Friday, December 30, 2016

The CZ Book Club: 2016

2016 was a rough year for a lot of people for a lot of reasons.  It was also a pretty good year for plenty of reasons.  For example, it was definitely a good year for some interesting reading!

So, if you'd like to expand beyond your normal reading selection, here are some suggestions for you.  (Unless Russian literature is your norm, in which case this list will be a lot of familiar favorites.)

FICTION

For an interesting exploration of a woman returning to a place haunted with memories, where she seeks to heal and find proof for herself that she is not, to put it crudely, a complete worthless screw-up: Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys, author of Wide Sargasso Sea.  This novel blurs the narrator's past and present in a drunken, emotional haze that pulls you straight into the pages.

For a scathing psychological portrait of a two-bit Russian gentry family slowly tearing itself apart from the inside: The Golovlyov Family by Mikhail Saltykov.  This novel typically isn't as well-known to Western readers familiar with the likes of Dostoevsky, but it is similar in its darkness and preference to peer into the most cobwebbed corners of a character's mind.

For a comical depiction of the salt-of-the-earth and colorful people of the small country towns scattered across the vast plains of Russia, and the story of one lazy man with an incredibly bizarre moneymaking scheme: Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol.  Gogol presents a nice contrast to the darkness of Saltykov with an idyllic Russia populated with oddball, but not cruel and malicious, characters.

For a tragic romance and unembellished portrayal of lives of poverty in imperial Russia: Poor Folk by Fyodor Dostoevsky.  The story is told in a series of letters between a poor copy clerk and his second cousin, a country girl who falls in love with a sick student.

For a tangled, intense story about morality, God, love, hate, and relationships: The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky.  There is no way to distill this novel down to a sentence or two.  It is a masterpiece.

For a beautiful, moving story about the difficult transition from an old life to a new one: Farewell to Matyora by Valentin Rasputin.  This is the best book I read all year.  It's the story of a group of old people living on an island in the Angara River, and how the tides of modernism and development quite literally sweep them away when their island is designated to be drowned when a dam is built across the river in the name of industrialization.  They cling to their disappearing way of life and doomed homes as long as possible, and their drawn-out farewell is absolutely heartbreaking.

For a trippy experience that is pretty much the same as the movie: Fight Club by Chuck Palahnuik.  Seriously, it's a super strange story with a major twist, but I didn't get anything out of the book that wasn't in the movie.  So I guess they're both good?

For a portrayal of the ultimate type of superfluous person, all talk and ideas and no action: Rudin by Ivan Turgenev.  Good ole Russian authors and their genius for psychological examination of their characters!

For a beautiful story about a husband and wife and the tragedies that war inflicts upon the families left behind: Live and Remember by Valentin Rasputin.  This author is fantastic.  Soldiers are not the only ones shattered by war.

For a political thrill disguised as a sci-fi novel: Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein.  I was so surprised by this book!  If it wasn't for the periodic references to free fall (zero gravity) and Martians, I would have thought it was just a great political caper!  An impersonator hired to cover for the disappearance of a major public figure?  You will not see what's coming.

SEMI-FICTION

For a series of stories depicting the lively, colorful personalities to be found in small country villages in the far reaches of Siberia: Stories from a Siberian Village by Vasily Shukshin.  These snapshots show both the pure, simple ways of the old life and the slow modernizing incursion of the new.

For different perspectives on life inside the Soviet prison camp system: The House of the Dead by Fyodor Dostoevsky, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Kolyma Tales by Varlam Shalamov.  All three are semi-autobiographical by individuals who survived time in that frozen hell.  Dostoevsky's and Solzhenitsyn's stories both follow a main character interacting with guards and fellow convicts, navigating labor assignments, squirreling away the rare extra ration of bread, suffering with the lice and bedbugs, and detailing every other mundane aspect of life in the gulag.  Shalamov's book is an amalgamation of vignettes that reveal the inner workings of the camp doctors and medical facilities, movement of prisoners through the system, delineation of gangs within the camps based on the convicts' sentences, and the depths of desperation to which man can be brought.

NON-FICTION

For an incredible story of escape, resourcefulness, and persistence: The Long Walk by Slavomir Rawicz. A small handful of men escape from a Siberian prison camp in the middle of winter and journey all the way across the Himalayas to India.  On foot.  I can only hope that were I ever to end up in a situation just a fraction as impossible as what they faced, that I would make it through with the same courage, creativity, and compassion.

For a hilarious and interesting travel memoir: I Cannot Rest from Travel by Willard Price.  This guy had a serious case of wanderlust, and lived in a time when there were still new frontiers to be explored and it wasn't as easy as hopping on a 16 hour flight to Australia.  Some of his observations are definitely not politically correct (by current standards), but many are still so true about what travel offers today!

For an unbelievable story of betrayal: A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre.  This well-researched saga of Kim Philby and the Cambridge Five, told from before they even became spies, is great.  There's something about how a sharp British writer like Macintyre describes people -- the little details that become his primary focus -- that makes you feel like you've been friends with them your whole life and know them inside and out.

For an example of the far-reaching power of the written word: The Zhivago Affair by Peter Finn and Petra Couvee.  I had no idea, before this book, that the CIA was in any way involved with the publication/dissemination of Doctor Zhivago.  Even the Vatican was involved at one point!  Nor did I know anything about Pasternak's stubbornness in sticking up for himself and his beloved masterpiece against the Soviet authorities.  When I get around to rereading Doctor Zhivago, it will be with new eyes.

For inspiration about being an underdog: David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell.  Although most people would never wish to be at a disadvantage, the various case studies presented in this book show how it's possible to not only overcome challenges, but to make them into strengths.

For more crazy Russians and wild Siberian stories: Siberia on Fire by Valentin Rasputin.  The book is a series of stories, likely autobiographical, and essays by this incredibly perceptive Siberian author.

For some girl power, comedy, and successful dream-chasing: Bossypants by Tina Fey.  I heard so much about this book, and I always thought the cover was bizarre, but I didn't really want to take the time to read it.  Thank you road trips and audio books!  I enjoyed learning about SNL behind the scenes, but it bothered me how much Tina Fey attributes aspects of her success to Alec Baldwin.  Just own it, woman: you worked hard and you had some lucky breaks!  That's a good life!

Happy reading in 2017!

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