In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides

Read: 24 June, 2018

This is a truly harrowing story of exploration and survival in the frozen north. I’m somewhat familiar with Franklin’s expedition, but I only knew a rough outline of the Jeanette’s voyage. Given that, I found that Sides did an excellent job letting the various personalities on board come through.

I was impressed by how positively superhuman some of these people were, and how long they managed to carry those who weren’t. I was also horrified by just how terrible the crew’s luck seemed to be – over and over again, it seemed like Murphy’s Law ruled the ship.

I found the book to take a little while to pick up. The beginning provides important background, but perhaps too much of it all at once. There were a few times where I found myself getting lost in the list of names of people I hadn’t started to form associations with. Once the ship was under way, however, the cast narrowed and the individual personalities started to stand out, and I found the second half much more enjoyable.

Winternight Trilogy #2: The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

Read: 9 April, 2018

It’s really quite hard to imagine how a book could be more up my alley. I love the culture and the religion, I love the historical fiction aspects, I love the fairy tales… This book is absolute literary luxury for me!

Just to make it even better, I found that the pacing and plot were, if anything, improved from the first book.

I did manage to guess who Kasyan was almost immediately, but I still enjoyed seeing how that would play out. Especially as Kasyan kept going back and forth between threatening and ally.

Continue reading

Winternight Trilogy #1: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Read: 3 March, 2018

When I started dating a young Russian gent, I started dating his culture, too. I got into Russian music, I started reading Russian fiction, I started collecting bits and bobs of Russian folkart. And my poor, dear, Russian beau, who fled the USSR and would really rather put the whole Russian thing behind them, tolerantly humours me.

All this is just to say that The Bear and the Nightingale is right up my alley.

The writings style has something of a fairy tale flavour to it, which tends to keep a bit of distance between reader and character. This took some getting used to, after the intensely intimate books I’ve been reading recently. But it fit the tone of the story perfectly.

I loved how rich the world feels – at once historical and magical, fantastical and plausible. I also loved Vasya, is was such a charmingly wild thing, without it coming off like it the narrative was trying to hard.

Learn from my fail: There is a glossary at the back for the Russian terms used in the book. You don’t actually have to keep bugging your spouse with questions. Though you certainly can, if you want to.

Continue reading

A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka by Lev Golinkin

Read: 24 February, 2018

My mother loaned me this book because my spouse, though not Jewish, also fled from Russia at around Golinkin’s age. Though he was an emigrant, rather than a refugee, the experiences were surprisingly familiar – particularly in the ways both families responded to the trauma of having lived in the USSR.

I love that this book paints a complex picture. Recipients of charity aren’t always grateful, threat and trauma can lead even the most sober people to make careless decisions, and acts of kindness are sometimes done for entirely selfish reasons.

I also enjoyed the humour of the book. A lot of it is a distinctively Russian humour, that fatalistic “everything is terrible, isn’t if funny?” brand of deadpan humour that I enjoy so much.

Mostly, though, I love the message of hope. In the course of its story, A Backpack presents thousands, millions, of small acts – a donation here, a smile there – that, together, build up to something so meaningful. As Canada discusses its obligations toward refugees, this was a powerful book to read.

Ayn Rand and the World She Made by Anne C. Heller

Read: 27 November, 2017

I had a Libertarian friend in high school. While I was firmly in camp Nader, she was a Bush supporter, and even went so far as to buy me a gloating ice cream sandwich when Bush won the presidency. In the course of that friendship, I was convinced to pick up a copy of The Fountainhead.

I tend to find passion infectious. While I found the book itself a tedious and poorly-written slog, the excitement it showed for architecture really spoke to me. I gave up on the book fairly early – I’m not even sure that I made it a quarter of the way through – but I started looking up information on architecture and even considered pursuing it as a career. As it happened, however, my talking about architecture infected my mom, who picked it as her second career (an excellent fit, as she’s always had a keen eye for shapes). Once she enrolled in an architecture program, I had to pick something else to avoid falling on the wrong side of her competitive streak, and that’s how I ended up with my BA in English Literature.

The point of all of this being that Ayn Rand has had a fairly profound and wide-reaching cultural influence – even on those of us who had almost no interest in her work and found her writing unbearable. Whatever one thinks of her, or her philosophy, there’s no denying that she’s one of the last century’s Notable People.

Rand popped into my Active Interest slot again when I came across an Atlas Shrugged read-along series on Daylight Atheism. It’s a great series that I definitely recommend. Adam Lee does a great job of thinking through the implications of the book and, as Rand would love to say, “checking the premises.”

One of the sources Lee cites frequently is Heller’s Ayn Rand and the World She Made. Since, once again, passion is infectious, I took the book out of the library.

A month ago, I couldn’t have told you anything about Ayn Rand except that she’d written The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, she was a woman, she is somehow related to the Libertarian movement, and she’s dead. So I came to The World She Made a fairly blank slate. Because of this, I can’t say how groundbreaking the research of the book is, and I see from other reviews that maybe there isn’t so much that is new here. But as a starting point, it’s perfect.

Heller moves methodically through Rand’s life – from her childhood in revolutionary Russia, to her death in New York. At each stage, Rand is the centre focus, but Heller explores the broader context of who Rand was meeting, what her living situation was like, what ideas was she exposed to…

On Rand herself, the book didn’t much improve my perception of her. In her early life, it’s easy to feel some sympathy towards her, but so much of her suffering seems to have been entirely self-inflicted. Worse, her life is, itself, the most damning argument against her philosophy.

Worse, she strikes me as a shallow thinker. I’m sure that she was a fantastic arguer, and probably quite quick and witty. She must have bowled over people in person (even if only by virtue of her stamina for argument). But it doesn’t take much thinking through to realize that her philosophy is immature at best. Over and over again, The World She Made makes reference to Rand’s popularity among teenagers and young adults, as opposed to more mature readers. This isn’t surprising.

On her emphasis on individuality, I was reminded of the ubiquity of the self-esteem movement during my childhood, and how – as a thoroughly weird kid – offensive I found it. Everywhere I turned, every school program, every TV show, ever fast food ad campaign was telling kids to “just be yourself.” And yet, the message I heard over and over again was “no, not like that.” And that’s Rand in a nutshell – her whole philosophy is wrapped around the idea of individuality and personal freedom, and yet she required that her followers only listen to certain types of music, only thought certain types of thoughts.

I was both surprised and not surprised by the cult that sprang up around Rand. While I had never heard Objectivism described as a cult, its ideas – and the reverential way in which Rand is so often talked about – certainly smell of cult.

But enough about the subject, what about the book? It’s good! It’s very readable, and it’s a great introduction to Rand and to her ideas.

Omon Ra by Victor Pelevin

Read: February 26, 2017

A young Russian dreams of flight, but everything crashes and burns in the familiar Soviet style.

This novel has a lot going for it. I enjoyed the absurdist imagery of the criticism – the sham within a sham that so perfectly captures Soviet Russia. A few of these images (such as the one in which Kissinger kills the bear) are haunting, and will probably stay with me.

Overall, though, I can’t say that I enjoyed the book much. I’m not sure if I’ve just been tired lately and haven’t had the concentration to read it properly, or if the translation fell short, or if the writing itself is flawed… or maybe it’s a combination of all three. But I found the narrative to be a bit disjointed. Sometimes things would be happening and it would take me a while to figure out what and why.

I also never connected with the main character. Despite the fact that we’re in his head, his voice just isn’t that strong. We’re told the story of his life, but with a remove that prevents the emotional weight from really making itself felt. Even when his mind circles around particular images, and I could sense the significance (the little trapped pilot, the bear), I never knew why these images were significant to Omon. From my bird’s eye perspective, I know that the trapped pilot is foreshadowing, and I know that the bear represents the common people in the USSR, but Omon doesn’t seem to draw these conclusions. So why does he keep the pilot? Why does he think of the bear? It’s that lack of distinction between what the reader knows and what the character knows that made it difficult to connect with Omon’s humanity.

It’s a fine book, an interesting read, another example of absurdist social commentary. The “sham within a sham” aspect was particularly biting. But, overall, this one just didn’t do it for me.

Buy Omon Ra from Amazon and support this blog!

The Blizzard by Vladimir Sorokin (Jamey Gambrell, trans.)

Read: 13 February, 2017

How appropriate to be reading this as my home is slowly buried in snow…

This is a very Russian novel. It’s bleak, it’s unkind, and it’s fantastical. That 50 horse power sled? Powered by 50 miniature horses. Don’t bother with this book unless you’re a fan of depressing Russian absurdism.

As it happens, I am, and I enjoyed Blizzard. 

Spoiler talk ahead: The absurdisms don’t really add anything to the story. I picked this book up because of the promise of Russian zombies, but there are no Russian zombies. The zombie plague could have just as easily been whooping cough.

In a way, it reminded me of the movie Stalker, which builds up all the dangers of the Zone, describing how they kill, but then there’s no pay off. The goal is reached without incident, and the travellers decide they’d best not make use of it, and they go home.

That’s what happens here. The zombies are played up throughout the story. Again and again, we hear of their inhuman claws and the the way they burrow underground to pop up on the other side of barricades.

Do the zombies ever do this? Do they ever even appear? Of course not, because modern Russian story telling hates its audience, and hates Chekov’s gun.

Buy The Blizzard from Amazon and support this blog!

Roadside Picnic by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky

Read: 19 January, 2013

My first introduction to this story was watching the 1979 film Stalker, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. It’s a weird movie and distinctively Russian in its “let’s just give up and go home” mentality. I found it boring and silly the first time I watched it, but it stuck with me. Finally, I decided to watch it again and I fell in love. It’s an interesting movie and well worth watching if you come across it. Just be forewarned: Nothing happens. I mean that. Nothing happens. If you expect stuff to happen in movies, you’ll be disappointed.

Next, I played some of the games. Same world, same concepts, but totally different. For one thing, all those dangers that the stalker warns his guests about in the movie but that never amount to anything actually happen in the game. Between the three of them, there’s quite a bit of fun to be had. Gameplay is good (especially after the long-awaited patch for Clear Skies), storyline is interesting, environment design is amazing. Also worth it if you’re into FPS games.

All this is just to say that I’ve been familiar with the the Stalker setting for many years, so I was excited to see where it all began.

The book follows Redrick Schuhart, a stalker, over the course of about a decade. A stalker is an individual who goes into the Zone illegally to collect alien artefacts for black market sale. Through Schuhart, we get to see the threat and terror of the Zone, and of the people who seek to profit from it at all costs.

It’s a very short novel, but a slow read. The translation wasn’t particularly good, keeping idioms and word orders from the original Russian, but the story was very interesting and compelling. And, of course, the novel is sprinkled through with philosophical discussions, often about how absurd people are and how futile are their aspirations – it is a Russian novel, after all!

If you are into science fiction or Russian literature, I highly recommend giving this book a read!

Buy Roadside Picnic from Amazon and support this blog!

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Read: June, 2004

The devil has arrived in Moscow, and he’s there to wreak havoc. Meanwhile, a writer obsesses over Pontius Pilate while a young woman obsesses over him.

I read Master and Margarita for a course I was taking in university, and it was one of my favourite books of the whole year. I found the obsession with Pontius Pilate to be rather contagious. I was taking another course on the New Testament, so I was able to get it out of my system by writing a rather lengthy essay on him.

This was all a couple years ago, so my memory of the book is a little hazy, but I remember finding it very funny and interesting, mixed in with that depressingly lethargic outlook on life, society, and government so common to Russian writing.

Buy The Master and Margarita from Amazon to support this blog!

Night Watch #2: The Day Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko

Read: 19 December, 2010

During a battle with a powerful witch, Day Watch witch Alisa is drained of all her power. She is sent to a children’s summer camp to work as a councillor while she recovers and, there, falls in love with a young man. Everything seems to be going well until her powers start to return and she realizes that her lover is a witch with the Night Watch!

In Night Watch, we got to see how the Others on the side of the light operate. Now, we get a glimpse into their enemy organization, the Day Watch.

This was a great addition to the series! I really enjoyed how the Dark Others were presented. They aren’t evil, per se, they are just approaching life and relationships differently. In fact, I think that many people would agree with their individualistic philosophy. Lukyanenko did a great job of making the two sides distinct, with thoughts and motives that are diametrically opposed, while at the same time making them eerily similar. I think it’s a mark of a master writer to be able to convincingly write about a feud between two enemies while convincing the reader that both are entirely justified.

As with Night Watch, the book is composed of several short stories that don’t seem to have a whole lot to do with each other. But by the end, it becomes apparent that each has actually been building up towards a particular climax, that every seemingly unrelated event has actually been part of the leaders’ strategies. Again, it’s truly impressive how Lukyanenko is able to pull this off without it ever feeling contrived. The climactic reveals are truly revealing, and not in a cheaty way.

The setting is wonderful. It’s a magical world laid over our own modern day one, and this is done very creatively. But most impressive is how very Russian the magic system is! There is little natural limit to what the witches can do, something that would be a recipe for Mary Sues in the hands of most other authors. But here, the use of magic is restricted by a complex hierarchical bureaucracy. It’s like something straight out of Brazil!

And, as a fan of Russian music, I’ve been having a great time trying to match up the translated lyrics with the original songs.

Help fight against the Dark Others by buying Day Watch from Amazon to support this blog!

Continue reading