Jan 26 2020

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

Isabel Wilkerson has all of the receipts. Setting out to understand the Great Migration of African-Americans out of the South and into other regions of the country, she drew on scholarship, she drew on hundreds of interview, she drew on the archives of dozens of organizations, and she arrived with a great work of synthesis, a book whose pages encompass the most significant domestic migration in the history of the United States. It is, she writes, “three projects in one. The first was a collection of oral histories from around the country. The second was the distillation of those oral histories into a narrative of three protagonists, each of whom led a sufficiently full life to merit a book in his or her own right and was thus researched and reported as such. The third was an examination of newspaper accounts and scholarly and literary works of the era and more recent analyses of the Migration to recount the motivations, circumstances, and perceptions of the Migration as it was in progress and to put the subjects’ actions into historical context.” (p. 540)

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

Wilkerson not only interviewed a vast swathe of people before selecting her three protagonists, she “confirmed or clarified [the protagonists’] accounts through interviews with the waning circle of surviving witnesses, cohorts, and family members, through newspaper accounts in the South and North dating back to 1900; and through census, military, railroad, school, state, and municipal records. (p. 541) She spoke with the people “for dozens, if not hundreds, of hours, most of the interviews tape-recorded and transcribed.” (p. 541) She not only spoke with as many people as she could find to tell and corroborate the stories she relates, “I then reenacted all or part of each subject’s migration route, devoting most of my time to the migration of Robert Foster.” (p. 541) She has been there and done that, seen every bit of the journey, gotten it all down and made as much sense as one person can of a movement so vast that it touched practically every corner of a continent-spanning nation.

What Wilkerson is too modest (and too smart) to remark in her notes that discuss how she put the book together is that the stories she chose are riveting. Wilkerson is aware of the scholarship and draws on it, but as she writes, “I began this work because of what I saw as incomplete perceptions, outside of scholarly circles, of what the Great Migration was and how and why it happened, particularly through the eyes of those who experienced it. Because it was so unwieldy and lasted for so long, the movement did not appear to rise to the level of public consciousness that, by any measure, it seemed to deserve.” (p. 539) She describes three goals for the book: to describe when the Great Migration took place, to depict where it occurred, and to show some of the people who comprised it. “I wanted to convey the intimate stories of people who had dared to make the crossing. I wanted to capture the vastness of the phenomenon by tracking unrelated people who had followed the multiple streams of the Great Migration over the course of the decades it unfolded.” (p. 539)

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Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2020/01/26/the-warmth-of-other-suns-by-isabel-wilkerson/

Jan 24 2020

Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune by Roselle Lim

I picked this up thinking it would be a sweet romance featuring Asian-American characters who cook, and while it definitely has the latter, the former is merely an uninteresting subplot featuring the dreaded insta-love. This is definitely more contemporary fiction than romance, which made my genre-loving heart sad. Actually, a lot about this book made me sad, but before I get there, a quick description of plot:

Natalie Tan always wanted to run her own restaurant but her agoraphobic single mom did everything to discourage her teenage dreams. Natalie rebelled by saving up money to go to culinary school, but after flunking out in her first year, took off to travel the world and gain culinary experience by cooking in order to fund her travels. When her mother unexpectedly dies, Natalie returns to their home in San Francisco’s Chinatown to discover that she’s been left her grandmother’s legendary, and long-shuttered, restaurant. At first mistrustful of the neighbors whom she believed neglected her and her mother as she was growing up, she comes to realize that she’s a necessary part of the neighborhood and strives to help rebuild it, saving it from gentrification through flights of magical realism.

Sounds amazing, right? My first clue that something was off about this book was the fact that the food descriptions did absolutely nothing for me. I am a reader highly susceptible to writing-induced food cravings, so to only feel a slight stirring of “hmm, I should go get dim sum” towards the end of a book about Asian cuisine, the food I grew up with and crave most, is disquieting to say the least. I also found myself irritated with the chef’s recipes included. It’s fine that they don’t include measurements, but to then insist that any one recipe will make a set amount of food is disingenuous at best. I don’t know how much experience Roselle Lim has with working in a restaurant but, food aside, some of the stuff in here was utterly mind-boggling. By the time I read that Natalie didn’t think she needed anyone but herself (no waitstaff, no host, no dishwasher) in order to run her admittedly small restaurant, I was absolutely done with the culinary aspect of this novel.

So what about the fantasy aspects? Could they save the book from its astonishing lack of food realism? Alas, too much of the fantastic stuff felt strictly by-the-numbers. Natalie cries tears of salt crystal that her mother collects in a bowl, but aside from that and the one big plot twist towards the end (well, “twist” if you don’t read much speculative fiction,) no one sees the admittedly cool effects except for Natalie herself. That’s less magical realism than a vivid imagination.

But the worst thing about this book was the fact that the characterization made no sense. It was truly shocking to me that no one line read this book and pointed out the many inconsistencies. Like, I get giving a pass to the cooking, since not everyone has cooked professionally, and the magical stuff, since not everyone magicks professionally either, but honestly trying to make us believe that Miranda Tan, Natalie’s mother, was her biggest cheerleader when she’d done SO MUCH to make her kid not believe in herself? I appreciated the depiction of Miranda’s agoraphobia and depression and how little understood those are in Asian culture, but being mentally ill doesn’t automatically make you a strong person. Being a restless perfectionist like Qiao, Miranda’s mom, doesn’t make you a strong person either. I understand Natalie wanting to forgive her mother and get to know her grandmother better via the writings they left her, but her antecedents were mildly interesting at best and seriously problematic at worst. It also bothered me that Natalie got so much shit for sticking up for herself. As an Asian-American, I understand the guilt that comes with leaving the nest but maybe it would have been nice to see an acknowledgment of reciprocal culpability from the people representing Asian culture around her, and not in the form of an extremely unlikely speech from the worst of them?

Maybe I’m being too hard on this book, but I’m just so disappointed. I was really rooting for it because it boasts all the elements I love but it kinda sucked.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2020/01/24/natalie-tans-book-of-luck-and-fortune-by-roselle-lim/

Jan 23 2020

Wintry Slowness

Sueddeutsche Reihe

Last February, I read 17 books in a month, which is a lot for me, if not for Doreen or Laura (or indeed Jo Walton). Now, I seem to be on the opposite side of that coin. Of the three books I finished in December, one I skimmed a great deal of, one was quite short, and one was finished on the last day of the year. So far in January, I have finished one.

Normally, I know why my reading slows: an international move, a job change, some other life event. None of that is happening now, I’m just making like the trees and not doing as much in this still season at 50°N. I have started quite a few books, and mostly big ones, too; maybe that is what is going on. Dhalgren, Gnomon by Nick Harkaway, the new Oxford history of Reconstruction titled The Republic for Which It Stands. I’m nearing the end of a book-length set of interviews with Seamus Heaney, so maybe that will get the momentum going again.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2020/01/23/wintry-slowness/

Jan 18 2020

Normal People by Sally Rooney

I expected more. While well-written — in the sense that, as with real life, the moments of sublime beauty are interspersed with observations of banal minutiae — it’s essentially a deep dive into the mind of a young, heterosexual white couple. Marianne is a girl from a rich, abusive family. She’s unpopular in the Carricklea high school she attends, because she doesn’t really care about what other people think and has no interest in ingratiating herself, plus she’s smart and argumentative, at least at school. Connell is the most popular guy in school, handsome and on the football team. He’s the only child of a single mom who works as a cleaner to support them, including at Marianne’s family home. Connell and Marianne get involved in high school, but he’s uninterested in being open about their connection. She persuades him to apply to Trinity with her, but their relationship, unsurprisingly, falls apart before they make it there.

The novel follows them over the next few years as they come together, fall apart, rinse, repeat. Along the way, Marianne channels her self-loathing into sex. I’m not entirely sure whether Sally Rooney meant to be kink shaming but as a sex positive person, I felt really uncomfortable with some of the depictions here. It wasn’t quite 50 Shades Of Grey bad but it was enough to make me wonder why any purportedly intelligent millennial wouldn’t at least Google shit.

And while I was inclined to be sympathetic to these characters at the beginning, as the book wore on and the characters kept insisting on miscommunicating, it felt increasingly difficult to care about their self-inflicted issues. At least Connell went to therapy, and I’m glad it wasn’t treated as a shameful thing. Overall, this wasn’t quite MFA nonsense — and it was very readable despite the unconventional punctuation: I crushed it in a day or so — but I still don’t really understand all the acclaim.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2020/01/18/normal-people-by-sally-rooney/

Jan 14 2020

The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

What’d I miss? The voters of the 2018 Worldcon awarded The Stone Sky the Hugo award for best novel, the first time in the award’s history that any author had won for best novel three years in a row, and also the first time that all three parts of a trilogy had won in that category. (I voted the year before and the year after, but not that year; I’ve read two other of the six finalists from 2018.) Clearly the book is held in high regard by one of its main audiences, one that I am a part of, but, like Doreen, I was not particularly taken by The Stone Sky. So what’d I miss?

The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

Or maybe instead of asking what I missed, it’s better to consider what I did catch from the Broken Earth trilogy. The Fifth Season saw the world sundered, with vast amounts of death and destruction unleashed deliberately, and human civilization plunged into a Season where the other four are out of kilter and survival is the only law. Over the course of the book, readers saw how and some of why a powerful wielder of earth magic chose to kill millions. It is a bleak but compelling book. The Obelisk Gate shows life during the Season, how some people and some communities meet its tests and either pass them or fail them, with life being the usual stakes. Jemisin shows more of how the world came to be as it is, and how some few of the orogenes, the earth magicians, may access power even greater than the craft that ripped the world’s crust apart at the start of the trilogy. At the very end, she introduces the hope that the world does not have to remain as it is, with civilization coming close to collapse every time a Season strikes.

That question lurks over The Stone Sky: Can the world be redeemed? Should it be? In the third volume, Jemisin shows much more of how the Seasons arose, in a frame that makes answering “No” to the second question at least a possibility. As in the first two books of the trilogy, Jemisin divides her tale among viewpoints: Essun, a strong orogene who was trained at the world’s foremost school of earth magic, and who has gone on to gain even more skill and power from other teachers and experience; Nassun, her daughter, who fled south at the start of the Season and who is now also able to access the world-spanning network of obelisks, and who may be able to end the cycle of Seasons entirely; and finally an initially unnamed narrator to takes readers back to the advanced civilization of Syl Anagist. This narrator shows how the world came to its cycles of destruction and presents one side of the argument at the heart of The Stone Sky.

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Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2020/01/14/the-stone-sky-by-n-k-jemisin/

Jan 11 2020

The Consuming Fire by John Scalzi

How does a human civilization react to news of its possible impending collapse, with the only option for survival a major upheaval touching every person in it and changing its power structure entirely? That’s the overriding question of John Scalzi’s Interdependency series. The Consuming Fire is the second part of the story, following The Collapsing Empire.

The Consuming Fire by John Scalzi

The Interdependency is an interstellar civilization, a collection of human habitats linked together by proximity to connections in the Flow, an extradimensional medium that allows travel between stellar systems faster than light plodding its way through normal space. The Flow is something like a river: faster here, slower there, not connecting all places. Though it has been stable for the thousand-year history of the Interdependency, the Flow has something else in common with the rivers it metaphorically resembles — it can change course. Over the course of The Collapsing Empire it became clear that the Flow was moving away from Interdependency space. Links that had functioned for centuries were closing up in a matter of weeks or less.

Scalzi has set up the Interdependency as a sort of mercantile techno-feudalism. There is an imperial ruler, the Emperox, in this case Grayland II. She is young and had not been expected to ascend to the throne. The rest of interstellar politics are dominated by trading houses that are great family-run companies that have monopolies on certain businesses and are also hereditary rulers of various settlements. Another key aspect of the Interdependency is that it features only one habitable planet, a backwater known as End. All other human habitations are artificial, on inhospitable planets or themselves in space. Collectively they can support civilization, but individually they would eventually fall apart. Their interdependence is literal, and by design of the polity’s founders. Without the Flow, it will all come crashing down.

The Consuming Fire follows several strands of this star-spanning narrative, concentrating on the highest ranks of the Interdependency. The Emperox, Grayland II, says she has received mystical revelations of how to lead her peoples through the impending crisis. In this, she is following the precedent of the imperial line’s founder, Rachela, whose visions and acumen led to the creation of the Interdependency. But Grayland is bucking the precedent of all of the rulers in between, none of whom claimed supernatural inspiration and who were content to let the established Church tend to the people’s spiritual needs without much intervention. People, especially powerful people, are skeptical of Grayland’s claims, but when another Flow stream collapses exactly as she predicted it would, they begin to believe. This is a mixed blessing.

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Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2020/01/11/the-consuming-fire-by-john-scalzi/

Jan 07 2020

Lady Hotspur by Tessa Gratton

I guess you don’t have to come into this having already read Tessa Gratton’s The Queens Of Innis Lear, but I’m betting it would be super helpful. And I say that as someone who spent a lot of time looking up both that novel as well as the Shakespearean plays that inspired them (Henry IV Part I for this one, King Lear for its predecessor) in the course of reading this. Which research, along with historical asides, reminded me of all the reasons Shakespeare’s plays annoy me. Massaging the truth for drama is one thing, but then pretending that drama is the truth is quite another. Oh, don’t tell me old Bill was presenting his stuff as fiction, you know well and good he wrote expedient political nonsense.

But I do love a good retelling, and so to Ms Gratton’s latest. Lady Hotspur is a gender-bending, multiracial fantasy based loosely on Henry IV Part I, which itself was based loosely on real history. Hal, Hotspur and Edmund are all women in this version, and best friends who grow to be at odds when Hal’s mother returns from exile to depose the previous king, Rovassos, who had named Edmund (here renamed Banna Mora) his heir. Hal and Hotspur become lovers but as the duties of nobility tear them away from one another and from Banna Mora, more than just personal conflict arises, as the quest to rule Aremoria begins. There’s prophecy and sex and magic and loads of bloodshed, leading to a lovely, unexpected ending that felt rightfully earned. It’s not exactly a spoiler to say that you can understand why Hal forgives Banna Mora, even tho I personally would not have — then again, Hal is a good prince (eventually) and I’m a grumpy book critic.

That said, it can feel like a slog to get to said ending. There is A LOT going on, with a magic system and folklore that constantly reference TQoIL, such that I almost hesitate to call this a standalone novel. Ms Gratton does have a gift for characterization, where a character she presents as being deeply annoying can grow to become not only understandable but heroic. This was especially true for Hal: I spent a long time feeling impatient with her sense of self-pity and had to remind myself that she was still a teenager, and one who hadn’t expected to have such responsibility thrust upon her. I was thus pleasantly surprised at how well she turned out. I do rather wish that some of the time spent on her romance with Hotspur had been spent on fleshing out her relationship with her mother instead, as I was actually quite startled when she expressed her devotion to Celedrix after spending so much of the book trying to disappoint her. I also wish I could’ve sympathized more with Banna Mora’s outright selfishness and sense of privilege, but again, Hal is a far better person than I am.

If you dig medieval fantasy, Celtic-based magic and quasi-history, you could do worse than to pick up Lady Hotspur. If you want queer, feminist stories of warfare and leadership that affirm many facets of a healthy sexuality, definitely pick up Lady Hotspur.

And oh my God, that cover. The artist for this and TQoIL was inspired.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2020/01/07/lady-hotspur-by-tessa-gratton/

Jan 04 2020

Looking Back on 2019

Another busy year in reading, with my book total clocking in at 189 books, up four from last year, with an almost 3000 page increase (with a big ole thanks to Goodreads once again for crunching my numbers. Full list can be found here! Feel free to friend me while you’re there.) This uptick was largely due to work ramping up greatly over at CriminalElement.com, the other website I write for, an employment which makes it possible for me to read and read greedily without financially bankrupting myself in the process.

As with last year, I had very strong feelings about quite a number of the books I read, so here’s my Top 10 list of books I read last year. This time, however, I’ll include the pub date so you can get a better idea of how timely/topical my choices are. Presented in the order I read them:

1. Hero At The Fall by Alwyn Hamilton (2018) — I still can’t believe how well this three book series moved from an uneven, if inspired, first entry to this absolutely terrific ending, that meditated with heartbreaking clarity on the legacies we leave and the power of storytelling. I almost hate it for bolstering my belief in not cutting my losses if the first book in a series doesn’t stun me. This was one of the best fantasy series I’ve ever enjoyed, set in an alternate world where our heroes fight for the fate of Miraji, a stand-in for the Middle East. Given recent world events, it fills me with sorrow that promoting beautiful books like this can feel like shouting into a hurricane, but the messages of freedom and anti-colonialism (especially coming from a British author!) are worthy of repeating again and again.

2. The Dead Queen’s Club by Hannah Capin (2019) — I have a long obsession with retellings and let me tell you, they are hard to do right. Sometimes agendas are too obvious, sometimes the massaging of facts to fit the story the author wants to tell just feels too far-fetched, and sometimes the story being told just feels too distant from the original. But if you want to read a masterclass in making a chapter of history feel relevant to modern concerns, as well as a redemptive tale of a beleaguered historical figure whose only literary champion prior to this remade her entirely in the image of a different queen, then look no further than Hannah Capin setting the story of Henry VIII and his six wives in a 21st century Indiana high school. She’s also got an updating of Macbeth in high school coming soon: I have a review copy and am dyyyyyying that I haven’t been able to get it yet.

3. My Lovely Wife by Samantha Downing (2019) — What if a married pair of serial killers had children, and slowly came to realize that their extracurricular activities might be harming the family they’ve worked so hard to build? Thrilling and thoughtful by turns, with an ending I did not see coming, this was definitely my favorite domestic thriller of the year.

4. The Weight Of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf (2019) — I might be predisposed to like this novel because I, like the author, am Malaysian myself, but I did not expect it to be such an absorbing, harrowing journey through a difficult piece of history, seen through the vividly lived-in experience of a young girl with obsessive compulsive disorder. It is not a book for the faint of heart, but it is so very worthwhile.

5. The Kingdom Of Copper by S. A. Chakraborty (2019) — The follow up to one of my best books of 2018 only built on the strengths of its predecessor to tell a swashbuckling tale of politics and intrigue, based on Islamic mythology. I don’t stan for a lot of authors, but I hearts and flowers S. A. Chakraborty so hard.

6. Wastelands: The New Apocalypse edited by John Joseph Adams (2019) — Reading this anthology was a delightful throwback to my younger days spent devouring compilations curated by Gardner Dozois or Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. Filled with quality short fiction, this collection belies its seemingly grim subject matter with tales of hope and fortitude in the face of the end of it all. It’s the kind of anthology perfect for when you can’t invest the time in one long narrative but still want to enjoy the best that the genre has to offer. Superlative.

7. The Warehouse by Rob Hart (2019) — A clever near-future extrapolation of late stage capitalism and its effects on American society, this is a cautionary tale that I’m still thinking about as the new year begins. I still hope Zinnia is okay.

8. Always North by Vicki Jarrett (2019) — This year’s Annihilation for me, a novel that only grows lovelier in the remembering. Written with stylistic boldness, it meditates on a society rapidly deteriorating in the face of climate change.

9. Fireborne by Rosaria Munda (2019) — This fantasy novel boldly struck out into new philosophical territory, starting from the rebuilding of a nation rent by revolution, with two teenaged protagonists from wildly different backgrounds with equally heartbreaking yet diverse experiences of trauma. I genuinely do not understand why I haven’t read more hype about this brilliant, lyrical book.

10. The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang (2018) — I consciously tried to better at reading romance novels this year, and was rewarded with this absolute gem of a novel. Possibly the best romance novel I’ve ever read.

Honorable mentions go to Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, The Serial Killer (2017) and Sara Faring’s genre-bending The Tenth Girl (2019). I’m a little surprised that no “serious fiction” made my list but there’s so much wonderful reading in this world to do: why search for meaning only in the obvious places?

On the non-fiction side, shoutouts go to my favorite cookbook of the year, Chelsea Monroe-Cassel’s Firefly — The Big Damn Cookbook (2019). One of my favorite publishers — First Second Books, usually known for their children’s graphic novels — also swung for the fences with the terrific Open Borders by Bryan Caplan and Zach Weinersmith (2019). And if you’re good and ready to enact political change, then I can’t recommend Lauren Duca’s How To Start A Revolution highly enough.

Here’s to a 2020 of more great reads! If you’re interested in keeping up with my reading visually (as well as general photos of what I’m up to,) I’m also on Instagram as dvalerisactual. I only catalog hard copies there, alas: Kindle versions just don’t have the same aesthetic appeal.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2020/01/04/looking-back-on-2019/

Jan 01 2020

Taking Stock of 2019

My reading jumped another 10 books or so in 2019. I know when, but I don’t really know why. In January, I had been pretty seriously ill (for me, at least). In February, when I was recovered, I read 17 books. That’s not much for, say, Jo Walton or Nicholas Whyte, but it’s the most I’ve read in a single month in many years, probably the most any month this century. Between the sudden burst in February and being a Hugo reader again this year (in lieu of actually attending Worldcon, alas), I read 81 books this year. That’s the most this century, too. Eight of those I don’t plan to write about, two are on the to-do list, so I have written something in the neighborhood of 70,000 words about 71 books over the course of 2019.

I read six books in German (same as 2018), four graphic works (or maybe five, depending on what one thinks of How To), and seven in translation (one from Franch, one from Russian, one from Japanese, one from German, and three from Polish). I think Don’t Panic was a re-read; otherwise, it was all new books this year. That’s unusual for me, the result, I think, of the round of Hugo reading and a concerted but so far largely unsuccessful effort to clear space in the very limited shelving in our Berlin apartment. I read thirty-one works written by women, and Wikipedia says that the gender of the author of The Promised Neverland is not known to the general public.

In June I pulled a couple dozen or so books out of the basement, where they had been languishing in the very outer reaches of t-b-r land. More than half of those are in German, and the largest share from a series that the Süddeutsche Zeitung published in 2008, presenting 20 books related in some way to Munich, where I lived from 1998 to 2008. Five of the six books I read in German this past year are from this series. (The sixth is about contemporary Poland, which I read for my first visit to Warsaw in 20 years of more.) I have enjoyed seeing familiar locations portrayed in art, and stories in the same general setting across decades. Of the six authors, four were new to me. The only book from the Munich set that I had read before 2019 was by Thomas Mann; the book was a new collection, and thus new to me too, but the author was not. If I continue with the set, all of the other authors will be new to me. Before the Munich books, the Süddeutsche also published two runs of “50 great novels of the 20th century.” I have read about half of the first set, and have written about them here, here, here, and here. Further, the Süddeutsche published a set of books that characterize great cities of the world. The only one of those 20 that I am sure I have is Das Haus an der Moskwa by Yuri Trofonov, which is known in English as The House on the Embankment. Its setting was sometimes known as the House of Government. The various Süddeutsche sets will probably be the source of the lion’s share of my reading in German in the near future.

Best sequel to a perfect book, The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner. Best frolic with a time-tested premise, Just One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor. Best alternate New Orleans, The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark. Best mashup involving Roman legionaries in Texas, The Incorruptibles by John Hornor Jacobs. Book that best beat expectations, A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka by Lev Golinkin. Best recent book that I read in 2019, Becoming (more here) by Michelle Obama. Best not-so-recent book that I read in 2019, The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes.

Full list, roughly in order read, is under the fold with links to my reviews and other writing about the authors here at Frumious.

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Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2020/01/01/taking-stock-of-2019/

Dec 30 2019

Molotov’s Magic Lantern by Rachel Polonsky

Early on in Molotov’s Magic Lantern Rachel Polonsky quotes Osip Mandelstam as saying “Ask me for my biography, and I will tell you the books I have read.” (p. 6) From that perspective, Polonsky braids three biographies. One is Vyacheslav Molotov, erstwhile foreign minister of the Soviet Union whose former apartment a banker friend of Polonsky’s comes to inhabit in the 1990s; some of Molotov’s personal library, with annotations in his hand, remained on the shelves in the apartment. Another is the late Cambridge don of Russian literature, Edward Sands, who learned the language during the war when he was on convoy duty in and out of Murmansk and other chilly places. The third is Polonsky herself; although the book is not labeled an autobiography, she cannot write so much about people, places and books as much as she does without revealing a great deal of her own story.

Molotov's Magic Lantern

Molotov’s Magic Lantern carries the subtitle Travels in Russian History, and while that’s true, it is also a collection of travels in Russia itself. Polonsky has built the book in something like a spiral, beginning in Molotov’s apartment and turning outward, moving around Moscow before essaying its suburbs, then Novgorod, Rostov-on-Don, moving into Russia’s great distances to encompass Archangel and the far north, Irkutsk, Ulan Ude and Baikal. In an epilogue, she returns to Moscow, sitting in the Lenin Library before walking the Alexander Gardens alongside the walls of the Kremlin. In the end, there are more books, a final reckoning with Molotov, his library, and the facts of change in Moscow.

Every page has something interesting, or something to inspire deeper reflection, or something surprising, an unexpected connection or vivid details that bring the past into the present. Many pages have all of these together.

After a walk around her Moscow neighborhood, during which Polonsky has sketched the imperial and communist-era connections among the buildings on her small street and noted the latest wave of renovation on Corner House, a late imperial construction that “had been allowed to decay during the Soviet period.”

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Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2019/12/30/molotovs-magic-lantern-by-rachel-polonsky/