"There is no more lovely, friendly and charming relationship, communion or company than a good marriage."
--Martin Luther

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Top Ten Tuesday: Ten Books for a Course on 20th Century Russia

Today's topic for Top Ten Tuesday is "Top Ten Books That Would Be On Your Syllabus If You Taught X 101". Since I am a die-hard Russophile, here are some picks for if I am ever asked to teach a course on 20th Century Russia; all of these books would complement the course materials. I chose some books by Russian / Soviet authors, as well as others by Western authors who have written about the area. There is one memoir on the list, but the rest are fiction.

Mother Russia!

1. Sashenka by Simon Sebag Montefiore: I really liked this book by Montefiore, who is both a novelist and a historian. It covers the founding the USSR as well as the purges of the 1930s.

2. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov: Another look at the purges, but also a classic of Soviet literature that everyone should read.

3. Between Shades of Gray by Ruth Sepetys: This book covers the deportation of Lithuanian citizens to Siberia following the annexation of the Baltic States in 1939. I think it's important as there were a lot of ethnic groups deported internally during World War Two, and it's not widely known.

4. Russian Winter by Daphne Kolotay: A look at the post-war climate and the arts scene.

5. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: This is the definitive fiction piece on the Gulag system, and I think everyone should read a little Solzhenitsyn at some point. (Probably pick this book to start with, since his others are reallllly long. :P) Psst: If you're up for it, you can read more about the Gulag system in Anne Applebaum's fabulous Gulag: A History.

6. A Mountain of Crumbs by Elena Gorokova: A look at the later years of the USSR through the eyes of a citizen. I loved it too because of the focus on language learning.

7. The Free World by David Bezmozgis: This book covers the massive emigration of Soviet Jews in the 1980s.

8. Petropolis by Anya Ulinich: I didn't love this novel. I found it on sale at some point and was intrigued. It's not entirely my cup of tea, but it is a quirkly look at the post-Soviet era. If you really want to immerse yourself in the early years of the Russian Federation, with all its inflation and issues, try the movie Brat' ("Brother") starring Sergei Bodrov Jr. It's a guilty pleasure of mine, especially as it shows scenes from Vasilievsky Island, where I lived when I studied in St. Petersburg eleven years ago.

9. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra: A beautiful book which takes place in Chechnya and looks at the impact of the civil war there. Psst, here's another film recommendation: Prisoner of the Mountains (1996), also starring the late Sergei Bodrov Jr.

10. The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis: Oh, hey, let's keeping talking about how I like Bezmogis... This book is also relevant to contemporary Israeli politics and actually takes place in Ukraine; however, I included it because it looks back at the Jewish emigration noted above, and therefore is relevant to the topic. In addition, it covers a lot of heavy issues about how we deal with those who have wronged us, in particular in a totalitarian society, and how we engage with issues of historical blame and memory.

Speaking of issues of historical memory, here's me with a bust of Lenin.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Updates on My Summer Reading List

When I posted my 2015 Summer TBR list, one of the commenters said she was interested to see how I'd enjoyed those reads. I rarely do reviews, but I'll post some thoughts on the books that I've already read. I have finished 6 out of the 10 on the list, mostly because I've gotten derailed with some long-time holds coming in at the library, and a few recommendations that I put ahead of my list. So far, I am somewhat on track to finish my summer list by the "official" first day of autumn (September 22), as long as my hold on American Gods comes in on time! Here are my thoughts on the books I've read thus far:

Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay: I don't even remember how I found out about this book, but I loved it. Russian Winter tells the story of former Soviet prima ballerina Nina Revskaya, now living in Boston and auctioning off her jewellery. The book goes back and forth between the present, and Nina's life up to the point when she defected from the Soviet Union, including the complicated relationship with her best friend. I love ballet and I love Russian history, so this book was a win because it was well-researched in both subjects. I liked that the situations were not black-and-white, and that the book kept you guessing about what the full back story was. Definitely a win, and I'd read more of Kalotay's books.

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley: I gave this book 3.5/5. It was a compelling, feminist-infused narrative of the Arthurian sagas. It held my attention for all of its 800+ pages, and I read through it in less time than anticipated. However, I had a few issues with it. The first is the length; I really thought the book could have been shorter without sacrificing anything, and perhaps we could have seen less of certain characters. My second issue was the religious aspect. The entire book seemed to be beating readers over the head with paganism = good; Christianity = bad. This was somewhat lightened up towards the end, but it was too late, in my opinion. Now, I am an evangelical Christian, but I can handle criticism of my religion; however, there was no subtlety in Zimmer Bradley's agenda here, and I got really tired of Christians that were all hypocrites and ramblings about how Christianity was so bad. It felt overly forced, and that was too bad. I enjoyed the novel, and I'm glad I read it, but I won't be reading any of the author's other books.

The Case of Comrade Tulayev by Victor Serge: This book is supposed to be one of the definitive books on the Stalinist purges of the 1930s. It was a good read, though it's hard to say I 'enjoyed' it because of the subject matter. I'd only recommend the book for people who have a good knowledge of Russian history and culture, because the plot jumps from person to person and it would be difficult to follow if you don't know the context. I left it unrated in Goodreads because I thought it was theoretically very good, even if I had trouble getting into it.

Petersburg by Andrei Bely: Another book that I left without a rating in Goodreads because I really didn't know how to rate it. The book takes place in 1905 and is broadly about a young radical and his relationship with his father, a government official. There is a lot of symbolic and poetic language, a lot of dream-sequence like sections, and I sometimes had trouble following the plot, which I believe was intended. I'm fairly certain it is a brilliant book, but probably warrants a couple of readings before I think I have a handle on it! I would only recommend this book for people who are really into various kinds of literature and not reading for plot alone, but I'm glad I read it.

Sacred Marriage by Gary Thomas: I'd been meaning to read this book for a while, and I'm glad I finally did. This is a Christian marriage book encouraging readers to see marriage not as a vehicle to make one happy, but as a means to change us and make us grow in character. As we serve each other, we grow as people, becoming more holy. I liked it, though not as much as my personal favourite Christian marriage book, The Meaning of Marriage by Timothy Keller. I will definitely be re-reading Sacred Marriage at some point and possibly journaling through it.

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks: I gave this book a 3/5. It was a compelling enough read, but I didn't like it all that much for a number of reasons. Firstly, it felt like three stories stuck together: Stephen Wraysford's experience before the First World War; Stephen's experiences in the war; and the life of his granddaughter Elizabeth in the 1970s. The 1970s plotline felt out of place. Although it involved Elizabeth tracking down information about her grandfather, there was so much about her personal life and frankly, the ending was a bit bizarre. Stephen's wartime experiences were fascinating, though a bit long and extremely detailed. The section before the war was too cliché for me: Young English student falls into an adulterous affair with a repressed woman who is starving for love. They are head over heels in love after barely speaking to each other. Meh. We've all read that one before. It seemed all sex and no so much love, and while I'm not a total prude, the sex part included a lot of purple prose. All in all, I enjoyed the book, but it's not one I'd ever read again or really recommend, despite the fact that it's apparently included on a lot of must-read lists.

Have you read any of the above books? What did you think? Do you totally disagree with me? (It's okay if you do! :D )

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Top Ten Tuesday: Auto-Buy Authors

Today's Top Ten Tuesday topic (over here, as always) is choosing ten authors whose books we automatically buy when they come out. This was hard for me. In the first place, between the library and my new addiction to Overdrive, I rarely buy books any more. I know, I know. I still love a good book store, but I don't love spending money on books when I can get them for free. My list is more like authors whose books I will automatically try to obtain when I hear a new book is forthcoming. Again, this wasn't easy for me because as you may have noticed, I like a lot of authors who are long-dead, so they will never put out a new book. I think I've managed to figure out a few though.

1. J.K. Rowling: Obviously I would pre-order any new Harry Potter books, but I've also made a point of reading her Cormoran Strike books when they come out.

2. Rainbow Rowell: She is one of the few authors who I do follow to ensure I get her newest as soon as I can.

3. David Bezmozgis: I try to support Canadian authors, and Canadian authors who come from Russia and write about Russian themes are really up my alley.

4. Joseph Boyden: I don't know when he'll have another book since The Orenda is so new, but I'll be watching and reading.

5. Kristin Cashore: I have no idea if she's working on something right now, but if a new book in the Graceling Realm comes out, I'll be first in line.

6. Gillian Flynn: I wouldn't say I love her books, but they certainly are compelling and I'd probably be tempted to read her next one.

7. Robert K. Massie: No one writes historical biographies like he does. Yes, my nerdiness is showing.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Top Ten Tuesday: Most-Read Authors

A while back (whoah, was that a year ago?!), The Broke and the Bookish did a link-up on which authors we own the most books from. This week's topic is which authors we've read the most from. I was a bit surprised by the results. Doing the math, it seems like most of these authors are ones I read in my childhood, who seem to be fairly prolific. Here goes:

1. Ann M. Martin (too many to count): Yes, I know a lot of the Baby-Sitters Club books were ghostwritten, but her name is on them all and she must have written a fair amount of them. I think I read up to #100 or so when I was a kid.

2. Judy Blume (17): Oh how I loved Judy Blume in my youth. I'm so reading her new book when I get a chance.

3. Roald Dahl (14): One of my all-time favourite writers. He most definitely had a role in shaping my childhood.

4. L.M. Montgomery (at least 13): All of the Anne books, all of the Emily of New Moon books, Chronicles of Avonlea, and probably a few others that I'm forgetting.

5. Stephen King (12 or 13): I went through a massive King phase when I was about thirteen. I was surprised when I looked back and realized how many of his books I have read.

6. J.K. Rowling (10): All of the Harry Potter books, plus the Tales of Beedle the Bard and the two Cormoran Strike novels. I love her.

7. Margaret Atwood (9): I think I have rhapsodized about Atwood enough times on here, so suffice it to say that I like her a lot.

8. C.S. Lewis (9): I've read all the Narnia books, plus The Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity. He is always on my TBR list, but I never seem to get around to reading his other non-fiction.

9. Francine Rivers (8): I went through an obsessive phase with Rivers for a while. I still love the Mark of the Lion books and her Lineage of Grace volume.

10. Charles Dickens (7): The sad thing is how many extant Dickens books I still haven't read. Maybe in my lifetime I'll get around to them all...

Monday, 3 August 2015

Two Years

As I wrote a few weeks ago, last month marked two years in our journey to have a child. The thing is, it's easy to rationalize, to say that two years isn't a whole lot of time. Yet, any time you peruse a TTC board (that's “Trying To Conceive” for the uninitiated), you'll see people ranting about not getting pregnant within the first three months or so. Two years may not be a long time in comparison to your whole life, but it feels like a long time, especially when you're watching your dreams of a big family dwindle. If it takes two years for one child, will there be time to have a second? Two years is longer than Gil and I dated before we became engaged. It's half of the time Canadian teenagers spend in high school. It's one month shy of the amount of time I was in graduate school for my M.A., and several months longer than my degree program will be this time around. It's 730 days or 104 weeks, essentially 2.5 pregnancies, back-to-back, and you feel that when you start to see people who were pregnant when you started trying announce that their second child is on the way. In the time since we've started trying, I've welcomed a niece and nephew, attended at least four weddings (though I may be forgetting someone), traveled to New York and Dominican Republic and Texas, watched a World Cup Tournament from start to finish, put my Ottawa condo on the market and sold it after six months, applied to a Master's program and completed more than half of it, and the list goes on. I've cried with friends who lost their fathers and mothers, and been reminded of how short life actually is. John Lennon said that “Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans,” so I guess that's all the life that happened while I planned and hoped and yearned for a baby. Two years hurts.

The truth is that I feel like in these two years, or at least in the last year and a bit since infertility came into the picture, life has happened to us. It's impossible not to feel like you're in limbo, waiting for your life to start.

On the other hand, as I've neared the two-year mark, something happened. I started feeling a little better. A friend told me once that she found the one-year mark the hardest, and I didn't understand, but now I sort of do. By two years, you can finally resign the idea that you have any control over the process. If I did, I'd have a child by now. I can sit back a little and realize that I really cannot control my life. It's a hard lesson to learn, and I am sad that I had to learn it this way, but I guess I have. Someone remarked on an infertility message board lately that I seemed relaxed about the process, and I balked, but I suppose it's true. I've abandoned the temperature-taking, charting, symptom-obsessing behaviour that I had a year ago because it led me down the road of thinking I had some inkling of control over an uncontrollable situation. I've abandoned the obsessive planning because I can't figure out the future, or rather the future that I planned has become obsolete. Is this healthy or does it mean resignation to failure? I don't know. For the right now, though, it's all I can handle.

How have I changed in the past two years? That's hard to answer. I've definitely become a sadder person, one more prone to bitterness, which I fight every day. I feel like I've lost friends because I couldn't handle pretending that I'm okay. It's easy to look back on the person I was and mourn for the optimism that was lost. On the other hand, as I've mentioned before, I think I'm more compassionate to those in difficult situations. At least, I hope I am. I've lost some of my inner control freak, and that is probably healthier for the long run. I've become more open about my struggle in hopes to help others. In the long run, if I ever become a mother, I hope that I'll look back on this time and remember not just turmoil (though there was a lot of that), but also growth and friendship and love that kept me going. I hope I'll be able to say I came out of infertility a stronger person and maybe even be thankful a little for it. That day is not today, when my arms still long for a little one to hold, and my heart still aches on a daily basis... but maybe it will be one day.

ETA: This post has been linked up with Amateur Nester here.