21st Century Literature discussion

The Big Green Tent
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2017 Book Discussions > The Big Green Tent - General Discussion, No Spoilers (February 2017)

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message 1: by Carol (last edited Jan 30, 2017 11:33AM) (new)

Carol (carolfromnc) | 448 comments This topic is for general and background information for those who have not yet finished the book, so please do not post spoilers here.

Lyumila Ulitskaya was born in 1943 and is one of 21st-century Russia’s most prominent writers. She was among the dissidents of the Soviet era and she opposes Vladimir Putin now. This profile published by Read.Russia is one of my faves. http://readrussia.org/writers/writer/...
[Don't miss the reference to "Socialist Media" at the bottom left.]

Here are links to several noteworthy reviews, which may necessarily include spoilers:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/a...
http://www.npr.org/2015/11/11/4552638...

https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/29/bo...

Finally, an excerpt from The Atlantic review, linked above:

"The big green tent revolves around banned books, a subject familiar to Ludmila Ulitskaya, one of Russia’s most acclaimed writers and, at 72, an outspoken protester against the Putin regime. Back in 1970, she was a young biologist who got fired from the Institute of General Genetics at the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences for distributing a samizdat book. She then set out on a tentative, initially unambitious literary track—a natural move for a self-described bookish girl with an unsupervised passion for reading. “I consider the bookcase my most important mentor,” Ulitskaya wrote in Discarded Relics, an essay collection that came out in 2012, by which time she had been publishing fiction—stories, novellas, novels, and plays—for more than a decade. In her latest novel, books that rarely make it onto bookshelves—blurry photocopies; barely readable carbons; dog-eared, smuggled Western editions passed around among wary friends—inspire, crush, sustain, kill. They also serve other unexpected functions. In one hilarious episode, an unsuspecting teenage girl rips up a copy of Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago to stuff into her new, too-small imported boots, hoping to stretch them a size. Thus she saves the book’s owner when the KGB shows up to search his house. The scene is typical of Ulitskaya’s sprawling portrayal of the Moscow intelligentsia between 1953, the year of Stalin’s death, and 1996, half a decade after the Soviet Union’s collapse. In showing what life was like for the people who made the subversive power of books so disproportionately valuable, she skirts heroics and aggrandizing rhetoric. The Big Green Tent is like the sharp-tongued gossip that flowed in many a crowded kitchen—enlivened by dangerous undercurrents, and never boring.


In doing my pre-read research, I found the following at The Millions:

"In fact, it is, if not a difficult read, then a demanding one. Each character expects our full attention, for each is awarded interiority. Every interaction could end up being important 20 pages later. Every bit player or throwaway line of poetry could be a literary or historical allusion, lovingly inserted to bring the times onto the page and then, for the reader, back to life. And, this being Russian literature, it demands that we subject ourselves to sadness after sadness. It is set, after all, “in a country where you had to live a long time” to see things set right, and in times that made doing so difficult, particularly for those who wanted to live differently.
But each satisfied demand is rewarded, and each sadness is returned with acute awareness of how full this book is of life and literature. It is not simple. But one cannot think that the author of The Big Green Tent would believe that what’s true possibly could be.”


As of this morning, I'm at approximately the 100 page mark. I'm not finding it to be demanding, but perhaps it's because I want to give it my attention and I'm riveted.

Who is planning to join this discussion?

If you've started BGT, what are your initial thoughts: on the book, generally, the writing, the characters, ... works set during the Cold War? (please note, comments with any spoilers should be shared in the "first-half" thread.)

Have you read other works by Ulitskaya? How is BGT different, ... the same?


Nutmegger Linda (lindanutmegger) | 103 comments This book is definitely a challenge. I'm enjoying it and finding it interestI get in light of current events


message 3: by Hugh (new)

Hugh (bodachliath) | 2540 comments Mod
Carol, Thanks for starting the discussion. I'm afraid I won't be participating this time - I can't really justify buying it as an expensive import given the number of other books sitting on my to-read shelf but I will read the discussions as it does sound interesting...


message 4: by Carol (last edited Jan 31, 2017 04:02PM) (new)

Carol (carolfromnc) | 448 comments Hugh wrote: "Carol, Thanks for starting the discussion. I'm afraid I won't be participating this time - I can't really justify buying it as an expensive import given the number of other books sitting on my to-r..."

I'm sorry to hear that, Hugh. I picked up mine used online from an independent seller for less than $10 and had seen it remaindered whilst traveling, so had hoped it would be available to you in an affordable manner. We'll look for our comments if you do pick it up at a later date. I'm certain they'll be insightful.


message 5: by Carol (new)

Carol (carolfromnc) | 448 comments Linda wrote: "This book is definitely a challenge. I'm enjoying it and finding it interestI get in light of current events"

Linda, I realized that I've only read one other book that took place during the Cold War and it's Gorky Park - e.g., not literary fiction and not written by a Russian, although I've read a fair amount in the last year set in the Russia of the 30s and 40s.


Franky | 101 comments I have this one and should be starting this weekend. I am interested in getting back to reading Russian literature. I want to be able to have a good few hours to dedicate to starting this and I just can't get that during the week. Anyhow, until I start, I'll check in with the comments and follow it.


message 7: by Charles (new)

Charles I started this and then got derailed by some other books, and some editorial issues. The initial 50 pages were very promising. I skimmed some of the rest and I think it will bear out its promises, so here we go. Slowly. Whee.


Kathleen | 253 comments Hi--I'm new to the group, and am so happy to have all of the background info on this book, Carol. Thank you!

Hugh, I'm sorry you won't be participating. I was fortunate to find a copy at my library.

I've read the first chapter and love it already. I'm keeping a list of characters to help me since I understand every detail may be important. I hear echoes of the classic Russians in this and am so excited to continue reading.


message 9: by Hugh (new)

Hugh (bodachliath) | 2540 comments Mod
I think that availability is only an issue for those of us who are UK-based - as far as I can see, there is no British edition yet, but some British sites (for example Waterstones and Amazon UK) are offering the American paperback at £15.


message 10: by Lily (last edited Jan 31, 2017 01:26PM) (new) - added it

Lily (joy1) | 2462 comments Hugh wrote: "I think that availability is only an issue for those of us who are UK-based - as far as I can see, there is no British edition yet, but some British sites (for example Waterstones and Amazon UK) ar..."

Ironically, I think my used copy came from the UK. I have probably tossed the shipping info and can't check, unless my Amazon entry will tell me.


message 11: by Carol (new)

Carol (carolfromnc) | 448 comments Kathleen wrote: "Hi--I'm new to the group, and am so happy to have all of the background info on this book, Carol. Thank you!

Hugh, I'm sorry you won't be participating. I was fortunate to find a copy at my libra..."


I'm glad you enjoyed them @Kathleen. I'm an information hog and appreciate what I reading so much more with context. It helps that I'm not at all spoiler-averse and, in fact, enjoy focusing on an author's manner of structuring and telling a story over focusing on learning what happens/plot. Just me.


Amanda (tnbooklover) I'll be starting in the next day or two. Looking forward to reading and checking out the background info. Thanks for doing the work Carol :)


message 13: by Carol (new)

Carol (carolfromnc) | 448 comments We have a great group of participants onboard. I'm looking forward to February!


message 14: by Dianne (new) - added it

Dianne | 204 comments I started today, it looks great!


message 15: by Carol (new)

Carol (carolfromnc) | 448 comments Dianne wrote: "I started today, it looks great!"

I know. Right?


LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2288 comments Well I finally got a copy. This must be a hot book as the first time I ordered it - used from an Amazon vendor at an nice price - the padded envelop, with the name of the enclosed book on the outside, arrived opened and empty! After having to provide the vendor with pictures of the envelop, I was refunded my purchase price. So I then ordered a new paperback copy directly from Amazon, which arrived the evening before I left on a trip. I throw the book into my backpack and was able to start it yesterday. I am 120 pages and enjoying it.

Thanks for the links Carol. I always like background on authors I've not read before. I've read a few books about Russia that had material from WWII on. I also visited Russia for two weeks about 10 years ago, just about the time Putin started his second term. My husband and I had dinner in the home of a woman who taught German at 3 colleges in order to earn enough to support herself and her daughter. She worried that her daughter would not be able to go to university because there would be no money for that. One of our guides on that tour was an administrator at the Hermitage. She was guiding because she needed additional funds. Her son was taking the entrance exams to university and he needed to get the highest scores because she did not have money to bribe officials to get him a place. He had to take 4 exams to get in. She reported to us his scores (he got the score the next day) and we cheered as he racked up top scores on each exam. More than one person, though, told us they liked Putin because he settled things down and they no longer had to wait in long lines to buy food, with the possibility that there would be none with they reached the front of the line.

I've always been fascinated with Russia. I did the required major research and writing paper in high school on the last Russian Tsar and his family. It is such a huge country with such divergent peoples. And one that has predominantly experienced some form of authoritarian government.


message 17: by Dianne (new) - added it

Dianne | 204 comments Linda wrote: "Well I finally got a copy. This must be a hot book as the first time I ordered it - used from an Amazon vendor at an nice price - the padded envelop, with the name of the enclosed book on the outsi..."

this was so interesting linda, thanks for sharing!


message 18: by Carol (new)

Carol (carolfromnc) | 448 comments Linda wrote: "Well I finally got a copy. This must be a hot book as the first time I ordered it - used from an Amazon vendor at an nice price - the padded envelop, with the name of the enclosed book on the outsi..."

Thanks for sharing this story - wow. I've always been fascinated, too, and my ignorance far exceeds my knowledge of it.


LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2288 comments I found this review - http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifesty... - of the book that takes issue with the translation. It is the only negative I've seen in that respect.


message 20: by Carol (new)

Carol (carolfromnc) | 448 comments Linda wrote: "I found this review - http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifesty... - of the book that takes issue with the translation. It is the only ..."

The reviewer has an interesting take, Linda. Like you, this is the first criticism I've read of Gannon's translation and the example is compelling.


message 21: by Carol (new)

Carol (carolfromnc) | 448 comments Govnyo wrote: "I thought the translation was extremely good - it read like a book that had been written in English. The formal/informal you-s were botched though. Aside from the duel example from the review, were..."

I concur. Unless one is going to drop footnotes or endnotes, which would telegraph to many readers that reading this novel is a laborious endeavor rather than literary entertainment, choices are made and, as you've described them, Gannon's make sense to this reader.

On the formal vs informal you, specifically, surely many translators deal with the decision of omitting it a addressing it, in rendering translations into English, since I believe English is in the distinct minority in not providing for it. Yet I don't recall this criticism of works translated into English from Spanish, for example.


Franky | 101 comments Fifty plus pages in and it is very compelling and very Russian. I am enjoying how the author is weaving in the tales of the three main characters and then putting their stories in the context of the history time frame. I really enjoyed the chapter about The New Teacher and how art, music, literature and poetry are a component of the book.


message 23: by Marc (new) - rated it 4 stars

Marc (monkeelino) | 2555 comments Mod
You've inspired me to try to put together a list of characters for this book, but as I'm only on page 120, I'm not sure it'll be complete before the end of the month.


Kathleen | 253 comments I'm on page 140, and am not being as strict about keeping my list of characters but still find it helpful. Like Franky, I'm enjoying the Russianness of this and so wanted to be along for those literary/historical walks described!


LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2288 comments Marc wrote: "You've inspired me to try to put together a list of characters for this book, but as I'm only on page 120, I'm not sure it'll be complete before the end of the month."

Marc, you have undertaken quite a task! One of the challenges is figuring out all the names by which any one character might be called! I've finished and while I thought I had a pretty good handle on the characters in the first half of the novel, confusion crept in the further I went in the second half!


message 26: by Marc (new) - rated it 4 stars

Marc (monkeelino) | 2555 comments Mod
Linda, I'm sure I've bitten off more than I can chew!


Michelle (topaz6) I'm not even 100 pages in but this reads extremely well and easily. It's quite good, even if I did pick up on the same "formal you" problem as everyone else has.


message 28: by Carl (new)

Carl | 287 comments I don't want to be too critical of the story or the writing, but I have had to stop early on in the book. I found both the storytelling and the translation somewhat pedestrian. I love Russian literature and 20th Century Russian classical music, so I bought this book thinking it would be an adventure but ended up finding it boring. I was in the process of rereading Notes from the Underground, and it's funny how that book has far more modern and artistic writing, yet it was written well over 100 years ago.


Franky | 101 comments I'm about 140 pages in and am really enjoying it. I am trying to juggle multiple book reads right now, but this one is a smooth and easy read so far, that I can read with other novels. There are quite a few characters as has been mentioned, but I think I'm just focusing on the central ones, and not every subsequent family member. I always love books about books, too.


Caroline (cedickie) | 384 comments Mod
I'm behind everyone and only about 40 pages in but I'm enjoying it quite a bit. I'm not sure where the story is going yet but I love the language and the tone - it feels very playful so far. I haven't had any issues with the translation so far.

I haven't read any Russian literature for a few years so it's nice to return to it again. It makes me want to revisit some older works I haven't touched in a long time or get to some of the classics I haven't read yet!


message 31: by Kai (new) - rated it 2 stars

Kai Coates (southernbohemian) | 24 comments I am listening to the audiobook since I am traveling a lot for work right now, but I fear that is a mistake as I am not a fan of the reader so far. I am very excited to read some contemporary Russian literature. I cannot think of any others I have read recently.


message 32: by Carol (new)

Carol (carolfromnc) | 448 comments Kai wrote: "I am listening to the audiobook since I am traveling a lot for work right now, but I fear that is a mistake as I am not a fan of the reader so far. I am very excited to read some contemporary Russi..."

That's always difficult for me. Another member also has difficulty keeping track of the characters, which may have been the result if endeavoring to listening to the audiobook. I hope you're able to enjoy it or go back and forth with an e-version when you're not in the road.


Karen D | 8 comments I'm about 180 pages in, and while I'm not finding it too terribly demanding, I'm not sure I find it as engaging as some of the others do. Perhaps it's because it's due back to the library in 2 days and so I'm feeling pressured to read it? I did appreciate the suggestion for keeping a list of characters, i've been doing that and it's been useful!


message 34: by Marc (new) - rated it 4 stars

Marc (monkeelino) | 2555 comments Mod
CHARACTER LIST (Part 1 of 2--notes contain spoilers)
(loosely organized by main characters whose names are bolded)
(view spoiler)


message 35: by Marc (new) - rated it 4 stars

Marc (monkeelino) | 2555 comments Mod
CHARACTER LIST (Part 2 of 2--notes contain spoilers)
(partial book/author reference list at end of this post)
(view spoiler)


LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2288 comments Impressive!


message 37: by Carol (new)

Carol (carolfromnc) | 448 comments @marc - thank you for sharing this!


Franky | 101 comments Thanks for the list Marc, that really helps. I was getting a little confused there, especially when the narrative starts jumping all over the place.

I'm 200 plus pages in and almost to Part 2, but I'm feeling like this book is getting way to sporadic and all over the place with vignettes about various minor characters. Too jumpy. I was so invested in the 3 main characters in the first 120 or so pages and suddenly they disappear and we meet characters who interact with those characters and then things jump into another direction. I'm finding it a slower read now, and trying to figure out the significance of all these random adventures and episodes. I know they all fit together, but still... I get that that is sort of the format of the book, but still I'm not as invested in say, a character like Olga for instance.


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