Top Ten Tuesday—Intro to Russian Lit and Historical Fiction

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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—Books That Should Be Required Reading

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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.

Buccaneer Blogfest—Book Review

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Today’s topic in the Buccaneer Blogfest is a book review. I’m using one of the book reviews from my old Angelfire site, of Yevgeniy Ivanovich Zamyatin’s classic, underrated dystopia We, which I read in my Modern Russian Lit class my junior year of uni. As I’ve posted about before, I’m rather annoyed at how the word “dystopia” has taken on a meaning it didn’t originally have, but this novel definitely fits the older, classic definition of a dystopian society. I originally wrote this review (now somewhat edited to remove potential spoilers) probably sometime in 2004.

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This classic dystopian novel isn’t as well-known as 1984Fahrenheit 451, and BNW, but its vision of the future is just as chilling and pertinent. It’s by Yevgéniy Ivánovich Zamyatin, with the original title Yedinoye Gosudarstvo, or OneState.

The novel is in the form of notes written by D-503, the builder of the spaceship INTEGRAL. D-503 is a mathematician following government orders to write or create something honouring OneState for the people on the unknown worlds they’re going to colonise and brainwash. However, his planned mathematical poem takes a turn for the unexpected when he meets and begins falling insanely in love with an exciting, mysterious, nonconformist woman, I-330.

Up till now, he’s been exclusive (we assume) with the lovely O-90 for at least three years, sharing her with his best friend R-13, though O-90 only loves D-503 and doesn’t view sex with R-13 as an act of love. In this world, unlike in BNW, people aren’t discouraged from sleeping with the same person for too long of a period of time. Though unlike in BNW, they have to get clearance in the form of Sex Day tickets, have to register for the Numbers they wish to sleep with, and have to get a physiological test to determine when their Sex Days should be.

Everything is accounted for in this world, even what everyone should be doing nearly every hour of the day, like chewing 50 times per each mouthful of food. People have children naturally instead of hatching them out of bottles, though it’s still a government activity, and the children are turned over to be raised by the State. They have Maternal and Paternal Norms; O-90 is “about ten centimeters shorter than the Maternal Norm.”

The only other important characters are the mysterious, snaky figure of S, an old woman who guards the Ancient House, and U, who guards D-503’s building and has a pathetic, bizarre case of unrequited love for him, even thinking he loves her back. These two old women, coupled with a brief discussion of Púshkin and two mentions of a bust of him in the Ancient House, are the closest things that might be considered Russian. They don’t have Russian names, they don’t eat Russian food, they live in glass houses, they don’t discuss Russian history or authors, nothing. It gives the work a universal quality, and drives home the point that in a State such as this, all traces of nationality and ethnic identity have been wiped out in favour of a collective generic identity predetermined by the Benefactor.

After his meeting with I-330, D-503 starts becoming ill and having more and more unorthodox thoughts. He has discovered his imagination and Soul, and has started having dreams. Nobody in this world dreams; the government stamped them out ages ago, after the 200-Years War. They also recently developed an operation to get rid of the imagination.

I-330 is a very liberated woman by 1920s standards, when the book was written; she drinks, smokes, is very sexually liberated, and sometimes wears forbidden clothing. She also spends a lot of time at the Ancient House, which is something like a museum and the only real house left in this small world of glass houses. I-330 doesn’t mind lying to authorities, like when she gets Sick Day passes so she and D-503 can have sex in the Ancient House instead of going to work. She can also play the piano and isn’t afraid to go behind the Green Wall (similar to the “savage reservation” in BNW). O-90 can’t help but notice that her main squeeze has taken another woman into his heart, and is heartbroken.

The ending of this short dystopian novel is very chilling, similar in scope to the ending of 1984. It tells a tale of what might happen if we surrender our individuality to the dream of a collective state which regulates everything, from time management to nature to technology to human sexuality and even childbearing.