Book reviews from May: reading genres I’m currently obsessing about are the Iranian Revolution (1979) and it’s aftermath, and Russian literature. (Are those technically both a genre? Maybe not. But listing “Russian literature” as a topic seemed…weird. Iran is a topic and Russian lit is a genre?! I DON’T KNOW SO STOP TELLING ME HOW TO LIVE MY LIFE!)
Iran Awakening, by Shirin Ebadi (4 stars). Shirin Ebadi became the first woman judge in Iran in the late 1970’s, before the shah was deposed; after the Revolution and the militant Islamic state had control of the government and society she was demoted to a secretarial position. In the 1990’s she returned to the legal system as an attorney defending human rights cases against the government. In 2003 she won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in Iran. I loved this book, I feel like I got a great briefing of the history of Iran in the last 40 years and how the major players and political movements influenced that history; I also got to learn more about a truly fascinating fighter who spent her life dedicated to the people of her country. Fascinating read.
The Saffron Kitchen, by Yasmin Crowther (4 stars). Maryam left Iran after being disowned by her super conservative father right after the Iranian Revolution. Her story of growing up in the realm of the Shah and the home of a military tyrant (her Pops) is heartbreaking and horrible. She marries in England and raises a daughter to be independent and successful, but Maryam never truly leaves Iran and when a young nephew comes to stay, bringing all sorts of memories to the surface, Maryam returns to the village where she was born and now the family drama spans two continents and two cultures. I really wanted to give this 5 stars, there are gorgeous descriptions and vignettes, but the ending fell a little flat and cliche for me.
Children of the Jacaranda Tree, by Sahar Delijani (3 stars). There is some absolutely beautiful, poetic language in this book about the Iranian Cultural Revolution in the 1980’s and the 2010 uprising and election. The story follows several families, some of whom are related/cousins and others who are only tangentially acquainted; Delijani describes the parents/grand-parents experiences in 1983, many of whom served time or were executed in Evin Prison. She also details the lives of many of their children, some of whom have grown up outside of Iran (California, Italy, Germany), and others who are still living in Tehran and still rebelling against an oppressive militant-Islamic state. Sometimes it was hard for me to keep track of all the characters and the timeline, I wished I’d known more about the chronology of events of the Iranian Revolution prior to reading this book, it explains details and stories, but doesn’t have a cohesive backbone of events to help link them together. (I read Iran Awakening after Jacaranda Tree and I wish I had read it first.)
Additional Recommended Reading: Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi; Lipstick Jihad, by Azadeh Moaveni.
Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov (5 stars). I loved this book! I had no idea what it was going in and loved the fantastical and contemporary pieces that were woven together in this brilliant overlapping story. Master and Margarita was written in the 1930’s about Stalin’s rise to power in Russia in the same way The Wizard of Oz was written about the Silver vs Gold Standard battles in the United States during the 1890’s; however, unlike Oz, Bulgakov was unable to publish his book for fear of being killed (or worse) by Stalin’s regime and it was not published until 1967. Both are thinly veiled “fairy tales” with enormous political undertones, Bulgakov’s masterpiece is a fantastic satire on the worst parts of Soviet Russia and borrows liberally from Faustian plot and character mechanics. (Pretentiousness alert! I’ve never read Faust!) Master and Margarita stars Woland as the Devil/brilliant magician/Stalin, with a band of devilish misfits and witches—including a giant talking cat–who cause chaos and mischief throughout Moscow. Additionally, there is a second plot focused on an “alternative ending” type story about the crucifixion of Jesus, Pontius Pilate’s role in the whole thing, and the fate of Christianity. Yes, all those things in one book. With a number of trips to an insane asylum, any asylum will do. I will be thinking about this book for a long time! I had no idea Russian literature could be anything like this (because I have only ever really had The Classics recommended to me for reading, see below). A million thanks to julochka for sending this book rec my way!
The Sebastopol Sketches, by Leo Tolstoy (4 stars). This is one of Tolstoy’s first published works and he has cast himself as a war correspondent during the war with the French in the Crimea (1854-1855) and the siege of Sebastopol, a small city on the Black Sea. As a young man Tolstoy was ansty to fight in this “glorious war” and joined the army as an officer. His time in Sebastopol quickly taught him the horrors of battle and the deplorable conditions of the Russian infantry, which was a surprise for this aristocratic 22-year old from Moscow. Sebatsopol Sketches is comprised of three short stories taking place several months apart and following the lives and gruesome deaths and suffering of a handful of soldiers and officers. Eventually, Tolstoy would expand on these ideas of war and glory and bravery in the giant War and Peace, but the seeds of a brilliant writer are here in a much easier to digest volume.
War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy (3 stars). Six weeks of audiobook is a long time for an audiobook, but at 63 hours I knew I wouldn’t be able to get through this any quicker. Going in to “War and Peace” I knew very little about it’s plot or characters, I had heard repeatedly that it is one of the most important pieces of literature and that everything of any relevance to humans is within it’s pages. That all being said, any well-written book at 1,000+ pages will probably fit those two stipulations. What I did not realize is that Tolstoy spent years researching Napoleon’s 1812 campaign and invasion of Russia to write this book, he was frustrated in the way historians had handled the story and went back to primary documents including letters and correspondence between Russian and French generals. He recreated some of the largest battles and some of the smallest interactions between Russian nobility, peasants, and French soldiers. And wow, is he thorough. I got a little bogged down here and there with so much information, propaganda, chapters and chapters on a single day of battles, and so many characters. I probably won’t ever read this again, but I am glad I made it through and can check this behemoth classic off my list.
A Hero Of Our Time, by Mikhail Lermontov (3 stars). I believe I read this on recommendation of The Shelf: Adventures in Extreme Reading and while I liked it well enough I don’t really consider it a must read. This story follows a Russian playboy-soldier-cad Pechorin in his adventures, as told from various points of view. Pechorin is often referred to (either by himself or by narrators) as “Byronic”, as in, “like Lord Byron” and I had to go look up what that meant. Basically, Pechorin is a flawed “hero” who isn’t actually heroic, but is kind of famous and handsome and uses his money, situation, and love interests to his temporary advantage. I think for it’s time this was a groundbreaking novel (published in the early 1800’s), but so many characters now are these kind of terrible humans who do terrible things to the people in their lives, yet are celebrated anyway.
Hmmm…maybe I don’t need to read any more 19th century Russian war novels…
Additional recommended reading: Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy. I should also probably list The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky, but it was such a slog for me to finish up that I can’t in good faith tell anyone else to read it.