Top Ten Tuesday—Intro to Russian Lit and Historical Fiction

If you’re observing Tisha B’Av, may you have an easy and meaningful fast!

Top 10 Tuesday

Top 10 Tuesday is a weekly feature of The Broke and the Bookish. A full list of instructions and future themes can be found here. This week’s theme is Top Ten Books I’d Give To Readers Who Have Never Read X (examples: New Adult novels, historical fiction, a certain author, books about a certain topic, etc). My two great literary loves are Russian literature and historical fiction, so I’m doing a half and half list.

Russian Lit:

1. We, by Yevgeniy Ivanovich ZamyatinNot only is this a criminally underrated dystopia (a real dystopia, as in utopian society gone creepily wrong), but it’s also the most un-Russian Russian novel I can think of. It’s extremely short, able to be read in a day, and barely has any hints it’s set in Russia. There’s a bust of Pushkin in the Ancient House and a babushka-like old woman. Other than that, this book could really be set anywhere. I did a paper for my Modern Russian Lit class my junior year of university, comparing and contrasting We and Brave New World.

2. Just about any collection of stories by Anton Pavlovich Chekhov. My first Chekhov story was “The Ninny,” in my seventh grade English class, but I didn’t read him again till January 1996, when I was sixteen. I totally wolfed down the story collection I found on my parents’ shelves, and have wolfed down every single story collection of his I’ve read ever since. He was a master of the short form, though a few stories, like “The Duel,” are novella-length.

3. A Sportsman’s Sketches, by Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev. This fine short story collection gained him wide recognition and acclaim, and is a great example of his talent at the short form. His stories and novels, like Chekhov’s, often have depressing ends, but he wouldn’t be the same writer if he’d written mostly happy endings. Turgenev had such a sensitive, poetic soul.

4. The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Afanasiyevich Bulgakov. This story is so fun, witty, satirical, and irreverent. It’s not for the easily-offended, but the political and religious commentary are part of the overall story, not just put in to be shocking or offensive. Avoid the Michael Glenny translation like the plague. He was a horrible translator.

5. The First Circle, by Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, of blessèd memory. This was my introduction to my favouritest writer, since the more popular One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich wasn’t at the library. I wolfed it down, and have continued to wolf down everything he’s ever written. It’s amazing to think about how he kept this book, and many other novels, stories, and plays, memorised in his head for so many years in the camps, before he was finally at relative liberty to write them down.

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Historical fiction:

6. Maisie Mosco’s 5-book family saga, starting with Almonds and Raisins. I found these books in my original shul’s library at age 19-20, and wolfed them down (though it really pissed me off how Sarah interfered in her children’s love lives!). The best are the first three, Almonds and Raisins, Scattered Seed, and Children’s Children. I didn’t read the fourth book, Out of the Ashes, but I thought the final book, New Beginnings, wasn’t quite as compelling or epic. It starts in 1905 and focuses on the Russian Sandberg family and the Austrian Moritz family, immigrants in Manchester, England.

7. Out of This Furnace, by Thomas Bell. Shameless plug for just about the only historical novel (or novel period) about Slovaks. I’m a quarter Slovak, my real surname is Slovak, being part Slovak is a big part of who I am. (FYI: Czechs and Slovaks are not one and the same, just as Russians and Ukrainians or Chinese and Japanese aren’t one and the same!) It emotionally gutted me to read about how my not so distant ancestors were treated when they came to the U.S. I am so grateful my great-grandparents’ generation got out of that furnace and enabled a better life for future generations.

8. Narcissus and Goldmund, by Hermann Hesse. This is really more of a literary novel than a historical, but it’s still set in Medieval Germany. It might be a good introduction for people feeling overwhelmed by traditional historicals with their hundreds of pages, myriads of storylines, and huge ensemble casts. Art also plays a big part in this book.

9. The Ausländer, by Paul Dowswell. I’ve totally raved about this book numerous times before. This is YA historical done right, with the history more than just a minor backdrop to a teen’s story. Mr. Dowswell did an awesome job at researching his setting, and even though it’s under 300 pages, it doesn’t feel short, rushed, or insubstantial at all. There are also not too many WWII books about ordinary Germans.

10. The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, by Franz Werfel. It’s based on a real-life incident about a group of brave Armenians who fought back against the Turkish genocide committed against their people in 1915. Many people aren’t familiar with the Armenian Genocide, let alone historicals set in this part of the world or featuring Armenians. (If anyone reading this denies the Armenian Genocide, you can go screw yourself. This is established historical fact, not “Armenian allegations” or Turk-bashing.)

Top Ten Tuesday—Most-Owned Authors

Top 10 Tuesday

Top 10 Tuesday is a weekly feature of The Broke and the Bookish. A full list of instructions and future themes can be found here. This week’s theme is Ten Authors I Own The Most Books From. I’m going to do my list as a photo montage, since I love photography.

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As much as I love the late Mr. Uris’s historicals. I have to be honest and admit he wasn’t the world’s greatest writer. He was an awesome storyteller and did amazing historical research, but subtlety wasn’t exactly his strong suit. I see him as an average to slightly above average writer who had a very good editor. Even in spite of his editor, though, he still needed to step away from the exclamation point key and make his heroes more realistic instead of so good-looking, very tall, and larger than life.

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Hermann Hesse is my next-fave writer. I’ve read all his novels and some other prose, though I don’t own all of his books yet. Missing from my shelf are Knulp and The Journey to the East, and his collections of stories and essays.

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Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, of blessèd memory, has been my favouritest writer since I was barely sixteen. I positively devour his books, and am still waiting for widely-available English translations of his final novels, March 1917 and April 1917, the last two volumes in his massive Red Wheel saga. (Shameless self-promotion: I won the new, unexpurgated translation of The First Circle for writing the winning short story for a contest by the blog YA Stands.)

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I found these in the free bin at one of my local libraries, and thought they’d be great potential resources for researching the Marine chapters of my WIP.

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There are a couple of authors represented several times on this section of the shelf, and if you’re wondering, yes, I have a lot more Shoah memoirs and novels on other shelves. With all due respect to Ruth Minsky Sender, however, I just didn’t find her memoirs as compelling or interesting as most of the other Shoah memoirs I’ve read.

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Anton Pavlovich Chekhov is my third-fave writer, and Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev is my fourth-fave writer. The old green book is a 1944 printing of Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber, with the text printed on two columns on thin pages. I assume it was because of wartime paper shortages.

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I love Bertolt Brecht. I even did my big literature paper in my twelfth grade English AP class on him. This shelf also contains one of the biggest steals I ever got, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s awesome Confessions, which I got for only fifty cents at a library book sale. Someone there joked I should have to pay more since it’s such an intellectual book.

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I’m currently reading The Winds of War, after having my reading of it interrupted very prematurely in the wake of my car accident eleven years ago. I got it for a buck at Mystery Train Records in Amherst, Massachusetts. This is the kind of historical I’m used to reading, and which I base my own writing on—ensemble casts, third-person omniscient, more about the journey through dramatic historical events instead of fast-paced and plot-centric, hundreds upon hundreds of pages. May the 99-year-old Mr. Wouk live and be well!

I’ve also got some repeat authors in storage by my parents’ house, like Ann M. Martin and Laura Ingalls Wilder.

What’s Up Wednesday

Happy heavenly 95th birthday to my favourite writer and one of my heroes, the late great Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn! Your life and your writing will serve as a legacy and inspiration to me and the world for all time. I’m a better writer in part because of you, and if I hadn’t discovered you, there’s no telling if I would’ve had my Russophilia reawakened so powerfully and gone back to my first Russian historical novel. My ultimate dream is to have a Ph.D. in Russian history, with a special focus in GULAG and the Great Terror, because of you.

Also, happy 114th birthday to Lyuba, née Amy, the female lead of my Russian novels. She has the same birthday as Aleksandr Isayevich on purpose. She’s one of my most complex female characters, right up there with Cinnimin.
WUW Winter

What I’m Writing

Baruch Hashem, done with writing for my courses. For a little while, I can focus on fictional writing. I’m up to 537,000 words in my WIP and Chapter 69. I decided to move the title “Homefront Services and Sacrifices” to 69, and renamed 68 “The Pain of Separation.” I looked at how it was shaping up, and felt that title applied more to the events that came a bit later in the timeline. I also wanted to rein in the length and keep it focused on the same general events and theme.

On top of the general homefront drama of 1942, there’s also going to be some polio near the end of Chapter 69. No one dies, but it will necessitate closing or delaying Father Spiridon’s church camp, which the college-aged characters normally work for. I already have a polio survivor among my cast of characters, Kittey Vishinskaya, who was 11-17 in the first book. (Don’t even ask what the original story was behind her becoming crippled and gradually relearning to walk!)

Also planning in my head for the future prequel. I’m even toying with the idea of doing two prequels, one from 1889-96 and the other the planned 1897-1917. It might be fun to show how Lyuba and Ivan’s respective parents and aunt and uncle grew up, before they got married and became parents in their late teens. Also, if Lyuba’s maternal grandpap died in the influenza epidemic of 1889-90, which began in St. Petersburg, that could go a long way towards explaining why her grandmother urged her mother to marry for financial security, not love, and how the family came to be poor when Katya and Margarita were growing up.

What I’m Reading

No time yet to start in on pleasure reading, though the semester is now over for me.

What Inspires Me

9 December marked the 34th anniversary of the World Health Organisation’s announcement that smallpox had been eradicated. I am so, so thankful that my lifetime has never included this terrifying disease, and that the Wikipedia entry on the disease begins “Smallpox was….” Polio is well on its way to being a past tense disease too, relegated to the annals of history.

Modern science and medicine are amazing, no matter what the modern-day science-denialists insist in their woo-filled, scare tactic, easily-debunked propaganda. (Seriously, a number of the vaccine-denialists even deny the germ theory, one of the four foundations of modern biology.) I may have been born in the wrong generation, but I’m so glad I live in a time of such scientific progress, when diseases our ancestors feared are now easily prevented, when penicillin and antibiotics can easily clear up an infection or illness that would’ve killed 100 years ago, when so many things are possible that were the stuff of science fiction only a few generations ago.

What Else I’m Up To

I made some awesome no-bake cookies on the 8th night of Chanukah, my first recipe from my new cookbook Vegan on the Cheap. The chocolate chips were actually milk chocolate, but everything else was vegan.

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Melting Earth Balance, the vegan butter I use. I’ve never liked butter, even before I cut almost all dairy out of my diet. It’s the same kind of aversion I’ve had to mayonnaise since about the same time, age eight.

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Adding almond milk and sugar.

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A day without peanut butter is a day without sunshine. Salt and vanilla extract are also added.

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Oats.

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The only non-vegan part of the recipe. I had these from Pesach, when I intended them for the delicious matzah granola I’ve been making every year since 2004. Instead I was lazy and saw some pre-made matzah granola at the Kosher Chopper, and never made my own. Next time I’ll make the homemade granola again, which always is plentiful enough to go several days past Pesach.

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Starting to mix.

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Nice and blended.

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One of the two cookie sheets I filled up. It took longer than the recipe’s suggested 30 minutes for them to fully set, and even a day later, they still were frequently a bit soft. It’s to be expected with no-bake goodies.

Top Ten Tuesday—Books That Should Be Required Reading

Top 10 Tuesday

Top 10 Tuesday is a weekly feature of The Broke and the Bookish. A full list of instructions and future themes can be found here. This week’s theme is top ten contemporary books you’d pair with a “required reading” or books which should be required reading. Since I’m pretty out of the loop on contemporary books, I’m going with the latter topic.

1. The Decameron, by Giovanni Boccaccio

Absolute classic of world literature, Italian literature, Medieval literature. The overwhelming majority of the stories feel so fresh and undated, with just as relevant themes and concerns. Most of the women aren’t the chained, repressed little flowers one often thinks of Medieval or Antiquity women as. They know very well how to get what they want, even if they have to be surreptitious about it. Only a few stories are badly-dated (Cimone and Nastagio, I’m looking at you!).

I practically know my two favouritest stories by heart, the 10th story of the third day (the famously most raunchy story) and the second story of the fourth day. They always make me laugh so much.

2. The Tao Te Ching, by Lao-Tzu

I’ve read this book so many times since I discovered it in January ’96, at age 16. It’s meant so much to me over the years. It’s important to have familiarity with Chinese philosophy, since it influenced so much of the ancient world and reverberates even today.

3. Narcissus and Goldmund, by Hermann Hesse

My second-favourite writer wrote so many awesome books, but if I had to choose just one as required reading, I’d pick this one. It’s probably his strongest, best novel. I’ve always remembered the scene where Goldmund sees a woman in childbirth during his travels across Medieval Germany, and is struck by the similarity between agony and ecstasy. The two feelings are conjoined twins.

4. The First Circle, by Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, may his memory be a blessing

It’s also a hard choice to pick something by my favouritest writer (who’s also one of my heroes), but I’d pick this one for required reading. The book typically chosen as required reading in world literature classes, the much-shorter One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, really isn’t his best book or representative of his typical scope. You have to read one of his long novels to get a feel for his voice and style. This book introduced me to GULAG, a subject sadly rarely-taught in U.S. schools. I eventually want my Ph.D. in Russian history, with a specialty in GULAG and the Great Terror.

5. The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, by Franz Werfel

I feel bad that I didn’t finish reading this epic novel, and that the bookmark, made of ransom letter font, screams, “Help! Help! It’s dark in here and I can’t move! Please read more. It gets boring stuck between the same pages.” It tells the real-life story of how a brave group of Armenians defended themselves against the Turks during the Armenian Genocide of 1915. Please be aware that I have zero tolerance for Armenian Genocide denial. I will delete any comments mocking, denying, or seriously downplaying this well-documented historical event. I was horrified enough when I had a professor, whose speciality is Azeri history, who went along with the Turkish and Azeri party line that it never happened.

6. Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, by Margaret Sidney

As many issues as I have with Ms. Sidney’s writing shortcomings, and this series in general, I have to give it respect as one of the first children’s books as written specifically for children. This would be a valuable addition to a children’s lit course, esp. in the historical/origins unit. It could be compared with any contemporary offering as for how far children’s books and society have come.

7. Lost Names, by Richard Kim

This was one of the required books in my awesome Japanese History course I took at university my senior year. I’m so glad I chose that class as my required Asian history credits. It tells the story of a young Korean boy and his family living under Japanese occupation during World War II. I’ve long felt there should be more attention paid to WWII books set outside of Europe and the U.S. Asia and North Africa were involved too!

8. The Ramayana

It’s a shame one of India’s great national epics isn’t better-known in the Western world. History and literature courses in the West are sadly North American and Eurocentric.

9. We, by Yevgeniy Ivanovich Zamyatin

I first read this criminally underrated dystopia in my Modern Russian Literature class my junior year of university. I always tell people whom I recommend it to that it’s also notable as perhaps the most un-Russian Russian novel ever. Not only is is very short, but there are only a few very vague hints as to where it might be set. The characters don’t even have Russian names, and are called by letters with numbers. It’s also quite similar to Brave New World.

10. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez

This classic antiwar novel, which spawned a blockbuster film in 1921, is sadly little-known today. It was written by Spain’s great national novelist, who also wrote several other books which were turned into films. World War I isn’t well-represented in literature and film anymore, and this book is just the perfect choice to inspire interest in the era.

Top Ten Favorite Beginnings/Endings In Books

Top 10 Tuesday

Top 10 Tuesday is a weekly feature of The Broke and the Bookish. A full list of instructions and future themes can be found here. This week’s theme is Top Ten Best Beginnings and Endings. I’ve done half and half, with an honourable mention for each.

Openings

1. The Tao Te Ching, “The Tao that can be told is not the Eternal Tao.” One of the best, most memorable opening lines of all time.

2.  Fragments of Isabella, by the late Isabella Leitner, née Katz. “Yesterday, what happened yesterday?”

3.  Dancing on the Bridge of Avignon, by the late Ida Vos. “Rosa de Jong dreams during the daytime.” Though her books would be classified MG in today’s market, I’ve always loved her writing. It appeals to both adults and people of the intended age bracket, for different reasons. Her books are also among the most unforgettable I’ve ever read, able to recall so many details years later.

4.  Volume II of The GULAG Archipelago, “Rosy-fingered Eos, mentioned so often in Homer and called Aurora by the Romans, caressed, too, with those fingers the first early morning of the Archipelago.”

5.  The Divine Comedy!

Midway life’s journey I was made aware
That I had strayed into a dark forest,
And the right path appeared not anywhere.
Ah, tongue cannot describe how it oppressed,
This wood, so harsh, dismal, and wild, that fear
At thought of it strikes now into my breast.
So bitter it is, death is scarce bitterer.
But, for the good it was my hap to find,
I speak of the other things that I saw there.
I cannot remember well in my mind
How I came thither, so was I immersed
In sleep, when the true way I left behind.

Honorable Mention:

The Decameron, Giovanni Boccaccio. “To have compassion for those who suffer is a human quality which everyone should possess, especially those who have required comfort themselves in the past and have managed to find it in others.”

Endings

1.  Steppenwolf, “Pablo would be waiting for me, and Mozart too.” Hermann Hesse was a master at great opening and closing lines, but this one is my favorite. Steppenwolf is the book that most changed my life.

2.  The Painted Bird, by Jerzy Kosinski. Anyone who reads this book will never forget it. I read it over a decade ago, and still vividly remember so much of it in raw detail. I won’t give away the ending, since that would mean giving away the pivotal midway point of the book as well. Unlike a certain other writer, I don’t believe in giving away a book’s ending or pivotal plot points while smirking about it and patting myself on the back for being so clever (coughthebookthiefcough).

3.  Cancer Ward, by my late favorite writer Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn. “Just like that…” Just seeing or hearing that line, in any context, has given me chills and made me think of the book ever since.

4.  Fragments of Isabella again. When Fragments was combined with the sequel Saving the Fragments and had some new material added to create Isabella:  From Auschwitz to Freedom, several very emotional lines and passages were inexplicably left out or altered. The last line of the original first volume was among those on the chopping block. “Mama, I make this vow to you:  I will teach my sons to love life, respect man, and hate only one thing—WAR.”

5.  The Divine Comedy again!

To the high force imagination now failed;
But like to a wheel whose circling nothing jars
Already on my desire and will prevailed
The Love that moves the Sun and the other stars.

Honorable Mention:

November 1916, the second door-stopper in Aleksandr Isayevich’s Red Wheel cycle, four novels showing the unfolding of Russian history during WWI and the Revolution, August 1914-April 1917. This particular book ends with a young lady, Zina, going to Confession during a very dark time. The priest reassures her that there’s nothing wrong with how she loved her bastard son or his father, since:

“….You can rarely decide for another that he or she should not do this or that. How can anyone forbid you to love when Christ said that there is nothing higher than love? And he made no exceptions, for love of any kind whatsoever.”