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 Hunt...moreModern-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."(less)
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 fo...moreA 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.(less)
Lots and lots of detail in this book, more than I feel like knowing about Russian politics. I didn't finish, and I...morePutin 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. (less)
An English journalist travels through provincial Russia from 1992 to about 2008.
Russia is even crazier and darker than I thought. And Richards is a br...moreAn English journalist travels through provincial Russia from 1992 to about 2008.
Russia is even crazier and darker than I thought. And Richards is a brave traveler. She seeks out experiences that are hard to describe and still sound like a rational, analytical person.
Short chapters cover unusual ground. Examples: (1) a sort of Russian “X Files” with small closed cities believing in UFOs and aliens, and state-supported “mediums” and researchers into mind control; (2) remote communities of “Old Believers,” who descend from a 16th or 17th century schism in the Russian Orthodox Church and sound a lot like the Amish/Mennonites in the U.S. (Richards compares them to Quakers); (3) a hodge-podge of non-mainstream religious beliefs, such as in singing cedars, faith healers, and back-to-the-land eco-movements. And that’s not even touching the gangsterism and the not-slowed-down-for-a-minute corruption at the top.
Richards loves Russia, clearly. She knows its language, history, literature. Her friends are genuine friends, not merely the contacts a journalist keeps. One friend describes Richards as "a little bit me" to show how closely connected they feel to each other. Richards follows her friends' ups and downs over many years and at close range, almost the close range of a psychotherapist. Her descriptions of the countryside are beautiful, poetic.
Nonetheless, parts of this book feel like a circus parade, or worse, more like the grotesques in ancient Roman frescoes. Monsters, deformities, and fantasy-like experiences. According to one Russian quoted in the book, westerners can’t understand what it feels like to live in “an entire country [that was once] a concentration camp.” Whether that's an appropriate metaphor, I don't know, but it caught my attention. A recurring theme in the book, voiced by the Russians themselves, is that they don’t know what to do now with their freedom.
Shocking to hear how much Russians suffered immediately after the USSR ended. Perhaps not as bad as they’ve suffered at other times. But I had no idea that they were so desperate, they were selling each other poisonous food, murdering each other on trains, etc. Maybe that didn’t happen really, and the author is repeating the rumors to show the reader what the hysteria and chaos felt like. Or maybe it did happen, and worse.
By far one of the most unusual books I've ever read about any country.(less)
Sweet love story about two Russian immigrant kids living in Brighton Beach. It begins when they're nine, and ends when they're seventeen. Vaclav wants...moreSweet love story about two Russian immigrant kids living in Brighton Beach. It begins when they're nine, and ends when they're seventeen. Vaclav wants to be a magician. He dreams of performing at Coney Island. He makes lots of to-do lists. Lena is a withdrawn little girl. She reminds me of a puppy rescued from the pound.
Beautiful characters in here, lots of tenderness in these friendships. Vaclav cares so much--for the years that he and Lena are separated, he privately wishes her good night every night. Some reviews had led me to think this was obsessive, pathetic. But it wasn't at all. He's just this sweet, loving, deep-thinking kid. His mother, Rasia, is a wonderful character too. I enjoyed her inner monologue as she tries to take care of these kids, in a foreign country, in a language that's hard for her.
This book made me think of a few other books I've really enjoyed. Not because it's like them in a copycat/"oh, I've seen this before" way, but because they share some features. "Benny and Shrimp" is a love story about slightly quirky characters (grown-ups). "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" does a nice job capturing the unique voice of recent immigrants (from the Dominican Republic)--the rhythm and usage of people learning English as a second language. "Natasha and Other Stories" is a short story collection about a Russian Jewish family living in Toronto from the 1970s on.
Five stars for Vaclav & Lena. I wouldn't change a thing about it. (less)
I've met people like the author's mother, and I've tried to get away from them as fast as possible. Imperious, icy, claiming pre-Enlightenment royal d...moreI've met people like the author's mother, and I've tried to get away from them as fast as possible. Imperious, icy, claiming pre-Enlightenment royal descent. But basically, a milliner, and now who even wears hats?
Here's why I might try this one again someday: the author's stepfather seems like a far more interesting person. Crazy in his own way, but somehow warmer. I also enjoyed the stories about Russia, and the digressions about an adventurous uncle who did tour car races in the 1920s/1930s across Africa and Asia.
This book's sense of time and place pulled me in, right from the start. The incredible suffering in the Soviet Union during WWII and for some time aft...moreThis book's sense of time and place pulled me in, right from the start. The incredible suffering in the Soviet Union during WWII and for some time afterward. The wildness of Manhattan in the late '60s and '70s.
Nureyev as a character left me a bit cold, but I enjoyed some of the minor/peripheral characters. Nureyev's first dance teachers, internally exiled from Petersburg/Leningrad by Stalin, and their daughter (she felt like someone I'd be friends with). Tom, the master shoe-maker, accidentally getting drunk at a Nureyev dinner party in Paris.
This book doesn't cover the drama of Nureyev's defection. Instead it describes the turmoil and fear his defection caused among his family and friends still living in the only partially "thawed" USSR. Similarly, it doesn't go through the details of his performances. The reader is supposed to know already who Erik and Margot were, because the book picks up with those relationships (parties, fights, etc.) when they're already well established.
Fantastic writing. Like a ballet, this book has movements. Most of it is conventional narrative, although the perspective changes without warning or explanation. One movement is the impressionistic series of lists and vignettes and jotted notes--this is our glimpse into Nureyev's mind. Another movement is a whole chapter written as one sentence.
A little challenging, a little unconventional. This scratched my Russia itch.(less)