The Invention of Russia by Arkady Ostrovsky

The subtitle to The Invention of Russia — From Gorbachev’s Freedom to Putin’s War — unfortunately now has to be followed with a question: which one? Even when the book was published in 2015, his wars were already plural (Chechnya and Georgia) but the author clearly means Russia’s seizure of the Crimean peninsula and its proxy war in eastern Ukraine. Not many books that get blurbed as “timely” are worth reading the better part of a decade later, but Ostrovsky’s is because it tells several of the deep stories about why post-Soviet Russia is the way that it is and how it got that way. As he explains, “My main characters are not politicians or economists but those who generated the ‘meaning’ of the country, who composed the storyline, who produced and broadcast it and in the process led the country from freedom to war.” (p. 6)

Invention of Russia by Arkady Ostrovsky

The stories of Russia add up to the story of Russia, and the way that story turns out matters for the whole world. A different Russia was possible, but its leaders and leading storytellers made choices that led to its present state. A different Russia will be possible, but not until it has different leaders telling different stories. Ostrovsky knows the influence of the past, so he starts The Invention of Russia (more properly the re-invention of Russia, as it never went away and was only partly subsumed in the Soviet Union) well back in the Soviet period.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who wrestled with the Soviet system, knew there was only one way to defeat it: “Live not by lies,” he wrote on the day of his arrest. The paradox was that the opening-up of the media could be achieved only by engaging in half-truths. But when reality burst through that opening in the form of live television broadcasting and uncensored publications, the Soviet Union crumbled.
Whoever controlled the media also controlled the country. “To take the Kremlin, you must take television,” Alexander Yakovlev, the main ideologist of perestroika, once said. This was no metaphor, for the fiercest and deadliest battles that unfolded in the lead-up to and aftermath of the Soviet disintegration were for the television tower. In the 1990s television and newspapers were in the hands of pro-Western liberals who set out to project a new reality by means of the media. But in the end they used the media to enrich themselves and to consolidate power. (p. 7)

Then when it was consolidated, power in the Kremlin came and took the media from them and started telling entirely new stories about Russia.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2022/05/22/the-invention-of-russia-by-arkady-ostrovsky/

The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez

Hurray, only one more book to read and I’ll finally be done with the 2020 Hugos, glargh!

So this was an interesting novel. Good, but I can see why I never hear of it outside of this nomination, even as plugged in as I generally am to publishing and particularly genre circles. The Vanished Birds is deeply human to the point where, while you understand the motivations of many of the characters and particularly the villains, they’re mostly so irrevocably flawed that it’s hard to make yourself care very deeply about them. Our heroes shake out better, even if everyone has a decidedly bleaker and more narrow ending than you’d expect. I don’t mind a sorrowful ending — Gideon The Ninth and Jude The Obscure are two of my favorite books of all time, after all — but there’s a particular balance to be struck when trying to get the reader to emotionally invest in the proceedings, such that even an unhappy ending still needs to make you feel something more than primarily impatience with what’s just transpired.

Fortunately for our two main characters, patience is their stock in trade. Nia is a space captain running from her own past, a woman perhaps too willing to cut and run when times get emotional or tough. A sexual liaison on the resource planet of Umbai-V leads to her becoming the caretaker of a boy who falls out of their sky one day, as she’s entrusted by her lover to bring the strange child back to the galactic authorities she represents. In the span of the months-long trip home however, she and the boy grow attached, a relationship that will serve them well when one of humanity’s greatest thinkers comes to Nia with a proposition that will keep the duo together despite bureaucratic interference, at least for a few more years of travel.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2022/05/17/the-vanished-birds-by-simon-jimenez/

Good Game, Well Played by Rachael Smith, Katherine Lobo & Justin Birch

As the 20th century draws to a close, Sienna is intent on having one last perfect summer with her friends, who are all her co-workers at the Game Champ video game store. Sienna is a bit of a control freak, but she gets along fine most of the time with Art, the aspiring comic book artist; Hope, the grungy tough girl; Jo, the conflicted kid with controlling parents, and Sid, the wannabe rock god. They all work (or “work” as the case may be) for Tim, a kind-hearted middle-aged dude with an adorable dog.

When their evil landlord insists on hiking up the rent or shutting down Game Champ for good, the employees brainstorm ways to raise the required funds. But each of the teenagers has personal issues that threaten to derail all their plans. Will Sienna be able to keep them all together and on task, or will everything blow up in her face despite all her best efforts?

Six years later, Sienna is coming back to her hometown to attend the funeral of one of her former friends. She worries that no one will want to see her again after everything ended so badly. But the reunion has more than one surprise in store for all the former Game Champ employees.

Give logic the evening off when you’re diving into this mostly gentle (by adult standards anyway) coming-of-age tale of five different kids struggling to make the best of their lives. Hope and Jo are easily the most sympathetic characters, having gone through the most. I also really enjoyed spending time with Art’s large and subtextually Jewish family. Katherine Lobo’s art in the pages showcasing his apartment and its building seem to have a bit more verve than elsewhere, tho it’s easy to be charmed regardless by his entire situation (with cute kids and animals galore!)

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2022/05/16/good-game-well-played-by-rachael-smith-katherine-lobo-justin-birch/

Die Leiden des jungen Werthers by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Finally reading The Sorrows of Young Werther closes a gap in my education as a German major, a mere thirty years or so after I earned my degree. Because my institution only had two professors of German, an upper-level course in Goethe was only offered periodically. And the one time it was offered when I had enough language skill to appreciate Goethe, I was in Germany. It was the last summer of the Berlin Wall, and I went to the People’s Republic of Hungary just weeks after that country began dismantling the Iron Curtain, so I can’t say that I would have preferred to stay in Tennessee and read Goethe. Werther remained one of those things I figured I would eventually get around to, and now I have.

Die Leiden des jungen Werthers by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The Sorrows of Young Werther is an epistolary novel first published in 1774. Werther is young, gifted, of good but not noble birth, and sensitive. Most of the story is told through his letters to his friend Wilhelm. For the first third of the book, Werther is not suffering at all. He is living on his own, practicing his arts, taking long walks, and reveling in the beauty of the world. One evening, friends are taking him in their carriage to a dance when they stop to pick up another member of their circle, a young woman named Charlotte, usually called Lotte in the German style of the time. Be careful, one of them says, you might fall in love with her but she is engaged to someone else, someone who is temporarily in Switzerland on family business. It wouldn’t be much of a story if Werther took heed of the warning, so of course he does fall in love.

Charlotte has her own tragic history: her mother died not long ago and made Lotte promise to raise her numerous siblings (all the way down to a mere six months) as if they were her own children. Far from being weighed down by this burden, she revels in family life, and the younger children love her for it. They won’t accept their evening bread from anyone else, they ask for stories, they follow her instructions. Goethe presents her as an avatar of feminine virtue: she’s beautiful, intelligent, skilled at music and dance, has an open and generous heart. Thanks to her mother’s legacy, she’s even managed the neat trick of being young and unspoiled while also being an idealized mother. Is it any wonder that Werther falls hard and fast?

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2022/05/15/die-leiden-des-jungen-werthers-by-johann-wolfgang-von-goethe/

Reading Backwards by John Crowley

There are still 148 copies available of this gorgeous, autographed collection of John Crowley reviews from 2005 to 2018. It’s a lovely object, a reminder of what the making of books, even commercially published books, can be as a craft. I’m even a little sorry that the dust jacket betrays that this book has actually been read, not just admired. Only a little bit, though, because otherwise what’s the point?

Reading Backwards by John Crowley

In contrast to the book’s title, I read it forwards and — unusually for me and a collection of essays or stories — straight through. (I know that authors construct their collections with care, but that’s not how my magpie mind works.) Crowley has divided Reading Backwards into three parts, with a couple of extra appendages at the beginning and end. The first is “A Voice from the Easy Chair,” essays from his time as a columnist for Harper’s Magazine. The second, “Fictional Voices” collects Crowley’s reviews, which are mainly but not exclusively about authors who write science fiction and fantasy. The third, “Looking Outward, Looking In” is more miscellaneous, more wide-ranging, and not constrained by the lengths of a particular column. I would have enjoyed knowing when and where all of the pieces were published, just to have a bit more context; these are occasional pieces, and sometimes it’s nice to know the occasion.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2022/05/14/reading-backwards-by-john-crowley/

Das Haus an der Moskwa by Yuri Trifonov

Das Haus an der Moskwa, known in English as The House on the Embankment and with the original title Дом на набережной, poses a question that it doesn’t really answer, or at least not directly. On a hot August day in 1972 Vadim Glebow has traveled out to a distant corner of Moscow to get some furniture that he heard might be available, if he could find the right place and talk to the right person. That was the middle of the Brezhnev years, when you could get a lot of things if you knew the right people, when the Soviet system had settled out of terror and revolutionary fervor and into lethargic corruption. At the warehouse, Glebow doesn’t get the furniture but he does encounter a man who had been a friend back in elementary school. He is doing a menial job, and clearly in a bad way, probably deep into alcoholism. Glebow can’t immediately remember the man’s name, and he pretends not to recognize Glebow.

Das Haus an der Moskwa by Yuri Trifonov

Most of the novel is told through Glebow’s recollections across a variety of periods: childhood and early school years in the 1930s, a little bit about the war years, as a young man at a literary institute in the post-war period, and something of a coda in the novel’s present of the 1970s. Upon returning from his fruitless quest, Glebow remembers the name in question: Lev Shulepnikov, although he was usually called by one of the diminutives Lyovka or Shulepa. He lived in the titular House, which is also sometimes called in English the House of Government. At the time it was built, the House was the largest residential building in Europe, meant as a model Soviet achievement, and home to the all-Union elite that was not quite elite enough to live within the walls of the Kremlin. Glebow lived across a small part of the river from the House, in a pre-Revolutionary house that had been subdivided to accommodate more families. Glebow’s family lives in reduced circumstances, up a set of stairs that is constantly threatening to give out.

Throughout his childhood, Glebow envies the kids in the House on the Embankment who have much more space and unheard-of luxuries at a time when deprivation was the Soviet rule and famine not far in the past. One time, Glebow saw Shulepa’s mother send a cake back because it wasn’t fresh. The concept was alien to him. In his family, cakes only appeared at special occasions such as birthdays or the new year. They were devoured quickly, and had no opportunity to be anything but fresh. By contrast, not only were cakes commonplace for Shulepas, but they could be rejected! That makes almost as much an impression on Glebow as the blank pistol that Shulepa produces and fires during some kind of schoolyard tussle. If regular cakes were an astonishment, a gun for a kid was unimaginable.

The House on the Embankment is one of those novels in which what the characters don’t say is at least as important as what they do say. It’s a reasonably common feature of works set or written in closed societies, but it means that the further readers are in time and space from the time and place of publication, the harder it can be to catch what is happening. Shulepa’s stepfather clearly works for the secret police, although that is not only never stated by any character, it’s not even implied in speech. For Soviet people of the 1930s, or indeed the 1970s, it would be too obvious to need saying. The apartment, the food, the pistol, the obvious fear that teachers and administrators show when some kids take it on themselves to pick on Shulepa — all of these show that Shulepa’s stepfather not only works for the secret police, he’s a very senior figure and could have any of them sent to Siberia or shot with no questions asked. As far as I could tell, the novel does not imply that his father fell victim to machinations of the secret police, but it’s well within the realm of possibility. It’s possible that his mother conspired with the future stepfather to ensure that the father was gotten out of the way. That sort of thing certainly happened in Soviet history. A second stepfather shows up later in the book, with little or nothing said about the fate of the first. That was often the fate of high-ranking secret policemen, and hanging on to memories could be dangerous for anyone left behind. That Shulepa’s mother managed to remain in the House implies that she could play the Soviet game with considerable skill, but Trifonov does not show much of her, leaving readers to draw their own conclusions.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2022/05/13/das-haus-an-der-moskwa-by-yuri-trifonov/

F.A.R.T.: Top Secret! No Kids Allowed! by Peter Bakalian

Oh gosh, I didn’t expect this to end on such a cliffhanger!

I also didn’t expect this kind of visual design from a book aimed squarely at middle school kids. It’s seriously delightful, a clever mix of mid-century modern with the more expected kids’ doodles on graph paper. The illustrations throughout are entirely suited to the text, and even do readers the favor of repeating at key points so that we don’t have to search back through the book for the relevant graphics. While Luke Lucas is credited for many of the interior illustrations, the overall concept and design was masterminded by Peter Bakalian himself: kudos thus to him for this excellently constructed package!

The accompanying story is silly and gross enough to appeal to middle schoolers while also containing that slight frisson of real-world danger that appeals to readers of all ages. Our narrator, codenamed Popcorn, is a YouT– I’m sorry, ViewTuber whose obsession with junk food is at direct odds with his parents’ ownership of a health food store. One day in the kitchen, he accidentally rips the cover of a cookbook, revealing a strange manual underneath. Unable to believe what he’s seeing, he calls an emergency meeting of his best friends in order to relate what he’s discovered, as well as what happened immediately after.

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2022/05/12/f-a-r-t-top-secret-no-kids-allowed-by-peter-bakalian/

Gillbert #4: The Island of the Orange Turtles by Art Baltazar

The latest installment of this cute, kid-friendly comics series picks up soon after the events of the last book. Which, wow, came out two years ago! Time certainly flies!

Interestingly, I feel that Art Baltazar’s style for this book has grown to take on a subtly more sophisticated cast in the intervening years. The art has definitely been my favorite part of the series so far, with its delightful brights and pastels, and adorable, whimsical line work. This issue’s art blends especially well with the story, as Gillbert and his best friend Anne Phibian fulfil a promise to their friend Sherbert to visit the Island of the Orange Turtles, where Sherbert’s family is from.

Our trio is unaware, however, that they’re being shadowed, by those with perhaps nefarious intent. Luckily, several of the adults in their lives, including Doctor Wayne, are alert to their pursuers, and have several tricks up their own sleeves in order to ensure that peace is maintained in their oceanic realm. Along the way, they’ll all learn a little more about orange turtles (as well as color theory,) in addition to reaffirming the power of both family and friendship.

This was another super cute installment of the series, with an easy-to-read story that was also much more accessible than the last issue’s, I felt. Ofc, my eldest child had a different opinion on that; alas that I couldn’t get his thoughts on this book as well. I’ll give this to him to read at his leisure, but we haven’t been able to get our schedules to match in order to buddy read this properly. He’s certainly busier as a fifth grader than he was when we read the previous issue together in the third grade!

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2022/05/11/gillbert-4-the-island-of-the-orange-turtles-by-art-baltazar/

Love, Comment, Subscribe (Ponto Beach Reunion #1) by Cathy Yardley

I wanted to make it a point to finally be able to cover Cathy Yardley’s adorable romance novel Love, Comment, Subscribe for Asian American Pacific Islander Month, so here we are!

The first book in the Ponto Beach Reunion series focuses on two former classmates, uptight Lily Wang and goofy Tobin Bui. Back in their Ponto Beach high school, they were both members of the self-described Nerd Herd, a sort of catch-all group of smart, driven and creative kids who happened to not be part of the popular crowd. Taiwanese American Lily badly wanted to get in with that latter social circle, but one humiliating lunchtime incident put paid to those ambitions. Ever since, she’s been striving to be the kind of girl who’d be accepted by the cool kids, eventually parlaying her perfectionism, business degree and love of beauty into a successful YouTube channel of mostly make-up tips, with the occasional fashion feature.

Half Vietnamese American, half white British Tobin, on the other hand, was the kind of goofball who was especially skilled at pushing Lily’s buttons. After high school, his interest in video games and sketch comedy led to his dropping out of college in order to focus full time on his growing YouTube channel. Featuring pranks, stunts and live game streams, he’s become phenomenally successful to everyone but his parents, who simply don’t understand the amount of effort and sheer work that goes into creating and maintaining his online business.

With their ten year high school reunion looming, both YouTubers find themselves at a critical career juncture. They each have millions of followers and views, but in the constantly churning world of online influencing, they need to figure out a way to take their brands to the next level or risk stagnation and worse. It’s Lily who originally has the idea for them to collaborate, and while Tobin gives her a hard time about it at first — mostly since they haven’t really spoken in almost ten years — he eventually comes around. The two need to work out how to integrate both their personas and their personalities, as well as their entirely different creative processes in order to build a successful collab. But could they be building more than just a professional partnership as they begin to discover entirely new and attractive sides to one another?

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2022/05/10/love-comment-subscribe-ponto-beach-reunion-1-by-cathy-yardley/

Butler to the World by Oliver Bullough

Butler to the World begins with an American academic paying a visit to Oliver Bullough. Leading up to the publication of Moneyland, and even more since, Bullough has been writing about financial corruption, and particularly the ways that advanced, rule-of-law democracies have been helping corrupt rich people around the world keep and protect their ill-gotten gains. Andrew, as Bullough says the academic was named, “wanted to hear about Chinese-owned assets in London and what the British government was doing to ensure their owners had earned their wealth legally.” (p. 1)

Butler to the World by Oliver Bullough

What followed was initially an exercise in frustration that turned into understanding followed by an insight on Bullough’s part, one that sets the tone for the book.

Andrew had come well prepared for the meeting and had a checklist to work through … Which law enforcement agency was doing the most to tackle the threat of Chinese money laundering? Who was the best person to talk to at that agency? Which prosecutors had brought the best cases? … Which politicians were most alert to the question, and how did they organise themselves?
Because of the shared language, Americans and Brits often think their countries are more similar than they actually are, which is something I am as guilty of as anyone. When I do research in the United States, I am consistently amazed by the willingness of officials to sit down with me and talk through their work. I call them without an introduction, and yet time and again they trust me to keep specific details of our discussions off the record. Court documents are easy to obtain, and prosecutors willing to talk about them. Politicians meanwhile seem to have a genuine belief in the importance of communicating their work to a wider public, which means they’re happy to talk to writers like me. …
Andrew, however, was discovering that the pleasant surprise sadly does not work in the opposite direction. I think he had been hoping that I would share a few contacts … It’s possible that he was concerned I would refuse to open my address book to him, but it seemed not to have occurred to him that I would have no address book to open; that essentially the people he was looking for would not exist.
There was no concerted law enforcement effort against Chinese money laundering, I told him, so there was no investigator who could talk to him about it. There have been essentially no prosecutions so none for him to look into, and there is almost no research into where the money has been going, how it’s been getting there, or indeed how much of it there is.
He kept coming at the questions from different angles, almost as if he thought that he just needed to find the right password to unlock the door hiding Britain’s enforcement mechanism. Where was the equivalent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s International Corruption Squad … What about Homeland Security Investigations; did Britain have something like them? … Which parliamentary commissions were probing this? Surely, someone was? As he talked, I began to see the situation through his eyes, which gave me a perspective I’d never had before.
The problem was that he could keep trying different passwords until the rocks rotted away, but it wouldn’t help: there was no cave of treasures for him to open. … Andrew had come to London to discover how Britain was fighting illicit finance, but he was discovering that this was not happening at all. Quite the reverse, in fact. (pp. 1–3)

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Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2022/05/08/butler-to-the-world-by-oliver-bullough/