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Russeren er en, der elsker birketræer / All…

Russeren er en, der elsker birketræer / All Russians Love Birch Trees (2012)

by Olga Grjasnowa (Author)

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1525113,788 (3.41)8
Title:Russeren er en, der elsker birketræer / All Russians Love Birch Trees
Authors:Olga Grjasnowa (Author)
Info:C&K (2013), 319 pages
Collections:Read, Read but unowned
Tags:russian, fiction

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All Russians Love Birch Trees by Olga Grjasnowa (2012)



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English (3)  German (2)  All languages (5)
Showing 3 of 3
This book was a big, fat "meh". As it doesn't deserve a proper review, here are some of my mildly incoherent thoughts on it:

The main character: Ughhhh... So bland. No personality. Y u have to narrate? Also, I felt like the narrator and Masha were two different women. I saw NO consistency there. The narrator had a bland, almost detached tone, while Masha was an incredibly emotional, messed-up individual, and I didn't see that in the way she narrated. Maybe that was the point; I don't know. I was just always surprised when Masha cried or showed signs of PTSD, because I didn't get that vibe from her narration - she seemed very well-adjusted there.

The other characters: Ugh... So bland. No personality. Every single male character is the same. Every single female character is the same. I could switch around the names and it wouldn't make one difference! Only Tal was maybe mildly interesting. Maybe. Probably not.

The plot: This wasn't a book that hinged on a well-constructed plot, and that's okay if there is something else to hinge upon. Which there wasn't. There wasn't much of a plot other than Masha sulking about after Elias' death. And that's fine and all, but it doesn't work with boring, uncompelling (not a word but I don't care) characters and dull writing.

The writing: Yawn. It wasn't exactly bad... But it wasn't good either. Lots of unnecessary descriptions of mundane actions that added nothing to the story. Why do I care that the peanut tasted salty in Masha's mouth?

The themes: One-sided, prejudiced view of Germans. The only normal, non-racist German was Elias. Discrimination and prejudice against immigrants seemed to ubiquitous and accepted, which I don't buy. Sorry. I'm an Eastern Bloc immigrant to Denmark, so Masha's situation isn't entirely foreign to me, and I have to say that all the instances of prejudice rang false and exaggerated. That's not to say these things don't happen, but they happened far too often and with too great an intensity to be realistic. In general, I feel this novel gave no valuable insights into modern, multicultural existence as blurb claimed. All I got was a PTSD, vaguely bisexual, annoying, language-savvy Masha, whom everybody loved for some inexplicable reason. Bleh. The theme of rootlessness was executed all right, though.

I'm still giving this two stars, because it wasn't absolutely terrible. I mean, there were some good scenes and anecdotes, especially in Israel and Palestine, and I really liked the first chapter. Everything about it was kind of... okay. I didn't actually hate it as much as this (non-)review makes it seem. It was just so uncompelling... (That's totally a word from now on.)

Lesson learned: Do not read a book because it has a cool title and a nice Chekhov(?) quote in the beginning! ( )
  bulgarianrose | Mar 13, 2018 |
Mascha, the narrator of the novel, is pretty much a model immigrant: young, intelligent, highly-educated, she seems very well integrated into German society. But she's still very conscious of her status as an exile. People are forever making assumptions about her, while her complicated background - displaced from the Caucasus but neither Moslem nor Armenian; Russian but not Russian-German; Jewish but fluent in Arabic; dependent on her boyfriends but not 100% heterosexual (etc., etc.) - means that those assumptions are not just insulting and patronising but also almost invariably based on incorrect data. Mascha's childhood experience of the ethnic violence that led her parents to leave Azerbaijan has also left its mark on her. She clearly feels uncomfortable in German society, and seeks out the companionship of other outsiders. When a new tragedy opens up in her life, she makes the rather surprising decision to go and work in Israel. Although she's repelled by Israeli attitudes and politics, there's an implication that she is subconsciously hoping to connect with her identity as a Jew and find some sort of roots, something that of course doesn't happen.

There are a lot of interesting, thought-provoking ideas floating around in this book, and Grjasnowa is clearly an articulate, strong-minded writer who can carry the reader along with her, but I wasn't quite won over. I found Mascha a bit too feeble: obviously this is meant to show us how her traumatic background has cut away her ability to trust others, but the way she keeps on flaking out and having to be rescued by men does get rather wearing after a while. There seemed to be too much disconnect between the narrator's actions and the very strong narrative voice, somehow. Of course, it's not fair to expect Grjasnowa to find a neat literary resolution for Mascha's problems, still less for the universal problems of exile and displacement, but I didn't really feel at the end of the book that I was much further along than I was at the beginning. ( )
1 vote thorold | Jun 7, 2016 |
"I took a peanut, felt the salty taste on my tongue, and chewed it up."

"I found his nose very erotic. It had a little bump that he'd acquired in a fight in a rural disco that he had started himself."

"Sami stirred his coffee noisily. He stood up, opened the fridge, took out some jam and put it on the table."

"At the cash register I got a pack of cigarettes and smiled. My fingers drummed a march on the conveyor belt."

"Shaking his head, he ran a hand through his hair. He fished a pack of dented Marlboros from his pocket, lit a cigarette, smoked it, threw it onto the ground, and crushed it with his boot."

"I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. Blue dress. The music was deafening and outside it was still day."


The above lines were chosen randomly from Olga Grjasnowa's debut novel, ALL RUSSIANS LOVE BIRCH TREES, a meandering story of Masha, a gifted student of languages, born in Baku of Russian Jewish parents, living in Germany, bound for Israel. I call these quotes plot-stoppers, because they never add much to the narrative. They are just showy little irrelevant details that left me scratching my head and thinking, Huh?

These annoying little "nits" of nothing are scattered throughout the narrative - scores, perhaps even hundreds of them. They add nothing and often just stop any rare forward momentum the story might have gained. Such derivative, MFA-factory affectations drove me crazy. They were so off-putting I quickly lost interest in the story. I managed to struggle through nearly two hundred pages, before giving up and skimming through to the not very satisfactory ending.

I know the original was in German, but I don't think the problem lies in the translation. No, the real problem is this is a story that just lies there, told by a protagonist that's not very likeable or interesting, and I was unable to muster much sympathy for her.

The book description and pre-pub blurbs made it sound pretty fascinating. And perhaps it could have been. I'm pretty sure there is some message and redeeming value in there. But the bad writing obscures whatever those might have been. A very frustrating and disappointing read. ( )
  TimBazzett | Feb 14, 2014 |
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When her boyfriend, Elias, dies from a serious soccer injury, Masha, a young immigrant living in Germany who is studying to become an interpreter, must finally confront a past that has haunted her for years.

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