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The Book Trail: The Russian Edition

I am beginning this episode of the Book Trail with a novel I read recently and very much enjoyed; my detailed review will be up in the next week or two, once I get around to typing it up!  As ever, I have used the Goodreads’ ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool to compose this list.

1. A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov 226378
In its adventurous happenings, its abductions, duels, and sexual intrigues, A Hero of Our Time looks backward to the tales of Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron, so beloved by Russian society in the 1820s and ’30s. In the character of its protagonist, Pechorin, the archetypal Russian antihero, Lermontov’s novel looks forward to the subsequent glories of a Russian literature that it helped, in great measure, to make possible.

 

2. The Queen of Spades and Other Stories by Alexander Pushkin
The Queen of Spades has long been acknowledged as one of the world’s greatest short stories, in which Pushkin explores the nature of obsession. The Tales of Belkin are witty parodies of sentimentalism, while Peter the Great’s Blackamoor is an early experiment with recreating the past. The Captain’s Daughter is a novel-length masterpiece which combines historical fiction in the manner of Sir Walter Scott with the devices of the Russian fairy-tale. The Introduction provides close readings of the stories and places them in their European literary context.

 

580433. Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk by Nikolai Leskov
In this powerful and brutal short story, Leskov demonstrates the enduring truth of the Shakespearean archetype joltingly displaced to the heartland of Russia. Chastened and stifled by her marriage of convenience to a man twice her age, the young Katerina Lvovna goes yawning about the house, missing the barefoot freedom of her childhood, until she meets the feckless steward Sergei Filipych. Sergei proceeds to seduce Katerina, as he has done half the women in the town, not realizing that her passion, once freed, will attach to him so fiercely that Katerina will do anything to keep hold of him. Journalist and prose writer Nikolai Leskov is known for his powerful characterizations and the quintessentially Russian atmosphere of his stories.

 

4. The Golovlyov Family by M.E. Saltykov-Shchredin
Searingly hot in the summer, bitterly cold in the winter, the ancestral estate of the Golovlyov family is the end of the road. There Anna Petrovna rules with an iron hand over her servants and family-until she loses power to the relentless scheming of her hypocritical son Porphyry.   One of the great books of Russian literature, The Golovlyov Family is a vivid picture of a condemned and isolated outpost of civilization that, for contemporary readers, will recall the otherwordly reality of Macondo in Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.

 

5. The Queue by Vladimir Sorokin 2376088
Vladimir Sorokin’s first published novel, The Queue, is a sly comedy about the late Soviet “years of stagnation.” Thousands of citizens are in line for . . . nobody knows quite what, but the rumors are flying. Leather or suede? Jackets, jeans? Turkish, Swedish, maybe even American? It doesn’t matter–if anything is on sale, you better line up to buy it. Sorokin’s tour de force of ventriloquism and formal daring tells the whole story in snatches of unattributed dialogue, adding up to nothing less than the real voice of the people, overheard on the street as they joke and curse, fall in and out of love, slurp down ice cream or vodka, fill out crossword puzzles, even go to sleep and line up again in the morning as the queue drags on.

 

6. White Walls: Collected Stories by Tatyana Tolstaya
Tatyana Tolstaya’s short stories — with their unpredictable fairy-tale plots, appealingly eccentric characters, and stylistic abundance and flair — established her in the 1980s as one of modern Russia’s finest writers. Since then her work has been translated throughout the world. Edna O’Brien has called Tolstaya “an enchantress.” Anita Desai has spoken of her work’s “richness and ardent life.” Mixing heartbreak and humor, dizzying flights of fantasy and plunging descents to earth, Tolstaya is the natural successor in a great Russian literary lineage that includes Gogol, Yuri Olesha, Bulgakov, and Nabokov.  White Walls is the most comprehensive collection of Tolstaya’s short fiction to be published in English so far. It presents the contents of her two previous collections, On the Golden Porch and Sleepwalker in a Fog, along with several previously uncollected stories. Tolstaya writes of lonely children and lost love, of philosophers of the absurd and poets working as janitors, of angels and halfwits. She shows how the extraordinary will suddenly erupt in the midst of ordinary life, as she explores the human condition with a matchless combination of unbound imagination and unapologetic sympathy.

 

5892577. Soul by Andrei Platonov
The Soviet writer Andrey Platonov saw much of his work suppressed or censored in his lifetime. In recent decades, however, these lost works have reemerged, and the eerie poetry and poignant humanity of Platonov’s vision have become ever more clear. For Nadezhda Mandelstam and Joseph Brodsky, Platonov was the writer who most profoundly registered the spiritual shock of revolution. For a new generation of innovative post-Soviet Russian writers he figures as a daring explorer of word and world, the master of what has been called “alternative realism.” Depicting a devastated world that is both terrifying and sublime, Platonov is, without doubt, a universal writer who is as solitary and haunting as Kafka.  This volume gathers eight works that show Platonov at his tenderest, warmest, and subtlest. Among them are “The Return,” about an officer’s difficult homecoming at the end of World War II, described by Penelope Fitzgerald as one of “three great works of Russian literature of the millennium”; “The River Potudan,” a moving account of a troubled marriage; and the title novella, the extraordinary tale of a young man unexpectedly transformed by his return to his Asian birthplace, where he finds his people deprived not only of food and dwelling, but of memory and speech.

 

8. The Road: Stories, Journalism, and Essays by Vasily Grossman
The Road brings together short stories, journalism, essays, and letters by Vasily Grossman, the author of Life and Fate, providing new insight into the life and work of this extraordinary writer. The stories range from Grossman’s first success, “In the Town of Berdichev,” a piercing reckoning with the cost of war, to such haunting later works as “Mama,” based on the life of a girl who was adopted at the height of the Great Terror by the head of the NKVD and packed off to an orphanage after her father’s downfall. The girl grows up struggling with the discovery that the parents she cherishes in memory are part of a collective nightmare that everyone else wishes to forget. The Road also includes the complete text of Grossman’s harrowing report from Treblinka, one of the first anatomies of the workings of a death camp; “The Sistine Madonna,” a reflection on art and atrocity; as well as two heartbreaking letters that Grossman wrote to his mother after her death at the hands of the Nazis and carried with him for the rest of his life.

 

Which of these books pique your interest?  Have you read any of them before?

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Really Underrated Books (Part Three)

Part three of this week’s Really Underrated Books showcase is, again, made up of some quite diverse books which I feel deserve a wider readership.

1. Savage Coast by Muriel Rukeyser 16057098.jpg
As a young reporter in 1936, Muriel Rukeyser traveled to Barcelona to witness the first days of the Spanish Civil War. She turned this experience into an autobiographical novel so forward thinking for its time that it was never published. Recently discovered in her archive, this lyrical work charts her political and sexual awakening as she witnesses the popular front resistance to the fascist coup and falls in love with a German political exile who joins the first international brigade.  Rukeyser’s narrative is a modernist investigation into the psychology of violence, activism, and desire; a documentary text detailing the start of the war; and a testimony to those who fought and died for freedom and justice during the first major battle against European fascism.

 

2. The Trail of the Serpent by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1837–1915), Victorian England’s bestselling woman writer, blends Dickensian humor with chilling suspense in this “exuberantly campy” (Kirkus Reviews) mystery. The novel features Jabez North, a manipulative orphan who becomes a ruthless killer; Valerie de Cevennes, a stunning heiress who falls into North’s diabolical trap; and Mr. Peters, a mute detective who communicates his brilliant reasoning through sign language.’

 

16057518.jpg3. Advice to Little Girls by Mark Twain
When Mark Twain wrote the sparky short story “Advice to Little Girls” in 1865, he probably didn’t mean for it to be shown to them. Or maybe he did, since we all know Twain was a rascal. Now, author and illustrator Vladimir Radunsky has created a picture book based on Twain’s text that adds all the right outlandish touches.

 

4. All My Friends by Marie NDiaye
A moody and beautiful reflection on relationships, and how our idea of the world too often fails to match reality, All My Friends delivers five stories that probe the boundaries between individuals to mediate on how well we really know anybody, including ourselves. Written in hypnotic prose with characters both fully fleshed and unfathomable, All My Friends opens with the fraught love story of a man who has fallen for his housekeeper, his student of many years ago. Losing his grip as he feels his own family turning against him, he plots romance between the housekeeper and an old friend, whom he thinks is perfect for her. Later NDiaye gives us the harsh tale of a young boy longing to escape his life of poverty by becoming a sex slave—just like the beautiful young man that lived next door. And when a woman takes her mentally challenged son on a bus ride to the city, they both know that she’ll return, but he won’t. Chilling, provocative, and touching, this is an unflinching look at the personal horrors we fight every day to suppress—but in All My Friends they’re allowed to roam free.

 

2533255. Unruly Times: Wordsworth and Coleridge in Their Time by A.S. Byatt
Unruly Times is a superlative portrait of the relationship between Wordsworth and Coleridge, and a fascinating exploration of the Romantic Movement and the dramatic events that shaped it. With a novelist’s insight and eye for detail, A. S. Byatt brings alive this tumultuous period and shows a deep understanding of the effects upon the minds of Wordsworth, Coleridge and their contemporaries – de Quincey, Lamb, Hazlitt, Byron and Keats.

 

6. Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewess by Hannah Arendt
She was, Hannah Arendt wrote, “my closest friend, though she has been dead for some hundred years.” Born in Berlin in 1771 as the daughter of a Jewish merchant, Rahel Varnhagen would come to host one of the most prominent salons of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Arendt discovered her writings some time in the mid-1920s, and soon began to reimagine Rahel’s inner life and write her biography. Long unavailable and never before published as Arendt intended, Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewess returns to print in an extraordinary new edition.  Arendt draws a lively and complex portrait of a woman during the period of the Napoleonic wars and the early emancipation of the Jews, a figure who met and corresponded with some of the most celebrated authors, artists, and politicians of her time. She documents Rahel’s attempts to earn legitimacy as a writer and gain access to the highest aristocratic circles, to assert for herself a position in German culture in spite of her gender and religion.

 

7. Happy Moscow by Andrei Platonov 13533706
Moscow Chestnova is a bold and glamorous girl, a beautiful parachutist who grew up with the Revolution. As an orphan, she knew tough times—but things are changing now. Comrade Stalin has proclaimed that “Life has become better! Life has become merrier!” and Moscow herself is poised to join the Soviet elite. But her ambitions are thwarted when a freak accident propels her flaming from the sky. A new, stranger life begins. Moscow drifts from man to man, through dance halls, all-night diners, and laboratories in which the secret of immortality is actively being investigated, exploring the endless avenues and vacant spaces of the great city whose name she bears, looking for happiness, somewhere, still.’

 

8. In the Year of the Long Division by Dawn Raffel
Dawn Raffel’s debut delivers us to the wild spaces of a youth in the Midwest and to the blank terrors of the heart. There is a cold wind blowing through these stories, whose sentences come to us as a rebuke to anything felt. In her flight from sentiment, Raffel masterfully reifies the new will to absence that marks the moral and emotional bearing of her generation. The result is not just an acknowledgment of all our long divisions – the divide between impulse and the means to apprehend it, between desire and entrapment – but of the final sweet concession that we must each of us make to the futility of even the smallest mending. In the Year of Long Division gives us the triumph of craft over the obstinance of expression and the installation of a writer certain to be cited in the continuing reinvention of the American short story.

 

17574841.jpg9. Laziness in the Fertile Valley by Albert Cossery
Laziness in the Fertile Valley is Albert Cossery’s biting social satire about a father, his three sons, and their uncle — slackers one and all. One brother has been sleeping for almost seven years, waking only to use the bathroom and eat a meal. Another savagely defends the household from women. Serag, the youngest, is the only member of the family interested in getting a job. But even he — try as he might — has a hard time resisting the call of laziness.

 

10. Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth by Mark Hertsgaard
A fresh take on climate change by a renowned journalist driven to protect his daughter, your kids, and the next generation who’ll inherit the problem.  For twenty years, Mark Hertsgaard has investigated global warming for outlets including the New Yorker, NPR, Time, Vanity Fair, and The Nation. But the full truth did not hit home until he became a father and, soon thereafter, learned that climate change had already arrived―a century earlier than forecast―with impacts bound to worsen for decades to come. Hertsgaard’s daughter Chiara, now five yea rs old, is part of what he has dubbed “Generation Hot”–the two billion young people worldwide who will spend the rest of their lives coping with mounting climate disruption.  HOT is a father’s cry against climate change, but most of the book focuses on s olutions, offering a deeply reported blueprint for how all of us―as parents, communities, companies and countries―can navigate this unavoidable new era. Combining reporting from across the nation and around the world with personal reflections on his daugh ter’s future, Hertsgaard provides “pictures” of what is expected over the next fifty years: Chicago’s climate transformed to resemble Houston’s; dwindling water supplies and crop yields at home and abroad; the redesign of New York and other cities against mega-storms and sea-level rise. Above all, he shows who is taking wise, creative precautions. For in the end, HOT is a book about how we’ll survive.

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