Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “russia”

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR4 Review #24 Bobby Fischer Goes to War

the real problem with protagonists runs much deeper than just whether or not he seems heroic, often times he might not even seem likable. The authors of Bobby Fischer Goes To War confront that very problem in the non-fiction treatment of the most famous chess game ever played.

Few countries offer a better host of bad guys than Russia. If given a choice between running into gang members in a dark alley or President Vladmir Putin in a well lit area…I’m really not sure which seems safer. And when it comes to the cerebral battlefield of the space race, the art race and the chess race, America languished behind for a long time.

Then into the fray leapt chess prodigy Bobby Fischer, a kid from New York whose skill was outmatched only by his fierce competitiveness. At the time that Bobby Fischer Goes to War begins, Fischer had become the tantrum throwing bad boy of the international chess circuit, even though he seemed like a straight from the Comicbook “CHESSMAN” superhero to Americans. Edmonds and Eidnow chronicle every lat drop of strategy that brought Fischer to the inhospitable climate of Reykjavik to battle then world champion, Soviet, Boris Spassky.

The authors first embrace the match as a metaphor for Cold War gamesmanship and then seek to complicate the scene by knocking down the superhero and building up the “dastardly” Soviet. But the overt recasting of these parts in later chapters seems irrelevant when the first chapters show it plainly in both men’s characters. Fischer seems unhinged at best, diabolical at worst; Spassky rises as an iconoclast uncomfortable within the Soviet regime, seeming downright American in his fiercely independent nature. Indeed, the only people who seem to need convincing that Fischer wasn’t the hero are the authors themselves.

The authors’ dedication to probing their characters comes at the expense of chess explanations. Those without a cursory knowledge of the game may feel lost. Even those who know enough to visualize the board at key moments may be frustrated by the maddeningly condescending accounts of “howlers” and “blunders” that are named, but never explained. The author’s clearly love chess, so too do the people who made the match the most popular chess spectacle in a century. But the fixation on Fischer, and attempts to complicate a person who is obviously, maddeningly complicated already, gives the reader fewer opportunities to learn to love the game.

Love you Vladdy!

Things have obviously changed since the Fischer/Spassky match in 1972. And though we’re still tempted to think of Russians as the bad guys and Americans as the good guys, the days of Rocky Balboa V.s. Ivan Drogo have been replaced by an appreciation of our shared human complexity. I still might worry about starting a brawl with President Putin, but beyond that Russia’s Rogues Gallery is running thin (though we could always posthumously loan them Fischer)

Samantha’s #CBR4 review #13: The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov

What would happen if Satan came to town? Well, in Moscow, at least, various members of society find themselves either dead or in an insane asylum; a sold out seance at the Variety Theatre exposes the greed and hypocrisy of the upper classes, an entire office finds that they are compelled to break into song every five minutes or so, and there are some exceedingly strange goings-on in a certain apartment building  recently occupied by Mikhail Berlioz, whose death signals the opening strains of the madcap symphony wrought by “Professor Woland” and his merry band, and that’s just for a start. Meanwhile, Ivan Homeless, a poet who is among those committed, meets his neighbor at the asylum, an unnamed “Master” whose life disintegrates after Moscow’s literary critics lambast his opus magnum, a novel about Pontius Pilate. The Master mourns the loss of his beloved mistress, who he believes has forgotten him. She, however, when approached by one of Woland’s henchmen and offered a chance to make her dreams come true, finds herself the hostess at Satan’s ball. If she manages to get through a never-ending night of hobnobbing with a glittering company of evildoers, Margarita will have the opportunity to reunite with her lover. Would you make a deal with the devil for eternal happiness?

Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel, published posthumously in 1966, is a completely fascinating and mind-boggling read. I will admit that I spent the entire first half of the novel asking my husband, who’d read it before, when it would start to make any sense. After a while, though, the beautiful language (apologies for not remembering which translation I read), the entertaining characters, and the wildly imaginative story won me over. In the end, while The Master and Margarita is still slightly confusing, it proves itself to be a incredibly constructed study in the dichotomy of human nature, and a biting critique of Soviet society. The story-within-a-story, about the judgement and execution of Jesus Christ from the perspective of Pontius Pilate, is equally fascinating. Bulgakov paints “Yeshua” as merely a kind of free-thinking hippie who manages to run aground of important people, and Pilate himself as a political pawn. He’d rather have hired Yeshua on as a kind of philosophical advisor, but circumstances beyond his control force him to condemn the man to death.

This notion of Pilate as merely human instead of one of history’s most well-known bad guys exemplifies Bulgakov’s theme of good and evil, but the more fascinating example is Woland himself. Throughout the novel, there is no real instance of him being responsible for any evil-doing; rather, it is his henchman who cause all the trouble. There is a point at which Woland refers to himself as a “department,” suggesting that (much like Pilate) he, and by extension his opposition, are merely doing a job that may or may not reflect on any personal ideal. His treatment of Margarita and her Master, in fact, suggests that he is more a sympathetic soul than anything else. I think that one could persuasively argue that Woland, far from being the villain of the story, is in fact its hero. He and his compatriots come to Moscow to punish the guilty and enact justice for those who have been treated unfairly. That their means are, well, devilish may give the lie to their ends, but that doesn’t necessarily appear to be what Bulgakov wants us to believe. His obvious contempt for the bureaucratic society he is satirizing comes through at every turn. That the novel was heavily censored in Russia upon its original release may serve to prove his point.

Russian novelists, regardless of what century they were writing in, seem to be a wordy bunch. Bulgakov is no exception here, but unlike some of his predecessors, I think the events of The Master and Margarita keep the novel moving along at a good pace. There’s something for everyone here: politics, poetry, romance, humor, drama, sex, violence…  If one can avoiding losing patience with the early chapters, which seem rather disjointed and haphazard,  this is a truly imaginative and fantastical novel; a little confusing, but ultimately worthwhile.



Kemp Ridley’s #CBR4 Review #21 – Peter the Great: His Life and Times by Robert K. Massie

Although I’m a big fan of more recent Russian/Soviet history, I know next to nothing about their pre-Lenin story.  I picked this book up pretty randomly, mostly because I recognized Peter’s name and because it won a Pulitzer.  Randomness served me well, because it was pretty fantastic.

At the end of the 1600s Russia was still a largely medieval place.  The Renaissance never made it that far east, and the country was deep in thrall to an apparently limitless fear of modernization and, above all, of western Europe.  Into this frozen place steps 10-year-old Peter, who was appointed co-czar with his half-brother Ivan.  Peter very nearly didn’t survive childhood thanks to a palace coup led by his sister, Sophia, but survive he did, wresting power away from her in his late teens.

Peter is a hell of a character.  He stood a gargantuan six feet, seven inches at a time when most European men were under six feet tall. Peter enjoyed dressing as a laborer and working alongside his subjects in shipyards and on great construction projects. Even more horrifying to his subjects was his habit of rubbing shoulders with western European expatriates.  European ideas quickly took root in Peter’s mind, and he worked tirelessly to drag Russia into the modern world.  He reformed everything from the church to the military to women’s rights; women in Peter’s childhood were little more than prisoners in their own homes, yet in the next century four of its sovereigns were women (culminating in Catherine the Great).

The story of Peter’s exertions – and the rebellions and conspiracies they spawned – was fascinating.  I know very little of European history in this period, but Massie had me covered.  He took great pains to fill in the blanks and give context, complete with chapters that are mini-biographies of Charles XII and Louis XIV.  (And these intrusions were handled so organically that I never felt like I was being subjected to an exposition dump.)

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in either Russia or seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe.  Massie’s Catherine the Great and Nicholas and Alexandra just got added to my to-read list.


The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR4 Review #9 Metro 2033

Read more of this review (along with other apocolyptically bad writing at my blog)

I genuinely do like end of the world narratives, there’s something riveting about seeing what people will do when thrown into desperate situations, and rather than conduct unethical experiments with real human subjects, I’ll satisfy my curiosity with engaging fictional story telling. After all, what is Gulliver’s Travels if not the story of a man–deprived of the world he knew–surviving in a world beyond it? What is Candide if not one hapless student’s effort to endure cataclysmic events. What is The Wizard of Oz if not the story of a girl who survives a cataclysmic event only to discover the world a strangely mutated place?  Into that tradition comes Dmitry Glukhovsky’s Metro 2033.

The modern Russian novel has developed a cultish following around the world. Set in a post-nuclear war landscape, the plot requires one man (Artyom) to deliver dire news of dangerous mutants to the last vestiges of society–inside the labyrinthine Moscow subway system. So Artyom sets out from the only home he has known and struggles to navigate the complex political context of a world gone mad. Trudging through bureaucracy, ganglands, crazed cults, fascist prisons, communist rebel camps, and pseudo-metropolises.

While it might seem odd, I could not help but connect Metro 2033 to those canonical throughout the reading of it. A foreigner confronting strange customs and ideals in new lands–Gulliver; a young man striving for calm in the face of perilous situations–Candide; unusual alliances and a desperate desire to just go home again–you aren’t in Stalingrad any more Dorothy. As Artyom slogs through the tunnels of Moscow, his literary forerunners slog along with him.

Slog is the right word for it because Metro 2033 moves every bit as slowly as your typical Russian novel, without the same amount of character development. While the central conceit of surviving in a subway system after nuclear war is interesting, it never really moves beyond the obvious challenge of diverse philosophies complicating life in a confined space. While GulliverCandide and The Wizard of Oz spin and spoof human nature, ideologies, and political perspectives through cheeky, subtle satire; Glukhovsky riddles the pages of Metro 2033 with blunt, literal representations of easy satirical targets. Not everything has to be artful–but if you could merge action with artistry–that’s where great things happen, and while I love the potential in Metro 2033 I’m a little disappointed by the execution.

lyndamk #cbr4 review #6: Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie

Catherine was indeed great. Read why in Robert K. Massie’s new book. Read more at my blog.

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