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2019 TOB Shortlist Books > A Terrible Country

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message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

Play-in round.


message 2: by Michael (new)

Michael (grebmar) Am I the only person who read this? My impression was it was too long - the main plot took too long to get started, then it sort of fizzled at the end, when the narrator got to skate away home free. Kind of a chronicle of privilege, if you ask me. Any other opinions?


message 3: by Ruthiella (new)

Ruthiella | 340 comments Michael wrote: "Am I the only person who read this? My impression was it was too long - the main plot took too long to get started, then it sort of fizzled at the end, when the narrator got to skate away home free..."

I got this for my dad for Christmas so I have to wait until the 25th before I can "borrow" it back. But your impression is not the first that I have heard in that vein: too long, too superficial.


message 4: by [deleted user] (new)

Michael wrote: "Am I the only person who read this? My impression was it was too long - the main plot took too long to get started, then it sort of fizzled at the end, when the narrator got to skate away home free..."

I liked it well enough, but I agree with you on all points. I don't expect it to get past the play-in round. The best thing about the book is the grandmother, who is all I could hope a Russian grandmother would be.


message 5: by Jan (new)

Jan (janrowell) | 1058 comments Tina wrote: "Michael wrote: "Am I the only person who read this? My impression was it was too long - the main plot took too long to get started, then it sort of fizzled at the end, when the narrator got to skat..."

Mind meld, guys. I read it and didn't hate it, but it wasn't a favorite by any means. The protagonist was an immature jerk, but then he kept realizing he was a jerk and trying to course-correct. I did enjoy the setting, since I don't reach much fiction set in modern-day Russia. And yes, loved the grandmother.


message 6: by Nadine (last edited Dec 24, 2018 05:46PM) (new)

Nadine (nadinekc) | 544 comments I'm on page 91, and I'm starting to feel like this book's charms are already wearing thin. The narrator's voice has a self-deprecating charm ("As for me, I wasn't really an idiot. But neither was I not an idiot."), and getting a peek at today's Moscow is entertaining, but that can only go so far. I'm DNF'ing, at least for now. And I also like the Bubbie (grandmother).


message 7: by Neale (new)

Neale  (collincollinsbookblogcom) | 122 comments Wow! Not much enthusiasm for this book. Oh well. Here I go.


message 8: by Neale (last edited Dec 29, 2018 05:21PM) (new)

Neale  (collincollinsbookblogcom) | 122 comments I think I might be the "odd man out" with this one. Admittedly I am only 147 pages in but I'm really enjoying it. I agree that the narrator seems immature and self-absorbed but he seems to be maturing as the narrative lengthens. I love the relationship between him and his Grandmother. At the point I am at, he seems to be realising that she is so very lonely, and he was pretty much treating her like a piece of furniture. Like you Nadine, I am enjoying reading about the transformation of Moscow through the eyes of a character who has lived in both states, past and present. Still plenty of pages to go but I must admit that I am pleasantly surprised by this book so far.


message 9: by Janet (new)

Janet (justjanet) | 634 comments Collin wrote: "I think I might be the "odd man out" with this one. Admittedly I am only 147 pages in but I'm really enjoying it. I agree that the narrator seems immature and self-absorbed but he seems to be matur..."

If you are odd man out, I am odd woman out as with less than 100 pages to go, I am enjoying this thoroughly. I've taken one trip to Russia as a tourist and Gessen's portrayal has had me chuckling regularly. I'm sure it is a "terrible country" but to outward appearances it's also a beautiful country. The only clue that all is not perfect is that the people don't smile, sometimes even when coaxed which you'd think would be a given for workers in the tourism industry. Our protagonist's love for Mother Russia stems from his relationships and as America leans into authoritarianism, aren't we the same? People tolerate a good deal to remain close to loved ones. Whenever I am critical of the U.S. on social media invariably someone asks why I don't leave and invariably the answer is my children live here. Well...I digress but I do think it is one of the better books shortlisted.


message 10: by Nadine (new)

Nadine (nadinekc) | 544 comments Janet wrote: "Collin wrote: "I think I might be the "odd man out" with this one. Admittedly I am only 147 pages in but I'm really enjoying it. I agree that the narrator seems immature and self-absorbed but he se..."

Janet and Collin - I'm glad you're both liking the book, so I can feel less guilty ;) I liked it very much at first, especially Andre's immaturity and his guilty inability to stop committing small acts of pettiness. (I'm sure we've all been there.) I also like his sense of humor. My problem is that it seemed to be going nowhere by page 120, and I got the feeling that it was just going to sound the same (albeit entertaining) note. My DNF was more like 'this is nice, but I've had enough now.' I haven't returned the book to the library though - I'm not completely sure I won't pick it up again.....


message 11: by [deleted user] (new)

Nadine wrote: "...this is nice, but I've had enough now."

Exactly that! I enjoyed this book while I was reading it, I learned a bit about modern Russia, and then I moved on from it.


message 12: by Neale (new)

Neale  (collincollinsbookblogcom) | 122 comments Oh it's good to know others are enjoying it as well. Nadine I hope, well I really have no basis for saying this because I am only halfway through, you finish it. Janet your post is extremely interesting. I have a fascination with Peter the Great and I would love to visit Russia one day. Tina I also am learning about modern Russia as I go.


message 13: by Janet (new)

Janet (justjanet) | 634 comments I do think it's more than a humorous fluff piece....although you might have to read between the lines a little bit to see what he's saying about oligarchy, kleptocracy and the dangers in our current political climate. Peaceful protest is risky business in Russia and is quickly becoming so in the U.S. I've noticed that the TOB books that go far generally have a strong connection to current events so for that reason I think you may be surprised at how well this one will do. As a side note I noticed that Gessen was one of the translators for the Nobel prize winning Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster so he clearly has some writing chops.


message 14: by Neale (new)

Neale  (collincollinsbookblogcom) | 122 comments Janet wrote: "I do think it's more than a humorous fluff piece....although you might have to read between the lines a little bit to see what he's saying about oligarchy, kleptocracy and the dangers in our curren..."

Oh, I think you are correct in saying that it's more than a humorous fluff piece. I have reached the point where he has become closer to Sergei and their conversations are so enjoyable. I must confess to knowing virtually nothing about Russia's revolutions apart from the key figures involved. I have a massive book on the shelves on the Bolshevik revolution that I have never read. I think I might start delving into it while reading the ToB shortlist. I also agree with you about books connected to current, or in vogue, events doing well. I'm wondering if the Slavery undertones of Washington Black will help it along.


message 15: by Nadine (new)

Nadine (nadinekc) | 544 comments As I think more about the character of Andrei, he's starting to remind me of Arthur Less in Less, with their rueful humor. Although for me, Arthur Less was a more nuanced and multi-faceted character, and Greer's writing was so superb it took my breath away. I haven't read any other Greer books yet, so I don't know if this is a regular thing, or if this is his masterpiece so far.

I do appreciate the social and political commentary Gessen gives us, and how deftly he does it, without weighing down the characters and story. I just felt like there was a sameness to it.


message 16: by Caroline (new)

Caroline   | 150 comments I am going to weigh that I really liked the ending and I thought the author was very aware of the statement that it makes about Andrei's privilege and his ability to skate away from consequences. The ending doesn't entirely feel earned, what with how shaggy the rest of the book is --a lot of it feels like an extended 'what I did on my gap year' essay, although it does tighten up at times when a sense of the stakes comes through (although the stakes are always always for OTHER people and not for Andrei; which I do think is a deliberate point and also makes it feel like real life at times -- we're always our own narrators but the important things happening around us often affect others much more than they affect us.)


message 17: by Neale (new)

Neale  (collincollinsbookblogcom) | 122 comments Caroline wrote: "I am going to weigh that I really liked the ending and I thought the author was very aware of the statement that it makes about Andrei's privilege and his ability to skate away from consequences. T..."

I have just finished Caroline and that is a great summary. I think that Andrei is very naïve at the end and has no idea what is going to happen to the others after his police interview. I also loved the ending. The consequences occurring from the same incident and yet frightfully different results for the different characters. I really felt for the Grandmother as well. We know she is on her last legs and her memory failing, but surely she still had many lucid days and realised what had been done to her. I found this to be a very "real" novel, no fairy tale endings. I loved it.


message 18: by Caroline (new)

Caroline   | 150 comments Collin:

Exactly, it's the grandmother's tragedy, and Sergei's, and Yulia's to a lesser extent (I don't know if Andrei EVER realizes he did the same thing that Yulia's loser ex did). I did have an impulse to want Andrei to suffer MORE but I understand the way it turns out.

I'll be interested to look for interviews with the author once this is settled a bit, since he's clearly more politically sophisticated than Andrei is, I'm curious how he views or wants us to view the character.


message 19: by Neale (new)

Neale  (collincollinsbookblogcom) | 122 comments Caroline wrote: "Collin:

Exactly, it's the grandmother's tragedy, and Sergei's, and Yulia's to a lesser extent (I don't know if Andrei EVER realizes he did the same thing that Yulia's loser ex did). I did have an..."


Agree about the political sophistication. I think he paints Andrei as a little bit immature, and for all his studies, a little politically naïve. Halfway through the book I thought that he was maturing and would stay with the grandmother. The book actually made me appreciate where I live, and the many rights we have and simply take for granted, compared to what really is a large chunk of the world even today.


message 20: by Michael (new)

Michael (grebmar) Collin wrote: "Janet wrote: "I have a massive book on the shelves on the Bolshevik revolution that I have never read.

I have this book as well!


message 21: by Dianah (last edited Jan 08, 2019 03:01AM) (new)

Dianah (fig2) | 255 comments For the veteran ToBers, this felt, to me, like the return of the WMFuN. For the newbies, read this article by John Warner:

https://bookriot.com/2011/10/06/the-w...

Andrei redeemed himself a bit throughout the book by realizing his WMFu-ness, but he skipped town when up against it. I loved the Grandma, but the whole thing was a long way to go, and the only payoff went to the WMFu.


message 22: by Carmel (new)

Carmel Hanes | 130 comments I agree with almost all the comments given here. I appreciated learning about Russia-- the culture, political and economic histories, and the physical environments. I enjoyed the grandmother and the evolving tenderness Andrei showed towards her. The pace of the story was difficult until more players were introduced, and the ending represented events that are often troubling, when the choices of one impact others in such negative ways. I never warmed to Andrei as a person, which affected my appreciation of the novel. I could appreciate it from an intellectual standpoint, but if I'd been reading it instead of listening to it as an audiobook, trapped in my car, I might have DNF'd it. Then I might have missed the best parts of the story.


message 23: by Drew (new)

Drew (drewlynn) | 416 comments Longtime Russophile here. I know I was predisposed to like this book even though it is a WMFuN. I loved watching Andrei's relationship with his babushka evolve even though it didn't evolve enough in the end. I loved watching him learn about how post-Soviet Russia works although he learned too little too late. I loved being reminded that Clean Ponds was the name of the park I want to visit when I'm there in Sept. It reminded me of Moscow Farewell which I read after my previous visit in that it was a window into daily life in a country we can barely imagine.


message 24: by Alison (new)

Alison Hardtmann (ridgewaygirl) | 451 comments I adored this novel. I still have to read Speak No Evil, but it will have to be extraordinary to surpass this one. I'm cautiously hopeful that it will make it out of the play-in round.

I really enjoyed Andrei's voice and the tension between him hating this terrible place and learning to love it. I'm a sucker for a good expat story and this fit the bill. I loved the setting, and the way in which Gessen brought Moscow to life - that it's not just gangsters and oligarchs. This reminded me, if of any book, than of Elif Batuman's The Idiot but I'd be hard pressed to explain why.


message 25: by Alison (new)

Alison Hardtmann (ridgewaygirl) | 451 comments Here's a thoughtful review of the book, with some interesting background to Gessen and the guy Sergei is based on.

https://www.thenation.com/article/kei...


message 26: by Noa (new)

Noa (nsing) | 18 comments Loved the grandmother, like everyone else. Really liked parts of the book, felt like it dragged in Part 2 and could have used some editing. Gave me a greater understanding of Russia which I appreciated. Onto Speak No Evil.....


message 27: by Rachelnyc (new)

Rachelnyc | 61 comments It took me awhile to warm up to this novel since, while I appreciated Andrei's humor from the beginning, his whining throughout most of Part 1 got on my nerves. I loved his babushka from the beginning and wanted to slap him when he told his advisor that there was nothing he could glean from his grandmother that would be worthy of writing about. Even though she had memory loss, there were so many things that came up about her life that were fascinating!

Others have expressed it better than I can but I agree that Gessen knew exactly what he was doing by showing Andrei's privilege as a US citizen. I was infuriated but not entirely surprised at his naivete when being questioned even after everything he learned while studying with October.

Oh and I would absolutely invited Seva to stay at my dacha for the summer if I had one!


message 28: by Lauren (last edited Jan 29, 2019 02:23PM) (new)

Lauren Oertel | 832 comments For me this book was extremely realistic. I actually had to check once or twice to make sure it was a novel, and not nonfiction (especially in the first part, which was slower paced). I felt like I was there, living that life and could really connect with everything going on. It helps that I've always been fascinated by Russia (and studied some Russian history/politics in college - strangely enough, this was 2008-2009 - when the book takes place), so even if the plot didn't end up going anywhere, I still would have enjoyed it. I especially loved when he got in with the Octoberists and the great political discussions that came out of that. Very relevant and I also noticed the connections to how things are in the U.S. I have a few Russian friends that I plan to suggest this to, since I'm interested in their take on it.

While I also found some of Andrei's decisions annoying, and there's definitely that white/American privilege shining through, I think his growth and compassion developments throughout the story helped. Again, I think it's very realistic - I can totally see an American-raised Russian in his late 20s acting this way. His decision in the end was disappointing, and Seva's death soon after was a likely consequence, but I believe it is a decision most young middle class-ish American men in his place would have made.

I hope those slogging through the first part keep reading - the second half of the book has a lot more action! ;)


message 29: by Lauren (new)

Lauren Oertel | 832 comments Rachelnyc wrote: "It took me awhile to warm up to this novel since, while I appreciated Andrei's humor from the beginning, his whining throughout most of Part 1 got on my nerves. I loved his babushka from the beginn..."

Haha, yes! As soon as they mentioned the guy who needed help building his dacha I thought that was an obvious solution to Seva's yearnings.

Did anyone else feel their heart break when Emma said that while she was Seva's best friend, Seva was not hers?? :(((


message 30: by Neale (new)

Neale  (collincollinsbookblogcom) | 122 comments Lauren wrote: "Rachelnyc wrote: "It took me awhile to warm up to this novel since, while I appreciated Andrei's humor from the beginning, his whining throughout most of Part 1 got on my nerves. I loved his babush..."

Yes indeed. Heart breaking is a good description.


message 31: by Rachelnyc (new)

Rachelnyc | 61 comments Lauren wrote: "Rachelnyc wrote: "It took me awhile to warm up to this novel since, while I appreciated Andrei's humor from the beginning, his whining throughout most of Part 1 got on my nerves. I loved his babush..."

Yes, my heart absolutely broke! I mean, I can't really blame her since even though I adored Seva as a character, people that are always so negative are exhausting IRL.


message 32: by Lauren (new)

Lauren Oertel | 832 comments Rachelnyc wrote: "Lauren wrote: "Rachelnyc wrote: "It took me awhile to warm up to this novel since, while I appreciated Andrei's humor from the beginning, his whining throughout most of Part 1 got on my nerves. I l..."

Haha, true! Reminds me of my boss, unfortunately. :/


message 33: by Elizabeth (new)

Elizabeth Sund | 27 comments I just started this last night and I love the characters and the hyper-realistic portrayal of grad advisers! The descriptions of finding a research topic and thinking constantly about tenure track jobs is spot on. I didn't realize that's what this book was about when I picked it up.


message 34: by Drew (last edited Feb 21, 2019 06:33PM) (new)

Drew (drewlynn) | 416 comments Tangentially related so not totally off topic: Amazon is currently offering the Kindle version The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Keith's sister Masha for $1.99. It sounds like a sad but interesting read.


message 35: by Lauren (last edited Feb 23, 2019 09:06AM) (new)

Lauren Oertel | 832 comments Drew wrote: "Tangentially related so not totally off topic: Amazon is currently offering the Kindle version The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Keith's sister Masha fo..."

Thanks - just got it for free since I had some credits! And your comment reminds me of the funny Misha-Masha pairing in the book. ;)


message 36: by Alison (new)

Alison Hardtmann (ridgewaygirl) | 451 comments Drew wrote: "Tangentially related so not totally off topic: Amazon is currently offering the Kindle version The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Keith's sister Masha fo..."

Thank you! I've snagged a copy.


message 37: by Alison (new)

Alison Hardtmann (ridgewaygirl) | 451 comments For anyone who would like to listen to A Terrible Country, it's being serialized now on BBC Radio4.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000...


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