The Bronze Horseman was good if you take most of the love story out. Unfortunately the love story was most of the novel. I generally find stories abouThe Bronze Horseman was good if you take most of the love story out. Unfortunately the love story was most of the novel. I generally find stories about deprivation extremely compelling (my favorite Little House book is The Long Winter, after all, so naturally, my favorite part of the book was about the Leningrad blockade during the first winter. This part of the book was chilling and quite well-written. I would have given the book five stars for that alone. Therefore, I almost feel like I should have stopped reading after those parts were over because The Bronze Horseman is way, way, way too long. The love story felt completely run to the ground by the end. For god's sake, there was seriously like a hundred pages of completely unnecessary love scenes. Every time you think that the plot can finally move forward, there's another love scene. And another. And another. It was like the Groundhog Day of cheesy love scenes in the Urals. I was surprised there was no love scene on top of a bowl of pelmeni.
It's always fun to read books about Russia - in this case, it gives me a chance to harass my Russian husband about esoteric cultural things he probablIt's always fun to read books about Russia - in this case, it gives me a chance to harass my Russian husband about esoteric cultural things he probably hadn't thought about in twenty-five years. Me: "What's a domovoi?" Him: "It's a creature that lives in a house, like a spirit." Me: "There's a committee of domovoi in this book." Him: "A committee of domovoi?" Me: "Yes, when the families were kicked out of their houses by Stalin and forced to live in communal apartments in St. Petersburg, the domovoi went with them and formed a domovoi committee. A committee of Soviet domovoi." Him: "Domovoi don't follow people when they move; domovoi stay with the house." Me: "So if the house is burned down and the family relocates to a communal apartment in St. Petersburg, the domovoi wouldn't go with them? If all houses have a domovoi, do communal apartment buildings have domovoi too? Lots of them?" Him: "Why are you asking me these weird questions? Leave me alone!"
This isn't merely a re-imagining of Russian folklore. I also can't say this is the easiest book to read. The protagonist, Marya Morevna is inscrutable most of the time and the plotline feels obscured and labyrinthine as Marya. A theme of submission and domination punctuates the novel. An army of creatures from Slavic folklore would appear and disappear. The old world of superstitions is brutally dragged into the new, violent world of the Soviet Union. My cursory knowledge of the story of Koschei the Deathless allowed me to anticipate his inevitable death but that was it. I didn't know what was happening half the time. As soon as I felt I was understanding what was going on, the story would veer in a different direction. And this is supposed to be one of Catherynne Valente's more straight-forward novels! Perhaps the stories and the characters of Deathless would have been less enigmatic to me if I was familiar with Slavic fairy tales and folklore but unfortunately my knowledge of that is somewhat limited. But it certainly didn't limit my appreciation for what I was reading. In some ways, the reading the book felt like listening to a band with achingly beautiful music, with the lead singer singing words in a foreign language. My enjoyment of that music is completely visceral and emotional. Thus, my unfamiliarity with leshys and raskovniks and gamayuns didn't hinder me from savoring every word. And god, there was certainly a lot to savor. Many times I would re-read passages and just let the words wash over me. People who know me are very aware that I'm a huge sucker for written food porn. In Deathless, it's like I can't go fifty pages without wanting to stuff my gob with heavy, stick-to-your-thighs Russian food.
p. 62: The house had made itself ready for dinner. A thick wooden table sparkled with candles and a heat spread: bread and pickled peppers and smoked fish, dumplings and beets in vinegar and brown kasha, mushrooms and thick beef tongue, and blini topped with little black spoonfuls of caviar and cream. Cold vodka sweated in a crystal decanter. Goose stew boiled over the hearth.
p. 64: Koschei cut a thick slice of bread from the loaf. The crust crackled under his knife, and the slice fell, moist and heavy, black as earth. He spread cold, salted butter over it with a sweep of the blade, and scooped caviar onto the butter, a smear of dark eggs against the pale gold cream. He held it out to her, and she shyly reached for it, but he admonished her. And so Marya Morevna sat, silently, as Koschei fed her the bread, and butter, and roe. The taste of it burst in her mouth, the salt and the sea. Tears sprang to her eyes. Her empty belly sang for the thickness of it, the plenty.
"Now the beets, volchitsa. And look at them first, how bloody they are, how crimson, how they leave trails behind them, like wounded things. Sip your vodka, and then bite one of the peppers - see how the vinegar and the vodka mix on your tongue? This is a very marvelous thing. A winter thing, when everything is pickled and preserved under glass. You can taste summer in this mixture, summer boiled down and soaked in brine, mummified, packed with spices to be born again on this table, in this place, in this snow."
But then as if to atone for this gluttony, you have starvation during the siege of Leningrad:
p. 282: Together they pulled down the wallpaper to get at the paste, and then they boiled the wallpaper to make bread. They were all mouth and bone, and their eyes slipped gears whenever they tried to meet. They ate their bread with paisley and flowers on the crust, and smeared paste on it like butter. Bread had never been bread, and butter had never been butter. They could not remember such things.
Gorgeous. Misery had never been more cruel or beautifully written. I will definitely return to this book for re-reading in the future.
Here is a random most excellent passage from p. 119-20:
"Pssst, babushka!" Nasha hissed. "Old lazy slattern! How many babies have you got off your man, hm? Spend your life with your legs open, do you? Just leaves room for the devil to slip in!" The old woman started and looked around her - right at Naganya - but saw nothing.
"Shame on you, baba! Haven't even got the decency to get up to witchcraft in your old age! Just lie about, why don't you? Screech at brats got from half your neighbors. Plump my pillows! Feed me cherries!"
The old woman shivered, peering hard into the dark. "Babushka! Put your ankles together for once! What if Christ comes back tonight and the first things he sees are your saggy old bones pissing in the snow like a horse? Straight back to paradise with him, on the double quick, that's what!"
The woman leapt up, drawing her knees together with a dry knocking sound. Naganya dove down and clapped her irons on the old lady's legs, giggling.
I was quite eager to read The Fetch as I enjoyed A Certain Slant of Light tremendously, in particular Whitcomb's take on ghosts. Whereas A Certain SlaI was quite eager to read The Fetch as I enjoyed A Certain Slant of Light tremendously, in particular Whitcomb's take on ghosts. Whereas A Certain Slant of Light was lovely with a touch of creepiness, The Fetch was just... weird. Calder, a spirit who escorts dead people to Heaven, steals develops a crush on Tsarina Alexandra and steals Grigori Rasputin's body to get close to her. Stuff happens, and Calder in Rasputin's stolen body end up traveling with dead-but-not-dead Tsarevich Alexei and Duchess Anastasia across the world. Of course, there's a bit of romance, but thankfully Whitcomb had the sense not to have Anastasia and Calder-in-Rasputin's body get involved in anything, because that would have just been wrong. So very wrong. (view spoiler)[Calder's dilemma, what traps him on earth, is almost exactly the same as what trapped Helen in A Certain Slant of Light. (hide spoiler)] I can't say I did not enjoy The Fetch, as I do enjoy Whitcomb's writing, and I enjoy the world that she has created, but I do admit that what propelled me forward in reading was wondering what kind of craziness would happen next, which I am not sure was Whitcomb's intention. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
I am demoting this book to two stars because after stewing for a couple of months, I've decided it annoys me. The Kitchen Boy is not bad. The languageI am demoting this book to two stars because after stewing for a couple of months, I've decided it annoys me. The Kitchen Boy is not bad. The language of the narration is interesting. There is a stilted, halting, slightly awkward flow to the language which reminds me of how my husband (who lived in Russia until his mid-20s) would write in English. I'm not sure if Robert Alexander (a native English speaker) wrote like this on purpose or not. But in general I'm not very impressed with the style.
I've generally avoided reading fictional accounts of the Romanovs generally because there is so much documentation on who they were and what happened to them - and their story is so outrageous, sickening, and heartbreaking - that fiction just seems unnecessary. And there's a lot of EXTREMELY well-written nonfiction books on the subject. Just read Robert Massie's Nicholas and Alexandra, for god's sake.
Most of the book is confessional-style - the narrator (the kitchen boy) is spilling his guts to a tape recorder. There is a fairly predictable twist at the end and I don't really buy some of the reasoning that the characters made justifying the secrecy. ...more
Upon finishing The Tsar's Dwarf my first thought was, "that was one weird book." Through the first one-third of the book, I wasn't sure if I liked itUpon finishing The Tsar's Dwarf my first thought was, "that was one weird book." Through the first one-third of the book, I wasn't sure if I liked it or not. The Tsar's Dwarf was indeed entertaining - well, in the same way you would find watching Pink Flamingos entertaining. You have a snarky, misanthropic dwarf acidly describing all of the humiliations she is subjected to as she "entertains" the European and Russian nobility. She looks upon these "fine folk" with contempt and disgust as she observes their sexual proclivities (there was one scene where Prince Menshikov was whipping some Natasha as she sighs "Daaaaaaaaa"). Sorine (the dwarf) is hilariously vulgar and complains about forever being assaulted with foul smells as she is eye-level to the groins of most people. She describes her own groin as being infested with all sorts of crotch-lice. She is stuffed inside a huge cake decorated like Muscovy church and fears for death by cake asphyxiation. She is particularly scornful of the pious - to the point where I think the first-person narrative gives the impression of her voice being too modern.
Yes, all that I just described sounds pretty awesome but these things can get uh, gimmicky fast. So when the book eventually moved away from that and focused on Sorine's misery and suffering in a less sarcastic-comedic way, and more of a existential way, I started loving the book. It wasn't until then that the fragmented, almost vignette-like narrative started working for me. Lots of desperation, agony, and hopelessness. There were some really lovely pieces of writing in there, such as the beautiful descriptions of St. Petersburg which I especially enjoyed. Even though the book is called The Tsar's Dwarf, Peter the Great wasn't a central character. He was kind of in the periphery of the story, which makes sense, as Sorine was in the periphery of his world, if not even less than that. Actually, you don't get acquainted very well with any of the other characters, as they were never in Sorine's life for very long. At first I found that problematic but I think it did make sense in the end. The ending was abrupt, though if you take into account how Sorine has made her life decisions, you probably can guess what will eventually happen to her. All in all, I did really enjoy the book. I hope Peter Fogtdal will publish more books in English. ...more