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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 2017-11-16 00:00
October: The Story of the Russian Revolution
October: The Story of the Russian Revolu... October: The Story of the Russian Revolution - China Miéville
The revolution of 1917 is a revolution of trains. History proceeding in screams of cold metal.
Γεμάτη δράση η μυθιστορηματική αποτύπωση των γεγονότων που οδήγησαν στην Οκτωβριανή Επανάσταση, με τη διαφορά πως ως υλικό η πραγματική ζωή σε αντίθεση με την πλοκή ενός μυθιστορήματος είναι πιο ιδιόμορφη και πολύ πιο λεπτομερής. Ο αριθμός των εμπλεκόμενων ατόμων και μερών, οι αποφάσεις που πάρθηκαν και που ακυρώθηκαν, το χάος κι η επανάσταση που κινήθηκε σαν ένα τρένο τη νύχτα, φαινομενικά ασταμάτητη κι αναμφισβήτητα επικίνδυνη δίνονται με τρομερή ενάργεια, ενώ o Miéville εμφανίζεται να κατέχει το ζήτημα που αναλύει, ιστορικά και ιδεολογικά, απεικονίζοντας άρτια και τίμια την ακατάστατη διαδικασία και τα λάθη των dramatis personae, μένοντας όσο το δυνατόν πιο απροκατάληπτος, ισχυριζόμενος πως
Those who count themselves on the side of the revolution must engage with these failures and crimes. To do otherwise is to fall into apologia, special pleading, hagiography – and to run the risk of repeating such mistakes.
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review 2016-10-29 00:00
1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution
1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian... 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution - Boris Dralyuk 4,5 stars.

I'm a bit like Bob Dylan at the moment. Speechless.

A wonderful collection of excellent prose.

I'm not a regular non-fiction & anthologies reader. But I enormously enjoyed this collection.
I saw some names that mean a lot to me, and I became curious. Russian Soviet classic in English? Why not? The end result: I stayed AWAKE the half of the night. I was hooked, I was amazed, I was proud to be able also to read ALL of these authors in the original language. But I have to admit that I didn't know many names, and I googled and as a result -I learned a lot.

And OMG how UP TO DATE these stories are!..

Boris Dralyuk made a great job. The important historical facts that give insights into this turbulent and fateful period of time, that filled the places between the stories and poems, and brilliantly chosen literary fragments...WOW.

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review 2016-10-12 22:05
Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar - Simon Sebag Montefiore

Montefiore's history of Jerusalem happened to be the first book I reviewed on Booklikes and I was happy to revisit the author with another one of his works. It seems that every time I pick up a history book in a book shop it is endorsed by Montefiore, he's clearly very passionate in his pursuit of historical knowledge. 


This book centres around Stalin and his changing inner circle. It's an odd blend of details of dinner functions, Stalin's character in calm times and the chronicles of the terror and his political brutality. It's a fascinating glimpse into the sycophantic fervour he fostered amongst his magnates and the cunning, horrific nature of his paranoid mind. I've given it five stars, because probably fittingly, after Kershaw's Hitler this is simply the best biography of a historical leader that I have read. 


Anyone who harbours any romanticism or flirts with the hard left I advise to read this and recognise the dangers of unswerving idealism, the dangers of being an illiberal bent on realising a utopia for humanity in the future at any cost to the people of this life. I had always thought that Stalin wasn't overly ideologically motivated, yet this book seeks to dispel that notion comparing the avidity of Stalin's belief in Marxism to that displayed in radical Islamists. 


Something touched upon in the book and spoken about in debates by Christopher Hitchens is the idea that the Tsar in Romanov times was the voice of God himself, understand that and you may be able to understand the cult of personality that Stalin was able to engineer and take advantage of. The idea of a strong, powerful leader was ingrained into Russian society and it is an interesting feature of the revolution, that despite its attempts to turn society on its head with the ultimate goal of Communism, the aura of leadership remained steadfast. 


It fascinated me that the sons and daughters of some of those murdered and tortured beyond repair on Stalin's orders still regarded him as a great leader. It is unfathomable to me that it is possible to inspire such unswerving loyalty amongst people. This is ultimately what draws me to these immensely flawed and yet ridiculously charismatic characters. There seems to be men and women who pop up from time to time under varying banners of ideology, be it religious/political who manage to cultivate vast followings and impact the course of human history through their actions.


And so I came to the end of the book having lived within the court of the red tsar through the eyes of his vicious inner circle and I was struck again by the surreal nature of it all. How terrifying is it? If you place enough power into the hands of the wrong person you can end up with a society in which an innocuous comment could result in years of torture and imprisonment or a painful death. How is it that a man so well read and intelligent as Stalin, uses that intelligence to create a cut throat, savage society in which even those closest to him are not safe from assassination? 


I guess my curiosity will never be sated.

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review 2014-05-06 17:08
Detailed, intimate, haunting, poignant: Four lives rescued from history’s shadows
The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra - Helen Rappaport

Comprehensive and well documented, this joint biography of the last Tsar’s four daughters stops just short of their violent deaths at the hands of revolutionaries, but it’s a poignant and haunting story from start to finish. Lovely, intelligent, and good humored, sisters Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia were seen as a unit, even referring to themselves as OTMA, but they come alive as individuals in the chapters of this book, with (roughly speaking) Olga the most emotional, Tatiana the most responsible, Maria the best natured, and Anastasia the most spirited. Their parents Tsar Nicholas II and Alexandra come across as devoted and doting, fatalistically pious in their beliefs, but not temperamentally suited for public life, and the Tsarevich Alexei, their lively younger brother, romps through the pages as much as his hemophilia allows.


Using sources that include their diaries and letters, the four sisters often get to speak for themselves. Their lives were sheltered, isolated, and privileged, but full of contradictions. They had lots of family love and idyllic summer excursions, but their mother was often incapacitated by illness, and Alexey was regularly bedridden and in great pain. The four were expected to marry well, especially Olga as the eldest, but they were kept from society so their crushes were on soldiers that guarded them, not European royals or members of their own class. They played silly child-like games far into adolescence, but during WWI spent their days tending to badly injured and disfigured soldiers, especially Tatiana who worked as a surgery nurse.

Too thorough and detailed to read like a novel, The Romanov Sisters is still moving and a hard book to put down, capturing some fascinating bits of history and rescuing Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia from history’s shadows. I read an advanced review copy of this book provided by the publisher. The opinions are mine.

Source: jaylia3.booklikes.com/post/875961/detailed-intimate-haunting-poignant-four-lives-rescued-from-history-s-shadows
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