Russian books: an update. 🙂
The Siberian Incident
This Greig Beck book was actually the most entertaining Russian read of last few months. 😂 Would it qualify for J.T.’s Russian travelogue bingo? Probably. The plot involves the Russian mafia, Lake Baikal, and zombie bears and a tie-in to the Tunguska event. But you know what? I really liked it!
Best Russian Short Stories
The gang is all here: Chekhov, Gorky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky, plus a bunch of other writers I’d never encountered before. But here’s the writer who completely won me over: Leonid Andreyev. In 1918, he wrote what basically amounts to a zombie story. You can read a slightly different translation of it here.
Putin Country: A Journey into the Real Russia
TL;DR Everyone and everything is bad. Chelyabinsk is doomed. This.
The book was based on decades of visits to Chelyabinsk. On the plus side, at least the author put in the ground work of traveling outside of the city, seeing rural villages with her own eyes. Although…”Many of the picturesque, if crude, one-story log houses with carved shutters now list to one side, as if they are as drunk as the remaining aging inhabitants.” In the final chapter, as if you hadn’t already gotten the point, she writes “…daily life in Russia has recently taken a turn for the worse.” This despite things already being pretty bad when she came to Chelyabinsk for the first time, back in the 90s: “When I first arrived in 1993, Chelyabinsk was a depressing place…”
I really got a lot of doom and gloom from reading this. It left me baffled: if it’s so bad, why did she keep coming back? Some kind of fascination at things going from bad to worse? A contract to write a book? The hope that shining light on problems will solve them? An author is an awful lot like a doctor. Yes, their job is to tell you about scary problems… but a good doctor/author can leave you with a sense of hope. Yeah, Chelyabinsk has tons and tons of problems but there are still people who haven’t written the place off.
But! There was one chapter that redeemed the book for me. “Nuclear Nightmare” was just as doomy and gloomy as the other chapters but the author’s research and writing really stood out. It also opened my eyes to the horror of the past 50 years: radioactive dust, child liquidators, repeated cover ups. There was really no way to write this chapter with any sense of optimism.
Organization was another thing the book did well. Each chapter dealt with a single topic, like “The Addicts”, “The Human Rights Activists”, or “The Forensic Expert”.
It took me an entire year to get through all 18 chapters. At first I was really excited to find an actual book about life in Chelyabinsk then, after I realized how despondent the author is about Russia overall, it became a chore to read. If you don’t want to read the book yourself but you’re still curious about it, here’s a good review: Town Without Pity.
This was a free read through NetGalley. From the blurb, it sounded like it was inspired by the Ukraine-US Natalia Barnett case. Instead the plot was a mix-up of The Bad Seed and what lead to Закон Димы Яковлева (the law that ended Russian-US adoptions). Probably not of much interest for this blog since 99% of the book was about being politely fake to your neighbors. The sole reference to Russia: two American women complaining about squat toilets. 😉
17 Cents & a Dream: My Incredible Journey from the USSR to Living the American Dream
Quick plot summary: Poor Ukrainian kid makes it big in America. In his own words: “Life has become more than I ever could have imagined it to be when I was a small boy in Kiev… As the colors of the sun streak through the window, I think all these things can only happen in America.”
Daniel Milstein had a tough time growing up. First, Chernobyl, Then, the collapse of the USSR. And all along, serious persecution and threats because of his family’s faith (Judaism). The first 7 chapters cover these events. His story is a bit wild sometimes, like being afraid the family would be stopped by police in Moscow and shot alongside the road. December 1991 sucked but were people really being shot by police during traffic stops? Anyway, the book’s title comes from the strict rules on money and emigration: his parents are only allowed to take $75 each when they left. Little Daniel has an extra 17 cents hidden away in his pocket, 17 cents that he worries an angry customs official will find.
When the family gets to America, Daniel finds himself in a high school movie: surrounded by bullies, teased for his accent, only able to afford bananas. He finally lands a janitorial job at McDonald’s and begins to work his way up the career ladder to becoming a multimillionaire CEO.
I enjoyed the book but it stretched credibility in moments. The Ukraine moments, I don’t know, I’ll give them a pass. My husband’s family has a similar Ukrainian emigration story but never saw dramatic moments like people flinging wedding jewelry into a queue at the airport instead of allowing it to be confiscated by officials. The reason I bring this up… the book is strongly rags-to-riches and some scenes almost feel exaggerated. Like the author getting recognized for winning a spot in a McDonald’s management training program just as his high school bullies wander into the restaurant. After his meteoric rise at McDonald’s, the story starts to accelerate. In short order, Daniel goes into the mortgage industry, meets the mentor of his dreams, and makes it big. That final part is a little sparse on details and doesn’t allude to the very real occasional lameness of real life except for a brief mention of work destroying his marriage.
In short: if you want to feel fired up, like hard work is all you need to get to the top in America!, then this is your book. It’s also a good look at life in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in the late 80s. There are even photos from Kyiv in the middle of the book.
Long Journey Home: A Young Girl’s Memoir of Surviving the Holocaust
Another memoir but this one goes all the way back to the 1930s, to Lucy’s (initially) idyllic childhood in Poland.
One September night in 1939, Lucy and her sister are bundled up, placed in a horse-drawn wagon, and “thus began our flight eastwards to what we hoped was safety.” The family spends months traveling on backroads all the way to Lviv, Ukraine, where they stop for the winter. They are welcomed by the Jewish community but still struggle to find food and a warm place to stay.
Just when they finally settle in with nearby relatives, the entire family is rounded up and herded onto a train to Siberia. It takes 6 weeks to reach Krasnoyarsk and then several more days to reach a labor camp in the forest. Stories of life in the camp take up several chapters, a mix of the grim (labor camp, of course) and the cheerful (life through a kid’s eyes).
By 1941, the family leaves the camp and moves on to Tajikistan. Lucy’s recollection: “The people of Siberia had never exhibited any prejudice against other. They fought the elements in nature and all tried to survive; they had no time for intolerance. The Tajik people, on the other hand, were suspicious of strangers…” Despite this, Lucy and her sister eventually start attending school (taught in Polish) while her father comes up with creative ways to support the family. Life continues to tax the family—food shortages, assault, malaria, scorpions—and leaves them dreaming of a return to Poland.
After 6 years of Ukraine-Siberia-Tajikistan, the government finally issues Lucy’s family a travel permit. They immediately catch a train back to Poland (a six-week journey!)… and quickly realize that it isn’t the same country they’d left. “What was to have been the best time of our lives turned out to be the worst possible time of our lives.” Spoiler alert: the family is eventually granted permission to immigrate to the US, but not before Lucy spends several dismal teenage years in a displaced persons camp in Germany and an orphanage in Belgium.
The Anna Karenina Fix
To be totally honest with you, I hoped this would be something a little more frivolous, like the Buzzfeed News of the genre. After all, the intro says, “This book… aims to channel the Oprah side of Tolstoy.” But it is what it is: a literary analysis of famous Russian authors. Many parts read like a college lit class but luckily the author’s sense of humor shines through on a regular basis.
The author has two degrees in Russian and it shows. The absolute best part of this book is the background she spills on famous names. Like how Nabakov insisted on calling the book “Anna Karenin” instead of “Anna Karenina”. Or what Anna Akhmatova said to Boris Pasternak about his most famous novel.
Favorite quotes: “Russian literature is full of gloomy people wondering how on earth they have ended up in the appalling predicament in which they find themselves, looking around desperately for someone else to blame and then realizing that, in fact, they were right in the first place: life really is extremely inconvenient and annoying, and we are all just waiting to die.”
“Russian literature deserves more love letters written by total idiots. For too long it has belonged to very clever people who want to keep it to themselves.”
“However you get it, you’ve got it right. I say: read these classics in part if you can’t face the whole thing. Don’t be afraid not to finish or to come back years later.”
Chapter 1: A long explanation of the author’s last name and the anxiety it caused her in childhood. Also, Anna Karenina: “It is one of the strangest novels in that it reads so beautifully and easily and is full of light and warmth. And yet, when you sit back and think about its ultimate meaning, it is like the breath of Satan.” And hey, Tolstoy was a vegetarian! I liked the author’s interpretation of the book’s opening line. But really, “It wasn’t until I was about twelve or thirteen that I picked up a copy of Anna Karenina.”…? What? Not until you were 12 or 13? 😂 😂 Most of us are like a bitter 48 when we finally pick this book up.
Chapter 2: A story about the author’s first name that suddenly veers into awkwardly attending a Russian funeral in the 90s. And Doctor Zhivago’s helplessness: “Man is powerless in the face of destiny. And destiny is to be respected because it lets us off the hook.”
Chapter 3: Stunning. The heartbroken life of Anna Akhmatova, whose poems were deemed so dangerous to the state that her friends memorized them instead of allowing her to write words on paper. “Few writers have catalogued misery in such forensic, lyrical detail.” This is my favorite chapter so far.
Chapter 4: Ivan Turgenev’s take on unrequited love and how it reminds the author of her study-abroad boyfriend, Bogdan Bogdanovich.
Chapter 5: The author learns Russian from a parrot, followed by Pushkin. She shares her thoughts on learning the language: “They like to throw you in at the deep end. And they like to make sure you remain completely intimidated by the language for as long as possible. That way, if you pass on to the other side and actually do learn to speak it, you’ll maintain the age-old myth that it’s difficult to learn and pass that on to other people so that Russian speakers can remain in their own special and secret club.” But back to Pushkin AND I COMPLETELY AGREE WITH THIS: “To be honest, by avoiding Pushkin, you really are creating more work for yourself with Russians. They will expect you to know about him. And they will regard you as an enemy if you don’t.” This chapter, as you probably guessed, is about Pushkin.
I’m looking forward to the second half of this book! Funny story: After reading the first part of this book on my Kindle, I bought the paperback version for a birthday present for my mom. (We have birthdays the same week.) When I called to ask her if it had been delivered, she started laughing. “I just sent you a birthday package with the exact same book!” I’m still waiting- mail takes forever and ever to get to Russia- but maybe I’ll be able to finish reading it with an actual book in hand.
Cliched thriller about an expat in (of course) Moscow who gets a wrong number call (or is it??) one day from “a coarse, guttural Slavic voice that suggested black turtlenecks, tattoos, and smoke-tinted windows on an S-class Mercedes.”
Unfortunately for the main character, that phone call sets off a dangerous chain of events. This “simple American translator, trying to live a reasonably normal life in a very weird place” is now on the run.
There is the required number of beautiful-but-хитрые Russian women, radioactive materials being smuggled across borders, more references to the “guttural tones of Russian” and the ever-elusive “emotional Russian soul”.
About the women: “Andrew looked over at her, admiring her pluckishness as much as her beauty. Sometimes he didn’t know how someone retained a sense of optimism and hope in a society so encrusted with corruption and naglost – that uniquely Slavic style of pushiness and self-righteousness.”
About the men: “This was the new Russian elite: handsome, stylish, well-dressed Type-As that brimmed with self-control—KGB trainees dressed by Gucci.”
Will our expat Andrew be able to save himself and the girl(s)? Will those corrupt government officials be punished? You’ll just have to read it for yourself. 😉 But I will give you a little insight on the book’s title….
“Because on top of all this, Andrew Dixon, you are in Russia. And that means that Russian Rules apply.”
“I have learned, Andrew, that there are three basic rules for survival in Russia. They are quite simple and elegant, actually.”
I won’t tell you what the book’s Russian Rules are but here are a few of mine:
One. If there’s not mayonnaise, it’s not a real salad.
Two. Naglost (наглость) is a real thing but I swear that nobody in Russia is more наглый than this guy:
Also, no matter how much I tell my parents otherwise, this is exactly how they imagine life in Russia 😂: “Moscow is the Wild East, a place where you can make a fast buck even if you have very little ability in Russian – all you need is to be long on risk-taking and short on scruples. The right contacts will present themselves and the next thing you know, you will have a Volvo, a driver, a bodyguard, and a bevy of hot Russian girlfriends.”
On my bookshelf
As far as hard copy books go, I’ve made a bit of progress.
Made it halfway through Shapka, Babushka, Kefir so far. Not that impressed. Everyone is always swanning off to give birth in Miami/Spain/Switzerland or renting an extra apartment near the office so that the nanny can bring in the baby for breastfeeding during the workday. It feels like every woman interviewed in the book belongs to a very elite income bracket.
I’ve also read several chapters in 30 шикарных дней, flipping through the book and picking an appealing chapter to read. And Schaum’s Russian Grammar contains just one final chapter to work through!
And now if you’ll excuse me, there’s a brand new Russian-y Greig Beck book that is waiting on my Kindle…
An old woman locked away in a Russian asylum has a secret—knowledge of a 500-year-old manuscript written by a long-dead alchemist that will show a passage to the mythical center of the Earth.
She knows it’s real because 50 years ago, she and a team traveled there. And only she made it back.
Today, caving specialist Mike Monroe leads a crew into the world’s deepest cave in the former Soviet Union. He’s following the path of a mad woman and the words of an ancient Russian alchemist that were the basis of the fantastical tale by Jules Verne.
But what horrifying things he finds will tear at his sanity and change everything we know about evolution and the world, forever.
What are you reading these days? Leave me a comment!