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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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Highly Anticipated Releases

As I do around this time every year, I thought that I would make a list of ten highly anticipated book releases which are coming out (and will hopefully be on my shelves) within the next few months.

1. Winter by Ali Smith (02/11/2017; Hamish Hamilton) cover-jpg-rendition-460-707
‘The dazzling second novel in Ali Smith’s essential Seasonal Quartet — from the Baileys Prize-winning, Man Booker-shortlisted author of Autumn and How to be both.  Winter? Bleak. Frosty wind, earth as iron, water as stone, so the old song goes. The shortest days, the longest nights. The trees are bare and shivering. The summer’s leaves? Dead litter.  The world shrinks; the sap sinks.  But winter makes things visible. And if there’s ice, there’ll be fire.  In Ali Smith’s Winter, lifeforce matches up to the toughest of the seasons. In this second novel in her acclaimed Seasonal cycle, the follow-up to her sensational Autumn, Smith’s shape-shifting quartet of novels casts a merry eye over a bleak post-truth era with a story rooted in history, memory and warmth, its taproot deep in the evergreens: art, love, laughter.  It’s the season that teaches us survival.   Here comes Winter.’

 

9781594634901_29a7f2. Awayland: Short Stories by Ramona Ausubel (06/03/2018; Riverhead Books)
An inventive story collection that spans the globe as it explores love, childhood, and parenthood with an electric mix of humor and emotion.  Acclaimed for the grace, wit, and magic of her novels, Ramona Ausubel introduces us to a geography both fantastic and familiar in eleven new stories, some of them previously published in The New Yorker and The Paris Review. Elegantly structured, these stories span the globe and beyond, from small-town America and sunny Caribbean islands to the Arctic Ocean and the very gates of Heaven itself. And though some of the stories are steeped in mythology, they remain grounded in universal experiences: loss of identity, leaving home, parenthood, joy, and longing.  Crisscrossing the pages of Awayland are travelers and expats, shadows and ghosts. A girl watches as her homesick mother slowly dissolves into literal mist. The mayor of a small Midwestern town offers a strange prize, for stranger reasons, to the parents of any baby born on Lenin’s birthday. A chef bound for Mars begins an even more treacherous journey much closer to home. And a lonely heart searches for love online—never mind that he’s a Cyclops.  With her signature tenderness, Ramona Ausubel applies a mapmaker’s eye to landscapes both real and imagined, all the while providing a keen guide to the wild, uncharted terrain of the human heart.’

 

3. Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi (23/01/2018; Penguin Books) 9780143128793_af956
From the rubble-strewn streets of U.S.-occupied Baghdad, Hadi—a scavenger and an oddball fixture at the local cafe—collects human body parts and stitches them together to create a corpse. His goal, he claims, is for the government to recognize the parts as people and to give them proper burial. But when the corpse goes missing, a wave of eerie murders sweeps the city, and reports stream in of horrendous-looking criminals who, though shot, cannot be killed.  Hadi soon realizes he’s created a monster, one that needs human flesh to survive—first from the guilty, and then from anyone in its path. As the violence builds and Hadi’s acquaintances—a journalist, a government worker, a lonely older woman—become involved, the Whatsitsname and the havoc it wreaks assume a magnitude far greater than anyone could have imagined. An extraordinary achievement, at once horrific and blackly humorous, Frankenstein in Baghdad captures the surreal reality of contemporary Baghdad.

 

9780143132004_c2ca34. Dark Tales by Shirley Jackson (10/10/2017; Penguin Classics)
For the first time in one volume, a collection of Shirley Jackson’s scariest stories.  There’s something nasty in suburbia. In these deliciously dark tales, the daily commute turns into a nightmarish game of hide and seek, the loving wife hides homicidal thoughts and the concerned citizen might just be an infamous serial  killer. In the haunting world of Shirley Jackson, nothing is as it seems and nowhere is safe, from the city streets to the crumbling country pile, and from the small-town apartment to the dark, dark woods…

 

5. I Was Anastasia: A Novel by Ariel Lawhon (20/03/2018; Doubleday) 9780385541695_eae33
Ariel Lawhon, a rising star in historical suspense, unravels the extraordinary twists and turns in Anna Anderson’s 50-year battle to be recognized as Anastasia Romanov. Is she the Russian Grand Duchess, a beloved daughter and revered icon, or is she an imposter, the thief of another woman’s legacy?  Russia, July 17, 1918: Under direct orders from Vladimir Lenin, Bolshevik secret police force Anastasia Romanov, along with the entire imperial family, into a damp basement in Siberia where they face a merciless firing squad. None survive. At least that is what the executioners have always claimed.   Germany, February 17, 1920: A young woman bearing an uncanny resemblance to Anastasia Romanov is pulled shivering and senseless from a canal. Refusing to explain her presence in the freezing water, she is taken to the hospital where an examination reveals that her body is riddled with countless, horrific scars. When she finally does speak, this frightened, mysterious woman claims to be the Russian Grand Duchess Anastasia.  Her detractors, convinced that the young woman is only after the immense Romanov fortune, insist on calling her by a different name: Anna Anderson.
As rumors begin to circulate through European society that the youngest Romanov daughter has survived the massacre, old enemies and new threats are awakened. With a brilliantly crafted dual narrative structure, Lawhon wades into the most psychologically complex and emotionally compelling territory: the nature of identity itself.
The question of who Anna Anderson is and what actually happened to Anastasia Romanov creates a saga that spans fifty years and touches three continents. This thrilling story is every bit as moving and momentous as it is harrowing and twisted.

 

9781524732776_a1ec76. Aetherial Worlds: Stories by Tatyana Tolstaya (20/03/2018; Knopf)
Ordinary realities and yearnings to transcend them lead to miraculous other worlds in this dazzling collection of stories. A woman’s deceased father appears in her dreams with clues about the afterlife; a Russian professor in a small American town constructs elaborate fantasies during her cigarette break; a man falls in love with a marble statue as his marriage falls apart; a child glimpses heaven through a stained-glass window. With the emotional insight of Chekhov, the surreal satire of Gogol, and a unique blend of humor and poetry all her own, Tolstaya transmutes the quotidian into aetherial alternatives. These tales, about politics, identity, love, and loss, cut to the core of the Russian psyche, even as they lay bare human universals. Tolstaya’s characters—seekers all—are daydreaming children, lonely adults, dislocated foreigners in unfamiliar lands. Whether contemplating the strategic complexities of delivering telegrams in Leningrad or the meditative melancholy of holiday aspic, vibrant inner lives and the grim elements of existence are registered in equally sharp detail in a starkly bleak but sympathetic vision of life on earth.  A unique collection from one of the first women in years to rank among Russia’s most important writers.

 

7. Macbeth by Jo Nesbo (10/04/2018; Hogarth Press) 9780553419054_66497
Set in the 1970s in a run-down, rainy industrial town with low employment and high crime, Jo Nesbø’s Macbeth centers around a police force struggling to shed the incessant drug problem. Duncan, chief of police, is idealistic and visionary, a dream to the townspeople but a nightmare for the criminals. The drug trade is ruled by Hekate, whose illegal cultivation of substances, known as “the brew,” is overseen by her crew, “the sisters.” A master of manipulation, Hekate has connections with the highest in power, and she plans to use them to get her way.  Hekate contacts Inspector Macbeth, popular head of the Emergency Response Group, to tell him that one day he’ll be the chief of police if he cooperates with her. When Macbeth’s love interest, a casino owner named Lady, hears of Hekate’s prophesy, she calculates who lies between Macbeth and the top job: Duncan and the assistant chief, Malcolm. Under Lady’s pressure, Macbeth does what he believes needs to be done, making sure the blame is pointed at his best friend and colleague, Duff. What follows is an unputdownable story of love and guilt, political ambition, and greed for more, exploring the darkest corners of human nature, the aspirations of the criminal mind, and whether or not free will even matters. In his retelling of Macbeth, Jo Nesbø brings the gritty, powerful procedural gusto that made him an international New York Times bestseller to William Shakespeare’s most timeless tragedy.

 

9780062685711_622b88. The Vanishing Princess: Stories by Jenny Diski (05/12/2017; Ecco)
‘Jenny Diski’s prose is as sharp and steely as her imagination is wild and wondrous. When she died of cancer in April 2016, after chronicling her illness in strikingly honest essays in the London Review of Books, readers, admirers, and critics around the world mourned the loss. In a cool and unflinching tone that came to define her singular voice, she explored the subjects of sex, power, domesticity, femininity, hysteria, and loneliness with humor and honesty.  The stories in The Vanishing Princess showcase a rarely seen side of this beloved writer, channeling both the piercing social examination of her nonfiction and the vivid, dreamlike landscapes of her novels. In a Rumpelstiltskin fairy tale turned on its head, a miller’s daughter rises to power and wealth to rule over her kingdom and outwit the title villain. “Bathtime” tells the story of a woman’s life through her attempts to build the perfect bathtub, chasing an elusive moment of peace. In “Short Curcuit,” the author mines her own bouts in and out of mental institutions outside London to question whether those we think are mad are really the sanest among us.’

 

9. The Twelve-Mile Straight: A Novel by Eleanor Henderson (12/09/2017; Ecco) 9780062422088_01d24
‘Cotton County, Georgia, 1930: in a house full of secrets, two babies-one light-skinned, the other dark-are born to Elma Jesup, a white sharecropper’s daughter. Accused of her rape, field hand Genus Jackson is lynched and dragged behind a truck down the Twelve-Mile Straight, the road to the nearby town. In the aftermath, the farm’s inhabitants are forced to contend with their complicity in a series of events that left a man dead and a family irrevocably fractured.  Despite the prying eyes and curious whispers of the townspeople, Elma begins to raise her babies as best as she can, under the roof of her mercurial father, Juke, and with the help of Nan, the young black housekeeper who is as close to Elma as a sister. But soon it becomes clear that the ties that bind all of them together are more intricate than any could have ever imagined. As startling revelations mount, a web of lies begins to collapse around the family, destabilizing their precarious world and forcing all to reckon with the painful truth.  Acclaimed author Eleanor Henderson has returned with a novel that combines the intimacy of a family drama with the staggering presence of a great Southern saga. Tackling themes of racialized violence, social division, and financial crisis, The Twelve-Mile Straight is a startlingly timely, emotionally resonant, and magnificent tour de force.’

 

9780062676139_129e310. Census by Jesse Ball (06/03/2018; Ecco)
‘When a widower receives notice from a doctor that he doesn’t have long left to live, he is struck by the question of who will care for his adult son—a son whom he fiercely loves, a boy with Down syndrome. With no recourse in mind, and with a desire to see the country on one last trip, the man signs up as a census taker for a mysterious governmental bureau and leaves town with his son.  Traveling into the country, through towns named only by ascending letters of the alphabet, the man and his son encounter a wide range of human experience. While some townspeople welcome them into their homes, others who bear the physical brand of past censuses on their ribs are wary of their presence. When they press toward the edges of civilization, the landscape grows wilder, and the towns grow farther apart and more blighted by industrial decay. As they approach “Z,” the man must confront a series of questions: What is the purpose of the census? Is he complicit in its mission? And just how will he learn to say good-bye to his son?  Mysterious and evocative, Census is a novel about free will, grief, the power of memory, and the ferocity of parental love, from one of our most captivating young writers.’

 

Have you been lucky enough to read any of these already?  Which are your most anticipated forthcoming titles?

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Flash Reviews: ‘Alix & Nicky’, ‘On the Golden Porch’, and ‘The Smell of Other People’s Houses’

Just a few collected thoughts about some of my recent reads.

Alix & Nicky: The Passion of the Last Tsar and Tsarina by Virginia Rounding **** 9780312381004
Alix and Nicky remained on my TBR shelf for over two years, and after reading, I have no idea why that was. Well, perhaps the fact that my copy is rather a large hardback which was incredibly difficult to juggle whilst in bed…

I am a self-confessed Russian history nerd. I studied Russian history, from Peter the Great to the modern day, throughout my A Level History course and as part of my undergraduate degree. There’s something about it which is both mysterious and compelling. It is perhaps no surprise, then, that I picked this up when I was on a trip to Oxford.

Alix and Nicky is both rich and thorough, and I thought that the non-reliance upon a rigid chronological structure worked incredibly well. The writing is strong, the vocabulary varied, and the chapters wonderfully structured. I feel as though I learnt a lot whilst reading, which is always a bonus. Virginia Rounding is an author whom I haven’t read before, but based upon this, I have added the rest of her bibliography to my to-read list, and have a feeling that there will be some gems in store for me.

 

9780679728436On the Golden Porch by Tatyana Tolstaya *****
A few words to describe this wonderful, dark short story collection; original, compelling, evocative, rich, creepy, mysterious, startling, overwhelming, claustrophobic, and important.  More Tolstaya, please.

 

The Smell of Other People’s Houses by Bonnie-Sue 9780571314959 Hitchcock ***
Whilst this intrigued, both in terms of plot and setting, and whilst I very much enjoyed the opening chapter, this just didn’t sit right for me. I had no issues with the writing, but predictability soon seeped in, and I did not even feel as though Hitchcock had made any effort to conceal such elements.

I was more interested in the stories of Ruth and Dumpling than those of the other characters, and the male narrative voice used for Hank just didn’t feel realistic. There were also distinct similarities in the narrative voices of other characters too, which I think let the book down somewhat.

 

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