23, 2013, 2:33am Top

Great review of Lust, Caution - is that the Penguin collection? I wanted to read more of her stories after Love in a Fallen City but could only find Lust, Caution as a single. I've seen a number of other books by Chang but they're all pretty expensive. Will need to get something from the library.

135SassyLassy
Edited: Feb 23, 2013, 8:00am Top

>122 wandering_star: wandering_star, forgot to add that I have a sneaking suspicion the Book Depository has an algorithm that adjusts the price according to the number of hits on a particular work! I saw the price change before my eyes the other day.

Nickelini, I think you would like Boyle. He has a very strong sense of the environment but doesn't hit you over the head with it. Glad to hear he has several books on the 1001 list.

tomcat, I hadn't heard of the book, but looked it up. Yet another one to consider!

bas, hope the recommendation suits and you enjoy it. Did you see Ang Lee's Life of Pi yet?

DieF, thanks, it was the Penguin Classics collection. I had to order it through Book Depository as it is not available in Canada. Started Love in a Fallen City some time ago, but it wasn't the right time. I suspect I could read it now.

edited for spelling

136kidzdoc
Feb 23, 2013, 12:56pm Top

Great review of Lust, Caution, Sassy.

137baswood
Edited: Feb 24, 2013, 5:28am Top

No I haven't seen Life of Pi yet. I will probably wait till it comes on TV, My wife has read the book and she loved it, but I thought I might not like it so much.

Brokeback Mountain however would easily make my "top ten" best films.

138tomcatMurr
Feb 24, 2013, 8:19am Top

life of pi movie is great, and I"m an old cynic.

The last scene on the beach is filmed in Kenting, in the south of Taiwan. and the animals in the zoo in the title sequence all come from the Taipei city Zoo. Ang lee is paying homage to his country. I hope he, or the movie wins a fistful of oscars.

139Midnight_Louie
Feb 24, 2013, 11:02am Top

I haven't seen Life if Pi yet either, but my husband just did and loved it too. I have to agree with Baswood regarding Brokeback Mountain. I watched it several years ago and still ponder it often.

140dchaikin
Feb 25, 2013, 5:34pm Top

Catching up. Last year I came across a long excerpt by TC Boyle in a lit magazine (the Iowa Review)...and it was so bad and left such a bad impression that I remember it quite clearly and am hesitant to try anything else by him. : ) Still, nice to see your reviews.

Entertained by your response to Sea of Poppies. I was able to enjoy it, but can't argue with any of your criticisms.

Superb review of Lust, Caution - especially of the title story. I'm intrigued.

141rebeccanyc
Feb 26, 2013, 12:14pm Top

i haven't seen Life of Pi or read the book, because I thought it would irritate me, although now I don't remember why I thought this. But maybe will see the movie.

142Polaris-
Feb 26, 2013, 2:44pm Top

Read and enjoyed Life of Pi a few years back, and thought I'd just add my two penneth that I thought Ang Lee did an excellent job with the film. Went to see it last month while on holiday and the whole family loved it. Glad to see it's been so well received, and glad that such an enjoyable book has for a change been so well adapted for the screen.

Sassy, this is my first opportunity to say what a terrific thread this is! Really enjoyed catching up over the last week or so with your fine reviews and the fine conversation that they are generating here. T C Boyle is a new name to me, and I will definitely be adding Wild Child: and Other Stories to my wishlist after such an enticing review by you! It sounds like exactly my cup of tea.

As for Alan Furst - I've only so far read just the one title by him and that was...The Polish Officer! - which I enjoyed very much the other year. Have had Spies of the Balkans on my shelf to read for ages, and am determined to pleasantly divert myself with it in the coming months at some stage.

143cabegley
Feb 26, 2013, 4:02pm Top

Just adding a little T C Boyle love here. I think The Road to Wellville and The Inner Circle were my favorites of his that I've read, with the caveat that I read The Road to Wellville almost 20 years ago.

144Midnight_Louie
Feb 26, 2013, 8:16pm Top

I read The Road To Wellville eons ago too but I recall enjoying it quite a bit.

145SassyLassy
Feb 27, 2013, 12:55pm Top

Hi doc and thanks. Do you read short stories? They might fit into your schedule well.

bas, I haven't seen Brokeback Mountain and it is one of those omissions that makes me feel cinematically illiterate. I will have to make up for this following your recommendation and that of Midnight_Louie

rebecca and others who have been avoiding reading Life of Pi: I had thought like Rebecca that it would irritate me, as I was already irritated enough by all the terrific press it had been receiving when it first came out and then when it started winning all kinds of awards. All that combined with the cover and the fact that I also thought it was pitched to non readers kept me away from it for a very long time. I can't remember why I eventually picked it up, ten years after it was published, other than it was summer and I probably just wanted a quick read in the garden. I basically read it right through and loved the ending. The film does not have this surprise, but makes up for it with everything else. It certainly deserved its Academy Awards as tomcat and PolarisBeacon suggest. That was a beautiful scene on the beach, thanks for identifying the location. I am one of those people who always sits through the credits to see where filming was done, but the credit wasn't that specific.

dan, T C Boyle has a number of interests and there is some of his writing that just does not interest me, but given his output, there would have to be some I don't relate to. I believe at one time he actually edited The Iowa Review for fiction. I had a look online, but didn't see the excerpt you mention. If you ever do read him, there is probably one of his titles that would relate to one of your interests, but then again, maybe not.

cabegley and M_L, I enjoyed The Road to Welville too. Kellogg's notions must have seen somewhat extreme to Americans at the time, but there were many European doctors preaching the same lesson at the time. I think of this book every time I see a Special K ad!

PolarisBeacon, thanks.

146SassyLassy
Feb 27, 2013, 1:03pm Top

Four days in Toronto and four days away from the computer gave me lots to catch up on in everyone's threads.

Can anyone help me with this? Robert Stone is one of my favourite authors. While I was in Toronto, in a large bookstore at the end of the aisle, there was a small display of some of Stone's books. Above it, there was a store generated sign saying "Robert Stone: 1937-2013". Oh no, I thought and immediately bought the one title they had that I didn't. Then in an even larger bookstore, I found the only novel of his I don't have (the first) and bought it too, thinking I might not see it again. Now home this morning and on my computer, I can see absolutely no reference to his death. I would think the NYT or some other such paper would have an obituary if he really was dead.

Was the store in error?

147RidgewayGirl
Feb 27, 2013, 2:00pm Top

It seems the store is in error, unless they just meant that they have all his books up until this year? Or maybe he visited the store, something unfortunate happened and while they have not yet notified the authorities, a memorial endcap was created?

148rebeccanyc
Feb 27, 2013, 2:29pm Top

As far as I (and Wikipedia) know, he is still alive. I thought Dog Soldiers was brilliant, don't remember much about A Flag for Sunrise, own but haven't read Damascus Gate, A Hall of Mirrors, and Fun with Problems and was disappointed by Prime Green, which I found a little self-indulgent. Sassy, which of the ones I haven't read would you recommend I start with?

149SassyLassy
Feb 28, 2013, 11:43am Top

Thanks RG and Rebecca. Until I see something credible I will take it that he is still alive. When I was doing some internet checking yesterday, I did see that he will have a new novel out in November.

rebecca, I agree about Dog Soldiers. Of the ones you own but haven't read, I am currently reading Fun with Problems, short stories, and so far have liked all but one. Damascus Gate had some brilliant moments and a scene I will never forget. It also had a great feel for what I imagine Jerusalem to be like, although I've never been there. Of all his books though, I felt it was the one most in need of editing, probably because he took on a far wider scope than his usual. A Hall of Mirrors is his first book and one of the two I bought this weekend, so I haven't read it yet. It sounds like a novel of its time. Haven't read Prime Green either, but suspect that hanging out with Ken Kesey and co was probably self indulgent, although in an interview I read he seemed to think Ken Kesey alone was much better than the gang.
My favourite Stone is probably Outerbridge Reach. I used to do a lot of sailing and thought he captured it spectacularly.
A Flag for Sunrise was another favourite but then I'm a sucker for stories involving questionable American activities in South and Central America, which naturally takes us back to... Joan Didion.

150rebeccanyc
Feb 28, 2013, 1:28pm Top

Thanks, Sassy for the rundown on Stone's book. I have so much else on the TBR I'm not sure when I'll get to him, but you've renewed my interest.

One of the things I didn't like about Prime Green was that he went back to the East Village and went on and on about how it had changed. Been there, done that!

151LolaWalser
Feb 28, 2013, 2:02pm Top

#146

Oh, you should have said hi! Which bookstores did you go to?

152detailmuse
Mar 1, 2013, 5:17pm Top

>145 SassyLassy: re Life of Pi -- loved the ending. The film does not have this surprise,

Not to get into spoilery material -- but a hallmark of the book is its ambiguous ending. The film doesn't have that? I liked the book and am eager to see the film.

153labfs39
Mar 2, 2013, 2:38pm Top

Hmm, I thought the film did have the same impact at the end when I saw it. Although I had to explain it a bit to my mom who had fallen asleep at a Crucial Moment. :-)

154mkboylan
Mar 2, 2013, 3:25pm Top

Holy moly somehow I missed this thread so do I have some catching up to do! I've enjoyed your posts on other threads and in other groups. So glad I found this.

Merrikay

155RidgewayGirl
Mar 2, 2013, 4:47pm Top

I thought that the ambiguity of the ending (which changed how I viewed all of the preceding events) would be impossible to put into movie form. Now I'm intrigued and will watch it on dvd when it makes itself available.

156SassyLassy
Mar 4, 2013, 9:42am Top

rebecca, always fun to revisit reasonably contemporary authors just to see if your earlier judgements hold up. I will keep your East Village thoughts in mind if I find a copy of Prime Green!

>151 LolaWalser: Belated "hi" Lola. Somehow, I never think there are LT people this close to home. When I am in TO, I am usually right downtown. Unfortunately, Pages and This Ain't the Rosedale Library, my old haunts, are now gone. This visit was quite mundane: Indigo at the Manulife Centre since I was meeting someone, which is where I saw the Robert Stone notice, WBB on Edward Street where I always go as they have the most books for a short visit, Nicholas Hoare since they are closing and I had a fantasy there might be some big pretty books on sale, and lastly, someone led me to The Monkey's Paw, which I hadn't been to before and was quite fun and productive. Where do you go...always happy to get suggestions from people who actually live there.

>152 detailmuse:, I can't figure out how to put it without a spoiler, so will send you a pm.

>153 labfs39: and 155 I think they captured the ambiguity of the ending well; it was the surprise that was lacking. It is definitely worth watching.

>154 mkboylan:, mk, hello and welcome! Still enjoying your Russian explorations. You might like this next book.

157SassyLassy
Mar 4, 2013, 10:41am Top

Just Send Me Word, 80 above, got me interested in other survivor stories, which led me to this book.



13. The Victims Return: Survivors of the Gulag after Stalin by Stephen F Cohen
first published 2010
finished reading February 28, 2013

Stephen Cohen's initial interest in Gulag survivors started when he was writing a PhD dissertation on Bukharin, one of the most famous victims of Stalin's terror. The dissertation became a book, Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution. The book was smuggled into the Soviet Union, where Anna Larina, Bukharin's widow, read it. When Cohen started visiting Moscow on academic exchange programmes in 1976, the two met. Cohen was introduced to a world of Gulag survivors and a career was born. This would be my one reservation about the book; there is too much of Cohen.

At the time of Stalin's death in 1953, the Gulag held at least 5.5 million inhabitants. Millions more family members of these inhabitants had had their lives destroyed by association. Still other "enemies of the people" were surviving relatives of people who had been executed or died in the camps during the long terror. Cohen estimates the total number of people still living in 1953 who were directly affected by the Terror as at least fifteen million. Dismantling of the camps began shortly after Stalin's death.

Initially, about one million criminal class prisoners were released, with select politicals following over the next three years. These last had had their cases reviewed on an individual basis. After Khrushchev's famous speech at the 1956 Party Congress, however, the process was speeded up with travelling commissions sent out across the country. By 1959, the job was done.

Rehabilitating and reintegrating such huge numbers of people back into Soviet society was a massive undertaking, creating a divide between those who were in the camps and those who put them there, in the expectation they would never be seen again. Although this was to have been the primary focus of the book, Cohen himself says it did not turn out to be the broad study of returnees he had originally intended, but instead became the story of high profile returnees seen through the lens of political events in the Soviet Union after their return.

Khrushchev granted the politically rehabilitated returnees some modicum of financial compensation, although their belongings and real estate were long gone. They were also granted access to basic needs such as medical care and housing, although the officials actually in charge of administering these did not always follow through. The privations and scarcities of Soviet society in general in that era, made life difficult for the majority of citizens, let alone the newly returned. Khrushchev himself was in a difficult position. As part of Stalin's machine, he was trying to atone for part of his role, yet he was functioning in a political environment where he had many opponents who would happily have overthrown him if he went too far.

Americans may associate Khrushchev with the Red scares of the Cold War, or think of him as a crude peasant, but Cohen portrays him in a more sympathetic light. He links the fortunes of the returnees to the political fortunes of Khrushchev and his successors. They fall on hard times during the Brezhnev era, when many of Khrushchev's reforms were overturned. Cohen cites three cases where Khrushchev's positions were reversed by Brezhnev:
In 1964, the most celebrated Gulag writer, Solzhenitsyn, was a nominee for the Lenin prize. In 1974, he was arrested and deported from the Soviet Union. In 1962, a Khrushchev aide indicated that Bukharin, Stalin's most important political victim, might be exonerated, telling a conference of historians, "Neither Bukharin nor Rykov was, of course, a spy or a terrorist". In 1977, a Central Committee official informed Bukharin's family that "the criminal charges on ...which he was convicted have not been removed." The announcement in effect rehabilitated the notorious Moscow Trials of the 1930s and thus the Stalinist era.
The fate of Molotov, the senior living Stalinist most harshly indicted by Khrushchev, was equally indicative. In 1962, Molotov was expelled from the Communist Party, creating the impression that he would be put on trial for crimes of the Stalin era. He then disappeared from public view. In 1984, the Politburo readmitted Molotov to the Party....Brezhnev's heir, Konstantin Chernenko...personally received the ninety-three year old.


Searches, demotions, expulsions and worse started all over again for the victims and their relatives. Eugenia Ginzberg and others burned their works. Samizdat, underground writings, flourished again.

Gorbachev reversed the tide once again by rehabilitating Bukharin and Khruschev in a nationwide speech in 1987, making Bukharin "Stalin's Victim Number One". A deluge of art and writing about the Terror was unleashed, including The Gulag Archipelago, published in the Soviet Union in 1990. In 1991, all victims of Stalin who had not yet been officially rehabilitated were exonerated in a blanket decree. Yeltsin went further, giving access to NKVD case files to victims and their families.

The Soviet Union did not hold Nuremberg style trials for those who carried out the Terror, other than for very high ranking official like Beria, head of Stalin's secret police. Partly this was for political reasons, as far too many Party members would have been implicated. Partly it was from a desire to avoid setting up yet another group of innocent victims: relatives of the accused. Partly it was related to a sense of fatigue in a nation that had survived the devastation of the Great Terror and WWII. As Russia collapses economically, Stalin's profile is rising again, with over 50% of people in 2005 having a positive view of his era. Most victims are dead by now, and although their descendants are still campaigning for more awareness of the Terror, many young Russians have no knowledge of it.

Cohen concludes the political struggle over the crimes of the Stalin era is again under way in Russia at the highest levels. It will almost certainly intensify. If so, the long return of the victims is not over.

__________________________________

I want to name them all by name,
But the list was taken and is nowhere to be found.

Anna Akhmatova, Requiem fragment quoted in The Victims Return

158rebeccanyc
Mar 4, 2013, 10:51am Top

Very interesting review, Sassy, and scary about younger people having no knowledge of what happened under Stalin. I've been thinking of buying a book I've seen in bookstores called It Was a Long Time Ago and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past and your comments are pushing me to do so.

159LolaWalser
Mar 4, 2013, 10:53am Top

#156

Oh, yes, downtown's my stomping ground too--I'd suggest a few places in the Annex too for a serious book-buying trip. Maybe next time!

160NanaCC
Mar 4, 2013, 10:54am Top

The Victims Return and Just Send Me Word both sound very interesting. I just finished Anna Karenina last month, and I have promised myself that I need to read more about Russia. I will add to my ever growing list.

161RidgewayGirl
Edited: Mar 4, 2013, 11:43am Top

Impressive review of The Victims Return. Since there are no reviews for the book yet posted, will you put yours up?

162Linda92007
Mar 4, 2013, 12:15pm Top

Excellent review of The Victims Return, Sassy. Cohen estimates the total number of people still living in 1953 who were directly affected by the Terror as at least fifteen million. Incredible to think that the evil of one man could have such far-ranging impact.

163mkboylan
Mar 4, 2013, 12:46pm Top

I drove through a small graveyard at the Presidio in San Francisco with two 18 year olds. One said "I didn't know that many people died in WWII." holy moly. No wonder they enlist.

164rebeccanyc
Mar 4, 2013, 1:17pm Top

And orders of magnitude more people died in other countries compared to US deaths. I quoted some of the statistics in my review of Hitler and Stalin and others in my review of Bloodlands.

165baswood
Edited: Mar 4, 2013, 6:29pm Top

Great review of The Victims return Lots of information about post Stalin Russia, which I found very interesting.

Are you going to put your review on the book page?

166dchaikin
Mar 6, 2013, 9:12am Top

Great review of The Victims Return. The numbers are simply bewildering. Interesting to see the comparisons between Khrushchev & Brezhnev.

167DieFledermaus
Mar 7, 2013, 2:10am Top

Terrific review of The Victims Return - thumbed!

As Russia collapses economically, Stalin's profile is rising again, with over 50% of people in 2005 having a positive view of his era.

That's rather disturbing.

168deebee1
Mar 7, 2013, 8:06am Top

Great review, Sassy. Disturbing indeed, about the younger generation's lack of awareness.

169detailmuse
Mar 7, 2013, 12:30pm Top

>although their descendants are still campaigning for more awareness of the Terror, many young Russians have no knowledge of it

That reminds me of the Barefoot Gen series and this passage from volume two's Foreword by Barbara Reynolds of the Hiroshima World Friendship Center:
{The book} was written for Japanese young people because {the author} was distressed to find that twenty years after the war most students knew nothing about the atomic bombs and that many teachers were not sure how to teach their students about such subjects since they themselves had no experience of war.

170zenomax
Edited: Mar 7, 2013, 12:55pm Top

I attended a WEA class back in New Zealand, maybe 20 years ago (do you have WEA in the US or Canada)? It was on russian history and the tutor was Russian. She said her generation, which grew into teenagers under Khrushchev, were different to those that went before and came after them. This was because they had a high degree of freedom and a relatively liberal education. She was making this comment not long after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Her argument was that her generation were really potentially the only ones in Russia equipped for the new liberal world post Glasnost and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Of course it turned out to be a new world not of liberalism but of Neo liberalism and old apparatchikism....

ETA: being caught out by autospeller..

171SassyLassy
Mar 8, 2013, 11:04am Top

Thanks for all the comments on The Victims Return.

rebecca, It was a Long Time Ago.. sounds like an excellent book. I wonder how many other countries the general thesis could be applied to.

Nana, I have been following your journey with Anna and your Russian odyssey in general with enjoyment. I reread AK two years ago and found I loved it as much as ever, but understood motivations and character far more than my teenage self had. I can see myself rereading it yet again in the future. It was amazing how quickly that entire world collapsed.

RG and bas, posted, thanks.

Linda and dan Incredible to think that the evil of one man could have such far-ranging impact.. Agreed. It is even more horrifying when you add in those who did not survive the terror and those rebecca mentions in her reviews >164 rebeccanyc:. I would also recommend as an introductory book The Great Terror by Robert Conquest. I read the earlier one, but Conquest revised and updated it in 2008 after glasnost, so I will have to get my hands on that edition and read it The Great Terror: A Reassessment.

mkboylan, you (actually the 18 year olds) left me somewhat speechless. As you say no wonder they enlist. Maybe there should be enlistment tours of Arlington or Gettysburg.

dan and bas, I found the post Stalin politics to be some of the most interesting and best written parts of the book. I certainly have a lot of reading to do to cover that period. Suggestions anyone? So many countries...

DieF, this is one of the phenomena of dictatorships such as Stalin's and Mao's that give me difficulty. I can sympathize with the older people who look back on those times and say they had guaranteed housing, medical care and employment for the first time, however basic, whereas now they are facing the street with nothing, when nothing in their background has equipped them for such a struggle. I think that tends to overshadow their memories of other horrors of these regimes, especially if they were not personally affected. Still, it is definitely disturbing and the rise of neo-Stalinist parties is frightening.

deebee and detailmuse, not sure how to teach war in a relevant way to young people in prosperous post war economies. The former West Germany had the same problem you mention in Japan (without the atomic bombs).

zeno, I had to look up WEA. Those three letters were all I entered in Google and this being Canada, the first eight hits were for various weather agencies! I also found the Wanganui East Athletic team, a NZ football team, and then the Workers' Educational Association. This is a long way of saying it isn't in Canada to my knowledge, however, I was aware of earlier UK incarnations through reading about George Gissing. The closest equivalent in Canada would probably be Frontier College,
which uses a labourer/teacher model. I believe they are more focussed on basic literacy skills though than the WEA. It would be wonderful to have such an organization.

Lola, will check in with you for recommendations the next time I venture south!

172rebeccanyc
Mar 9, 2013, 11:03am Top

Interesting that you mention a book by Robert Conquest about The Great Terror. I read his book on the terror-famine, The Harvest of Sorrow, after first learning about if from Vasily Grossman's Everything Flows, and while I found it meticulously detailed and horrifying, I also found that it assumed a scholarly knowledge of the ins and outs of Soviet and Ukrainian politics that I didn't have. Is The Great Terror designed more for the general reader?

173SassyLassy
Mar 11, 2013, 11:04am Top

It would certainly help to have a knowledge of the various factions contending for power after 1917, but Conquest does give an overview in his outline of what led up to the start of the purges. Conquest does have a lot of detail, as well as lots of documentation. I read it at a time when other reading about the era was fresh in my mind, so didn't stop to think about who would read it. With your reading in the literature of the period, I would certainly think of you as more than a casual or general reader! Looking at it now, I think it could also be read by a general reader who was willing to persevere.

I 'm going to get the updated version and read it as well. I still have to get The Harvest of Sorrow too.

174mkboylan
Mar 11, 2013, 11:22am Top

Sounds like I would like it if only for the overview!

175rebeccanyc
Mar 11, 2013, 12:34pm Top

Thanks, Sassy, for the encouragement, and I'll certainly look for the updated version (maybe it includes some more recently released Soviet documentation???). I confess I skipped over some of the details of Ukrainian politics in HoS.

176SassyLassy
Edited: Mar 11, 2013, 3:52pm Top

This book fits my Ahoy category for this year. When I first started in Club Read, there were several enthusiastic reviews of it and now I know why.



14. The Long Ships by Frans Bengtsson, translated from the Swedish by Michael Meyer
first published 1954
finished reading March 4, 2013

Broken hearts, wayward children, the tedium of everyday life--- this book will make you forget it all.

The Long Ships is set in the tenth century, an earlier but not necessarily simpler time. Danger, deceit, dismemberment and death lurk everywhere and it is a lucky and wise person indeed who reaches thirty. This is a world where Vikings pillage and plunder, Moors conquer and civilize, epic sea battles are fought and everyone is after gold, even the priests who roam the northern lands trawling for souls.

Red Orm's first sea expedition started when he was a young teenager. Marauders stealing his father's sheep kidnapped him as a galley slave. This initial voyage would take him from the pared down world of Skania in southern Sweden (then part of Denmark) to the cultured and privileged world of Cordoba, under the rule of the Moors. From there he would be forced to flee to Ireland and then home, after a battle in which he and his friends managed to steal an enormous bell from the cathedral at Santiago de Compostella.

His second voyage saw a wiser Orm successfully negotiating for danegeld with Ethelred the Redeless. Years of peace and prosperity at home followed. However, you can't take the sea out of a Viking and Orm eventually set out on his third voyage, sailing up the Dvina, portaging to the Dneiper and then sailing down past Kiev, almost to the Black Sea, to capture untold wealth.

This is a story told in the rhythms of an updated Viking saga, so Orm is naturally a hero. He and his followers are a wonderful troupe, after all, what's not to like about such larger than life people? Bengtsson portrays them in many ways, but always with affection. Needless to say, they are brave and don't fear dying, but they are also vain and terrified of ridicule. They are pragmatic. Fleeing Spain in a stolen vessel, they debate which god should get the sacrifice that will ensure good weather for the voyage home. Orm said
'I do not believe that any man can be certain just how powerful this or that god is, or how much he can do to help us. And I think we should be foolish to neglect one god for the sake of not offending some other.'

The others agreed
...that this was well spoken, and sacrificed meat and drink to Agir, Allah, and St James, which put them in better heart.

They are a superstitious lot. One group of brothers reduced from eleven to seven on an expedition, as prophesied by their father Sone the Sharp-Sighted, refuse to return home, fearing that would end their expedition and the surviving brothers would then lose their immunity to death.

These Vikings are truly hospitable and judge others by their hospitality. King Harald's dining hall could hold six hundred men for the six day Christmas feast. Once again all options were covered as even followers of Thor toasted Christ, "for it was the first of the toasts and they were thirsty for their ale". They followed up with toasts to King Harald and the return of the sun, as a start. Story telling ability is highly prized at such gatherings where people learn the latest news and compete with each other in verse making, for these new stories will be repeated again and again in their preliterate world. There was a strict code of conduct governing these celebrations and justice would be meted out immediately to those who broke the rules.

In a world where Christianity is making inroads, the Vikings debate its merits and work out their own compromises, for what fun is a peaceful world with chaste women? Besides, why would you become a Christian if the world was going to end a thousand years after Christ's birth, that is, in your own lifetime? Orm's wife feels god won't destroy the world, as it took too much trouble to build. On the other hand, Father Willibald truly believes the Judgement Day is nigh. Orm, now a Christian, regrets his companions and relatives who followed the old ways will not be there to keep him company and concludes Heaven will be dull indeed. As the millennium nears, he also has to face the more practical question of whether of not to plant the year's crops.

Bengtsson's description of the millennial year captures it all perfectly:
From the very first day of this year every young Christian woman had sought the delights of bodily pleasure more greedily than ever before, for they were uncertain whether this pleasure would be allowed them in heaven and were therefore anxious to enjoy as much of it as they could while there was yet time, since, whatever form of love heaven might have to offer them, they doubted whether it could be as agreeable as the sort practiced on earth. Such of the servant girls as were unmarried became wholly intractable, running after every man they saw; and even in the married women a certain difference was evident, though they clung to their husbands, thinking it was imprudent to do otherwise when the Judgement Day was so close upon them. The result of all this was that by spring most of the women at Groning were with child. When Orm discovered that...he ordered that the sowing should take place as usual.

'No children can be born in heaven', he said.

Orm made friends easily and was a true friend in return. He never forgot anyone and this saved his life on several occasions. His was a wonderful romp through tenth century Europe. He's a great old fashioned hero in a Robert Louis Stevenson story telling sort of way, or perhaps a Flashman with principles. If that's the kind of story that appeals to you, then you have to read this. It will take a long time to find another book that's such fun.

Edited for spelling

177NanaCC
Mar 11, 2013, 1:35pm Top

Great review! Sounds like one I would enjoy.. Thank you.

178dchaikin
Mar 11, 2013, 1:44pm Top

A fun review. I've thought about this one, it's already on the wishlist. Perhaps if I toast Agir, Allah, and St James I may be granted time to get here.

179baswood
Mar 11, 2013, 3:15pm Top

Enjoyed your review of The Long Ships. it's already on my wishlist.

180rebeccanyc
Mar 11, 2013, 4:19pm Top

Great review of a book I loved loved loved! You made me want to read it again!

181Linda92007
Mar 11, 2013, 7:00pm Top

Great review of The Long Ships, Sassy. I have it on my Kindle and now just need to find some time. I really need to stop buying books until I have made a dent in all the ones I already own and want to read. I know, I know.... Like that will happen.

182StevenTX
Mar 12, 2013, 12:16am Top

A very enticing review, especially since I recently read Njals Saga and found the Norse culture to be highly intriguing. The Long Ships is now on the wishlist.

183tomcatMurr
Mar 12, 2013, 9:10am Top

Ahoy! Great review of a great book.

184deebee1
Mar 12, 2013, 12:26pm Top

> 171 Just a short while after reading your post yesterday, I came across this news from the Independent. Chilling.

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/over-half-of-austrians-think-the-...

185deebee1
Mar 12, 2013, 12:30pm Top

Wonderful review of The Long Ships, Sassy. I hope to read it some time, have heard only good words about it.

186SassyLassy
Mar 12, 2013, 2:28pm Top

To paraphrase Mark Twain:
...throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour, catch the tradewinds in your sails... and read (or reread) it one and all. Thanks for the comments. I will certainly reread it in times to come.

dan, sounds like you might have the makings of a Viking!

rebecca, your review was one of the ones I remember, along with japaul. With regards to the updated Conquest, I'm hoping on more on the Kirov murder. The earlier version was the first time I had read of it in any detail, so hoping he is still interested and will update.

steven, your review of Njal's Saga moved The Long Ships up my TBR list, so thanks.

deebee, on a completely different note, that is a chilling article in The Independent, but sadly not all that surprising. Thanks for posting it.

187SassyLassy
Mar 12, 2013, 3:19pm Top

An updated complete version of a previously censored work:



15. An Armenian Sketchbook by Vasily Grossman, translated from the Russian by Robert Chandler and Elizabeth Chandler
first published in censored form in 1965 as Dobro vam
finished reading March 10, 2013

Other languages offer us good things: Bonjour, Guten Tag, Buon Giorno. Some even offer us peace: Shalom aleichem, pax vobiscum. English, however, is increasingly curt. Good Morning and Good Afternoon have been replaced with the sliding scale of Hello, Hi and Heh.

These thoughts came to mind after reading Robert Chandler and Yuri bit-Yunan's introduction to An Armenian Sketchbook. They say the original title, Dobro vam, is a literal Russian translation of the Armenian greeting "Barev dzez", or "Good to you". They couldn't find a way to convey this in English, and so the English title, avoideding such niceties altogether.

Grossman spent two months in Armenia, then part of the USSR. There he did find good, and good people. It was 1961. Although Khrushchev had lifted some of the restrictions on publishing that defined literature in Stalin's era, the authorities had decided the people were not ready for his major work, Life and Fate. In Grossman's words, they "arrested" it, confiscating everything they could find that related to it.

As a sort of consolation, they offered him well paying work translating an Armenian work into Russian, even though a Russian edition had already been published. This was not true translation; Grossman did not know any Armenian. Instead, it was taking an existing very literal translation from Armenian into Russian and attempting to turn it into a literary work.

While working on the Armenian book, Grossman kept this journal of sketches, which give the reader some insight into his thoughts at the time. He was already ill with the cancer that would kill him three years later, although it had not yet been diagnosed. Still, thoughts of death did preoccupy him on this solitary trip far from home.

On the whole though, the free time aspects of the trip he recounts, show a very human Grossman engaged completely in whatever he was doing. He was somewhat miffed to discover no one came to greet him on his arrival in Yerevan, yet at the same time, he had the sense to be embarrassed by his disappointment. It was a lesson to him to discover that Armenians did not hold Russia to be the foremost republic in the USSR; they had their own heroes and history thank-you very much. Grossman was not put off, but made an effort to learn as much as he could about this country. He came to understand the fierce sense of nationalism and pride, especially in the context of the Armenian genocide earlier in the century, for Grossman was still overwhelmed by the Holocaust and the Stalinist purges.

He was intrigued by the people and felt they retained an almost pagan belief, saying that although they fulfilled all their religious duties as Christians, it was only in more primitive rituals adapted into Christian traditions that he saw any sign of true religious fervour or belief. His account of a wedding is an excellent piece, where he is both observer and observed. Even at the wedding though, his sense of death and endings is strong.

Most of all, he was stunned by the physical geography of Armenia, by Mount Ararat and the deep blue of the water, the sheer cliffs and the never ending stone. His first glimpse from the train when he arrived in Armenia was of "...fields of stone. A mountain had died, its skeleton had been scattered over the ground. Time had aged the mountain; time had killed the mountain--- and here lay the mountain's bones."

He returned to this theme of stones and death again and again, describing one valley as "stoney desolation".
In three dimensions -- height, width, and depth -- stone, nothing but stone. No, there were more than three dimensions of stone; these stones were also an expression of the earth's fourth coordinate -- time. The migrations of people, paganism, the ideas of Marx and Lenin, the wrath of the Soviet state had all found expression in this stone, in the basalt walls of churches, in gravestones, in elegantly built new clubs, in schools and palaces of culture, in quarries and mines, in the stone walls of labor camps.

Grossman's final words, a valediction to the reader, still have these mountains in mind:
Though mountains be reduced to mere skeletons, may mankind endure forever.
Accept these lines from a translator from Armenian who knows no Armenian.
Probably I have said much that is clumsy and wrong. But all I have said, clumsy or not, I have said with love.

Barev dzez -- All good to you...


Ironically, this book which came to be because the censors did not like another, was only published in its entirety in 1988. Grossman and the censors had differed once again. The version published in 1965, after his death, was significantly edited.

188rebeccanyc
Mar 12, 2013, 6:28pm Top

As a devoted Grossman fan, I'm eagerly looking forward to reading An Armenian Sketchbook, but I've been saving it for a time when I need to read a book I know I'll like. Thanks for your review.

And definitely a scary article, deebee. I've always had a feeling the Austrians were more likely to revive the Nazi past than the Germans, because they haven't accepted responsibility at as deep a level as the Germans (after all, they were "invaded" and it was "forced" on them!).

189dchaikin
Mar 13, 2013, 8:34am Top

Fascinating review, Sassy. I haven't read Grossman. Your review makes him seem approachable and human.

190Linda92007
Mar 13, 2013, 9:05am Top

Excellent review of An Armenian Sketchbook, Sassy, and another Grossman to add to my TBR list. There are no reviews of this book listed on its work page. I would encourage you to post yours.

191baswood
Mar 13, 2013, 12:54pm Top

Great review of An Armenian Sketchbook. He is quite right about the stones near Mount Ararat. A desolate place.

192deebee1
Mar 14, 2013, 9:00am Top

> 169 and 171

deebee and detailmuse, not sure how to teach war in a relevant way to young people in prosperous post war economies. The former West Germany had the same problem you mention in Japan (without the atomic bombs).

Sorry to be returning to this topic, but thought you might be interested in the article below which came out on BBC news today. Pretty sums up Japan's approach to history education.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21226068

193SassyLassy
Mar 14, 2013, 12:26pm Top

deebee

It was an excellent article and this is a topic to which we should return, otherwise that education won't happen. No "sorry" necessary!

Good article too in the sidebar on Nanjing. Thanks

dan, Grossman did come across as very approachable and human, so much so that I wondered if he had thought this was a private journal, but then the introduction told me he submitted it for publication almost immediately after his return home. Hope you get to read it.

bas, I envy you being in Armenia. Have you seen Atom Egoyan's film Ararat about Arshile Gorky?

rebecca, I know you will read it and I love the category a book I know I'll like. We need those from time to time.

Thanks linda. Recently I've been having a technical problem with LT, where whenever I open a work page, the blue print converts to black, although the touchstone still works, and this seems to affect people referencing that book as well. You can see this with The Long Ships above. I'd like to get this fixed before opening any more work pages. Sort of a reverse Midas touch!

194The_Hibernator
Mar 21, 2013, 5:32pm Top

That's a great review of The Long Ships. Looks interesting.

195SassyLassy
Mar 30, 2013, 9:55am Top

>194 The_Hibernator: Hope you get to read it! I've been rattling on about it to everyone I meet ever since I finished it.

196SassyLassy
Mar 30, 2013, 10:12am Top

For most of March, I seem to have been in irons, which sailors will understand. This next book was a desperate attempt to get some wind back into my sails.



16. Sun Storm by Asa Larsson translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy
first published as Solstorm in 2003
finished reading March 24, 2013

Like most readers, I enjoy mystery or espionage books from time to time. When three weeks had gone by in March without being swept up by any particular book, no matter how many genres or authors I tried, I thought it might be time to revert to this kind of book; a quick read and then back on track (?tack).

This is a first novel and won Sweden's Best First Crime Novel Award, so it looked promising. Sure enough, it started off reasonably well, but it soon became obvious who the culprits were, why the crimes were committed and who the love interest was. I did finish it in the hopes that I might have been wrong and there would be a big surprise at the end, but to no avail.

Reading it did have the intended effect however. It was so terrible, it reminded me that I usually read books that have meaning and engage me. I couldn't get back to "real" reading quickly enough. I could hear legions of teachers, professors and others whispering "You can do better" and it worked.

197rebeccanyc
Mar 30, 2013, 10:39am Top

I enjoyed your review despite your not liking the book!

198SassyLassy
Mar 30, 2013, 11:02am Top

Not a gardening book, although I discovered it through a garden newsletter.



17. Elizabeth and her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim
first published 1898
finished reading March 27, 2013

Elizabeth and Her German Garden was first published in 1898 and enjoyed twenty reprintings in its first year alone. It was Elizabeth von Arnim's first published work. Reading it 115 years later, the reception seems completely overblown, but the author herself still shines through.

An autobiography in fictional form, the book is written as a diary, allowing us glimpses of Elizabeth and her realm that convention might otherwise have suppressed. This is a world of grand estates, household and social obligations and strictures, and rigid class structures; the world that World War I would destroy. I found myself crying "Come the Revolution..." on several occasions, yet what kept me going was that Elizabeth herself was rebelling in her own way against that world.

Elizabeth von Arnim was a far more interesting person than her book. She started life in Australia as the far more pedestrian sounding Mary Annette Beauchamp (the English pronounce this Beecham), May to her family. Her family moved back to England when she was three. There she had a fairly conventional upbringing, suitable to the daughter of a wealthy merchant. Things changed when her father took her on a European tour when she was twenty-three.

In Rome she met the recently widowed Count Henning August von Arnim-Schlagenthin. They soon married, after three months of daily German lessons for young May. They settled in Berlin, where May, now mysteriously Elizabeth, had three daughters in four years. Life looked dull and settled indeed. Then, in 1986, Elizabeth accompanied her husband on a trip to his country estate in Pomerania and discovered a whole new world. She convinced him that this was the place for her. She established herself there with her daughters, with the Count visiting them for extended periods. Her first year there is the stuff of EAHGG.

In Nessenheide she seems to have thrown off as many domestic conventions as possible. First and foremost, she discovered the outdoors, spending as much time there as possible. That first summer, meals were brought to her
meals so simple they could be brought out to the lilacs on a tray; and I lived, I remember, on salad and bread and tea the whole time... How often now, oppressed by the necessity of assisting at three dining-room meals daily, two of which are conducted by the functionaries held indispensable to a proper maintenance of the family dignity, and all of which are pervaded by joints of meat, how often do I think of my salad days, forty in number, and of the blessedness of being alone, as I was then alone!

Elizabeth's enthusiasm for her new world was boundless. Confessing she knew absolutely nothing about gardening, she ordered ten pounds of seed for one variety of flower alone. Roses were ordered a hundred at a time. Every month the gardener would tender his resignation, overwhelmed by her ideas of park like gardens, when his ideal was straight rows. Her struggles with her garden were an apt metaphor for her struggles with her life.

Each year Russians and Poles were brought in to work the estate during the agricultural season. This was something new to Elizabeth, who was struck by the terrible conditions under which they lived and worked, while at the same time remarking "They are like little children or animals in their utter inability to grasp the idea of a future."

Her ideas about her German neighbours betrayed strong English stereotypes, but she could be wickedly funny in describing them. She took delight in verbal sparring with her husband, referred to him, albeit affectionately, as "The Man of Wrath", whenever he tried to steer her back to his idea of her duties. For his part, he had the wit to indulge her.

One thing Elizabeth could not escape was visitors. In Germany as in England, the house guest was an unavoidable feature of life. Her journal's most scathing words were reserved for those souls who disrupt life in ways nothing else does. That first Christmas at Nessenheide, the von Arnims had two women staying with them. One held herself to be a great friend of Elizabeth's. The other was previously unknown by the family, an English art student, daughter of a friend of a friend, foisted on the family as she was studying in Germany and could not possibly spend the holidays alone. This student made the mistake of preferring the company of the governess to that of her hosts and their other guest, Irais. Time passed and the guests showed no signs of leaving. One day Irais asked
"When is she going?"
"Who, Minora? I haven't asked her that."
"Then I will. It is really bad for her art to be neglected like this. She has been here an unconscionable time, --- it must be nearly three weeks."
"Yes, she came the same day you did" I said pleasantly.
Irais was silent.

By February they had finally gone. Elizabeth returned to her garden world, her escape from duty and real life. The next decade would see two more children, including a son, who would have E M Forster and Hugh Walpole for tutors.

The real world would intrude though. The Man of Wrath would be arrested and imprisoned for fraud in 1908. Elizabeth took her own advice
Submission to what people call their "lot" is simply ignoble. If your lot makes you cry and be wretched, get rid of it and take another; strike out for yourself: don't listen to the shrieks of your relations, to their gibes or their entreaties; don't let your own microscopic set prescribe your goings-out and comings-in; don't be afraid of public opinion in the shape of the neighbour in the next house, when all the world is before you new and shining, and everything is possible, if you will only be energetic and independent and seize opportunity by the scruff of the neck.

She returned to London. The Count died in 1910. Elizabeth embarked on a three year affair with H G Wells. In 1916 she married Bertram Russell's older brother, the second Earl Russell, only to leave him in 1919. She would publish twenty-one more books over the years. I suspect I may read one or two, but I would far rather read a good biography of Elizabeth herself.

199mkboylan
Edited: Mar 30, 2013, 11:20am Top

That sounds so wonderful to me! So bummed my library doesn't have it so clicked over to Amazon and guess what? Kindle has it for .99! It is now MINE MINE MINE! Thanks so much for that great review! Do you think I'll be missing much by getting the electronic copy?

ETA: I kind of had the same kind of March - is it something in the air?

200zenomax
Mar 30, 2013, 12:37pm Top

My copy of Elizabeth and her German Garden is literally 3 feet from where I am sitting. Just checked and it is a reprint dating back to 1901.

I don't think I have ever read it in any detail, so it was interesting to read your review backgrounding her life.

201rebeccanyc
Mar 30, 2013, 12:51pm Top

I really enjoyed von Arnim's The Enchanted April although I started it with serious doubts. Your review made me think I might also enjoy Elizabeth and Her German Garden, although I suspect I might have that "Come the Revolution . . ." feeling too.

202dchaikin
Mar 30, 2013, 5:19pm Top

#196 - well that was fun, and one way to break a reading slump.

Intrigued by the life of Elizabeth...although not sure i want to read Elizabeth and her German garden.

203baswood
Mar 30, 2013, 5:53pm Top

Elizabeth Von Arnim who had a three year affair with H G Wells, I wonder if he assisted with her writing in any way. A biography would be interesting.

204Mr.Durick
Mar 30, 2013, 5:56pm Top

I found both Elizabeth and Her German Garden and Enchanted April available on BN.COM for the Nook at 99¢ among many others. There were also a couple of complete works for the Nook, so presumably elsewhere for the Kindle too, for less than $5.

I don't know whether I will ever read them, but I bought the two individual novels.

Robert

205rebeccanyc
Mar 30, 2013, 6:30pm Top

#203 H. G. Wells seems to have had affairs with a variety of fascinating women, as I seem to recall he had one with Rebecca West too.

206RidgewayGirl
Mar 30, 2013, 8:31pm Top

Beautiful review.

207tonikat
Edited: Mar 31, 2013, 3:27pm Top

Very interesting review, not sure what I make of her, doubt I will read it, but cannot bame her for seeking peace. Pounds of seed and roses by the hundred do seem excessive. Peace doesn't seem the lot of most of us. But can you say more of the "stuff of EAHGG" -- is that good or bad or just ewww?

208avaland
Apr 1, 2013, 9:12am Top

>196 SassyLassy: I somehow missed Larsson's first, and started with the second in the series when it arrived on the shelves. I thought the second was interesting for her use of animals in the story. She often showed her characters with their pets—an interesting way to get to know a character. I read maybe 3 or so of hers and enjoyed them, before the formula became too blatantly obvious and I didn't think it worth my money any more (animals, voices from dead people, and yet another major trauma for Rebecca). The voices from dead people royally irked me, as I consider "clues" from the dead, cheating!

209SassyLassy
Apr 2, 2013, 4:09pm Top

mk, I think a lot of people had that kind of March. Maybe reading slumps affect us more then as there is so little to do outside to distract us from them. The Virago edition I read had a very good introduction by Elizabeth Jane Howard. I doubt if your electronic version will be edited, but it might be missing the introduction.

zenomax, envying you your old reprint. Is it illustrated?

Intriguing thought, bas. It would be worth checking books written in the HG Wells years against other years some time --- in the garden of course!

Robert, I don't have any electronic devices for reading, so hope this is not a silly question. How does your virtual pile of TBR books manifest itself if you can't trip over them like you do in real life?

rebecca, Rebecca West was indeed yet another of his affairs. Apparently there was some social tension between these two women over it.

Thanks RG!

Tony, I should be more careful with my language. I was meaning stuff in the sense of material, not in the sense a twelve year old would use it. There is a lot of enthusiasm for the garden, with comments on what is growing, what's not and what she would like to do in the garden in the future, along with the reactions, mostly puzzled, of visitors. One of the scenes that struck home to me as a inveterate garden dreamer was her reaction to news that someone who truly understood gardens would be visiting. The angst! Other parts of the journal are taken up with her neighbours, whom she viewed as stodgy, unimaginative and uninteresting but was quite funny about; German food; and various governesses who seemed to always present problems. As an example, after firing a governess:
When we came in for lunch there was no Miss Jones.
"Is Miss Jones ill?" asked Minora.
"She is gone", I said.
"Gone?"
"Did you never hear of such things as sick mothers?" asked Irais blandly; and we talked resolutely of something else.

Other passages deal with events in the lives of her small children who seem quite bright, as they work their way through learning the complexities of both German and English.
There was very little introspection, which made sense given the times.

dan, I think you could pass on this book without missing anything, but I agree a biography would be fun.
Glad you liked >196 SassyLassy:!

avaland, I really wanted to like Larsson as it's always fun to discover a new series to follow. Interesting what you say about pets, as there were pets in this first book and it was a very successful device for revealing character. No voices from dead people though.

210rebeccanyc
Apr 2, 2013, 4:40pm Top

Rebecca West was indeed yet another of his affairs. Apparently there was some social tension between these two women over it.

No kidding!

212labfs39
Apr 8, 2013, 4:08pm Top

I finally, finally got caught up on your thread. Almost every single book ended up on my wishlist! I found articles about Austria and Japan to be very interesting. I had no idea what Japanese history education was like. Does anyone know of a biography of Elizabeth von Arnim? If not, I may have to read the book. And please do post your review of it. Your review is wonderfully written and enticing.

213SassyLassy
Edited: Apr 10, 2013, 10:43am Top

dmsteyn had a great review of this book, which I hadn't heard of, on one of his Club Read 2012 threads, so thanks dm.



18. Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg
first published 2011
finished reading March 30, 2013

Can you be an exile in your own country? Can parts of your own country be so foreign to you that you feel as if you are?

The Reverend Neil MacKenzie and his new wife Lizzie set sail for St Kilda, a small group of islands way off the west coast of Scotland, in 1830. Neil was a minister of the Church of Scotland. Well educated and well read, a firm adherent of the ideals of the Scottish Enlightenment, Neil truly believed in the idea that the road to improving life was through education for all. Once people saw the light, they would strive for betterment. Unfortunately, like so many others in the nineteenth century, Neil felt that religion was inextricably linked to this process.
The new world would be created to make way for advanced human happiness. He himself would like to add faith as one of the founding pillars of that new society, and it worried him that his teachers had not seemed too concerned with it, nor did it feature much in the Edinburgh Review, which must undoubtedly be the reading matter for any man with ethical and intellectual aspirations, such as himself.

The Reverend MacKenzie had his own reasons for seeking such a remote posting. In his mind, he had been chosen to minister to these backward souls. Peace and redemption would follow. In addition, in those times when he would allow himself to admit it, he was looking for a means of atoning for a death in his past.

Neither the young minister nor his wife was prepared for conditions on St Kilda. The population of about one hundred and fifty souls made their living collecting feathers from the tens of thousand of gannets, puffins, fulmars and other sea birds which nested on the sheer cliffs. The feathers were collected annually and with luck a supply ship arrived each spring and fall. This was not a cash economy. The islanders ate the birds, used them for compost for their meagre crops, and paid rent with feathers. The stench was unbearable and inescapable. While Neil and Lizzie had a new stone house, the islanders lived in stone hovels built into the ground.

Gaelic, Neil's first language, was the language of the islanders and the language of religion. Lizzie had no knowledge of it. Cut off from contact with others by this barrier, she also lost the solace of religion and eventually of faith itself. Meanwhile, Neil became all the more determined to save the community, eventually confusing his will with God's, no longer able to see the difference. Isolated from everything and everyone they had known before, the MacKenzies had to find their own ways to survive.

Their years on St Kilda were years of momentous change for them and the islanders. Only the birds and the seas would be unchanged by the time they left. Change in Neil's beloved Church of Scotland echoed the theme of change on the island. The meeting of the General Assembly in 1843 resulted in the Disruption, a fitting epithet not only for Neil's religious life, but also for Neil himself.

Altenberg, an archaeologist, has written a beautiful first novel, sympathetic to her subjects the real life MacKenzies and full of detail about St Kilda itself. It is a novel of mood and atmosphere, full of the sense of the sea and the skies, and of a people who have been forced in turn into exile.

Edited for spelling

214SassyLassy
Apr 8, 2013, 4:53pm Top


If you fly between Glasgow and Reykjavik on a beautiful sunny day, you will see St Kilda. The islanders were relocated in 1930 and today the islands play host to scientists and civil servants.






215baswood
Apr 8, 2013, 5:04pm Top

Beautiful pictures and a lovely review of Island of wings Too remote for me.

216rebeccanyc
Apr 8, 2013, 5:09pm Top

Wow! I love the pictures and the map. And this does sound like a good book.

217labfs39
Apr 8, 2013, 5:11pm Top

Beautiful photos and another book for the wishlist!

218Nickelini
Apr 8, 2013, 5:25pm Top

If you fly between Glasgow and Reykjavik on a beautiful sunny day, you will see St Kilda.

Ha ha ha. Next time I make that flight, I'll look out for it.

Seriously though--interesting review and great pictures. I'm fascinated with remote islands, so on to the wish list it goes.

219mkboylan
Apr 8, 2013, 5:28pm Top

Thanks for those beautiful pictures!

220dmsteyn
Edited: Apr 9, 2013, 4:31am Top

Great review (better than mine ;-)) Sassy! I saw those pictures too when doing a bit of research about the book; they really are breath-taking.

221RidgewayGirl
Apr 9, 2013, 1:20pm Top

Island of Wings sounds a little like At Play in the Fields of the Lord by Peter Matthiessen. Your review is putting it on my wish list. Also the pictures.

222Linda92007
Apr 10, 2013, 8:05am Top

Wonderful review of Island of Wings, Sassy. I will definitely be looking for this one.

223SassyLassy
Apr 10, 2013, 11:21am Top

I always like adding to those wish lists: turn and turn about.

Islands have a certain magic for so many people; the more remote the better. Then there are those who can't imagine leaving their cities. Somewhere there's a balance. I suspect it may be somewhere like the south of France, right >215 baswood:?!
In the meantime there are pictures to keep the dreams alive.

Once again, thanks dm for leading me to this book. It was a natural for me as my grandmother would talk about it. Then a few years ago I read Tom Steel's The Life and Death of St Kilda, an excellent history of the island and the islanders. I also have a CD, Leaving St Kilda. The cover is beautiful:



One more image from Bourne Fine Art before moving on:

224NanaCC
Apr 10, 2013, 11:29am Top

I have added Island of Wings to my wish list so that I don't forget to check it out.

This topic was continued by SassyLassy still sailing through 2013.

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