When I watch any of the Avengers movies or really any movie about a superhero, I get really excited because it gives me more of a chance to understand each of their backstories. Sadly, one of the Avengers doesn’t have her own movie and it’s the one that I have the most questions about: the Black Widow. I’ve had to exhaust other sources to learn more about this infamous former KGB assassin and why she is on a mission to atone for her past sins.
My newest Black Widow source of information is Black Widow: The Finely Woven Thread by Nathan Edmonson. (This is currently part of a series, so stay tuned for my review of the second volume whenever I can get my hands on a copy!) In this first volume, readers are introduced to the mysterious Natasha, who is known to her friends and enemies alike as the Black Widow. When she’s not helping the Avengers or on missions as an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., Natasha is working to make up for her past as a KGB assassin. She still utilizes the tools and tricks she learned as an assassin, but is now able to pick and choose the missions that she goes on. In this volume, she finds herself thrust up against the “Hand of God” on an undercover mission in Russia. With the mention of Chaos, she quickly finds herself entangled in a deadly plot that has wrapped its web across the globe. No one is safe from Chaos’ grasp, not her close friends or even her employers.
This first volume mainly introduces readers to the sorts of missions that Natasha goes on and the people that are closest to her. She’s still cold-hearted, but as you follow Natasha through her missions and through her interactions with the stray cat by her apartment, you realize that she is working to better herself the only way she knows how. It gives a little more depth to the character of the Black Widow that Scarlett Johansson plays in the Avengers movies. This volume gives you enough information about present day Natasha to understand how she operates and gives you very little information about her past, just enough to leave you curious and hopeful that the subsequent volumes will explore more about her past.
In Black Widow: The Finely Woven Thread, Edmondson has written an introduction into the Black Widow that allows for the truly artistic work of artist Phil Noto to shine. Throughout this graphic novel, Noto varies the colors used and the way he draws to highlight different scenes and the many different places where Natasha travels. The mysterious nature of Natasha as the Black Widow is elevated by the dark colors and stylized way of drawing the Noto employs. Edmondson’s words serve to add another layer of depth to Natasha’s character, since she’s primarily alone and spends a lot of time thinking out her next actions in her head.
Live Right and Find Happiness (Although Beer is Much Faster) is read by the author, Dave Barry. I used to read Dave Barry’s column in the newspaper and I always imagined as being this goofy guy with a squeaky voice. I was pleasantly surprised at how nice his voice is to listen to. This audiobook is three and a half hours long, so it is great to listen to for a short road trip or on your daily commute. The book is full of different stories and musings by Barry that are easy to listen to and enjoy.
My favorite story in this book would have to be repairing things in your house. Barry talks about how going to a hardware store is the most depressing experience. Unlike commercials for Home Depot, people are not smiling and excited about the projects that they are going to do. They walk around the store terrified and unsure of what to do. And, no one is able to go home and magically transform their house in thirty seconds, looking proud and satisfied. Instead, normal people have to hire contractors. And contractors bring their headaches, even to a writer who works from home.
Live Right and Find Happiness (Although Beer is Much Faster) is full of humorous stories from Dave Barry’s life. He discusses travelling to Brazil for the World Cup of soccer with his wife and daughter. It turns out that the tour guide books lied; not every person in Brazil will try to rob you. Barry talks about his childhood, growing up in the “Mad Men” era, watching his parents have cocktail parties and then how his generation turned out to be hover parents. Barry even has a pair of Google Glass and he talks about how ridiculous he looks wearing it.
These are just a few examples of the stories that are in Live Right and Find Happiness (Although Beer is Much Faster). Barry will have you laughing out loud with his relatable yet ridiculous stories.
This book, The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion & the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming, satisfied my younger self’s curiosity about what happened to Anastasia after the movie ended. I wore out my VHS copy of Anastasia, the movie put out by Twentieth Century Fox, and even convinced my parents to buy me the giant movie poster that I proudly kept on my walls until I moved away to college. Even though the movie is loosely based on the facts of Russia’s last royal family, the Romanovs, I was hooked and subsequently devoured anything and everything that was published about them.
The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion & the Fall of Imperial Russia hit my radar when it was announced as a YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction finalist and a Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books Blue Ribbon award winner in 2014. (Check out Candace Fleming’s website for a list of awards and honors that The Family Romanov won.) Instead of making their lives seem more glamorous and perfect, which the mainstream movie and some dramatizations of the royal families’ lives seem to do, Fleming instead chooses to highlight their real lives and not the fantastical.
When Nicholas II, Russia’s last tsar, inherited the throne in 1894, he was completely and totally unprepared to rule. As a result, his wife, Alexandra, a reclusive woman, began steering her husband toward what she believed to be the right way to rule. Fleming narrates the lives of Nicholas II, Alexandra, their four daughters, and their hemophilic son against the background of World War I and the beginning of political unrest that was brewing in Revolutionist Russia. Instead of paying attention and working with the peasants, Alexandra, Nicholas II, and their family decided to seemingly turn a blind eye to the problems of their nation and rest in their richly opulent castle away from the unrest. The children were raised secluded from others and lived a cavalier and sheltered existence that Fleming notes throughout her work. Fleming brings in period photographs and primary research to enhance the entanglements of royal life and the peasants and working class’ lives of squalor.
Read along as Fleming guides you through the lives of Russia’s last royal family, highlighting the key moments that led to the ultimate rebellion of the people, the murder of the family, and the disastrous fall of Imperial Russia.
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.