5

‘Disappearing Earth’ by Julia Phillips ****

Julia Phillips’ debut novel, Disappearing Earth, has been hovering close to the top of my to-read list since its publication in 2019. The novel was a finalist for the National Book Award in its publication year, and reviewers have called it, variously, ‘mesmerising’, ‘a riveting page-turner’, ‘immensely moving’, and ‘a genuine masterpiece’.

Disappearing Earth opens on an August afternoon in Kamchatka, an isolated peninsula in northeastern Siberia. The region is ‘as complex as it is alluring, where social and ethnic tensions have long simmered, and where outsiders are often the first to be accused.’ To give one an idea of the isolation of the region, Phillips writes: ‘To the south west, and west was only ocean… Roads within Kamchatka were few and broken; some, to the lower and central villages, were made of dirt, washed out for most of the year; others, to the upper villages, only existed in winter, when they were pounded out of ice. No roads connected the peninsula to the rest of the continent. No one could come or go over land.’ From here, it would take nine hours to fly to Moscow, Russia’s capital city.

In the biggest city on the Kamchatka peninsula, Petropavlosk-Kamchatsky, two young sisters are abducted; a subsequent police search finds nothing of their whereabouts. Their disappearance shocks the whole community, ‘with the fear and loss felt most deeply among its women.’ Phillips’ entire cast of characters are connected by this ‘unfathomable crime’. The sisters are Alyona and Sophia Golosovskaya, just eleven and eight years old respectively. From the first chapter, which details their disappearance, we learn of their close relationship, and the way in which they have spent the entire summer with one another. The man who takes them, feigning a sore ankle so that they will see him back to his car, ‘looked carved out of fresh butter’.

The strong sense of place which suffuses the novel – it is almost a character in itself – is immediately apparent. Of the sisters, Phillips writes: ‘They sat under the peak of St. Nicholas Hill. If they had kept walking along the shoreline today, they would have seen the stony side of the hill eventually lower, exposing the stacked squares of a neighbourhood overhead. Five-story Soviet apartment buildings covered in patchwork concrete. The wooden frames of collapsed houses… the last bit of land before the sea.’

Following the abduction, each chapter focuses upon a different character, and details how they have been affected by the story of the Golosovskaya sisters. Each chapter also takes place in a subsequent month, so we move through an entire calendar year in the space of the novel. We meet, for instance, a teenage girl named Olya, who loses her best friend when she expresses her belief that is completely safe to be alone in the city. We also learn of a young indigenous woman, who disappeared some time before the sisters, and who was never searched for properly due to police bias. As Phillips writes: ‘Reporters behaved as though the sisters from this summer invented the act of vanishing.’ The relationships which are imagined between characters are complex, and tautly drawn.

Aside from the disappearance, Phillips deals with some very important issues, including corruption; poverty; media bias and propaganda; racism against indigenous peoples; separation; isolation and solitude; and the way in which so many things have changed since the collapse of the USSR. The many and varied concerns of the characters feel realistic, as does the search for the ‘two small white bodies’, which ‘served as a good excuse to ignore the city’s other corruptions…’.

I was so interested to read about Kamchatka, where few novels are set, and Phillips held my interest throughout. It feels as though Phillips knows the places and spaces which she writes about intimately. Although there is a lot of darkness within this novel, I would still like to visit the tundras and vast wildernesses of Russia, to see how they compare to Moscow and St Petersburg, which I am lucky enough to have visited.

Given its structure, Disappearing Earth is almost a short story collection, which is connected by a single, pivotal event. I really enjoyed the simple yet effective approach which Phillips has taken, focusing as she does on so many individuals, all of whom the reader gets to know very well. There are a lot of layers within this debut novel, and I very much look forward to reading whatever Phillips brings out next.

3

The Book Trail: From Edward Thomas to Russia

I begin this particular Book Trail with a wonderful biography on Edward Thomas which I read last year.  As ever, I have gone through the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to generate this list.  It soon becomes wonderfully Russian.

 

1. Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas by Matthew Hollis
12267095‘Edward Thomas was perhaps the most beguiling and influential of First World War poets. Now All Roads Lead to France is an account of his final five years, centred on his extraordinary friendship with Robert Frost and Thomas’s fatal decision to fight in the war.  The book also evokes an astonishingly creative moment in English literature, when London was a battleground for new, ambitious kinds of writing. A generation that included W. B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, Robert Frost and Rupert Brooke were ‘making it new’ – vehemently and pugnaciously.  These larger-than-life characters surround a central figure, tormented by his work and his marriage. But as his friendship with Frost blossomed, Thomas wrote poem after poem, and his emotional affliction began to lift. In 1914 the two friends formed the ideas that would produce some of the most remarkable verse of the twentieth century. But the War put an ocean between them: Frost returned to the safety of New England while Thomas stayed to fight for the Old.   It is these roads taken – and those not taken – that are at the heart of this remarkable book, which culminates in Thomas’s tragic death on Easter Monday 1917.

 

2. Selected Letters by John Keats 269534
‘The letters of John Keats are, T. S. Eliot remarked, “what letters ought to be; the fine things come in unexpectedly, neither introduced nor shown out, but between trifle and trifle.” This new edition, which features four rediscovered letters, three of which are being published here for the first time, affords readers the pleasure of the poet’s “trifles” as well as the surprise of his most famous ideas emerging unpredictably.  Unlike other editions, this selection includes letters to Keats and among his friends, lending greater perspective to an epistolary portrait of the poet. It also offers a revealing look at his “posthumous existence,” the period of Keats’s illness in Italy, painstakingly recorded in a series of moving letters by Keats’s deathbed companion, Joseph Severn. Other letters by Dr. James Clark, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Richard Woodhouse–omitted from other selections of Keats’s letters–offer valuable additional testimony concerning Keats the man.  Edited for greater readability, with annotations reduced and punctuation and spelling judiciously modernized, this selection recreates the spontaneity with which these letters were originally written.’

 

3. The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy by Sofia Tolstaya
8189924‘After marrying Count Leo Tolstoy, the renowned author of Anna Karenina and War and Peace, Sofia Tolstoy kept a detailed diary until his death in 1910. Her life was not an easy one: she idealized her husband but was tormented by him. She lived against the background of one of the most turbulent periods in her country’s history, as old feudal Russia was transformed by three revolutions and three major international wars.  Yet it is as Sofia Tolstoy’s own life story—the study of one woman’s private experience—that these diaries are most valuable and moving. They reveal a woman of tremendous vital energy and poetic sensibility who, in the face of provocation and suffering, continued to strive for the higher things in life and to remain indomitable.’

 

4. The House by the Dvina: A Russian Childhood by Eugenie Fraser
‘The riveting story of two families separated in culture and geography but bound 1230537together by a Russian-Scottish marriage includes the purchase by the author’s great-grandfather of a peasant girl with whom he had fallen in love, the desperate sledge journey in the depths of winter made by her grandmother to intercede with Tsar Aleksandr II for her husband, the extraordinary courtship of her parents, and her Scottish granny being caught up in the abortive revolution of 1905. Brought up in Russia but taken on visits to Scotland, Eugenie Fraser marvelously evokes a child’s reactions to two totally different environments, sets of customs, and family backgrounds. With the events of 1914 to 1920—the war with Germany, the Revolution, the murder of the Tsar, and the withdrawal of the Allied Intervention in the north—came the disintegration of Russia and of family life. The stark realities of hunger, deprivation, and fear are sharply contrasted with the adventures of childhood. The reader shares the family’s suspense and concern about the fates of its members and relives with Eugenie her final escape to Scotland.’

 

5. Michael and Natasha: The Life and Love of Michael II, the Last of the Romanov 97410Tsars by Rosemary and Donald Crawford
Michael and Natasha is both an astonishing love story and an illuminating look at the last glorious days of the Romanovs and the brutal revolution that ended their reign. Based on private diaries, letters, and documents long hidden in the Soviet archives, it sheds light on an extraordinary tale of enduring love and ultimate tragedy that, until now, has never been told. He was the Grand Duke Michael Aleksandrovich, the tall, dashing brother of Tsar Nicholas II. She was Nathalie Wulfert, a beautiful, elegant, intelligent, divorced commoner, and the wife of a Guards officer under Michael’s command. Everything was wrong…yet for Grand Duke Michael, it was love at first sight-an obsession that would lead to disgrace, humiliation, and exile.  Much of Michael and Natasha’s story is told in their own words, through hundreds of hitherto unpublished letters. Here they reveal their passion, their joy, and their despair as they are banished from their own country, bathed in scandal in the courts of Europe, and forced to suffer cruel separation. But more than a love story, Michael and Natasha is a historical drama played out against the elegant background of a bygone age and a world at war. It is a spell-binding account of Michael’s return to Russia, his reputation as a war hero, the downfall of Nicholas II, the strange and short reign of Grand Duke Michael, and the cruel and tragic end of one of the most colorful eras in world history.’

 

6. Elizabeth, Grand Duchess of Russia by Hugo Mager 1154620
‘Had Elizabeth married the future Kaiser of Germany, as her grandmother so shrewdly desired, World War I might well have been deterred, and had she not arranged the marriage of her younger sister, Alexandra, to the man who became Tsar Nicholas II, the Russian Revolution might have been averted. Modern European history was shaped by the choices Elizabeth made. Thoroughly researched and elegantly composed, Hugo Mager’s biography of Elizabeth captures the soul of the Grand Duchess of Russia and the spirit of her times as it follows her journey into the tide of monumental events, from the Franco-Prussian War to the Russian Revolution, that forged the modern world.’

 

948947. St Petersburg: A Cultural History by Solomon Volkov
‘The city of St. Petersburg became the center of liberal opposition to the dominating power of the state, whether czarist or communist. Acclaimed Russian historian and emigre Volkov writes the definitive “cultural biography” of that famed city, sharply detailing the well-known figures of the arts whose works are now part of the permanent fabric of Western high culture.’

 

8. Land of the Firebird: The Beauty of Old Russia by Suzanne Massie
”Land of the Firebird’ is a WONDERFUL and ENGAGING in-depth look of Russian history 775380from 987-1917, spanning the ascension of Vlad and the Orthodox Church to right before the Revolution. With colorful prose Suzanne Massie details the variety of Russian existence–tsars and serfs and merchant-princes and babushkas–no stone is left uncovered as she cross-references nearly a thousands years, writing with equal consideration of art, poetry, country-life, court-life, politics and its myriad games, myths and legends, influence “outside the sphere.”‘

 

Have you read any of these books?  Do any pique your interest?

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12

Akylina’s Most Memorable Books of 2019

Here we are in the very last day of 2019, yet another year that flew by in the blink of an eye. I did manage to read more this year (68 books) compared to 2018 (52 books), and although I read some really great books, I can’t really say I have many new favourites. This is why, instead of a Best of 2019 list, I come to you with my most memorable reads of the year. Although not all of these books were 5-star reads for me, they are all books I still remember vividly and fondly today.

So, without further ado, let’s look at some of the books that made my 2019 a little brighter:

Masks by Enchi Fumiko 25304404

Perhaps one of the most memorable books of 2019 was the very first book I read, Masks by Enchi Fumiko, translated from Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter. A tale of deception, revenge and punishment like nothing you have read before, Masks is an excellent showcase of the narrative capabilities of Japanese female writers of the 1950s, who are significantly less talked about compared to the men writing in the same period.

 

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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

When any form of media is suddenly widely popular and talked about, I’m always very skeptical about it, as I don’t always tend to agree with those popular opinions. Eleanor Oliphant, however, proved to be the bright exception to my own rule. I started reading it having absolutely no expectations, just wanting a light read for my daily commute, and I ended up becoming so attached to Eleanor and her story that I devoured it before realising it.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov 29777060._SY475_

One of the most revered classics of Russian literature, Bulgakov’s masterpiece had been on my TBR list for a very long time. Numbering more than 500 pages, The Master and Margarita is a satirical and at times comical and, of course, controversial novel that takes place in Soviet Moscow. It was written during Stalin’s reign, but was published much, much later due to the severe censorship of the time (which, of course, is mentioned and criticised in the novel as well). Employing magical realism and a series of absurd events, Bulgakov weaves a tale that will remain in reader’s minds and hearts for a long time.

39980637._SY475_Sōseki: Modern Japan’s Greatest Novelist by John Nathan

Natsume Soseki was undoubtedly one of Japan’s biggest literary figures and John Nathan has done a really impressive job compiling his life and accomplishments in this tome. Soseki’s life story is truly fascinating to read, even though his character was not as praise-worthy as his literary production and contribution was. Nonetheless, no one can deny his massive role in shaping modern Japanese literature and the author of this book has done a wonderful job letting us in on some of his genius.

 

Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin 30039170._SY475_

I find Shirley Jackson one of the most intriguing modern authors and I always crave her writing, although I haven’t really read that much yet. A Rather Haunted Life recounts every detail of the author’s life (and I do mean every detail), from her childhood and college years to her married life and unfortunate death. I developed a massive dislike towards her husband, Stanley, since cheating is a behaviour I cannot tolerate, but overall it was very enjoyable reading (or rather listening, as I had this as an audiobook) about Shirley’s life and literary adventures.

 

43706056._SY475_The Five Wonders of Danube by Zoran Živković

Živković is one of the biggest literary figures of Serbia, so I was very excited to finally get to read some of his work. The Five Wonders of Danube is a whimsical and quite original homage to art of every kind and the artistic creation. The book consists of five parts, each one describing a separate incident/”wonder” that takes places in a different bridge of the Danube River, and all connecting somehow at the end. It was translated from Serbian by Alice Copple-Tošić and it was an excellent introduction to this great author’s work. I plan on posting a full review of it in January, so stay tuned if you want to hear more details about it.

Ο Κίτρινος Φάκελος [The Yellow Folder] by M. Karagatsis 6938031

Karagatsis is one of my favourite Greek authors and I’ll always lament the absence of his works in English translation. The Yellow Folder (my translation, as there’s no official one) is an excellent character study with drops of mystery and the consequences of attempting to control people’s lives and play with them just to see what happens. Chilling, unforgettable and utterly enjoyable, this novel is a treasure trove of literary allusions, musings on life and rich character study of the kind only Karagatsis can deliver.

18114976Apparitions: Ghosts of Old Edo by Miyabe Miyuki

Apart from Miyabe’s evocative writing, Apparitions is perhaps one of the best translations I’ve ever read from Japanese, as it truly read like a work originally written in English, without any phrase or passage of awkward phrasing, all thanks to the magic pen of Daniel Huddleston. Apparitions contains several short stories, all set in the Edo (former name of Tokyo) period of feudal Japan. Miyabe’s Old Edo is rife with vengeful spirits and malevolent ghosts, creating a thoroughly creepy and chilling atmosphere, but one which the reader truly cannot get enough of.

Tokyo Ueno Station by Yū Miri Print

I don’t think I can call Tokyo Ueno Station a favourite book, mostly because it’s theme and plot are so harrowing and heartbreaking that just thinking about it even months after having read it just makes my heart ache. However, I do believe it’s an extremely important read, simply because sometimes we get too caught up in our lives and problems and don’t become aware of the people who might be suffering right next to us. On the eve of the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, after having lost his family, our protagonist finds himself homeless at Ueno Park near the station and he starts remembering bits and pieces of his life. His son was born at the same day as the Emperor’s son, and yet his fate ended up being entirely different. Tokyo Ueno Station is nothing short of a punch in the gut, as it exposes the ugliest side of life and the inevitability that chases around people who are not privileged. It was translated from Japanese by Morgan Giles.

These are some of the most memorable books I read in 2019. For 2020, I’m hoping to read a little more broadly, read some new to me authors and read literature from countries I haven’t yet read.

Have you read any of these books? What were your most memorable reads of 2019? What are your 2020 reading goals?

Happy New Year to everyone, and I hope 2020 brings you health, joy and lots of bookish delights! 🙂

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‘The Vanishing Futurist’ by Charlotte Hobson ****

Charlotte Hobson’s The Vanishing Futurist caught my eye soon after its publication in 2016, but it has taken me quite a while to procure a copy of the novel.  Russia and its history absolutely fascinates me, and I was intrigued by the twist which Hobson has added to the turmoil of the 1918 Revolutions.  Anthony Beever calls this novel ‘breathtakingly original, luminously intelligent and impossible to put down’, and The Guardian describes it as ‘a rapturous, carnival-like ride into political disorder, heady romance and absurdity.’
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The Vanishing Futurist is set in Moscow in 1918 where, in the ‘heady post-revolutionary atmosphere, a young English governess, Gerty Freely, and her friends throw themselves into the task of living as genuine communists.’  A rather mysterious and revered inventor, Nikita Slavkin, runs their commune.  He is ‘determined to revolutionise daily life with his technological innovations’, one of which is thought to have caused his disappearance.  The novel opens with a report from the Soviet Press, which states that ‘the Socialisation Capsule, Slavkin’s latest invention, represented an extraordinary advance in human knowledge… [and] revolutionised our understanding of the universe.’  Slavkin is thus the ‘Vanishing Futurist’ of the novel’s title.

Gerty, a headstrong young woman, takes it upon herself to find out the truth behind his disappearance, which becomes quite notorious in Russian circles.  In fact, his mysterious exit from Russia causes him to become a ‘Soviet icon’, with streets named after him, and films made about his life.  People remain convinced that one day he will reappear; ‘that if his Socialisation Capsule can distort our perception of temporal reality, then it can equally reinstate it.’

Gerty, in her late seventies, is looking back on her life, focusing upon her time in Russia when living in London.  She justifies this decision by saying: ‘My husband, Paul, died six months ago, and since then I have had the strange sensation that the present, my creaky old body in the little terraced house in Hackney which we bought together, is no longer my home.’  She reveals that she has kept this portion of her past a secret from her only daughter, Sophy, and it seems time to make amends.  Talking face to face seems difficult, so Gerty takes another route: ‘I find myself writing an account for her instead, using the papers as my starting point.  This way, I think, will be more truthful – more complete – than if I stammer it out incoherently.’

The novel is narrated by Gerty, who comes from Truro in Cornwall, and decides to become a governess for the Kobelev family in central Moscow.  Of her reasoning to do so, she states: ‘… I was a bookish, scrawny girl, a spinster in the making; argumentative and contrary to my father (as he often said) and disappointingly serious to my mother, who wanted to gossip with me about clothes.  Reading Tolstoy had made me long to visit this country full of peasant women in birch-bark sandals, young officers as fresh as cucumbers, forests filled with unheard-of berries.’ I found Gerty’s voice immediately believable, and its pace and turns of phrase were maintained with consistency throughout.

From the outset, Hobson weaves in rather sensuous descriptions to Gerty’s narrative, which allow her to deftly capture her drastically different change of surroundings: ‘… I was shown immediately to Mrs Kobelev’s room, the heart of the house, dark and hot and smelling of face powder and eau de cologne and slept-in sheets and violet lozenges.’  Moscow, one of my own favourite cities, has been marvellously captured in all of its mystery: ‘Moscow is a city that insinuates itself cunningly into one’s affections.  At first it fascinated and slightly repelled me, as some vast medieval fair might…  Yet slowly I came to know its little courtyards, its secret gardens and alleys, its cool green boulevards cast in relief against the bustle and noise.  It was impossible not to be charmed by the wooden houses and the bawdy streets, the little churches squeezed into every corner.  There was a sort of unexpected joyfulness about it all, unlike any other city I have known.’  Despite the outbreak of war, and the looming Revolutions, Gerty finds a freedom in Moscow that she has never known at home in Cornwall: ‘… I discovered a household where the most absurd and opposing views could be voiced, disagreed with, argued over or renounced without any tempers lost or touchy Chapel gods involved.’

Hobson successfully navigates her way through a pivotal period of Russia’s history, weaving in avant-garde elements against the backdrop of mass arrests and sea-change.  Moscow, and Russia on a grander scale, has been marvellously captured, and the entirety of the novel is so engaging.  There is humour here – for instance, Slavkin ‘ate a great deal of sandwiches, swallowing them whole, like a snake’.  I could not help but feel a fondness for Gerty.

Telling such a story through the eyes of a participant and also a bystander, as Gerty is, is a clever touch, which works well.  The Vanishing Futurist took a series of twists and turns which I was not expecting, and is a novel which is so clever, and so well executed.  I look forward both to picking up Hobson’s debut, and to seeing what she comes up with next.

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1

‘Avenging Angels: Soviet Women Snipers on the Eastern Front (1941-45)’ by Lyuba Vinogradova ***

As anyone who knows me only vaguely will be aware, I am absolutely fascinated by anything to do with Russia, and am particularly keen on Russian history.  I was therefore most intrigued by Lyuba Vinogradova’s Avenging Angels, which features many different accounts of women who worked as snipers for the Russian Army during the Second World War.  The book has been translated from its original Russian by Arch Tait, and features an introduction written by Anna Reid.  First published in 2017, Avenging Angels is the author’s third book.  It is supposed to act as a companion volume to Vinogradova’s Defending the Motherland: The Soviet Women Who Fought Hitler’s Aces, but I do not feel as though reading one before the other is necessary; this book does not even reference the author’s previous work.

9780857051998The Irish Independent calls the book ‘a powerful and moving account of women rising up to take arms, free their country – and, paradoxically, assert their common humanity.’  The Times believes it to be ‘well-written, engaging and enlightening’.  Certainly, the existence of such a tome is invaluable, reflecting as it does the huge war effort which the Soviet Union made during the 1940s.  In her introduction, Reid cites: ‘The Soviet Union sent more women into combat during the Second World War than any other nation before or since.’

The women who were trained as snipers ‘came from every corner of the U.S.S.R. – factory workers, domestic servants, teachers and clerks, and few were older than twenty.  With their country on its knees, and millions of its mean already dead, grievously wounded or in captivity, from 1942 onwards thousands of Soviet women were trained as snipers.’  Indeed, the estimated figures of the numbers of Soviet women who worked in some capacity for the war effort are astonishing, ranging between 579,000-800,000 serving in the Red Army, and rising to over a million when one considers female partisans, volunteers, and civilian militias.  Many women began by taking jobs in factories, or in the realm of civil defence.  After the ‘full-scale conscription of women into the military’ began in March 1942, women became ‘fully integrated into all services.’  Those who chose to bear arms were a ‘substantial minority’, writes Reid.

Many countries were sceptical about the women’s role in the war effort, but in Russia, a positive consequence of Communist rule was that everyone was, essentially, viewed as equals.  Vinogradova writes: ‘… it did not see strange to anyone that an extensive mobilisation of women for the army should take place.’  Russia’s women snipers were so numerous that they formed many platoons, consisting of around thirty individuals each.  They were subsequently sent to ‘accompany regular units’ on the battlefield.

Here, the focus of the book is on the ‘interviews with women who took on some of the war’s most high-profile combat roles – as fighter and bomber pilots, and as snipers.’  Vinogradova assert that it is not her attention ‘to assess their contribution to the war effort, nor to Soviet gender politics, but to capture their individual stories, the particular lived experiences that are left out of conventional’ history writing about wartime.  She goes on to say of the women she interviewed: ‘My heart went out to them, I pitied them in their old age and infirmity, but all the while I was listening out for an answer to one particular question: were they tormented by the thought of the lives they had taken?’  As well as the interviews which she herself conducts, Vinogradova also includes fragments of letters and diaries, which add depth to the whole.

Vinogradova discusses at points how Russia was viewed by the wider world during the Second World War, which I found fascinating.  She tells us: ‘Russia, which until very recently had been considered a rogue state, a secretive, backward, aggressive colossus that had made a pact with the Germans and attacked neighbouring countries in order to seize territory, was now being viewed quite differently.  It was a land desperately fighting a powerful and ruthless aggressor…  Russia was on everybody’s mind and many families identified closely with the victories of the Red Army.’

The stories of so many women have been factored into Avenging Angels.  Sadly, whilst some are rather in-depth studies of what the entire war was like for a particular woman, others are mentioned only once, or take up just one or two paragraphs.  This created a feeling of imbalance in the book.  Clearly though, the author is both passionate and understanding toward them, and whilst she occasionally poses questions about the effects which war, and seeing friends and comrades killed, must have had on the young women, she never appears judgemental of their choices.

I found parts of Avenging Angels fascinating, particularly with regard to the rigorous training which Vinogradova details: ‘In the barracks there was theory, which included ballistics and the characteristics of their equipment.  The girls spent a lot of tim outdoors, whatever the weather.  They were taught to dig different types of foxholes, to camouflage themselves and sit for long periods (as they might ahead of an ambush), to navigate terrain and crawl…  There were lessons in the additional skills needed for sniping: observation and the ability to commit the details of the landscape around them to memory, sharpness of vision and keeping one’s hands steady.  They were also taught unarmed combat techniques and how to throw a hand grenade.’

Of course, inevitable comparisons will be drawn between Vinogradova’s book and The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich.  I read Alexievich’s quite masterful work several months before picking up Vinogradova’s, and must say that I enjoyed it far more.  I felt that Alexievich’s work was better structured and more linear in its approach, which made a real difference in the reading experience.

I found Avenging Angels rather muddled at times; individuals were focused upon in one paragraph, and then Vinogradova switched very quickly to giving a barrage of facts about the general state of the war, only to come back to the individual again a while later.  This approach meant that reading Avenging Angels was a little jarring.  I also do not feel as though the introduction added anything to the volume.  Reid seemed to repeat chunks of what was in Vinogradova’s narrative, sometimes quoting figures and phrases verbatim.

I feel as though Avenging Angels would have been far more successful had it been set out in a different way, perhaps using each woman as a kind of case study, where everything about them could have been set out in one place.  This would have made it far less confusing, particularly as Vinogradova has a habit of referring to a woman she has mentioned once or twice by only her first name later on in the book.  The sheer number of women included here is staggering; it perhaps might have been better had Vinogradova paid attention to just a handful of them instead.  Another qualm is the quite odd way in which the author often introduces the woman in question; she almost always begins with the ‘good and bad’ points of a woman’s physical appearance, which, of course, has no bearing on her experience or ability as a sniper, and thus seemed rather redundant.

As I was reading, I was constantly aware, too, that Avenging Angels is a translated book; some of the phrasing is odd, or clumsy.  There are also occasional slips from the past to the present tense, which added to this.  My feeling is that the translator could have done more in order to make the work a more fluid, and therefore less confusing, piece.

It took a while, certainly, for me to get used to what felt like quite a haphazard approach in places, but I did find that it became a more immersive book as I continued to read.  To conclude, Avenging Angels is a fascinating and very worthy research topic, but it has been flawed in its execution.  Its epilogue also ends very abruptly, and seems to cut off with no real conclusion.  This made it feel somewhat as though the book had been rushed, which was a real shame, and which did, along with the other elements which I have pointed out in my review, dull my enjoyment levels.

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‘The Unwomanly Face of War’ by Svetlana Alexievich ****

Svetlana Alexievich’s ‘classic oral history’ The Unwomanly Face of War has recently been released in its first English version, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.  I was so excited to pick up a copy, fascinated as I am by Russian history and the Second World War, both of which Alexievich’s work encompasses.

During the Second World War, ‘about a million women fought in the Soviet army,’ Alexievich writes in her introduction.  ‘They mastered all military specialties, including the most “masculine” ones.  A linguistic problem even emerged: no feminine gender had existed till then for the words “tank driver,” “infantryman,” “machine gunner,” because women had never done that work.  The feminine forms were born there, in the war’.  Belarusian Alexievich then goes on to discuss her experiences growing up just after the war in Ukraine, when tragedy affected everyone: ‘We didn’t know a world without war; the world of war was the only one familiar to us, and the people of war were the only people we knew.’

Alexievich, 9780141983523an investigative journalist, wanted to write an account about women, and of their experiences in conflict.  Her reasoning and justification for writing The Unwomanly Face of War are strong.  She saw the existing reportage of wartime accounts flawed, due to their masculine leanings.  She writes: ‘There have been a thousand wars – small and big, known and unknown.  And still more has been written about them.  But… it was men writing about men – that much was clear at once.  Everything we know about war we know with “a man’s voice.”‘  She goes on to exemplify the highly varied experiences of women, and their often far more emotive accounts.  ‘”Women’s” war,’ she points out, ‘has its own colors, its own smells, its own lighting, and its own range of feelings.  Its own words.  There are no heroes and incredible feats, there are simply people who are busy doing inhumanly human things.’

It was markedly important for Alexievich to speak to as many women as she could, and in consequence, she is able to share ‘stories of women’s experiences in World War II on the front lines, on the home front, and in occupied territories.’  To collect the testimonies, she took ‘dozens of trips all over the country, hundreds of recorded cassettes, thousands of yards of tape.  Five hundred meetings, after which I stopped counting; faces left in my memory, only voices remained.  A chorus resounds in my memory.  An enormous chorus; sometimes the words almost cannot be heard, only the weeping.’  Accounts came from Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.  She interviewed snipers, drivers, traffic controllers, liaison officers, nurses, paramedics, mechanics, telephone operators, pilots, and partisans, to create her multilayered portrait of women in war.

Alexievich is aware of the flaws to be found in any project of this kind, primarily the validity of what she is being told, as there is no way to verify individual accounts.  She says, ‘but the narrators are not only witnesses – least of all are they witnesses, they are actors and makers.  It is impossible to go right up to reality.  Between us and reality are our feelings.’  Her aim here is to portray the ‘sickening’ futility of war, and its far-reaching effects: ‘I write not about war, but about human beings in war.  I write not the history of a war, but the history of feelings.  I am a historian of the soul.’

The Unwomanly Face of War, as far as it can be judged to be so, feels candid.  Both the accounts which have been transposed, and Muller’s intelligent and measured commentary, are expressive and immersive.  Whilst the accounts themselves are sometimes very matter-of-fact, and verge upon the simplistic with regard to their language, they are often horrific and difficult to read.  The Unwomanly Face of War is such an important historical document, touching and tender.  Alexievich has included fragments of so many stories which deserve to be told.

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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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Reading the World: ‘Poor People’ (‘Poor Folk’) by Fyodor Dostoevsky ****

Poor People, more commonly printed with the title Poor Folk, is the debut novel of Russian literary heavyweight Fyodor Dostoevsky, and was first published in Russia in 1846.  I read it in the beautiful Alma Classics edition, which has been wonderfully and fluidly translated by Hugh Aplin.

9781847493125Told in an epistolary manner, it follows two characters who live upon the fringes of society in St Petersburg, struggling with poverty rather acutely.  Devushkin Alexievich is a copywriter working in an office, and Barbara Alexievna a seamstress.   ‘These are people,’ Dostoevsky tells us, who are ‘respected by no one, not even by themselves’.  They are infatuated with one another, but are too poor to marry.  Rather, they live in small apartments opposite one another.  We are witness to their back and forth of letters, and the unfolding correspondence which lets us learn about both protagonists.  We are party to the workings of their minds, and their deepest thoughts and questions about one another.  Barbara writes the following to Devushkin, for instance: ‘… what has made you go and take the room which you have done, where you will be worried and disturbed, and where you have neither elbow-space nor comfort – you who love solitude, and never like to have any one near you?’

Poor People begins on April the 8th, and continues in different letters by both characters, until ending in the September of the same year.  When the novella starts, Devushkin has just moved into a new apartment – the one which faces Barbara’s – and devises a cunning plan with her curtains; when she loops them up, he knows that she is thinking of him, and when they are closed, he knows that it is time to go to bed.  Certainly, Devushkin is a more dreamy, whimsical character than Barbara; she seems to have enough sensibility for the both of them, and thinks practically throughout.  She despairs particularly about her future: ‘Ah, what is going to become of me?  What will be my fate?  To have to be so uncertain as to the future, to have to be unable to foretell what is going to happen, distresses me deeply.  Even to look back at the past is horrible, as it contains sorrow that breaks my heart at the very thought of it.’

Dostoevsky’s use of nature is sublime, and is present from the very first letter, used as a device to lift Devushkin’s spirits: ‘This morning, too, I arose (joyous and full of love) at cockcrow.  How good seemed everything at that hour, my darling!  When I opened my window I could see the sun shining, and hear the birds singing, and smell the air laden with scents of spring.  In short, all nature was awaking to life again.  Everything was in consonance with my mood; everything seemed fair and spring-like.’

The letters are variant in length, and are all suffused with differing levels of love and despair, as well as the emergence of hope at intervals.  Dostoevsky’s prose is gorgeously rich, and has a very modern feel to it.  The characters alter as their circumstances do; they have been so well built, and their shifting relationship too feels true to life.

As with all of Dostoevsky’s work, Poor People is filled with beauty and passion; realistic characters are at its heart.  Dostoevsky is one of my favourite authors, and I am always immediately captivated by his thoughts and stories.  My experience was no different here; for those who already love Russian literature it is a must-read, and it would also serve as a fantastic introduction to the myriad of wonderful works published within the fascinating country.

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Reading the World: ‘The Suitcase’ by Sergei Dovlatov ***

Translated from its original Russian by Antonina W. Bouis, Sergei Dovlatov’s The Suitcase fits wonderfully within my Reading the World Project.  I had never read any Dovlatov before picking this novella up in the Books for Amnesty shop in Cambridge, but was intrigued by its premise: ‘Several years after emigrating from the USSR, the author discovers the battered suitcase he had brought with him gathering dust at the back of a wardrobe. As he opens the suitcase, the seemingly undistinguished items he finds inside take on a riotously funny life of their own as Dovlatov inventories the circumstances under which he acquired them’.

9781847492791Dovlatov’s books were banned in Russia, and he was forced into a life of exile in the United States.  The Suitcase, published for the first time in 1986 in Russia, and in English translation in 1990, is perhaps one of the most modern male-written Russian books which I have read, as I tend to plump for the likes of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.  The Suitcase is a comic work, ‘overlaid with Dovlatov’s characteristically dark-edged humour’.  On the book’s blurb, in fact, he is deemed ‘one of the finest satirists of the twentieth century’.

The Suitcase has been simply but effectively split into sections which detail all of the things found in the suitcase, from ‘The Finnish Crepe Socks’ to ‘The Winter Hat’.  This essentially forms a series of interconnected short stories.  The narrator of the piece is named Sergei Dovlatov too, but it is not entirely certain whether this is a work with autobiographical echoes in terms of the existence of such a suitcase and its contents.

We learn quite a lot about Dovlatov the character from the stories which we are told.  After he has been released from prison at the outset of the work, he gives a short appraisal of his life, and where he finds himself: ‘I almost wept with self-pity.  After all, I was thirty-six years old.  Had worked eighteen of them.  I earned money, bought things with it.  I owned a certain amount, it seemed to me.  And still I only needed one suitcase – and of rather modest dimensions at that’.

Dovlatov is amusing and sardonic throughout, although some of the chapters are certainly funnier than others.  He mocks the Communist regime, and the way of life which had to be adhered to when he was young and living in Russia: ‘As a schoolboy I liked to draw the leaders of the world proletariat – especially Marx.  Just start smearing an ordinary splotch of ink around and you’ve already got a resemblance…’.

The Suitcase has been written and translated well, but I did not enjoy it as much as others seem to.  The writing is more matter of fact than pretty, and the descriptions are cursory when talking about anything other than the items within the suitcase.  Dovlatov seems to subscribe to the ‘tell rather than show’ method of prose writing.  It is rather a quick read, and a thoughtful one at times, but whilst there is a social commentary and historical details – black marketeering, politics, figureheads, industry, Communism and Capitalism, and propaganda, to name just a few – running throughout the book, there is not the depth to it which I was expecting there to be.  There is profundity at times, but I feel that this could have been used to better effect had the writing sparkled more.

There is not much of a geographical sense of place within the pages of The Suitcase, which would have added depth and context to the whole.  It is also quite dialogue heavy, something which I’m not that keen on in stories unless it’s done incredibly well.  Whilst it does hold interest for those fascinated by Russian history, I have discovered that I am far more a fan of the descriptive variety of Russian literature, by the likes of Dostoevsky, Pushkin, and Bulgakov.  The Suitcase does present a series of stories which circle around a clever central idea, but I found that I liked the idea of it more than its execution.

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One From the Archive: ‘There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children Until They Moved Back In: Three Novellas About Family’ by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya **

There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children Until They Moved Back In: Three Novellas About Family is the newest work published in English by Russian author Ludmilla Petrushevskaya.  The New York Times believes her to be ‘one of Russia’s best living writers…  her tales inhabit a borderline between this world and the next’.

The blurb of There Once Lived a Mother… states that in these ‘darkly imagined’ novellas, ‘both cruelty and love dominate relationships between husband and wife, mother and child…  Blending horror with satire, fantasy with haunting truth, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s newly translated tales create a cast of unlikely heroines in a carnivalesque world of extremes’.

Anna Summers has translated the book, and has also penned its informative introduction.  At the outset, she sets out the ‘story-swapping culture’ which exists in Russia, and goes on to inform us that ‘the three novellas in this volume tell extreme stories that couldn’t be heard for many years – censorship wouldn’t allow it’.  Summers believes that Petrushevskaya is incredibly important within the Russian canon, describing, as she does, ‘in minute detail how ordinary people, Muscovites, lived from day to day in their identical cramped apartments…  She spoke for all those who suffered domestic hell in silence, the way Solzhenitsyn spoke for the countless nameless political prisoners’.

Of the author’s protagonists, Summers says the following: ‘Reading Petrushevskaya is an unforgettable experience.  This testifies to the exceptional power of her art, because her characters, by their own admission, don’t make particularly fascinating subjects.  In this volume, her heroines are tired, scared, impoverished women who have been devastated by domestic tragedies…  Such women are boring even to themselves’.

The three novellas within There Once Lived a Mother… are entitled ‘The Time Is Night’, ‘Chocolates with Liqueur’ and ‘Among Friends’ – Petrushevksaya’s best-known and highly controversial story – and were published in Russia in 1988, 1992 and 2002 respectively.  Each story is unsettling, and they are quite stylistically similar too.  Despite the lulling and almost simplistic narrative voices used in There Once Lived a Mother…, the sense of foreboding is incredibly strong from the start.  Atmosphere is built up marvellously through Petrushevskaya’s use of sparse wording, which gives the reader an immediate indication that something is not quite right.

In these stories, cruelty nestles into every crevice of life.  The narrator of ‘The Time is Night’ is a poet named Anna, who looks after her young grandson, Tima.  He is a young boy who at first appears ‘jealous’ of her ‘so-called success’, and she consequently blames him for all of the problems in her life.  As the tale goes on, however, one realises that Tima is the only thing which she is living for.  Her existence is bleak; her paralysed mother has been in hospital for seven years, and her son has been in prison.  Her daughter, Tima’s mother, is living away with ‘baby number two’, her ‘new fatherless brat’, and taking all of the money which should be Tima’s.  Anna, whilst headstrong, is rather naive, and despite her poor quality of life, there is something in her narrative which prevents any sympathy being felt for her.

The brutality and violence within There Once Lived a Mother… seem senseless after a while, making the stories rather a chore to read.  The cast of characters are not quite realistic; their foibles and traits sometimes sit oddly together, and any believability is therefore diminished.

Vincent Burgeon’s cover design is striking and rather creepy, and certainly sets the tone for the words within.  There Once Lived a Mother… is stark and oppressive, and whilst the tales are certainly not for the faint-hearted, Petrushevskaya does give a moderately interesting insight into a stifling regime.  The novellas here are stranger than her short stories, and far more disturbing.  Summers has done a good job of translating the work, but there is something oddly detached within the tales, even when the first person narrative perspective has been used.  Emotion is lacking in those places which particularly need it, and whilst it is harrowing, the narrative style – particularly in the second story, ‘Chocolates and Liqueur’ – does not suit.

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