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review 2017-01-09 18:13
Synthesis, Story, The Master and Margarita
The Master and Margarita - Mikhail Bulgakov,Larissa Volokhonsky,Richard Pevear

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov doesn't lend itself to summary, it throws a lot at the reader and keeps you off balance. A summary would probably be more confusing than anything else. Depending on what you have seen or heard, the devil is involved and a cat somehow plays a significant role. Also Soviet Russia, and whomever those title characters are, which -- like in the story -- I won't get to until later. But I'd like to write about technique, because the way Bulgakov has put together this story is enough to recommend in itself.


So, the lot of it. To start, there are a lot of characters -- including a Nikanor Ivanovich, a Nikolai Ivanovich and an Ivan Nikolaevich none of any relation to the others -- and it takes a while to try to sort out who is important and who isn't. Indeed, the important characters show up pretty late. We meet Berlioz right away and spend much of the first 50 pages with him, but then he is dispatched with. We don't even meet Margarita until more than halfway through the book! This isn't a critique. As I've said, the way Bulgakov withholds information makes the book exciting, we don't know what to make of this devil, and everything proceeds with this air of menace, especially when it touches characters we actually care about.


Lending to that menace, the first 200 pages seem to take from Kafka as much as Goethe, who comes up frequently in the footnotes. Nobody called for the devil -- not intentionally anyhow -- and mostly people want to get away from him. The punishments seem arbitrary at first and are convoluted. The devil and his crew are not above threats of violence but they seem to prefer going through official channels. It's surprising that Bulgakov was able to publish, even if he leaves the most unsavory aspects of Soviet life merely implied. The point is, there's no evil bargain, the devil here is more trickster than tempter. 


The ensemble in The Master and Margarita is unlike others I have come across, like Anna Karenina or even The Corrections, in which individual characters or plots occupy distinct tracks. In some stories they kind of balloon, the characters start together then go off in different directions and finally collide again at the end. In others, say in Anna Karenina, they sort of orbit each other, Anna's story and Levin's don't seem to affect each other, though they do both serve certain thematic elements. 


The Master and Margarita makes sense more as one of those perspective statues that are assembled from junk but at the perfect angle create some cohesive image. Here, the devil roams around menacing various bureaucrats in what at times feels like a series of vignettes. One chapter is even called "Hapless Visitors" which just sounds like a bunch of unrelated stories. But the devil also links them, forming a center from which all these stories spring, and back to which they ultimately point us, before the design starts to bear out in Book 2. Saying he is the center seems a weird way to phrase things, but it would be wrong to say the story is about the devil. The perspective is usually tied to the people he encounters and the story does seem to belong to the Master, Margarita and Homeless than to Woland (the devil), but he is more present. He is what happens to the protagonists, and all of Moscow.


Seen from the end The Master and Margarita is a much more structured and complete novel than it sometimes feels while you're reading it, but you don't have to get there to enjoy it. The story is fun throughout, mischievous and funny, and melancholy enough to give it weight.


Four and a half stars. This feels a bit generous but I'm in a generous mood, and it's a book I would like to read again, which says a lot.


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review 2015-02-07 09:03
A Day in the Life of the Soviet Union
A Day in the Life of the Soviet Union - John Burdick,Rick Smolan

I have always been deeply fascinated by Russia - a fascination that was no doubt inspired by the "Iron Curtain" and the closed society of the USSR; I'm a child of the Cold War, after all.  But as interested as I was by the politics of it all (it was my major at university until the Berlin wall was pulled down and my advisor said "We need to re-evaluate.") what really fascinated me was the culture: the people, the art and the Arts.  When everyone else had rock posters on their walls I had LeRoy Neiman's Mikhail Baryshnikov on mine.


This book is amongst the oldest in my collection, in terms of my ownership.  Bought new, it's one of the few that moved with me every time over the the last 18 years, always treated with kid gloves and always given pride of place on my shelves.  I took it off the shelf today to dust, and soon found myself curled up on my beanbag trying to juggle its large format without jostling Easter-cat as she tried to snooze on my lap.


The book is brilliant.  The photos are brilliant.  But what still chokes me up after almost 2 decades is what this book represented at the time; the unprecedented access, the struggle to create the book, the little vignettes the photographers told about their day and their experience. The cooperation between two societies taught through decades of propaganda to distrust each other.


The USSR is long gone now, but the book, I think, retains its relevancy, as a historical record of a country that no longer exists and an example of what's possible when politics are put aside.  There are quite a few countries in this series and I am interested in acquiring A Day in the Life of America and A Day in the Life of Australia, but this is the one that's always going to retain pride of place on my shelves.

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review 2014-06-03 03:32
Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking by Anya Von Bremzen
Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing - Anya Von Bremzen

Interesting at first, but it wasn't quite the food memoir I was expecting from the descriptions.  It was nice to have the historical context, but this often overtook the more interesting stuff about food and the author's experiences and family, and I felt like I had to slog through a lot of dull history to get to the (dwindling) good stuff.

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review 2014-05-08 18:39
Gem-like collection of linked stories layered like matryoshka dolls
Snow in May: Stories - Kseniya Melnik

I’m not always one for short fiction but I was mostly enchanted by the beautiful writing, moving characters, and fascinating almost other-world setting of these linked stories. Magadan is in a frigid far-flung eastern corner of the Soviet Union/Russia, not so far from Alaska, and while it was made notorious by its connection to Stalin’s forced-labor camps afterward it became home to an eclectic mix of artists, professionals, faith healing witches, ex-prisoners, musicians, intellectuals, and Party faithful. It’s this lively, intriguing group of people who populate the book.


The stories move back and forth in time, from 1958 to 2012, with evocative scenes of the daily lives, loves, struggles, reflections, and ambitions of these Soviet and then Russian citizens--a few of whom immigrate the short distance across the sea to America--as they coped with snow, shortages, difficult spouses, tempting propositions, and a changing world. Adults featured in one sometimes show up as children or grandchildren or secondary characters in another, which is fun to spot, layering the stories like nesting matryoshka dolls. Author Kseniya Melnik excels at creating characters that draw you into their narratives and touch you with their earnest, imperfect humanness. Some of their observations are just wonderful, for instance in the story Rumba an aging dance instructor compares the passage of time to a brilliant caricaturist, shrinking the eyes, ripening the nose, and drooping the jowls.


Individual pieces are the right length to be comfortably read in one sitting. Melnik has created gem-like collection of stories, multi-layered and affecting.


Source: jaylia3.booklikes.com/post/877315/gem-like-collection-of-linked-stories-layered-like-matryoshka-dolls
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review 2014-04-17 04:34
Arresting Imagery In A Tale Of Soviet Life.
All That Is Solid Melts Into Air - Darragh McKeon

It took me a long time to read this book. There's a lot going on here, and it requires some concentration to keep track of all the characters in various locations as they weave in and out of each other's lives. Along with an account of the aftermath of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, we also follow the lives of other Soviet citizens in the years leading up to the revolution that shattered the Iron Curtain. We see the unrest and the despair resulting from a life under a regime that uses fear tactics to keep people from speaking the truth or fighting the system. 

Here in the U.S. we love to criticize our government, and we're fortunate to have the right to do so. We're also fortunate to have a government with limited powers. In his portrayal of Soviet life, McKeon gives us a taste of what it's like to live under a government that controls every aspect of one's life. They assign you a career and a living space, withhold vital information from the public, and punish even the smallest attempts at self-determination.

When I sat down to write my review and looked over the passages I had marked, I was reminded of how masterful Darragh McKeon is at creating striking imagery, even for the most simple of events. For example, when Maria is remembering the day her marriage to Grigory ended, and she left their apartment for the last time, here is the picture: 

“She can still see the way he stood in their small vestibule, between the large mirror on the wall and the small oval one on the coat stand. Both mirrors bounced his reflection between them, so that before closing the door for the last time, Maria found herself leaving not just him but an endless multitude of him. Standing there, his shoulders wrapped in heartbreak.”(page 257) 

Alina is a single mother relegated to a life of drudgery, taking in laundry and ironing to make ends meet. This is what her meltdown looks like: 

“...she remembers she's left the iron on. She moves to unplug it, does so, and leans against the counter. A shirtsleeve lifts in a stream of breeze, and she turns to the freshly pressed shirts lined up on their hangers, and reaches over and drags them all down, dropping with them. She grabs the whole bunch of them and wrings them into a bundle and bites them, bites down hard, stifling a scream, and they lie there, twisted, until Maria comes home.” (page 332)

There are treasures like this sprinkled throughout the story, and for me these images were a large part of what made the book worth reading. I am not fond of novels written in present tense, and that's probably my only serious criticism of the book. I do still recommend it though, because McKeon's writing was masterful enough to help me overcome my distaste for the verb tense. 

I thought the ending was a little too pat, although I can understand McKeon's desire to inject some positivity and hope into what is otherwise a bleak narrative. The redemption to be found in this story is in the way it shows that amid the most dire, hopeless circumstances, there are people whose basic humanity compels them to be kind, even when it means putting themselves at great peril. 

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