Quirky. One storyline is about the tensions in a family that went through a lot of trauma during WWII and then ended up a bit patched together and uncQuirky. One storyline is about the tensions in a family that went through a lot of trauma during WWII and then ended up a bit patched together and unconventional once they moved to the U.S. The other storyline is more like an academic satire, with a dozen or so socially awkward, narcissistic mathematicians intruding on the family.
The two storylines kept crashing into each other. I wasn't sure either got enough room to breathe. I had a hard time keeping track of the family members. And I wanted less telling, more showing about the oddball academics.
But the dialog is very well written.
Strong sense of place with respect to Madison, Wisconsin. Different types of snow, the sound and feel of cross-country skiing, the compulsion to come by with casseroles. There's some gentle humor about mathematicians that I probably would have enjoyed more if I knew anything about math. ...more
A quirky family that grew on me over time. The author has a gift for focusing on the minute details of discrete scenes, so that somehow two women justA quirky family that grew on me over time. The author has a gift for focusing on the minute details of discrete scenes, so that somehow two women just sitting on a couch becomes very funny. The writing was sometimes excellent, and sometimes a bit hard to follow (why so allergic to quotation marks and paragraph breaks?). I'd read her next book....more
Some great language, especially on the dialogue. I didn't care so much about the narrator's dithering between two potential girlfriends. I much preferSome great language, especially on the dialogue. I didn't care so much about the narrator's dithering between two potential girlfriends. I much preferred his relationship with his grandfather, with another grandfather-like figure, and even the fascinating scenes with Otto, the German claims reviewer....more
Kaliningrad--amber and birdwatchers and very cold beaches. This is the setting for some Russian mafia bosses, an old poet, and Renko with his perfectlKaliningrad--amber and birdwatchers and very cold beaches. This is the setting for some Russian mafia bosses, an old poet, and Renko with his perfectly timed, darkly humorous Russian sayings. I thought this was entertaining enough, but a bit choppy and with some angles that could have been promising, even as red herrings, but were left unexplored, undeveloped. So this feels more like a sketch than a full painting. ...more
A recurring image in this book is a fairytale magical tablecloth, spread out under all the foods you dream about, or all the foods of the USSR. The auA recurring image in this book is a fairytale magical tablecloth, spread out under all the foods you dream about, or all the foods of the USSR. The author adds and removes dishes for the reader, but the real action is the family lore, the stories she tells as we sit around her table.
This is a family history of the Soviet Union. She starts with her grandparents' and great-grandparents' experiences, which are truly incredible. These are more detailed, more vivid than any stories I could tell about my own grandparents and great-grandparents. She ends with some stories of her return visits from the 90s on. These are dominated by her horror that Stalin now has such favorable ratings among the Russian public (she calls him "HimAgain!", unwilling to say his name, the original Voldemort).
When I was a little kid, the Cold War was still on, and I was always curious what little kids in the USSR were doing, thinking, eating, playing. Was life so horrible for them? All the grown-ups around me, all the news on TV made the Soviet Union sound like such a terrible place, a place where nobody laughed, ever, about anything. But even terrible places have kids, and what do those kids do? So went my little kid thinking.
This book answered some of those little kid questions I had. I don't mean to trivialize the book, because it is about much bigger issues than pen pals back in the 70s could have written about. But there's so much about the USSR that is incomprehensibly massive (11 time zones, 27 million dead during WWII?!), that I appreciate the tiny detail of what a candy tasted like.
Much more about history than food, though there are recipes at the end. I was most touched by the author's close relationship with her mother. There's a very sweet moment at the end of the book, on a return visit by the author and her mother. Her mother goes back to New York before the author does. The author sits in their rented apartment and decides that without her mother, Moscow has no point to her anymore. "Moscow, mean city." ...more
A spy thriller with a recipe at the end of each chapter? Sounds cozy, but it's not; it actually works (and so do the recipes). Lots of good Russian foA spy thriller with a recipe at the end of each chapter? Sounds cozy, but it's not; it actually works (and so do the recipes). Lots of good Russian foods (and some Afghan), each recipe written in a back-of-a-cocktail napkin style, maybe 3 sentence maximum. My favorite part of the book was figuring out which food item mentioned in the chapter would be the recipe at the end. The CIA analyst's spicy vinaigrette? The Russian mole's cheese pancakes?
The actual story--characters, plot--was a mixed bag. Interesting points about sexism in the spy business (but at the same time, the novel delivers on sex scenes and the heroine's off-the-charts sex appeal, something that readers of spy fiction must expect?). The heroine's ability to see auras is, well, just silly.
The heroine's love interest, Nash, seemed to have as much depth and usefulness as a loaf of Wonder Bread. But his mentors, the seasoned CIA guys, were great characters--cracking jokes, telling war stories, raising unanswerable ethical questions.
I'd read another book by this author. I get the feeling that if he were allowed to write his own memoir, those stories would blow me away....more
Lots and lots of detail in this book, more than I feel like knowing about Russian politics. I didn't finish, and IPutin will be in my nightmares now.
Lots and lots of detail in this book, more than I feel like knowing about Russian politics. I didn't finish, and I skimmed the bits about who spoke to whom when. Instead I focused on broader stories about what life has been like in Russia.
As always, I am amazed at the Russians. These are tough, tough people. The biggest threat they've usually faced has been their own government. They survive absolutely incredible odds.
Good writing here. The author's research and sourcing is impressive, especially considering the topic. The book doesn't tell a straightforward, linear story of Putin's life. Instead it circles around him, trying to figure out who he really is. ...more
Modern-day St. Petersburg is the setting for two characters who are both doomed to fail. Irina, an American professor, knows that she will die of HuntModern-day St. Petersburg is the setting for two characters who are both doomed to fail. Irina, an American professor, knows that she will die of Huntington's disease. Alexandr, a Soviet-era chess champion, knows that he cannot beat Putin. I came close to giving this five stars--fascinating setting, perfectly imperfect characters, and one gorgeous sentence after another.
If you have any interest in Russia, this is an amazing book. St. Petersburg comes alive: Brezhnev-era dissident cafes, grungy hostels, bakeries getting ready to open around dawn. In the last third of the book, current politics are a major focus of the book. Irina becomes involved in Alexandr's film project linking Putin to the Moscow apartment bombings and other acts of domestic terrorism.
This is not a fast-paced thriller. It's all character development, for two intensely self-absorbed characters. It's also not particularly funny, the Shteyngart blurb on the cover notwithstanding, although there are some amusing twists in the dialogue. Overall, it's sad, in that why-would-you-expect-life-to-be-good way that I sometimes associate with a Russian/Slavic outlook.
The writing was phenomenal. I could have dog-eared every page.
"It was remembering that he was good at, remembering and imagining. And whether or not these were useful skills for Soviet life, they were things you could do quietly, upstairs in a boardinghouse, alone."
"'I don't brood. I contemplate.'"
"I thought of the map [where] the chicken-fat-yellow USSR [was] hunched above the world like a jaguar in a tree, waiting to pounce."
"The living room smelled like dust and artificial cinnamon--the kind that comes from candles, not from cooking."
"His quasi-British accent made him sound like he was always on the brink of apology. His expression made him look like a person who had never apologized in his entire life."
"I wondered what attenuated mini-romances of 2006 were even like--people must wonder whether they're being dumped for not having a sufficiently robust Internet presence, or whatever. The Internet: a whole new arena in which to fail to significantly exist."
"[The Cold War] was a game about who had consistent access to toilet paper and cheap protein, and at this game, Russia had decidedly lost."
"Alexsandr often came across Nina's array of multicolored teas in the cupboards . . . and they were the only evidence in the kitchen, he often thought, that Nina was a carbon-based life form, requiring consumption for survival."
"In St. Petersburg, there was the fine-dirt smell of eggplant; below it, a casually salty marine smell, like dirty aquarium; and just below that, something meatier and wilder, the smell of iceberg and whale."...more