Elliott Holt’s first book, You Are One of Them, is the story of friendship and of the momentous changes in Russia in the 90′s.
The first part of the book is about the friendship of Sarah and Jennifer, 10-year-olds in Cold War Washington D.C. Like the real-life Samantha Smith, Sarah writes to Yuri Andropov, asking for peace between the two nations. Jennifer decides to write a letter as well, and her’s is the one that attracts the attention of Andropov and the world media.
The friendship doesn’t survive and neither does Jennifer, who dies in a plane crash.
The second part of the book is about Sarah’s time in Moscow just after the Soviet Union breaks up. She tries to track down Jennifer, after receiving a letter saying that Jennifer is alive and living in Russia.
The book has a lot to recommend it – the depiction of the life in the 80′s in suburban Washington, D.C., and the adolescent friendship of the two girls. Holt does an excellent job in painting a picture of what it was like for Muscovites and “New Russians” as they desperately try to adapt to consumerism in a chaotic new market economy.
A couple things are bothersome, though. Sarah is rudely unrelenting in her criticism of the way things are done in Russian business and social life. And the ending, to me, is disappointing. To say more would be a spoiler.
From classic literature to modern popular fiction, some works of phenomenal popularity just don’t resonate with every reader. When I tried to read Anna Karenina, it was a 2004 selection of Oprah’s Book Club. The title enjoyed a surge in popularity as people revisited a classic “considered by some to be the greatest novel ever written…tale of love and adultery set against the backdrop of high society in Moscow and Saint Petersburg” (quoted from the back cover blurb of the Main Library’s copy). I was not impressed. After a justly famous opening line, the book bored me to death and I set it aside after only a couple dozen pages. It was boring, it was stilted, it was old and it was stuffy: above all, it was long! Most editions finish somewhere between 850 and 950 pages. If you are like me, intrigued by the novel but unimpressed by it, you might like to read these novels instead.
What Happened to Anna K. by Irina Reyn: This steamy novel re-imagines the plot of Anna Karenina in modern Queens. Much like Tolstoy’s Anna, the titular Anna K. seeks an escape from her lifeless marriage in a reckless affair with a dashing young author. This brisk, enchanting novel compares favorably to the original at 244 pages.
Dinner With Anna Karenina by Gloria Goldreich: This tender novel of friendship examines the lives of 6 modern women as their book club reads Anna Karenina. As they discuss the classic, they make individual and group journeys toward improving their own lives.
Android Karenina by Ben H. Winters and Leo Tolstoy: In this embroidered version, Winters adds to and alters the original text of Anna Karenina to include cyborgs, space travel, and robots, adding a distinctive and imaginative twist to the story.
If you want to give Anna Karenina a go, place a hold on it at any of the three Davenport libraries. If the going gets tough, online reading guides may help you get more out of the text.
Nearing the end of her life, prima ballerina Nina Revskaya is again haunted by memories of the past, memories that she had thought were safely hidden and forgotten in the poignant novel Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay.
Born and raised in Moscow during the Cold War, Nina’s talent and skill not only ensure her career at the Bolshoi Ballet, it insulates her from many of the harsh realities of life in Stalinist Russia. She falls in love with the poet Victor Elsin, develops a circle of friends that includes writers and composers and enjoys a life of relative comfort. The illusion is shattered when a close friend is arrested and sent to a labor camp, forcing Nina to confront the true nature of the corrupt and unforgiving government. Disillusionment, a shocking betrayal and a daring escape plan propel Nina into the West where her star continues to rise.
Now an old woman wracked with illness, Nina decides to sell her jewels with the proceeds going to charity. Most of the jewels are from her admirers, but a few, particularly a rare and valuable set of amber, are from Russia. Bringing them out into the public eye brings the return of painful memories, of lost love and rash decisions, decisions that reverberate across time and now confront Nina once again.
Moving between present-day Boston and 1950s Soviet Union creates fascinating contrasts in this novel, as well as ratcheting up the tension as separate stories build. From fine jewelry to the ballet to the living conditions of ordinary people in Stalinist Russia, Kalotay effortlessly crafts a bittersweet story of love and friendship and the righting of past wrongs.
AT has visited the former Soviet Union before but feels it deserves another look - the hidden nature of it’s government and society makes it the perfect setting for countless spy novels. John Le Carre, the master of the Cold War suspense novel, has real-life experience in espionage. He was an officer in both MI5 and MI6 in the 50′s and ’60′s, when he began writing fiction.
One of my favorite le Carre novels is Our Game, largely due to the friendship of the main chararcters and the English and Russian setting. The finale takes place in Ingushetia, an unstable Russian subject next to Chechnya. The book starts out with a mystery; the Bath (England) Police are looking for Larry Pettifer and come to the door of his friend , and former handler, Tim Cranmer. Tim is forced to re-enter the spy world to protect himself and to help his friend – if he can. It turns out that Larry is not just a brilliant University lecturer, but also involved in a quixotic attempt to aid the Ingush rebels.
There is no one better than le Carre in depicting the moral complexity of this murky world, in which the name of the game is deceit and deception, and he shows how such a career is inseparable with your private life, even in retirement.
The setting for David Benioff’s City of Thieves is grim and brutal – the siege of Leningrad during World War II – yet there is also light and optimism, even laughter in this book. Lev Benioff, is a naive, 17-year-old is picked up for looting, a sentence punishable by death. Instead of the firing squad, he is thrown together with brash, confident, Red Army soldier Koyla Vaslav (arrested for deserting). They are given a task: find 12 eggs for the general’s daughter’s wedding in five days. If they succeed, they’re free; if not, they’ll be shot.
What follows is the nearly impossible search for fresh eggs in a city that has virtually no food (conservative estimates place the number of Soviet deaths during the siege at 1.7 million, most of whom starved to death) The unlikely pairing develops from forced to begrudging to a true partnership. What these two see, both the cruelty and kindness, is almost unfathomable now in our comfortable, well-fed lives, from the desperate couple resorting to cannibalism (who they barely escape from), to the former call girl that shelters artists and surgeons made homeless by the relentless bombing, to the Nazi commander they must outwit, the book is full of unforgettable characters and heart-stopping tension.
At first, you will want to hate Koyla. He is arrogant and brash and a bit of a braggart. He is also charming and charismatic and at heart, a kind and generous man who does the right thing for others time and again. Lev, who narrates the story, is full of self-doubt and (he believes) weakness, but finds unimaginged courage and strength when he needs it, partly because of Koyla.
Based on Benioff’s grandfather’s memories, this is storytelling at it’s best, the kind of book that stays with you – a story of cruelty, desperation and hardship, but also of kindness, strength, loyalty, love and friendship.
The past is still vivid to Marina, even though the present fades in a fog of age and approaching Alzheimer’s. Now elderly and living in America, as a young woman she had been a docent at the State Hermitage Museum in Leningrad. When Leningrad comes under siege during World War II, Marina and the other museum workers carefully hide the priceless artworks, leaving the frames behind as a promise of their eventual return. Marina painstakingly memorizes each painting and sculpture, memories she can escape to as the winter and continuing siege worsen, memories that now seem more real than her current life. Interspersed with vivid descriptions of the artwork and the suffering of the Russian civilians, this is a beautiful book about the power of memory.