Review: The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

9781781090480I must admit to slight reservations before reading this book. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena was one of my favourite books of 2013, narrowly missing out on being my book of the year (I had to do a re-read of my top two to split them). What had me hesitant was that his follow up book was short stories. I am not completely adverse to short stories but they are not my favourite form of writing. I can also be quite cynical and I was a bit suspicious about following up a spectacular debut novel with a collection of short stories. Boy, was I wrong!!!!

Anthony Marra has written a worthy follow up to A Constellation of Vital Phenomena that will once again make you laugh, make you learn and break your heart. Through interconnected stories Marra takes us from Leningrad in 1937 through to St Petersburg in the modern day exploring life in the Soviet Union and modern day Russia. Full of dark humour Marra explores life under a totalitarian regime and the impact as that regime slowly disappears. He shows how people etch out their part in it and learn to survive, or not. At it’s heart it is a story about family and how no matter how hard others try and erase it, it is always there, enduring.

Each story told is self-contained and is writing of the highest order. There is no way to pick a favourite story, they all stand out. We begin with a Soviet censor in 1937 whose job it is to erase the pictures of those who have been denounced by Stalin’s purges. We then follow the granddaughter of a famous ballet dancer, who was denounced, erased by the censor and sent to an Arctic mining town. As the Soviet Union collapses, and capitalism comes to the new Russia, the ballet dancer’s granddaughter is given the opportunity to escape the exiled existence her family has been sentenced to, but at a cost. We meet a Russian soldier conscripted to Chechnya and later taken prisoner. We meet an art museum curator in Grozny trying to rebuild after two wars. And we meet a father and son in St Petersburg, each of whom are looking for answers for questions they can’t or won’t ask. Anthony Marra ties all these lives together in a beautiful and poignant way with writing that grabs you from the opening page all the way through to the ending, breaking your heart numerous times along the way.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena announced Anthony Marra as an exceptional talent to watch. His new book book confirms it. This is a writer you are not only going to hear a lot about right now but for many, many years to come.

Buy the book here…

Review – All That Is Solid Melts Into Air by Darragh McKeon

9780241003312One of my favourite books of 2013 was A Constellation Of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra so when he reviewed this book in the New York Times I took notice.

Set in Russia in 1986 the book follows the events surrounding the nuclear reactor meltdown in Chernobyl. The story doesn’t deal with the accident directly but instead on what it means for four characters who are caught up in the inescapable events in different ways.

We follow a gifted surgeon, Grigory, who is sent to the site of the accident to help coordinate efforts and his ex-wife, Maria, who is trying to survive the breakdown of their marriage. We also follow two young boys. Yevgeni, Maria’s nephew, is a 9-year-old piano prodigy who is trying to come to terms with his gifts amongst a miserable existence in a Moscow slum. And Artyom who lives on a farm inside the Chernobyl hotzone. Whose whole life is literally evaporated piece by piece.

Central to the novel though is the end of the Soviet Union. The Chernobyl Meltdown is the tipping point for the end of the empire. No safety or evacuation plans were in place. Nor was there adequate medical aid on hand as to prepare for an accident was to admit weakness in the Soviet regime. The accident and the Soviet Union’s response was the catalyst for the people of the Soviet Union to stop believing in the regime. Three years later the Berlin Wall came down. Two years after that the Soviet Union was no more.

Through his characters Darragh McKeon explores the many impacts this has on individual lives. The humanity that some try to cling to and the utter disregard the Soviet regime has for human life. What makes this novel even more relevant and poignant today is the fact that Chernobyl is situated in Ukraine (there is even references to a Korean Commercial Airline that Russia shot down three years before). A moving novel that gives a unique insight into a catastrophic event that still reverberates in the world today.

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One of the most fascinating and brutal social experiments in human history

9780141021874

Review – Iron Curtain by Anne Applebaum

I am a big reader on The Second World War but my reading has never taken me past 1945. Earlier this year I finally read Anna Funder’s Stasiland and was fascinated by what life was like in East Germany so when I saw this book I jumped at the opportunity to read about Eastern Europe in the direct aftermath of World War Two.

Most Cold War histories contend that the Iron Curtain was a reaction to the Marshall Plan of 1947 however Applebaum shows that Soviet plans for an Eastern Bloc were instigated the moment they swept through Eastern Europe in 1944, before the Second Wold War had ended.

Iron Curtain focuses on three Eastern European countries; East Germany, Poland and Hungary. It details their transition from the end of the war to becoming part of the so-called Soviet Bloc. Anne Applebaum has chosen these countries as they each had different experiences and roles in the Second World War which influenced their transition to Communism and in particular Stalinsim.

The transition to Soviet Communism was swift and total. Applebaum details how the Soviet Union literally took over and dominated absolutely every part of society from youth groups to the media, political parties to schools and universities and even art and architecture. The Soviets were systematic and relentless. They initially thought they could win power via elections but when their propaganda and rhetoric failed to capture a majority of votes they turned to vote rigging and the literal crushing of any opposition.

It is hard to believe, almost 70 years later, how the people of Eastern Europe in some cases supported, in others tolerated, the Stalinization of their countries. But Applebaum also explains in depth people’s different reactions to this process. There was much misplaced optimism and hope that a better, utopian Europe could be built from the rubble and ashes of the Second World War. In some cases there was a strident need and desire to position themselves as far from the Nazis as possible. In other cases there was simply exhaustion from being at war for 6 years. Capitalism was also seen as having given rise to Nazism so an alternative was sort. And though opposition was quickly stamped out, people found ways to protest which included wearing particular shirts and ties and even colourful, striped socks.

However following Stalin’s death in 1953 a spell seemed to be lifted and Eastern European countries began to try and exert some autonomy over themselves and to develop their own form of communism. Again this varied from country to country and culminated in the uprising in Hungary which was brutally crushed. Despite appearances that the citizenry of Eastern Europe had fallen into lockstep with Soviet communism and the assumption that the totalitarian regimes had stamped out all opposing views these uprisings showed that the human spirit and its desire for freedom and individual identity can never be completely crushed. Unfortunately The West stood idly by and it would be more than 40 years before another mass movement of resistance to Societ control bubbled to the surface.

This is a highly readable history of a time that has been mythologized by both sides of the Cold War. Applebaum sets the record straight as well as explores one of the most fascinating and brutal social experiments in human history.

Buy the book here…