Saturday, April 26, 2014

LOOKING FORWARD by Gillian Tindall (fic)

Gillian Tindall has written a large number of books.  Looking Forward was written back in the early 80s and was lent to me by a friend. Because she is a popular British author, the book is still available.

As I read, I realized this story would be perfect for Masterpiece. It possesses all of the elements that American viewers like about British film series, and it has enough of them to fill several seasons.

Looking Forward opens in the early 20th century and follows the fortunes of a young woman from her early years to her death in the latter years of the century. Mary Howard studied medicine when it was not a common career choice for young women who were supposed to look to marriage as one's career. Mary worked in the poor East End neighborhoods of London, and eventually became a well-known pioneer for birth control.  In contrast to Mary is her cousin Dodie born and raised in colonial India.  After World War I Dodie falls into the fast life of a twenties flapper. As these two women grow and age, the reader follows their fortunes, loves, travels and mistakes.

Tindall writes well. Her story moves at a stately pace, but has enough of a plot that the reader does not become bored. If you enjoy British period drama, you may enjoy this novel.

Friday, April 25, 2014

FORMER PEOPLE by Douglas Smith (non-fic)

The subtitle of this book is The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy.  Douglas Smith has written a definitive and well-researched book about the decline of the Russian aristocracy.  He is a well qualified historian having worked and lived in the Soviet Union for many years. 

At the turn of the 19th century Russian had a long established class of nobles, much like those who lost their lives and fortunes in the earlier French Revolution.  And, for many of these nobles well versed in history, the Russian Revolution came as no surprise.  Nicholas II was a weak ruler with poor and greedy advisers.  But this book is not about Nicholas and his sad end, it is about the noble families who were landowners, government officials, military elite and dilettantes. They were a diverse group and many, in one of history's tragic ironies, even supported the overturning of the old order.   The story we follow is mainly about the fortunes of two great Russian families, the Sheremetevs and the Golitsyns whose members chose to stay in Russian rather than flee.  What became of them and their progeny is a somber yet fascinating tale. 

The majority of the nobility had left Russia by 1921. According to one source, more than 12 percent of the prerevolutionary nobility, about ten thousand families or some fifty thousand individuals, was still in Russia. The revolution and civil war had torn the nobility in two...A chasm began to open between the nobles who had stayed and those who had departed that grew wider in the coming decades, and left family members strangers to one another.

There was a short interlude after the Great War when members of these noble families were able to find work in the new Russia.  They had the education and skills that the peasants and workers did not possess.  However Lenin and the Bolsheviks feared their presence and what they represented even as they depended on them for their skills.  When the ruthless Stalin came into power and the Communists gained control of the government, they were determined to wipe out every member of the old ruling class.

The fortunes of the Sheremetevs and the Golitsyns quickly descended into nightmare by the mid-twenties.  Their great estates had been either destroyed or taken over by local governments, plundered or left to fall into ruin.  The peasants turned on them, and many members of the family were murdered or sent off to hard labor in Siberia.  Those who survived adjusted as best they could, living in poverty, growing their own food, some using a skill such as music to entertain those who used to serve them, and some serving as curators of the estate museums they spent their childhood living in.  By the end of World War II, 95% of Russia's country estates had disappeared. They moved from town to town keeping one step ahead of their persecutors.  Sometimes they were helped by sympathetic peasants, sometimes they were betrayed and were carted off in trains to work on government rail lines, in mines or building roads.  What they were able to save from their former lives was quickly sold sometimes for mere pennies to unscrupulous black marketeers.  Yet, babies were born, old people died, and a few descendants of the Sheremetevs and Golitsyns managed to survive, hiding the pride they still felt in their aristocratic ancestry. As poor as they were, they were noble in spirit to the end.

I highly recommend this readable book to any who love history and wish to learn more about the end of the Russian empire and the mighty who had fallen but whose spirit was not defeated.

Saturday, April 12, 2014


This is Anthony Marra's first novel, and it is superb!  Marra is a young professor teaching at Stanford University, and he has chosen a volatile area of the world to write about, one we in the west know little of except for its violence and being the spawning place of terrorists and crime.  The setting of his novel is Chechnya in the North Caucasus.   The novel introduces us to realistic characters who remind us that in the middle of whatever nightmare they are caught in, they have the need for love and friendship in the face of the overlying anxiety they live with in their daily lives. This helps us to understand them and identify with their universal needs.

The novel takes place between 1994 and 2004, a time that encompasses the two recent Chechen wars, and its policing by Russia.  One of the characters, Khassan has been working for most of his life on a 6 volume history of the region, and through him, the reader learns a bit of Chechen history. After the 1917 Russian revolution, Chechnya was an autonomous republic and part of the USSR.  Then after World War II, Stalin forcibly shipped off most of its Muslim population to Kazakhstan because some of the inhabitants of this rural region preferred to be conquered by the Germans than live under the reign of Bolsheviks. They were eventually allowed to return to their homeland.

The novel opens in a rural village where we meet a group of three friends who had grown up together.  One of the men, Ramzen, betrays his innocent friends to the Russians who are stamping out all resistance to their regime and looking for Muslim Jihadi sympathisers.  The story we follow is that of Akmed a gifted artist who is also an incompetent doctor.  After Ramzen betrays his friend Dokka who is taken away by the secret police, Akmed helps Dokka's eight-year-old daughter escape. He takes her to Hospital #6 where we meet the other main character in the novel, Sonja.

The woman whose story intersects with that of Akmed is Sonja Rabina, a Russian whose family had relocated to the area in the 50s when the native Chechens were move out.  Sonja is a physician who was living and working in London.  She returned to Chechnya between the wars to search for her sister, Natasha, who had disappeared after she had been kidnapped and forced into a life of prostitution. What Sonja returned to was a destroyed city with bombed out apartment buildings, including the one that had been lived in by her family.  Eventually she is reunited with Natasha between the wars.  Their relationship is an interesting one.  When Natasha leaves for a second and final time, Sonja never gives up hope that she will find her sister again.

By this time Sonja is the only doctor left in what had once been a thriving hospital in Volchansk. Akmed arrives on the scene with Havaa, the little girl and throws himself on the mercy of Sonja to collude in hiding the child.  At the same time, Sonja takes on Akmed as she is in dire need of help with the unending stream of patients who come for help, most needing surgery and amputations.  Their relationship allows a bit of levity into what is is a thoroughly depressing situation.

While the subject is a heavy one, Marra skillfully keeps the story moving between darkness and light as he shifts back in time to fill in back stories in the 10 year span which is the largest section of the book.  The reader truly believes in and cares for these characters.  Especially touching is the relationship that develops among Sonja, Akmed and Havaa.  This section of the story takes place over only five days in 2004.  By the end of the novel, all the characters are connected in one way or another. 

The title of the novel comes from a Russian medical textbook that Natasha finds and becomes fascinated with.  The text defines life as a constellation of vital phenomena--organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction,adaptation.  All this is contained in the wonderful and amazing story Marra relates to us.  I highly recommend this book, though I caution that it deals with sad times in an area of the world that is in constant turmoil.  It would be a good choice for a reading group as there is much to ponder on in these pages.