Dead Russians

“There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories” by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

petrushevskaya I’m in a particularly grumpy/bitter mood tonight, so this is a perfect time to review this book.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

I’m too cynical to take most stories of happily ever after seriously, and love triangles make me want to puke.  This book is different.

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s most excellent collection of love stories, entitled “There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself,” take a dark but humorous view on love and society.  Her stories are set in Soviet Russia, and there’s no such thing as a happy ending.  Instead, we find crowded apartments and scheming gossips.  The characters themselves are the outcasts of society, those already struggling against alcoholism, addiction, and poverty.  They see love as a way of improving their lives, and so delude themselves in the name of a dream rather than exercising some basic common sense.

Petrushevskaya’s tone reminds me a bit of Chekhov.  Her stories give little glimpses into her characters’ lives–the man who goes on vacation and enters a relationship with an elderly woman, who loves him because he reminds her of the son that she’d lost, or the seamstress Milgrom who was abandoned by her husband and family, but whose services represent hope to a young woman on the brink of adulthood, who commissions her to make a slinky black dress so she can begin her dating life.  Then there’s Karapenko, a young theater student who has an affair with her mentor and gets pregnant.  The stories seem incomplete, and represent a moment or a chapter in each character’s life.  We don’t see the full story, and that’s part of the beauty of Petrushevskaya’s writing style.

At the same time, Petrushevskaya’s end goal isn’t to be depressing.  Her stories poke fun at Soviet society, but her characters are still sympathetic and resonated with me very well.  They see a lack of hope or possibility in their own lives, and so seek to improve them through romance, no matter how imperfect it might be, and you can’t really fault them for it.

I would highly recommend this collection to anyone interested in Russian literature or culture, or anyone who just likes the idea of a collection of love stories gone wrong.

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Categories: Dead Russians, Fiction | Tags: , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Interview with Debra Dean, author of “The Mirrored World”

Today is the release date of The Mirrored World, a novel which tells the story of Xenia, a Russian Orthodox saint who became a holy fool and is revered for her charity to the poor.  I had the opportunity to meet Debra Dean at a book signing while at BEA, and I am delighted to be able to host an author interview with her today.

What inspired you to write “The Mirrored World”?

I was researching my first novel, The Madonnas of Leningrad, and I stumbled on the story of Xenia, this 18th century woman who gave up a life of relative ease to become a holy fool. I wondered, what kind of person becomes a saint? And just as importantly, what would it be like if you cared deeply for this person and you saw her turning onto such an extreme path?

What made you choose to write about Russia?

I can find no logical explanation for it, beyond the fact that Russia has amazing stories. I’m not Russian, I don’t speak or read Russian, and prior to completing The Madonnas of Leningrad, I had never even set foot in the country. My husband says I was Russian in a former life, and I suppose that’s as good an explanation as any.

Have your personal experiences impacted your writing in any way?

One of the things I love about writing fiction is that nothing in your life is wasted. Everything that happens to you – all of it, even the miserable stuff – can be put to use.

It’s hard to imagine a world more foreign to my life than the 18th century Russian setting of The Mirrored World, but there’s at least a little bit of me in all those characters. For instance, like Xenia and Dasha, I am a compulsive collector of feathers and pretty rocks and shells. We have feral peacocks in our neighborhood, and every time I find a feather, I feel like I’ve won a little prize.

What is the most challenging part of being a writer?

For me? Making the time, and then having the courage to show up when I do have the time.

What are some of your other interests?  What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

I have a lot of interests, but I’m afraid most of them get thrown under the bus in favor of whatever book I’m working on. That said, I still squirrel away a little time to practice yoga and to see friends and cook them the occasional dinner.

What are some of your favorite books?

The answer will change depending on what day you ask. Today, what comes to mind are Housekeeping by Marilyn Robinson; James Salter’s Light Years; So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell. Those are a little older. More recent books: I love Luis Urrea’s Hummingbird’s Daughter and Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder. Oh, and Ian McEwan’s Atonement. I like reading slowly, so I gravitate to books that are image-rich and masterful in their use of language.

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Debra Dean is the New York Times Bestselling author of “The Madonnas of Leningrad” and the award-winning short story collection “Confessions of a Falling Woman.”

Categories: Author Interviews, Dead Russians, Fiction, Historical Fiction | Tags: , , , , , | 5 Comments

“White Raven: The Sword of the Northern Ancestors” by Irina Lopatina

I received a copy of “White Raven:  The Sword of the Northern Ancestors” by Irina Lopatina through TLC Book Tours.  As many of you know, I’m a bit obsessed with Russian history/culture/etc., so when Trish asked me if I’d like to participate in a blog tour of a fantasy novel written by a Siberian author, I was thrilled to accept.  I read a lot of fantasy by American and British authors, so it’s nice to branch out periodically and expand my horizons.

Vraigo is a prince in the kingdom of Areya.  The Duke is annoyed that Vraigo spends his time frolicking in the Eternal Forest with druids and cute  fuzzy magical creatures rather than fighting to defend the kingdom.  Vraigo doesn’t see it as cowardice; he just has different priorities than his family.  However, Areya is in big trouble.  Monsters begin pouring into the kingdom from a parallel world, and the only force capable of stopping them is a magical sword named Urart.  When Urart is stolen, Vraigo finds himself on a quest to return the sword.  This quest takes him to the 21st century, where he must face new challenges for which he is utterly unprepared.

Here’s a brief sample from the start of Vraigo’s adventures:

The comb-topped moving head of the cock was attached to the strong body of a toad with the long tail of a serpent that the creature continuously swept upon the ground.  The beast immediately turned to Vraigo, opening his strong beak and screaming, seeking revenge on the small human who had disturbed it.  At the last possible second, the prince managed to throw his shirt onto the creature, hiding its dead black eyes, and straightaway showed his heels going in the opposite direction.  He was running slapdash, scaring forest-living creatures with his screams of fear.

“Basilisk!”  shouted Vraigo.  “There’s a basilisk!”

The story itself is relatively predictable and bears few surprises.  If you’ve read any fantasy or adventure stories, you already know how it’s going to end and what’s going to happen.  The back cover of the book tells you the sword is going to get stolen, but that doesn’t actually happen until about halfway through the book.  The predictability isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because  Lopatina injects her own ideas into a  rather traditional epic fantasy story.  The first half of the story is pretty much by the book, but the introduction of a fantasy character into the 21st century was a lot of fun.  I did wish that it had happened sooner, because the time travel parts were definitely the best.

One of the things that was really neat about this book were the illustrations by Igor Adasikov.  Lopatina uses Russian folklore as the inspiration behind the world of Areya, and so the kingdom is threatened by an evil koshei, and Vraigo will encounter creatures like the yaga, the rusalka, and the drevalyanka.  Since the author’s interpretations of Russian folklore varied a bit from tradition (for example, a rusalka is traditionally a mermaid, but here it was a winged creature with the face of a woman), the illustrations in the glossary help readers to better picture the creatures that she’s talking about.  There’s also an illustration at the beginning of each chapter, and the artwork complements the story rather nicely.  Normally when I’m reviewing a book I don’t mention the illustrations.  These ones stood out from the crowd, and I was quite impressed.

The magic system here also intrigued me.  Magic is a natural quality that many people possess.  Some people are Endowed with magic, and others aren’t.  The source of all magic (including for magical creatures like druids or werewolves) is the Magic Veil, which is present during Vraigo’s time in Areya but not in the modern-day world.  This means that magical creatures still exist now, but they can’t realize the full extent of their powers.  A werewolf can be a part of a street gang and an innocent-looking kitty could really be a piksha.  I thought that this was an interesting way of reconciling the magic present in the past with today’s reality while still maintaining a coherent worldview.

One other thing to note is that the book doesn’t end, but rather seems to lead directly into a sequel.  It does end at a logical point in the story, but we’re still left hanging a bit more than I’d like.

Overall, I’d say that “White Raven” is an enjoyable albeit vaguely stereotypical fantasy story with a distinctly Russian twist.  I had a couple problems with the translation, but that’s most likely because I was reading an uncorrected proof, and I’m assuming that the finished version will have been tightened quite a bit.  (Side note:  I want a pet drevalyanka.  If it’s a cute fuzzy magical creature, that means I can’t be allergic to it, right?  Cause it’s magic.  Yep.)

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The publishers at Light Messages also wanted me to mention that they have some promotions going on during this blog tour (for 14 days after this post).  Orders placed through the Light Messages site will be $12.00 per book instead of $16.95, and folks will also receive a personalized signed post card from author Irina Lopatina.  Postcards feature landscapes from Altai, Siberia––the inspiration for White Raven’s Kingdom of Areya.  If readers submit photos of themselves with their copies (or e-copies) of the books, then Irina will send them a personalized, signed book plate for the front of their book. Go here and use the Contact link to submit the photo.

Categories: Dead Russians, Fantasy, Fiction | Tags: , , , , , | 17 Comments

“Deathless” by Catherynne M. Valente

In a city by the sea which was once called St. Petersburg, then Petrograd, then Leningrad, then, much later, St. Petersburg again, there stood a long, thin house on a long, thin street.  By a long, thin window, a child in a pale blue dress and pale green slippers waited for a bird to marry her.

“Deathless” is an adaptation of the Russian legend of Koshei Bessmertny, the Tsar of Life, who keeps his soul outside of his body (inside a needle, which is in an egg, which is in a duck, which is in a rabbit, which is in an iron chest, which is buried under a tree) to preserve his immortality.  It is told from the perspective of Marya Morevna, the woman who marries Koshei and eventually brings about his demise.

The relationship between Koshei and Marya turbulent and passionate, filled with themes of dominance and submission, of trust and betrayal, but above all their relationship is vibrant and filled with life.

The story of Marya and Koshei is juxtaposed with Russian history during the early half of the 20th century.  We see the changes brought about by the Revolution and how they affect young Marya’s family.  Valente uses satirical humor in the vein of Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita,” and so the Domoviye (house elves) collectivize and adapt with the changing philosophy of the times.

The story highlights the turmoil and grief of World War II.  I was particularly impressed by Valente’s poignant descriptions of the Siege of Leningrad, during which around 1.5 million civilians starved to death.  While I studied in Russia, I went on a trip to the Leningrad Blockade Museum, and it was one of those experiences that one can never forget.  When our group entered the museum, we were all cheerful and talkative, much as one would imagine American college students to be.  By the time we left, we were all silent, which is the only real response that one can have after learning about such a tragic period of history.  While “Deathless” deals with some harsh subjects, it is able to convey the same emotionality that I experienced when visiting the Blockade Museum without being overly depressing.  You feel deeply for the characters and for the inhabitants of St. Petersburg, but at the same time the Siege does not overshadow the folklore, but rather enhances it, and the book ends exactly as it should.

Valente is the type of author who understands the elusive nature of Firebirds, and that Russian dogs say “Guff Guff” instead of “Bark Bark.”  She knows that domoviye must be placated with offerings of shoes and honey, and that heroines must be named Masha, otherwise all is not well with the world.  She has a deep understanding of Russian history and culture and is a captivating storyteller.

This book is now officially my favorite of all time.  (Yes, it even topped Dostoevsky for me, which is saying a lot.)

“Deathless” is the kind of book that ruins all other books by creating a standard that’s impossible to live up to.  Everything else just seems pale and watery by comparison.  If you have even the slightest interest in Russia, folklore, or fairy tales, then you should read this one immediately.

Categories: Dead Russians, Fiction, Historical Fiction | Tags: , , , , , , , | 15 Comments

“The Mirrored World” by Debra Dean

It is a peasant belief that, as we are all equal in God’s eyes, He must surely confer on fools unseen, compensatory gifts.  And so our peasants attend fools with great reverence and scrutinize their gibbering for veiled wisdom and prophecy.  Even the more enlightened prefer them in their charity over the ordinary poor.  For this reason, the streets are thick with counterfeit fools who don chains and profit by feigning madness.  The credulous lump all these together and call them the blessed ones.  Because I have known Xenia as she was–bequeathed every wordly advantage of wit, modesty, and riches–I know she is not a pretender.

I received a review copy of “The Mirrored World” while at Book Expo America, and I had the opportunity to meet with the author.  This book is a perfect fit for me, as I am a bit obsessed with Russia.  The book is scheduled to be released this August.

“The Mirrored World” is a novel by Debra Dean, who also wrote “The Madonnas of Leningrad.”  It tells the story of Xenia, a Russian Orthodox saint who lived in the 18th century and was famous for her charity to the poor.

The story is told from the point of view of Dasha, Xenia’s cousin.  The girls grow up in the same household and are introduced to Petersburg society at the same time.  Xenia falls in love with Col. Andrei Petrov and marries him, but then a tragedy strikes and she begins her descent into madness.

The “holy fool” is a theme that is often found in Russian literature, because they are believed to be God’s chosen children.  Even the tsar can’t speak against them, and it is believed that their words contain wisdom.  It was both fascinating and heartbreaking to watch Xenia go from a respectable woman of society to a holy fool who lives among the beggars, but at the same time we see that her transformation brings her a sense of peace and happiness that Dasha envies.

Dasha makes a perfect narrator because she is able to grow up in society but then drift on its outskirts.  She is able to observe, but is still independent enough that she can have an impartial view of what’s going on, both politically and in her relationship with Xenia.  I particularly enjoyed Dasha’s choice of husband (Spoiler:  He’s a eunuch).

Debra Dean’s writing contains a great deal of historical detail.  I was impressed by her knowledge of Russian history and culture.  One such detail that stood out to me (and which I researched later out of curiosity) was that tea wasn’t widespread in Russia until the 1730s when Catherine the Great began regularly importing it.  This story takes place before that, and so tea is treated as something special for rare occasions.

I also enjoyed the way that Debra Dean highlighted the excesses and corruption found at the Petersburg court.  Events such as the forced marriage of a jester show a lack of concern for the feelings of the common people, and we even get hints of Catherine becoming a slutty monarch as she takes the throne (note:  this is also historically accurate).

While parts of the story are sad, I didn’t find it depressing.  I would recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about Russian history and culture, or for fans of historical fiction in general.

Categories: Dead Russians, Fiction, Historical Fiction | Tags: , , , , | 12 Comments

“Roadside Picnic” by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

As many of you know, I’m a bit of a Russian literature nerd.  When I saw a new translation of “Roadside Picnic” by the Strugatsky brothers on NetGalley, I requested it immediately.

Ursula K. LeGuin wrote an excellent introduction, and I loved the following quotation from it:

Science fiction lends itself readily to imaginative subversion of any status quo.  Bureaucrats and politicians, who can’t afford to cultivate their imaginations, tend to assume it’s all ray-guns and nonsense, good for children.

Not that ray guns aren’t awesome, but you get the point.  This is a piece of Soviet sci-fi from the 70s, and one generally would expect anything that was published in Russia at the time to convey a certain ideological message.  “Roadside Picnic” doesn’t.  It feels almost radically non-political.  It examines both the darkness and hope inherent in the human condition, but it doesn’t even pretend to have any of the answers.

In “Roadside Picnic,” aliens visited Earth but left quickly, leaving behind several Zones filled with their trash.  Redrick Schubart, the protagonist, is a “Stalker”–someone who illegally enters the Zone to bring back alien technology to sell on the black market.  Humans are trying to use items from the Zone to further their own technological advancement, but nobody has any idea what anything in the Zone was intended for.  Nobody even knows why the aliens came or why they left.

The Zone is a dangerous place, and Stalkers tend to have mutant children.  Redrick’s own daughter is a furry creature referred to as the Monkey.  Schubart cares about his family and tries to do what’s best for them despite the danger and legal ramifications of his job.

If the term “Stalker” sounds familiar, it is because “Roadside Picnic” has had a major cultural impact.  It inspired a film adaptation by Andrei Tarkovsky, one of the most famous Russian directors of all time.  The film then went on to inspire the video games “Stalker:  Shadows of Chernobyl” and its sequels, but in the games the Zone is the result of a nuclear disaster rather than an alien visit.  For anyone who’s played the game, a brief word of warning:  The book is nothing like it, even though some elements may be similar.  Don’t go in expecting gun fights and action.  That’s not the intended purpose of the novel, and if it’s what you’re expecting to see, you’ll be disappointed.

One of the things that I loved about this novel is how philosophical it is.  Redrick spends a lot of time drunkenly pondering his role as a Stalker and the implications of his own decisions.  He talks about the social impact of the Zone and how it created a black market that brings out the worst in humanity.  I also liked that it was told from the point of view of an average person struggling to make a living and provide for his family rather than from the perspective of someone in charge.  There’s no glory, just the gritty reality of life.

I enjoyed this book tremendously, and would highly recommend it.

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I read this book as part of the Speculative Fiction Challenge.

Categories: Dead Russians, Fiction, Sci Fi | Tags: , , , , , , | 16 Comments

“The Overcoat” by Nikolai Gogol

Up until this point, I’ve generally been against participating in blog memes.  However, Breadcrumb Reads hosts a Short Stories on Wednesdays meme that I’ve decided will be the exception, as short stories are a very underrated form of writing.  For this week, I’ve chosen The Overcoat by Nikolai Gogol (see link for full text of the story).

Gogol’s writing is one of the earliest examples of surrealism, and “The Overcoat” is no exception.  It tells the story of Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin, whose name sounds just as ridiculous in Russian as it does in English.  It’s a ridiculous name because Akaky is a ridiculous man.  He is both stingy and poor, and works as a low-level bureaucrat copying lines by hand.  He won’t take a promotion because he’s afraid to step out of his own familiar habits to face the unknown.

Akaky has owned the same threadbare overcoat for a very long time, and his coworkers mock him for it.  He takes it to the tailor to get fixed, but is assured that the coat is beyond repair.  As Akaky doesn’t make a lot of money, it takes him a long time to save up for a replacement.  When he finally gets it, he feels like a changed man, and his coworkers throw a party in his honor, but Akaky feels alienated and thrown off by the attention.  On his way home, he is mugged, and the thieves take the coat.  Akaky despairs, and tries using bureaucratic connections to get the coat back, only to be laughed at.  Akaky falls ill and dies, and his ghost comes back and starts stealing people’s overcoats.

In the end, it is Akaky’s resistance to change that leads to his death.  Gogol uses the story to poke fun at Russian bureaucracy, highlighting its incompetence and lack of imagination.  Meanwhile, readers feel pity for Akaky, who despite his ridiculousness remains a generally sympathetic character who is so underpaid that a new overcoat becomes a monumental and life-changing event.

What short stories have you been reading recently?

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For anybody who finds this post while Googling for help on Russian literature homework, you can also see my 19th Century Russian Literature Pathfinder that I made for one of my library school classes for links to further resources.

Categories: Dead Russians, Fiction, Short Stories | Tags: , , , , , | 9 Comments

“The Fallen Queen” by Jane Kindred

I received an electronic copy of “The Fallen Queen” by Jane Kindred from the publisher through NetGalley.

The novel tells the story of Grand Duchess Anazakia Helisovna, an angel whose life story parallels that of Anastasia Romanov.  Anazakia never really understood the politics of Heaven until her entire family was murdered and overthrown at the hands of Aeval, a really bitchy queen.  Anazakia alone escaped with the aid of the demons Belphagor and Vasily, who fall with her from Heaven to Russia, where she cross-dresses to keep herself hidden.  At first, the demons and Anazakia mutually distrust each other, but as the story progresses they come to an understanding, and Anazakia starts to realize just how sheltered her life was as a Grand Duchess.

This is one of the most fun books that I’ve read in a long time.  It does have its flaws, such as the fact that Aeval isn’t very complex as a villain, but I was able to overlook that because I was so caught up in the story.  I couldn’t put the book down, and I can’t wait for the next one to be released!

The author has really done her homework as far as Russia goes.  When I read the book, I felt like I was back in St. Petersburg.  She gets everything right, from the landmarks to the culture to the tapochki.

I also enjoyed the way that the characters fall outside of traditional gender roles.  Belphagor and Vasily are an adorable gay couple, and Anazakia makes an interesting addition to their love triangle.  The characters are unapologetically themselves, which is quite refreshing in fantasy.  It bothered me that in Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire that Dany could have frickin’ dragons, but poor Renly had to stay in the closet.  Part of the fun of fantasy is being able to escape traditional social structures and play with reality.  The author clearly had a lot of fun doing that, and it was a delight to read!

“The Fallen Queen” is a great escapist read, and the Russian setting makes it even more awesome.  I would highly recommend it.  Kindred’s writing reminded me of what would happen if one were to cross Jacqueline Carey with Mikhail Bulgakov.

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This book counts toward the Speculative Fiction Reading Challenge hosted by Baffled Books.

Categories: Dead Russians, Fantasy, Fiction | Tags: , , , , , , | 6 Comments

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