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text 2018-07-26 18:31
Russian Roulette - must read
Russian Roulette - Michael Isikoff

Sending from kindle in Seattle.

 

Reading digital library edition but may have to spring for my own copy.

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review 2018-07-02 19:00
An inside look into the early life and creative process of Marc Chagall that goes well beyond a standard biography.
The White Crucifixion : A novel about Marc Chagall - Michael Dean

I received an ARC copy of this novel from the publisher, and I freely chose to review it.

Although I am not sure I would say I’m a big fan of Chagall's paintings, I’ve always been intrigued by them and drawn to them, even when I didn’t know much about the author or what was behind them. I’ve seen several exhibitions of his work and have also visited the wonderful Chagall National Museum in Nice, France (I recommend it to anybody wishing to learn more about the painter and his works, particularly those with a religious focus). When I was offered the opportunity to read this novel, written by an author with a particular affinity for the art-world, it was an opportunity too good to miss.

The book is not a full biography. It follows Marc Chagall (born Moyshe Shagal) from his birth in the pre-revolutionary Russian town of Vitebsk (now in Belarus) until he paints the White Crucifixion of the title. We accompany Chagall through his childhood (hard and difficult conditions, but not for lack of affection or care), his early studies and his interactions with his peers (many of whom became well-known artists in their own right), his love story with Bella (fraught as it was at times), his first stay in Paris, in the Hive (a fabulous-sounding place, and a glorious and chaotic Petri dish where many great artists, especially from Jewish origin, lived and created), his return to Russia and his encounter with the Russian revolution (full of hopes and ideals for a better future at first, hopes and ideals that are soon trashed by the brutality of the new regime), and finally his escape and return to France.

Throughout it all, we learn about his passion for painting, his creative self-assurance and fascination for Jewish life and traditions,  his peculiar creative methods and routine (he wears makeup to paint and prefers to paint at night), his visitations by the prophet Elijah and how that is reflected in his paintings, his pettiness and jealousy (he is forever suspicious of other pupils and fellow painters, of his wife and her friends), and how he can be truly oblivious to practical matters and always depends on others to manage the everyday details of life (like food, money, etc.). He is surrounded by tragedy and disaster (from the death of his young sister to the many deaths caused by the destruction of Vitebsk at the hands of the revolutionaries) although he is lucky in comparison to many of his contemporaries, and lived to a very ripe old age.

The book is a fictionalization of the early years of Marc Chagall’s life (with a very brief mention of his end), but it is backed up by a good deal of research that is seamlessly threaded into the story. We read about the art movements of the time and Chagall’s opinion of them, about other famous painters (I love the portrayal of Modigliani, a favourite among all his peers), about the historical events of the time, all from a unique perspective, that of the self-absorbed Chagall. He is not a particularly sympathetic character. Despite his protestations of love, he is more interested in painting than in his wife and daughter, although he states that he feels guilty for some of the tragedies that happen to those around him, he pays little heed to them all and does not change his selfish behaviour, and he is far from modest (he feels he has nothing to learn from anybody, is clearly superior to most, if not all, his colleagues and he often talks about how attractive he is). He is unashamed and unapologetic, as he would have to be to succeed in the circumstances he had to live through. But, no matter what we might feel about the man, the book excels at explaining the genesis of some of his best-known early paintings, and all readers will leave with a better understanding of the man and his art.

The writing combines the first person narrative with the historical detail and loving descriptions of places and people, giving Chagall a unique and distinctive voice and turning him into a real person, with defects and qualities, with his pettiness and his peculiar sense of humour. Although we might not like him or fully understand him, we get to walk in his shoes and to share in his sense of wonder and in his urgency to create.

I wanted to share some quotations from the book, so you can get some sense of the style and decide if it suits your taste:

When I work, I feel as if my father and my mother are peering over my shoulder — and behind them Jews, millions of vanished Jews of yesterday and a thousand years ago. They are all in my paintings.

Here he talks about Modigliani and one of his lovers, Beatrice Hastings:

They had some of the most erudite fights in Paris. They used to fight in verse. He would yell Dante at her. She would scream back Dante Gabriel Rossetti or Milton, who Modi especially detested.

Modi once said ‘The human face is the supreme creation of nature. Paint it and you paint life.’

All my life I have blamed myself for whatever it was I was doing, but all my life I have gone on doing it.

So much for the revolution freeing the Jews from oppression. They had ended the ghettos, the Pales of Settlement, but the ghettos had at least afforded us a protective fence, of sorts, to huddle behind. Now we were like clucking chickens out in the open, waiting to be picked off one by one for counter-revolutionary activity.

As other reviewers have noted, the book will be enjoyed more fully if readers can access images of Chagall’s paintings and be able to check them as they are discussed. I only had access to the e-book version and I don’t know if the paper copies contain illustrations, but it would enhance the experience.

I recommend the book to art lovers, fans of Marc Chagall and painters of the period, people interested in that historical period, studious of the Russian Revolution interested in a different perspective, and people intrigued by Jewish life in pre- and early-revolutionary Russia. I have read great reviews about the author’s book on another painter, Hogarth, and I’ll be keeping track of his new books.

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review 2018-05-30 05:42
Maid of Baikal: A Novel of the Russian Civil War - Preston Fleming

 

War, no matter the countries or people involved, is always bad. There are always those among the troops on both sides having wicked hearts and use the excuse of a weapon in their hands to do the evil in their hearts. Then there are those that don't want to kill anyone, "enemy" or not but are unwillingly compelled to do their duty. 
Like many other books about a war, this one focuses on a handful of characters and how the war impacted them on a personal level. It tells of honest patriotism, betrayal, corruption, love, jealousy and hate-- basic human emotions that everyone in the world feels. Though Maid of Baikal is speculative fiction, many of the characters did indeed exist (photos of them included in book). The Maid, however, is fictional. The book spins a tale, asking what if Russia had had its own Joan of Arc during the Russian Revolution and would the outcome have been different? The Maid of Baikal, or Zhanna Stepanovna Dorokhina fulfills that role. She is just a young schoolgirl from a rural northern outpost in Siberia while at prayer hears a voice that tells her she has a mission to save her country and people from the cruel tyranny of the Bolsheviks. As days go by, angels and saints appear to her, guiding her and revealing more of her destiny and telling her of things that have happened that she could not possibly know otherwise. More and more people are convinced and she develops a following and troops of demoralized, disappointed soldiers are given hope by her message. After numerous victories liberating towns that amaze the military hierarchy, tragedy develops.
Maid of Baikal is a fine drama portraying those with pure hearts wanting only good for others, and those who have hidden agendas for their own careers, and willing to stoop to any evil deed to further that as well as protect the corruption they are involved in. It recounts the involvement of foreign nations bankrolling the war (Bolshevik and the White troops as well), with the aim being solely economic. 
Maybe I am much too an emotional person, but chapter 22 and into 23 had me weeping. Such betrayal! Such deceit! The author included a playlist (one song for each chapter) which I downloaded and listened to while reading the book to gain the full experience the author wished to impart. That in itself was a minor education (in a small way) of Russian classical music and composers. I did enjoy the book very much, and wish to thank the author for a copy of it in exchange for an honest review-- thank you!

 

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review 2018-05-28 13:04
Death of a Russian Doll
Death of a Russian Doll - Barbara Early

Poor Liz, her promising new romance with new police chief Ken Young was shattered when his estranged wife, Marya, blew into town looking to reconcile. Liz does her best to get over it, but when Marya is found strangled to death and Ken comes under suspicion, Liz steps in to help her dad solve the murder and uncovers the secrets Marya has been hiding for years. But who killed her?

 

Another great chapter in the Vintage Toy Shop series, I loved the twisty plot, this wasn't your ordinary cozy! There were a lot of timely themes in this story that were handled with humanity and grace. When the whole truth came out, it wasn't difficult to feel for Marya and her tragic history, and it made for a memorable read. I totally knew who did it by a third of the way through the book (and I was completely wrong, so the ending was a surprise!)

 

As always, the villagers are a hoot and the liberal sprinkling of puns made me chuckle. Add in Liz's new romance and the nostalgic (at least for me!) setting and the book left me with the warm and fuzzies. A marvelous series that just keeps getting better and better. This book can be read as a standalone, as any references to the earlier books are adequately explained, but I definitely recommend reading them in order (actually I just recommend reading all of them!)

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text 2018-05-06 19:08
DNF: Absurdistan, by Gary Shteyngart
Absurdistan - Gary Shteyngart

DNF not quite halfway through. In the beginning I was impressed by the fine line this book walks between annoyance and charm. The word I thought of to best describe it was "rambunctious." Then I thought, "Will this 'rambunction' get old?" And it basically did. Or maybe I'm just not in the mood for satire of life 15+ years ago when the present is even crazier. Like, we're living a satire right now. I will say I enjoyed the physicality that Shteyngart revels in; that's rare. On the other hand, I could do without the meta quality, references to an author with a name like Shteyngart's who published a novel that sounds like his debut novel.

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