Linda reviews The Zhivago Affair

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Boris Pasternak was one of Russia’s most beloved poets before he began to write Dr. Zhivago in 1945. His decision to turn away from verse and create a novel dedicated to the individual rather than a Kremlin-approved protagonist faithful to the cause and the collective was life altering. Pasternak’s fate, the book’s tortured path to publication, and how the CIA used it to combat the Cold War is meticulously chronicled in The Zhivago Affair, important new nonfiction by Peter Finn and Petra Couvee. The writers’ research efforts and storytelling gifts are not to be missed, especially if you’ve read and enjoyed the novel or are interested in Soviet culture, crime, punishment and espionage.

So yea, there’s a lot going on here, and yes, Pasternak, his wife, his mistress and her family paid dearly for the defiance, but more on that later.

Pasternak lived in a writers’ colony outside Moscow and wrote in a quiet room inside the dacha he shared with his second wife Zinaida.  In another part of town lived his mistress Olga Ivinskaya and her daughter Irina. Ivinskaya became Pasternak’s literary agent as well as the inspiration for the character Lara in Dr. Zhivago.

It took Pasternak more than 10 years to finish the novel, which eventually won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958.  The book was a sensation throughout much of the world but banned in the USSR. Yet, here’s an interesting turn—the  folks at the CIA were big fans and believed it could be used as  an intellectual weapon against communism during the Cold War. In fact, the CIA used that tactic frequently and believed “if a piece of literature was unavailable or banned in the USSR or Eastern Europe, and the work might challenge or contrast with Soviet reality, the agency wanted it in the hands of citizens in the Eastern Bloc.”

Once completed, Pasternak wasn’t keen on changing a word of it, even though he was under pressure from the Kremlin.  While the Soviets had a long history of executing writers for far lesser “crimes,” Pasternak was able to play the game and make just enough concessions and confessions to stay alive and keep his masterpiece in tact for an Italian publisher.

After the Nobel Prize announcement,  Pasternak was ousted from the Union of Soviet Writers and forced to reject the prize and write letters of apology to Khrushchev and Pravda. The Kremlin even considered exile, and Pasternak struggled to find work to support his family.  Finn and Couvee say that “the Soviet Union’s widely reported hostility to Doctor Zhivago ensured that a novel that might otherwise have had a small elite readership became an international best seller.”

That’s some small comfort, but Pasternak wasn’t able to bask in the international spotlight. He died a few years afterward, and the book profits being held in the West and reserved for Ivinskaya got her in trouble. When the foreign currency–now in rubles–came into her hands she and her daughter were sentenced to several years hard labor.

The Zhivago Affair scrutinizes the artist’s life in an authoritarian society, and I came away feeling sorry for Pasternak and his brethren who had, no doubt,  many stories locked inside that went unwritten. And then I felt sorry for us, the readers. Think of all that we’ve missed.

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Linda Reviews Redeployment, Nat’l Book Award Winner

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Being an avowed news junkie I followed the Iraq War closely, but those embedded camo-clad reporters weren’t able to tell war stories the way Phil Klay does in Redeployment, this year’s National Book Award winner.

The author is an ex-Marine and Dartmouth grad who was there during the surge. His collection of short stories is unlike anything I’ve read before. Klay’s writing is so urgent and graphic and in the moment that I believed I was part of a Marine squad sweeping through a house on the streets of Fallujah.  My body tensed while I read.  Guns crack, gravel and shrapnel fly, Marines shout orders or tend to their wounded–it’s all there in frightening detail:

“Back door leads to the kitchen. Right, clear. Left, clear. Overhead, clear. Rear, clear. Kitchen, clear. We roll through, don’t stack, just roll. Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast. Corporal Sweet’s fire team clears houses like water running down a stream.”

I don’t know about you, but I can see those Marines in action inside that house. I’m tempted to grunt out an ‘Oo-rah’ after that paragraph.

While some stories put you in the thick of a sweep or a firefight, others follow Marines in the hours and days and weeks after intense battle as they sort through the killing or the experience of seeing a friend die.  And then there are stories of Marines back home, minus a weapon, minus their squad, who hold it together and begin again. Not even a trip to the mall is easy.

I watched Klay’s acceptance speech online last week. He said, “War’s too strange to be processed alone.”  I hoped that as a reader of his stories, I was a remote part of that process for him. Can a stranger reading a personal story be helpful? I wanted to think so. One thing’s for sure–I didn’t turn a page of this book without thinking of him and all the other Marines who served. For many of them, they’re still battling to recover from physical and emotional wounds, which is the centerpiece of Klay’s work–the toll war takes on a person’s soul.

Redeployment is a remarkable book, but it won’t be for everyone. Readers with military experience will probably relate and make better sense of all the acronyms than I did.  I figured out about half of them while reading. There’s no Marine glossary of terms here so I made do. And since the stories recreate battle and the life of Marines in country, there’s profanity. Lots of profanity. Without it the stories wouldn’t be real.  It didn’t bother me but might disturb G-rated readers. In between the combat and the combat weary moments, Klay adds moments of humor. In war, you’ll always find absurdity, and there’s some here, too.

Linda Clicks with Anna Quindlen

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Anna Quindlen and I have never crossed paths, but I’m glad I  pulled this book of hers off the shelf last week.  Judging by how much I liked–no, loved—Her Still Life With Bread Crumbs, I’ve missed out on a literary voice and writing style that click with me in a major way.  Anna, you and I need to catch up.

But first,  her recent novel. The one with a gray-haired, 60-year-old photographer, once the darling of the New York art scene who’s fallen on hard times.  The famous Rebecca Winter, creator of The Kitchen Counter series of photos,  needs cash. She’s  moved into a not-so-cozy cottage in the sticks while renting her airy, light-filled Manhattan apartment to generate income. She’s a few hours from the city, and her first night there realizes there’s a raccoon in the attic who seems more at home than she does.

Before I tell you about the roofer  (I envisioned Sam Eliot for the no-nonsense local who knows everything about the forest, the critters and the townfolk) who comes to the rescue, I must say how much I enjoyed Quindlen’s descriptions of Rebecca’s work and professional life. It’s probably because I like photography and enjoy picture taking. Like Rebecca Winter, I like to  walk around with my camera shooting objects and scenes that suddenly appear or ‘speak’ to me in some way.  I’m no pro and just shoot for fun, but it was so very interesting to learn how a real photographer sees the world around her. We had a wee bit in common, and I enjoyed that connection to the character. Next to her age, of course.

Rebecca became a sensation many years before with one image from her iconic Kitchen Counter series of photographs. Called “Still Life with Bread Crumbs,” it materialized only because of Rebecca’s procrastination. Her company had gone home, and she wasn’t ready to begin the dishes. Instead of the dishtowel, she grabbed her new camera and began taking pictures of the chaos left behind. Dirty forks, an olive oil bottle on its side, plates, wineglasses. The image  launched her career and kept her bank account robust, but by the time we meet Rebecca that income stream was down to a  trickle.

Her lease is for a year. Slowly, she makes friends, picks up work as a bird photographer for the state and begins a friendship with that roofer fellow.  She also reclaims a bit of her artsy mojo when she stumbles upon objects in the woods–crosses randomly planted into the loamy soil with pictures or trophies or keepsakes. They are mysterious, spooky, unsettling, as are the black and white images Rebecca creates.

Quindlen offers a positive view on change and growing older in this novel.  Fact–we’re not washed up by 60. Life still holds adventure and promise. Never give up. Be open to new things. It was exciting to find a character who brought ‘young, old age’ to the forefront.  She made me believe my mantra –the best is yet to be.

Linda Peers into Pyongyang

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I had the rare opportunity to look behind the rusty, pock-marked iron curtain of North Korea recently, and the view was more forlorn than I expected. Suki Kim’s memoir,  Without You, There Is No Us, chronicles her six-month stint teaching English to the sons of North Korea’s elite class of doctors, military and party officials at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST). Even inside this exclusive enclave (all other universities were shut down during her 2011 assignment), life for Kim and her students was a grim, unchanging grind: “There is a relentless vacuum, nothing moved. No news came in or out. No phone calls to or from anyone. No e-mails, no letters, no ideas not prescribed by the regime.” She also had to boil drinking water, ditch her jeans and flip-flops,  disdain foreign magazines and books and never, EVER, fold, crumple or sit on any image of the Great Leader.

And having said all that–each depressing morsel of the students’ existence and Kim’s life inside North Korea intrigued and fascinated me.  Maybe I was thankful that I wasn’t stuck in a place where portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are the sole–and mandatory–interior design. Maybe I enjoyed being shocked at the deprivation and simultaneously grateful that I wasn’t in her shoes. Perhaps I loved encountering the truth about a cold, mysterious and yes, in my mind, evil place.

I find it ironic, though, that Kim produced such a forthright account of this sliver of North Korea while in the midst of her own deception. She was supposed to be part of a religious/teaching delegation, but she really wasn’t part of the flock. She was a journalist teaching English undercover as a Christian missionary.  She was there to witness and record, not sow the seeds of faith.

While reporting on her experiences in and outside the classroom, Kim does a good job of educating American readers who, like me, aren’t experts on the two Koreas or the history that came before them. I also appreciated the inclusion of  her own family’s story about an uncle who became separated from her mother’s family and was never seen again. These are hard, compelling stories to digest, but necessary, I think, to better understand what exactly goes on here and what is at stake for Kim should she or her notes be discovered.

The most joyful part of the book were the students and their eagerness to learn and practice English. Kim shared most meals with students, and it was here I discovered how naive they were about everything from  girls to North Korea’s status and global reputation.

I came away from this book admiring Suki Kim’s courage to leave the comforts of America and live and teach in a country so hostile to the West. I also turned the final page believing North Korea is far more sinister and cruel than I ever imagined.  More of us here need to know that.

Kaitlin remembers reading “Elizabeth Is Missing” by Emma Healey

18635113Elizabeth Is Missing is an exploration of memory and what happens when we lose it. I chose this because I love unreliable narrators, and there is nobody more unreliable than somebody who doesn’t know (that she doesn’t know) what the truth is.

Maud is 82, and like most people her age, she has dementia. She has trouble holding onto the present and lapses into memories of her 1940s childhood. While her childhood memories are fresh and vivid, the most concrete hold she can make get the present is the slips of colored paper she writes notes on to help her remember. The note she comes across most frequently (other than Don’t Cook Anything, which she ignores) is one asking where Elizabeth is. Maud has made it her mission to find her best friend, with whom she remembers visiting thrift stores to find the ugliest (and thereby most valuable) treasures.

As the book progresses, so does Maud’s Alzheimer’s. She has trouble finding her way home and fails to recognize her family. Through it all, her desire to find Elizabeth is paramount, and the belief that something is wrong pulls at her, even when she can’t put it into words.

The author interweaves the mystery of Elizabeth with a mystery from Maud’s childhood. Both are resolved at the end, though one resolution is more concrete (but less satisfying) than the other. Maud begins to confuse her memories of the past with what’s happening in her present, finding explanations for what is happening to her in what she remembers from 70 years before.

Though some reviewers lamented the flashback device as outdated, I appreciated how it reflects the way Maud’s mind works. I also thought the author did a good job of cluing the reader into what was happening to Maud, without switching to outside viewpoints. Maud is easy to understand, though she has lost the grasp of many common words (umbrella, pencil, bench), which was also portrayed well.

I can’t remember reading a book that I found at once so suspenseful and poignant. I recommend it for anybody who can empathize with Maud and wants to know why Elizabeth is missing.

Linda rides shotgun with the Repo Man

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What a joy it was this holiday season to hang out with a repo man from northern MIchigan.  In a world full of glittering good deeds and goodwill among men, I ran away with ex-football star Ruddy McCann, who does the dirty work of separating cars from owners who skip their car payments.  It was a nice escape from the tra-la-la and the treacly offerings from the Hallmark Channel.

OK. Maybe I watched one or two of those movies. I don’t go totally Ebenezer Scrooze in December, but The Midnight Plan of the Repo Man by W. Bruce Cameron was the right, light bit of reading  for me during the run-up to December 25.

In addition to the after-hours sneaking and car snatching, Cameron supplied an unsolved murder and, to keep the reader really loose, the murder victim’s voice rattling around inside Ruddy’s  head for much of the novel.  Ruddy believes it’s  a bad case of ‘repo madness,’ but murdered realtor Alan Lottner sticks around and becomes the yin to Ruddy’s yang. They’re the odd couple, bickering one minute, collaborating the next to find Alan’s killers.

And if that isn’t enough, people, Ruddy has a bit of a crush on a cutie who happens to be Alan’s daughter.  Gets pretty interesting, plus there are some laugh out loud moments as well as a cast of offbeat friends, a giant stuffed bear inside his sister’s bar and a lovable, but lazy dog. And let us not forget the guard goose protecting a pick up truck Ruddy can’t seem to snag.

Nutty as a fruitcake? Yea, sometimes, but the book is better than anything you’ll find on the holiday buffet table.

Linda Sees Stars After Falling From Horses

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You bet I see stars. Maybe four. Or five. As in five out of five stars for superlative fiction. My head is still spinning from this story, the setting, the characters, and the horses.

And right up front I’m telling you. I’m not a horse person. I think horses are beautiful animals, but their size and strength intimidate me.  Which is often the reaction I have to fiction dedicated to horses. I touch those books gingerly, back away, and then look for something else without a hint of sagebrush.

But as of this morning, I’ve got a horse book under my belt, and it’s a stunner. If I loved it, imagine how much the horse crowd will take to Falling From Horses by Molly Gloss.

For some reason this book didn’t spook me. Must have been the Old Hollywood angle and the pure and believable characters Gloss concocted. It was a nice mix of time, place and people. There was Bud Frazier,  a restless  ranch kid from Oregon bound for fame, fortune and broken bones in California. He’s aimin’ (throwing in some ranch speak here) to find work as a stunt rider in the movies and expects to be falling from horses each day, if he’s lucky. Sitting next to him on the southbound bus is Lily Shaw, aspiring screenwriter with attitude. They form a fast, awkward friendship that strengthens over time as their careers take hold.

Gloss bowled me over with Bud’s narration—his take on the world, his descriptions of his years growing up on the Echol Creek ranch, the references to his parents and his deceased sister, his impressions of how people and horses are used and abused by the movie makers. He felt real and true to me. Sometimes I admired him and sometimes he was too rough or too quiet. I easily imagined him leaning over the rails of a corral, assessing the horseflesh.

Now’s here’s the painful, but necessary truth about portions of this book. If Gloss’s intent was to frame a story around the movie making machine of the 30s, she spared no detail about how horses and their riders were chewed up and spit out mercilessly. Animal cruelty was a part of getting the shot, and trip wires maimed and killed scores of horses. It was tough to read. Reckless stunts and stampedes caused unplanned falls and often hurled riders into oblivion.  Gloss never flinched from writing about this nasty side of the movies, but it’s information that any John Wayne or Gene Autry fan should be aware. A kindly singing cowboy movie with a good guys-bad guys chase? Probably not so kind during the filming.

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Linda likes Spoiled Brats (the book, not the peevish tots)

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“Spoiled Brats,” by Simon Rich, is actually a collection of short stories. Most of them were clever and great fun to read. There’s always one or two stories in any collection that I find weird and maybe a few that are disturbing. So yea, Rich threw in some odd stuff, but I expected them. I liked the book anyway and can recommend it to readers who like urban hipster comedy  from a writer who may be a big brat himself. He inserted himself into two of his  best stories, so I’m guessing he’s OK with people thinking that about him. I respect that kind of risk-taking, don’t you?

Of the 13 stories, my two favorites were the opener, “Animals,” about a guinea pig family that barely survives the brat-induced chaos of homeroom 2K, and the book’s centerpiece story, “Sell Out.” More on that in a bit.

Simon Rich(the character, not the writer) is a big mouth kid who needs lots of attention, so he forever yells  “Whatchu talkin’ ’bout, Willis!” (with no reprimand from his freakishly patient teacher) and makes predictable, raunchy comments about the planet Uranus. Can’t you just hear this kid in action?

The brash, bratty Simon draws hamster feeder duty. Not a good omen for our guinea pig dad (named Princess Jasmine by the urchins) and his three wee sons. Simon never feeds the hamster brood but finds time to pluck Princess Jasmine by the tail and swing him through the air. Eventually, the hamster –or guinea pig? I’m never sure—bites back and parents surface to demand the animals’ eviction. Will the guinea pig family be euthanized? Set free in the shadow of the school’s dumpster? Find a happy home that’s not infested with brats? It’s not for me to say.

Now. “Sell Out.” Eighty-two pages of pure delight. I loved this story. Simon Rich’s great, great grandfather Herschel resurfaces in New York a century after he fell into a barrel of  pickle brine while at work in his local pickle factory. He’s preserved, rediscovered and reunited with his only remaining family, his spoiled brat of a great, great, grandson who works as  a screenwriter and script doctor.  Herschel lives with a strong faith and work ethic (he pulled rats out of gears at the factory) while Simon kvetches about his rewrites and consumes huge amounts of alcohol. With a set up like this, I don’t know what more I can add to tempt you.  The tough, determined immigrant from Slupsk (that’s in Eastern Europe–where it’s so tough people eat horsemeat to live and kill each other for potatoes) versus his spoiled brat offspring? This story is reason enough to borrow the book.

Coming in third place for me was “Family Business,” about a chimp who leaves his family to learn sign language in America. His Dad thinks he’s just full of himself because he doesn’t want to hang out all day  with the other chimps and dig for grubs.  His mother is distraught that he’s leaving the jungle. “Mom, come on. Don’t whimper. This is my chance to get out of this town. To see the world.”

Hey, I could relate. Who wouldn’t want to go to Stanford?

Kaitlin waxes rhapsodic re: The Painter by Peter Heller

You may not remember me. Hi, I’m Kaitlin. I’m the new director of the Bethel-Tulpehocken Public Library. I read a lot.

I have not been in hiding, but, rather, having been busy librarian-ing. I had a lovely conversation with Miss Linda the other day about the many things I want to do at the library but, alas, don’t have time for. Linda has volunteered to help with them (more on this later), so in exchange, I’m writing the most amazing blog post ever.

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I finished this book on Saturday. It took me over a week, which is highly unusual for me. At first, I loved it. Beautiful writing, excellent protagonist (he’s a sorta murderer, at first). I could even forgive his excessive fishing. But then I stopped reading (probably to play Monster Busters – have you tried it? Don’t. It will eat your free time like a Fruit Roll-Up). And I had no real urge to continue. I did continue a few days later, and I wondered what I’d ever seen in it. Lots of verbiage about river water and sea water and metaphorical paintings.

But then the plot picked back up, and I was back in it. Here’s a summary – Jim is a painter who lives in Colorado. He paints and fishes. He meets a lady at a coffee shop who decides to (naked) model for him. She’s pretty cool and they start a thing. Jim is sad because his daughter died and his marriage failed and he’s an ex-con, but he’s happy too. And he’s rich – he’s a successful painter, whose paintings sound pretty awesome – birds nesting on small children’s heads and whatnot.

One day Jim runs into a hillbilly beating a little horse on the side of the road. Jim’s not OK with this and gets on the bad man’s bad side. The rest is car chases and police investigations and late-night sneaking.

So that’s what I liked about this book – it was well-written and deep, but it was suspenseful too. Didn’t like it as much as I loved Dog Stars but that’s one of my all-time favorites. Highly recommend.

Linda sails away on DePotter’s Grand Tour

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De Potter’s Grand Tour was a solid three-star cruise for me. I wanted something quaint, light,  and a little bit exotic to ward off these darker days of mid-autumn, and Joanna Scott’s book arrived right on schedule.  Its travel itineraries and descriptions of  the world’s most unique vacation destinations sustained the vagabond in me that never really wants to unpack.

Armand and Aimee De Potter  were a cosmopolitan pair living at the turn of the 20th Century. Their European touring company brought travelers to Constantinople  and Paris and all points in between.  Their deluxe tours featured the best accommodations, a highly-connected guide (Armand), and postcard worthy moments like whirling dervishes, pristine alpine landscapes,  river cruises up the Rhine, and camel rides in the desert. One thing for certain, the  De Potter brand delivered high quality and adventure to both tenderfoot and ace travelers.

But not all is grand on the grand tour. Armand capriciously invests in antiquities without  knowing their true worth. Debts accumulate. An accident on one of his tours has created a landscape rife with unhappy customers and damages disputes. And then, he’s got to fund the villa  in Cannes where he and Aimee and their son Victor live.

Might he be worth more dead than alive? As early as page seven Scott writes that Armand is lost at sea. But how? Any why? No one more than his wife wants these answers, and as Aimee is left to settle Armand’s affairs she starts to learn that her husband was a man of mystery and  some deception.

Her quest for answers will keep you reading.  Along the way, you’ll get to see a bit of the world as it was 100 years ago.  It’s a pleasant trip back in time, and it’s fun to imagine these tourist spots as they were before 20th century technology changed travel forever.