Travelling Through Soviet Union

In July of 1948, a writer and a photographer started on a journey for 41 days across Russia and the other Republics of Soviet Union in a quest to find out how does the common people act, “what do they serve for Dinner? Do they have parties? What food is there? What do they talk about?” . They were not interested in politics and instead try and understand the everyday Russian people if they can. They sold the idea to Herald Tribune and convinced the Soviet Embassy to give them necessary permissions and visas, and thus began A Russian Journal, by John Steinbeck and Robert Capa.

 Andrei Mylniko, In Peaceful Fields (1950)

The two geniuses started their journey with a stop at Moscow, Kiev, Stalingrad and Georgia . They were assigned by the Government to help them navigate their journey’s as they visited farms, factories, nigh clubs and writer’s union dinners. They wrote about the suffocating flights where no food was served, so passenger’s carried their own food. They wrote about magnificent dinners which were put up on their honor by collective farms and farm managers and playrights. They attended local community theater and the scintillating ballet. They spoke to farmers, factory workers and the drivers who drove them around and documented everything they saw, including farms which had been burnt to the ground, by the invading armies, the complete destruction of Stalingrad and of heroic factory workers who fought to defend their factories and then went back to complete their work because the country needed their machines. They wrote about Russian music, including “popular music”, folk music and the Russian attempts at American Jazz, They spoke of the dignity of a city destroyed but still standing tall and the beauty of Georgia. They also captured the essence of the Soviet populace with characters of being cold and bureaucratic in Moscow and larger than life, boisterous people of Georgia; of women who crawl out of destroyed buildings and fix their hair on the way to work and of now demobilized soldiers working in the factory wearing their army clothes because that was all they owned. They also discover that the people in Soviet Union have the same questions that they themselves had about USSR – what do people eat, what do people wear, how do their farms work?

Konstantin Shurupov,  Azov Steel Mill (1957)

The book does what it set out to do – describe the everyday life of Russians. Steinbeck with his innate brilliance manages to convey facts, with humor and empathy with a deep understanding of mankind. Capa’s photos, black and white capture every singular detail of what it is to live everyday, work everyday and build back a life that had been brutally torn apart. The book is alive with the presence of hard and long fought battle and it comes through in every page – farms destroyed, families with pictures of son’s lost in the war, of a magnificent city called Stalingrad, destroyed to pieces, but still holding on. This book was written as the “Iron Curtain” described by Churchill was descending between the former allies of USSR and USA-England allies and before another bout of Stalin’s purges. In the introduction to the book, scholar Susan Shillinglaw states that the lives and facilities described in the book was a carefully staged act provided by the Soviet Government and all succeeding books have similar description. It may have been stage managed, the USSR government was hardly known for it’s benevolent and tolerance for any kind of dissent, but the jokes that the farm wit cracked and the dignity with which people struggled to re-build their lives cannot ever be “created” and here lies the brilliance of the two in not only being able to capture those moments and pieces, but managing to masterfully communicate the deep understanding of courage of human soul, while reporting everything factually. The book is replete with insightful observations about Soviet people; while they appreciate the cleanliness of the cities and the good working conditions of the farms, that included apartments for the workers, schools and creches for the children and a clinic, they were smart enough to be able to distinguish between what was real and unreal and this comes through in a wry statements which they make through the book “Russian people live on hope, hope that tomorrow will be better than today.” “In Russia, it is always the future that is thought of. it is crops that will be next year, it will be the comfort that will come next year” The humor of both craftsmen keeps the book from becoming a dry document with observations like “Capa says that the museum is the church of Russia” or when they kept hearing about wait till you see Georgia “We began to believe that most Russians hope that if they live very good and virtuous lives, they will not go to heaven, but to Georgia, when they die.” To end, with some lovely photographs and sparse but powerful prose, the books makes you realize that the authors had succeeded in doing, what they had set out to do, tell stories about everyday people and help realize that “Russian people are like all other people in the world. Some bad ones, there are surely, but by far the greater number are good.”

If you have not read, it is high time you did! In this world where more than ever we are dividing ourselves in us versus them, this books stands as a historical testimony to the simple thought, that folks are just folks everywhere!

Shout out to Karen for setting me on the path of this wonderful book!

Let’s Spin Again…..

The Classic Club Spin is one of my most favorite reading activities. Over the years it has forced me to read books, that I was not sure I wanted to read and tackle texts, which I thought would be beyond me! Naturally the result has been wonderful, I fell in love with so many books that I had been hesitant to read; of course, there were one or two odd ones, that I could not and still do not like, but most of the times, the result were way more positive, with discovery of books and authors to cherish forever. Lately however, with all the tumult that life has thrown up, I have missed many of these events, but now that I am slowly settling back in, it is time to turn to those things that gave me a sense of joy and achievement. Therefore, I am all set to participate in The Classic Club Spin # 24

Thoughts by John Henry Henshall, 1883, The Athenaeum

The rules are as always, extremely simple and I quote from the site directly –

  • Pick twenty books that you’ve got left to read from your Classics Club List.
  • Post that list, numbered 1-20, on your blog before Sunday 9th August.
  • We’ll announce a number from 1-20. 
  • Read that book by 30th September 2020.

Thus, without further ado, I present my list of 20 and look forward to August 9th with both excitement and some trepidation (not all books are up there in I-want-so-read list!)

1The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarrington
2Orley Farm by Anthony Trollope
3Desperate Remedies by Thomas Hardy
4Wives and Daughter by Elizabeth Gaskell
5Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens
6The Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xuequin & Chi-chen Wang (Translator)
7Son Excellence Eugène Rougon by Emile Zola  
8The Bucaneers by Edith Wharton
9The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne
10Kim by Rudyard Kipling
11And Quiet Flows The Dawn by Mikhail Alexandrovich Sholokhov
12The Bachelor by Stella Gibbons
13A Country Doctor’s Notebook by Mikhail Bulgakov
14The Kreutzer Sonata by Leo Tolstoy
15Tevye the Dairyman and Motl the Cantor’s Son by Sholem Aleichem
16Gora by Rabindranath Tagore
17Gossip in a Library by Edmund Grosse
18Travels with Charlie by John Steinbeck
19 Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson
20White Nights by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

And now we wait for Aug 9th!

#ccspin

The July Round Up

I know I am kind of late by a few days on this post, but then atleast I have a round up post. For last 2 odd years, life had become so challenging that let alone blogging even reading was a difficult and round up posts were not even on the bench in the line up things to do. Strange that in these crazy times of a pandemic, I am able to do things that are more akin to my normal life, than the recent past when things were considered normal! Anyhow, the most important thing is I am reading and reading a lot and hopefully what is varied range of subjects and I just hope nothing happens to jinx this again!

La-Lecture by Berthe Morisot, 1873

So what all did I read in July?

Direct Hit by Mike Hollow – This was an impulse request to the publishers on Netgalley and turned out to be a very good detective story story set in 1940 as a former WW1 veteran, now Chief Inspector investigates the death of a local Justice of Peace, which may be a suicide or a murder. Extremely satisfying read for those lazy weekends.

The Romanovs 1613-1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore – An engaging and insightful history on the rise of the Romanov dynasty in Russia in 17th century from obscurity to building an empire spanning Europe and Asia to the ultimate downfall with the 1917 Revolution. A very detailed history which Mr. Montefiore manages to keep interesting by adding a lot of personal details about the Tsars and their family, adding personality, color and even poignancy to this narrative.

Red Pottage by Mary Cholmondey – This book had been lying in my TBR for literally years. Then a wonderful review by Ali made me want to read it and post reading it, I have only one question – why did I wait so long?? First published in 1899, it follows the lives of two young women, Rachel West and her friend Hester Gresley as they navigate love of an imperfect man and a writing career amidst people who do not appreciate her talent respectively. Narrated with thoughtfulness and sensitivity, the book speaks of the time it was written in where woman were awakening to their aspirations and rights!

Not at Home by Doris Langley Moore – Again this came via a wonderful recommendation by Ali. Set in 1945 post war England, Elinor MacFarren, middle aged, unmarried, horticulturist, is forced to rent a portion of her house with its exquisite interiors to ensure financial independence. The tenant, recommended by one of Ms. MacFarren’s friends, seems to agree to all her requirements; however, the reality turns out to be very different and it takes the combined effort of Ms. MacFarren, her nephew, his actor friend Miss Maxine Albert, Dr. Wilmot who was her competitor, but became a good friend to oust the troublesome tenet. The book was a lot of fun and the well drawn out characters added a whole enriching layer to what can be thought as simple plot.

Pomfret Towers by Angela Thirkell – I fell in love with Ms. Thirkell after reading High Rising and the Headmistress and Pomfret Tower gave me more reasons than ever to continue my obsession with her Barsetshire Series. In this book, the very shy Alice Barton is forced by her mother to spend the weekend with her brother at a party at the majestic Pomfret Tower, home to the local lord of the Manor Lord and Lady Pomfret. Soon there are new friends to be made, dances to attend and even get attached to someone as the other guests, including the heir, the cousins and the friends all sort their lives out. This was literally laugh out loud fun and the comedy of manners beautifully plays out in a world that was soon to disappear.

High Rising by Angela Thirkell – Now that I had started with reading Ms Thirkell’s works, it made perfect sense, to re-read the novel, which got started me off on this journey. Laura Moorland, a successful, happily widowed middle aged woman comes back for the summer to High Rising with her ever enthusiastic,railway obsessed son Tony as is her routine. She hopes to catch up with her old friends like Ms. Todd and the Knoxs, George the father, who is a famous author of historical biographies and his daughter Sybil who is almost Laura’s adopted child. However this time around, things are not all that smooth, for George Knox has a new secretary Miss Grey and she has aspirations that may destroy the peace of everybody concerned. Written as always with gentle humor and wonderful characters, this book is treat when you just want something fun, but insightful and just a perfect setting of a small English village.

The Flowering Thorn by Margery Sharp – This is one of my all time favorite Margery Sharp and the dynamics between Laura and Tony made me want to read about another such story and this was it! Lesley Frenwen is an independent young woman, socializing and living the high live in London, until some minor incidents, come togther, and she ends up adopting an orphan boy, the son of her now dead companion to her aunts. Lesley is no way prepared for the changes that are needed to bring up a little boy and she struggles into the role, which she considered temporary ( until the boy starts school at 8) , she discovers a life that breaks away every stereotype helping her discover herself! This is such a wonderfully written, sensitive and beautiful book, that destroys all the cliches props of a plot to build a unique and emotional.

That then was my reading for July! It was after many many months a much more fulfilling reading month and like I said before, I hope to continue this stint through August; fingers crossed!

So how was your July reading?

The 20 Questions….

I know these posts are taking longer than expected and at this point I am averaging one post a month, which like really really sucks! But things are rather more complicated than resolved and though I am coping better, and it is more minor random things than real big time life changers that seem to be consuming my time, they do consume a LOT of my time and a moment of breathing space is hard won! Be that as it may, I did again want to drop in and drop a note and perhaps do a fun post! Fortunately, I found this very interesting 20 questions post over at wherethereisinkthereispaper and I decided, to follow suit, just for some laughs and bookish memories!

1. How many books are too many books in a book series?

Honestly it depends on the book and the writing. Harry Potter sustained me through all 7 books maybe not with equal intensity but enough interest through each book; Conn Iggulden’s 4 part The Conquer Series based on Genghiz Khan’s life and times is another of my favorites and one of my go to every time I need a book on audacity and courage. Percy Jackson lost me after book 2 as did Deborah Harkness’s All Soul’s Trilogy (Vampire – Witch) Trilogy and I did not even get past page 40 of Twilight! Its story and the writing and no book in a series is one too many for me if it is good!

2. How do you feel about cliffhangers?

Again I think it depends on the writing. I could not really believe that Sirius Black was really dead after Book 5 in the Harry Potter series and kept imagining it as a “cliffhanger” for some reason or the other. Similarly I was left angsty after almost every turn of fortune in Conn Iggulden’s War of Roses series and just when I decided for York, something of the Lancaster House got me and I spent the entire seies being anxious which was not particularly fun! To end, I do understand the need to keep the reader “hooked on” but as a reader I am not very sure I like it! It depends on the book and the type of cliffhanger that it ends on.

3. Hardback or Paperback?

I love the quiet elegance and majesty of a hardback; but economics makes paperback so much for viable , so paperbacks it is!

4. Favourite Book?

I cannot even begin to attempt to answer this one…..the list is too long and I am fortunate to have read books which have enriched my mind and my life. If you are still curious, please visit my GoodReads shelf.

5. Least Favourite Book?

Again I cannot even attempt to list this one. With the good comes the bad and you have to wade through many horrific works to find a book that sears your soul or even remotely makes sense. Again please visit my GoodReads shelf if you are curious!

6. Love Triangle, Yes or No?

No! Nix! Never! Don’t like them in life and don’t like reading them in books. Have not read the Outlander Series because, it smells of Love Triangle!

7. The most recent book you couldn’t finish?

Ms. Treadway and The Field of Stars by Miranda Emmerson….it started as something and ended up as something and I gave up almost at the end….just did not have the enthusiasm to carry on! I

8. A book you’re currently reading?

Lack of time is limiting my reading abilities, but still current under Reading, the following –

· Belonging – The Story of Jews (1492-1900) by Simon Schama

· New Forest by Edward Rutherford

· The First Firangis: Remarkable Stories of Heroes, Healers, Charlatans, Courtesans & other Foreigners who Became Indian by Jonathan Harris Gill

· The Kings Justice by E.M. Powell

9. Last book you recommended to someone?

I have read some great stuff this year, especially in the first half which was way more prolific than my second half where I practically gave up on all literary activities. However, there are three books which come to my mind, which I feel very strongly about and have practically developed an Evangelical zeal of getting new converts –

· Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

· February: Selected Poetry by Boris Pasternak; Translated by Andrew Kneller

· The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield

10. Oldest book you’ve read? *publication date*

I think it’s from the top of my head and skimming superficially through the top layer shelves, it’s a toss up between Mahabharata (circa. 9th Century BCE) and The Metamorphosis by Ovid (circa.8 AD)

11. Newest book you’ve read? *publication date*

Dear Mrs Bird by A.J.Pearce

12. Favourite Author?

Oh! Man! Another question I cannot answer; but in interest of sustaining the reader’s interest, here are a couple

· Jane Austen

· Rabindranath Tagore

· Boris Pasternak – Poetry Only

· John Steinbeck

· JK Rowling

· Conn Iggulden

· Harper lee

· Charles Dickens

· LM Montgomery

· Fyodor Dostoyevsky

· Author Conan Doyle

· Bakim Chandra

Well….you did ASK!!

13. Buying books or Borrowing books?

Buying! I like to own the books I read….it’s a relationship!

14. A book you dislike that everyone else seems to love?

I am going to get brickbats for this one, but I have two infact whose fasciantion does not makes sense –

· Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (Mad, Obsessive Man and Class Conscious Chick….why is this thing so popular???!!!!)

· Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurer ( Scardy mouse heroine who is forever wandering around in what can only be called ridiculous circumstance moaning about a husband who is older and quieter than her! Go Figure!)

15. Bookmarks or Dog-ears?

Bookmarks only! Thou shall not speak of something as ghastly as Dog-Ears!

16. A book you can always re-read?

Again, sigh! Too many too list!

17. Can you read while hearing music?

Totally – Mostly Western Classical or Jazz instrumental!.

18. One POV or Multiple POV?

Again depends on the writing, but I do feel more than 3 becomes a bit too taxing to follow!

19. Do you read a book in one sitting or over multiple days?

I know this is repetitive but depends on the book. Some I finish over one sitting, some take days and diligence to finish, some start off as a one sitting and then linger of multiple days and then some I linger on, because I do not want to finish!

20. A book you’ve read because of the cover?

Many but most recently Jerusalem Simon Sebag Montfort; I am still making up my mind about that book!

There you have it, my twenty questions! This was super fun! Let me know what your bookish quirks are and maybe we can compare more notes!

The End of July

Yet another super late post! I wish I was bit more regular and diligent but crazy work hours and super hectic weekends, have slowed the pace of reading and blogging severely! I barely got any reading done in July and did very little in terms of leisure activity besides watching the Wimbledon semi final and final round matches. Yet looking back, I must say, that it was not so bad, if I managed to watch all the semi-finals including the Men’s Singles each of which was 5+hours long! Oh! Well! Hindsight is an interesting thing!

Moving on, like I said, between work, Wimbledon and socially busy weekend, reading really took a back seat! However, if we were to claim quality and never quantity matters, then, I had a wonderful reading month, because, despite the limited number, the sheer  brilliance of the works, made the reading a truly enriching experience! My reading for the month went something like this –

I Claudius by Robert Graves

20180730_121613 (1)

There are two different ways of writing history: one is to persuade men to virtue and the other is to compel men to truth”

Final Meeting : Selected Poetry by Anna Akhmatova; Translated by Andrey Kneller

20180808_102521

Faced with this grief, the mountains bend,

The mighty river stops its flow,

But iron bolts won’t even dent,

Behind them – “the convicts’ den”

And somber deathly woe.

Some people feel the soothing breeze,

For some the sun shines red –

For us these wonders long have ceased,

We only hear the grinding keys

And soldiers’ heavy tread.

We rose as though to early mass

And crossed the capital in throngs,

More breathless than the ones who’ve passed,

The Neva’s hazy, overcast,

But hope continues with its song.

There’s the verdict… Tears burst loud,

She’s singled out, on her own,

As if her life has been ripped out,

As if she’s thrown onto the ground…

She’s staggers… stumbling… alone…

Where are the friends with whom I’ve shared

Two years of living in that hell?

What blizzards do they have to bear?

What visions in the lunar glare?

To them I’m sending this farewell

Augustus Carp, Esq. By Himself Being the Autobiography of a Really Good Man by Henry Howarth Bashford

20180728_135905 (1)

“For the first time, I was in the presence of the greatest human vice. Nor have I ever, perhaps, entirely recovered from the enormous shock of that discovery. For though I had been aware, of course, from my studies on Holy Scripture, that such things had occurred in the Middle East, and had even deduced from contemporary newspapers their occasional survival in the British Islands, I had never dreamed it possible that here, in a public park in the Xtian London of my experience, a married man could thus openly sit with his arm round a female who was not his wife.”

That is all for now folks! Like I said, not too many readings, but some very qualitative and interesting ones! Hopefully August will bring many more Reading Hours!

Of Seasons, Longings & Despair in Soviet Russia

Allen Ginsberg, in his biography, Ginsburg : A Biography by Barry Mills had explained poetry as something which was “not an expression of the party line. It’s that time of night, lying in bed, thinking what you really think, making the private world public, that’s what the poet does.”  This meaning of poetry and the work of the poet comes out in all its vivid forms in a collection of Boris Pasternak’s poems, February, translated by Andrey Kneller. Boris Pasternak, the 1958 Nobel Prize winner who declined the honor under pressure from the Soviet Government, and whose work, Doctor Zhivago has been immortalized in every possible form of media,  was born in a well to do Jewish family (though the Pasternaks had assimilated into the Russian Orthodox Church for years) and had lived through the most turbulent years of Russian History – World War I, Russian Revolution, World War II and the Great Purge, had captured all this changing history of the land and her people and thought about it and then poured it into words of great beauty and resonance, in an act of making a private world, public!

BORIS_BESIDE_THE_BALTIC_AT_MEREKULE,_1910_by_L.Pasternak
Boris Besides the Baltic Sea, by Leonard Pasternak, 1910

February is a slim volume of only 110 pages but within it, are 27 pieces of powerful poetry, that touch upon a variety of subjects ranging from politics, the faith of Pasternak’s beloved Russia, Nature, Christianity and Love! The compilation begins with the said poem February, first published in 1912, and in sparse, terse words, Pasternak manages to blend in the pathos of the last dregs of winter, with mankind and poetry. I fell in love with the simple but powerful opening lines of the poem –

Oh, February, To get ink & Sob! 

To weep about it, spilling ink

One poem that especially was singed into my imagination, is apparently nameless, and powerfully captures the rule of Stalin and its destructive forces on a person and his soul!

The cult of personality is stained,

But after forty years, the cult

Of gray monotony and disdain

Persists like the day of old

Each coming day appears lackluster

Until, it’s truly hard to bear

It brings but photographic clusters,

Of pig like and inhuman stares.

The cult of narrow minded thinking

Is likewise cherished and extolled.

Men shoot themselves from over drinking,

unable to sustain it all.

There is a soul searing piece called Noble Prize, written, after he declined the honor which captures the raw anguish and pain of Pasternak on the stands he was being forced to take, by the very same country and government, he did not choose to abandon or flee, while all his family and friends left, believing in the ultimate good of Lenin led Socialist society! And here in lies the greatness of the poet, that despite all the angst and heartbreak, he ended the poem in hope and faith –

Even now as I am nearing the tomb

I believe in the virtuous fate

And the spirit of goodness will soon

Overcame all the malice and hate

Yet another poem titled Hamlet, captures the need to walk away from a predestined plot, to address something more urgent and ephemeral!There are lovely play of words in his poems about nature, from White Nights to the one called Spring Flood, to yet another work called Easter. His love for Olga Ivinskaya comes through in all the glory of meeting, falling in love and then when Ivinskaya was sentenced to Siberia, of longing, guilt and memories, in the poems titled as Meeting  and then, Parting. The fact that Pasternak was a student of philosophy is a fact that is never really far off in his poetry and in many of his writings,  he touches upon ideas of what is tangible and what is transcendental, especially in his poetry of nature. In Autumn, he says, 

The Lodge’s wooden walls now gaze

At us with grief and hopelessness.

We never vowed to break the restrains’

We will decline with openness. 

There are many powerful and moving things in this collection that shines like a beacon of what poetry is all about! Pasternak in this collection of 27 poems brought the Russia that he knew, with all its beauty and tragedy to life, painting on a vast canvass, touching upon the key notes of everything that constitutes mankind. And while I am wary of all translated works, simply because one does not know exactly what is lost is translation, even in essence, there is enough in this work to enrich your soul and your mind!

 

Onwards Towards Backwards Glory…..

It was one lazy sunny vacation afternoon when I searching the World Wide Web for some potential additions to my TBR pile. I am aware that my TBR pile does not need any more additions, but that’s the whole point – the never-ending list makes us all feel so good; so much to read and so little time and all that! Somehow or the other at some indefinite point of time trawling from one bookish blog to another and clicking through some historical and some fiction and some historical fiction sites, I tumbled on to this – Historical Tapestry!! It a blogging site about historical fiction and till yesterday, I had no idea it existed! From the pages and lists, I can see the site is popular and it talks so many lovely and innumerable nuances of historical fiction and I had no idea the site existed – some historical fiction fan I turned out to be! Jeez!

One however cannot continue crying over spilt milk and an error like this needs immediate correction; so I subscribe now to the blog and to complete my devotions to all things holy in the genre of historical fiction, I participate in the 2014 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge! Woohoo and drum roll please!

The rules of Challenge are pretty simple (Or so I thought; the concept of look before you leap alien me!) – (I quote verbatim from the blog)
• Everyone can participate, even those who don’t have a blog (you can add your book title and thoughts in the comment section if you wish)
• Add the link(s) of your review(s) including your name and book title to the Mister Linky we’ll be adding to our monthly post (please, do not add your blog link, but the correct address that will guide us directly to your review)
• Any kind of historical fiction is accepted (HF fantasy, HF young adult,…)
• During the following 12 months you can choose one of the different reading levels:
– 20th century reader – 2 books
– Victorian reader – 5 books
– Renaissance Reader – 10 books
– Medieval – 15 books
– Ancient History – 25 books
– Prehistoric – 50+

So I who never settle for anything mediocre should have straightway signed up for the Prehistoric levels; but I have learnt from my Historical FictionNovember sojourn and I take due care – only so much! I instead sign up for the Medieval levels – 15 Historical Fiction books should be a cake walk (Or so I think!) If I end up reading more, well so much the better and if I do not, at least I will not fall into a complete looser category; though going over my 2013 reading list, seriously, 15 should be easy.

I do not stop here but sally forth with a potential reading list that includes some books I have been trying to get around to reading for some time and this challenge may be a good time as any to try to strike out some of these –
1. Katherine by Anya Seton
2. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
3. War of Roses by Conn Iggulden
4. The Falcons of Montabard by Elizabeth Chadwick
5. Kristin Lavransdatter: The Wreath by Sigrid Undset
6. Kristin Lavransdatter: The Wife by Sigrid Undset
7. Kristin Lavransdatter: The Cross by Sigrid Undset
8. Sacrilege by S J Parris
9. Wine of Violence by Priscilla Royal
10. The Devil’s Disciples: The Fourteenth Chronicle Of Matthew Bartholomew by Susana Gregory
11. A Maze of Murders by Paul Doherty
12. The Fallen Princess by Sarah Woodbury
13. Lady of the Forest by Jennifer Roberson
14. Tales of Alhambra by Washington Irving
15. Affinity by Sarah Waters
16. Possessions by A.S. Byatt
17. The Dark Lantern by Gerri Brightwell
18. The Great Stink by Clare Clark
19. Angelica by Arthur Phillips
20. The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons
21. The Midwife’s Tale by Sam Thomas
22. The Book of Madness and Cure by Regina Melveny
23. The Gates of Rome by Conn Iggulden
24. The Death of Kings by Conn Iggulden
25. The Field of Swords by Conn Iggulden
26. The Gods of War by Conn Iggulden
27. The Blood of Gods by Conn Iggulden
28. Penmarric by Susan Howatch
29. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
30. The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan

I know I said 15, but having double the number of options is so much more fun; besides there will be some books which I will pick up and never finish and others that are not included in the list. Anyway as I sail forth, I wonder how I will fare at the end of 2014; for now I sail away with War of Roses by Conn Iggulden and Wine of Violence by Priscilla Royal! Bon Voyage, I say!!

Poetry and Ballets in Russian Winters

So I picked this book while browsing randomly through Goodreads listopia and am I glad I got my hands on this one!

Daphne Kalotay’s Russian Winter is beautiful, historically rich, and lyrical with one of the most unusual characters in modern fiction – Nina!  The book begins with the auction of the jewels including some famous amber’s of the world-renowned ballerina Nina Revskaya. Now extremely ill and crippled, Nina is selling the jewels she had gathered all her life in an effort to close a chapter in her life that began in Stalinist Russia more than half a century ago. However, her past cannot be buried, as her life, love and its eventual betray reverberate in modern-day Boston, where she now resides and into the life of Grigori Solodin, a professor, who believes that the jewels that Nina is selling holds the key to his own past.

russian-winterNow for the great parts of the novel – Nina Revskaya is one of the best characters that I have come across in current friction. She is a beautiful and extremely successful ballerina, whose character portrayal comes more through her actions and interactions with others than what she says. Daphne Kalotay departs from cliché by not only making her central character very human – she falls in love, has close friendships and does have petty jealousies and is capable of overcoming those jealousies to do something kind. She is not better than an average human, and like all average humans, she is capable of making a gross error and then rectifying the same. What is wonderful and completely to the credit of the author is the fact that though the principal character is completely nonpolitical and distances herself as much as possible from the going ons of Stalinist Russia, the author still manages to convey a strong sense of the life and times in that nation, at the peak of its secret police’s power.  What is really wonderful is way, the author describes the simple daily rituals of the common man in a police state – whether it’s a watery dinner in a state-run restaurant, or the state poet buying a Russian make car or the simple pleasures of a writer’s community in the Ural mountains. The book is lyrical – it gives some of the most vivid and capturing description of white Moscow and the country’s rural beauty. The tale is interspersed with some lovely poetry on love and nature and I cannot stop myself from quoting the lines that moved me the most –

Black velvet night, pinned wide and high

By pinprick stars. Faces under moonlight.

Faint echoes float atop the river.

Our reckless splashes toss them here and there.

How very young we were, one floating year ago.

Wet tresses draped our ears.

And in the air, the hum of crickets chanting

Apologies we could not, did not, hear.

Gone, gone, the forest’s past perfection:

Patchwork shade, pine needle carpet,

Ocher-resin drops of sun. The air

Hums….Unseen, the nightingale, too late,

Thrums its stubborn sing-caught somewhere

Between the deep black water and the sky.

The story initially does test your attention, but from page 70+ or so, the pace picks up and you are hooked. It blends smoothly out of 1950’s Moscow and modern-day Boston, without jarring the reader. The end is unusual and after a long time, I have read something that goes beyond the obvious and ordinary.

There are some flaws in the tale as well – the character of Drew Brooke. The only thing I can say is why? I mean why did we have to create her at all; at least as a  principal character….Cynthia could have served the purpose of bridging and there would have been less confusion in the reader’s mind about why this poor little rich girl is the way she is!!! Even the story of her grandparents kind of hangs in the air and somehow I could not find closure to that tale. Then there are the obvious clichés – the brutal and lecherous Russian Secret Police, the blessings of capitalism versus socialism etc. Having said this, the cliché’s are minimal and she does have some of the principal make some original and interesting observations about Socialist Russia.

I would strongly recommend getting a copy if you want a good yarn which can also be called literature, without going round and round in surreal literary jargon! Compliments to Daphne Kalotay for writing such a wonderful book!