osprey_archer: (books)
Although I enjoyed Nora Seligman Favorov’s translation of Sofia Khvoshchinskaya’s City Folk and Country Folk, my strongest reaction to it was the desire to read something by Sofia’s sister Nadezhda, the more famous of the two literary sisters (yes, Favorov does draw the inevitable Bronte comparison). City Folk and Country Folk has some excellent moments, but it doesn’t really come together as a story; it ends abruptly with all the ends left flapping. I can see why it’s been largely forgotten.

But for all that, I enjoyed reading it. The plotting might leave something to be desired but the characterization is quite good. I particularly enjoyed Ovcharov, the pseudo-liberal semi-intellectual who practically invented mansplaining; he’s such a well-observed example of the type.

He grows infatuated with young Olenka, but he is so convinced of his own intellectual and monetary superiority that he can’t even imagine that’s what he’s feeling, and assumes that of course it must be Olenka who is in love with him. How could she help it, a country girl like that, meeting a truly sophisticated man of the world for the first time! He is filled with sentimental pity for her predicament and decides it is positively his duty to flirt with her, and thereby open new vistas of worldly experience to her.

In fact, Olenka finds him terrifically boring and sets him bodily on the other side of the carriage when he attempts to make advances. This is always enjoyable.

And in fact I quite enjoyed Olenka as a whole. Unlike many nineteenth century heroines, she has no pretensions to being a paragon of anything. She’s pretty enough for all ordinary purposes, not particularly patient when she feels that people are being silly (and she often feels people are being silly), not particularly fond of reading, capable of brewing an excellent kvass - young, exuberant, occasionally thoughtless, sometimes judgmental, truly fond of her mother beneath her impatience with her mother’s dithering. She felt very real and seventeen.
osprey_archer: (books)
Catherine Merridale's Lenin on the Train is an interesting if poorly-organized book about...well, very loosely about Lenin's train trip through Germany to Sweden and thence to Petrograd and History. But it's also about the political wrangling in Petrograd at the time, and the internal party politics of the Bolsheviks, and the plots of various foreign governments to exert some control on Russia's political future (Lenin was far from the only radical Russian smuggled back into the country), and a chapter-long digression about whether or not Lenin was in the pay of the Germans.

Except for the last, this is all interesting. I actually groaned when I read that the tsarist government put Kamenev on trial in 1915 and he denied that he was a member of the Bolsheviks; no doubt this was one of the reasons why Stalin decided to make Kamenev one of the victims of his first show trial years later. He knew from past experience that Kamenev would perjure himself if he thought it would save his skin.

But, interesting though it is, it never really comes together as a book. The pacing is odd: it takes a few chapters before we segue from politics on the ground in Petrograd to Lenin in Switzerland, and then we follow Lenin on the train through Germany and Sweden, into Petrograd, where the party faithful carry him on their shoulders, and Lenin takes the opportunity to climb on the turret of an armored car and harangue everyone in hearing range. Observers comment, somewhat disdainfully, that the Bolsheviks always put on a good show.

And then, though the train part is over, the book goes on for a while - Lenin takes over Pravda, Lenin lectures the party faithful who think he's woefully out of touch, Lenin is run out of town under cloud of accusations that he's taken German money - and then the book stops. There's a chapter about the German money accusations and then bam, the end.

The book gnaws around this last issue at some length, which is frustrating because the answer is clearly yes - the Germans gave him a special train to transport him across Germany! This fact is not in dispute - but the implication, that this made him a German puppet, is just as clearly wrong. Lenin never felt he owed anyone anything, least of all Germany; he used their offer to his own ends, and I suspect the Germans were sorry they made it when it became clear that he wasn't just going to impede the war effort, but had actually taken over Russia and was encouraging radical socialists within Germany.

An interesting book, but flawed.
osprey_archer: (books)
I loved Helen Rappaport’s Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd, Russia, 1917 - A World on the Edge, which retells the story of Russia’s two 1917 revolutions (the first overthrowing the tsar in the spring; the second establishing the Bolsheviks in the fall) through the reports of on-scene Western observers. It’s told in strictly chronological order, the book taking the reader through the year as people living through it experienced (except of course we don’t have to spend hours upon hours standing in frigid bread lines), which gives it all a breathless on-the-ground feeling of immediacy. Even though I already knew how it would end - Bolsheviks take over, the end - I found myself on tenterhooks, wondering if Kerensky would get it together and assassinate Lenin. (No.)

As frustrating as Kerensky is, though, I do also feel for him. He’s trying to establish a republic in Russia; of course he doesn’t want to kick off this new democratic future by executing his political opponents, even if those opponents are Trotsky and Lenin who are dashing about exhorting the populace to execute everyone under the sun.

Or at least Trotsky was. Lenin spent a lot of the year hiding safely out of the country, which does not give me much respect for him. Stand in some bread lines, Lenin!

Anyway, as interesting as all the political stuff is, the book is most interesting in all the fascinating detail it offers on what it was like to live in a city caught in the swirling vortex of revolution: the cold, the hunger, people walking with their children on quiet streets just blocks away from intense street-fighting, dead policemen left on the frozen Neva, the tattered remains of the American colony gathering together for one last Christmas celebration at an American-run bank that would be raided by the Red Guard only a few days later.

(There were - I had not realized this - large colonies of both Americans and British in Petrograd at the time of the Revolution. By the end of 1917 most of them were trying to get out, but I worry about the ones, English nannies who had been employed by the Russian nobility for instance, who had no money or connections or escape route. There’s no way to know if they got out in the end. I hope they did.)

The one criticism I have of the book is that things get a bit rushed at the end. This is understandable, as buckets of ink have already been spilled about the October Revolution (it being, after all, the one that stuck), but a little more detail would have made for a less abrupt ending.
osprey_archer: (books)
It took me a long time to get through 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution, because like any story collection the quality is varied, and I found the poems in particular a slog. I’m not sure if it’s that poems in translation almost invariably lose something - you would need, I think, a great artist to translate a poem into another language without losing something; and how many great artists want to devote themselves to translating someone else’s work?

Or if it’s because the Kindle is simply a very bad medium for reading poetry, because it doesn’t properly preserve the line breaks. (I read this book as file from Netgalley, so Kindle was my only option.) Either way, I bogged down a long time on poor Alexander Blok and his ilk.

The stories are a mixed bag too, but some of them are gems. Two in particular stick in my mind: Teffi’s “The Guillotine,” a satirical story about a group of people who head to their morning guillotine appointment as if they were going to an open-air lecture (complete with complaints about the crowd: why’s everyone shoving so much? So rude!).

And then there’s Yefim Zozulya’s “The Dictator: The Story of Ak and Humanity,” in which the Council of Public Welfare running the city of Ak issues a decree that they have decided to liquidate all “superfluous persons.” “Those who lack the courage to terminate their existence, if ordered to do so by the COUNCIL OF PUBLIC WELFARE, will be aided by the COUNCIL. The sentences will be carried out by the friends and neighbours of the condemned, or by a special military detachment,” the poster announces ominously.

It’s black, black, black humor, a grimly hilarious commentary on human nature. Worth getting your hands on the collection to read this story alone.

An extra note of interest: “The Story of Ak and Humanity” is translated by Alexander Berkman, Emma Goldman’s boyfriend who was deported to the Soviet Union with her during the Red Scare post-World War I. So the story is not only written by someone who witnessed the Russian Revolution, but translated by a man who saw it too, and grew so disillusioned that he wrote The Bolshevik Myth to outline the flaws of the Revolution.

And now I want to read that too. Goddammit, there are just too many books in this world and not enough time to read them all.
osprey_archer: (books)
For [livejournal.com profile] evelyn_b: What are the best and worst books you read in 2015?

The best book was Aleksander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, which I would urge everyone to read - at least the first volume; the three volumes together are about three thousand pages long, and in some ways volumes two and three are simply elaborations on the first volume, although they’re still worth reading if you have the time.

But he’s tremendously insightful, both about the particular problems with the Soviet regime and about the wider nature of good and evil. In Bolshevik ideology (and this part of their ideology, they realized quite thoroughly), individuals are valuable only insofar as they further the cause of the proletariat. (In a lot of my Soviet history classes, I and many of my fellow students had a hard time understanding that the peasants don’t count - aren’t they poor, too? But they really don’t. The proletariat is the industrial proletariat and the industrial proletariat alone.)

In this schema, people who oppose the revolution are of course worthless, but not only active opposition but simply being inexpedient to the proletariat is, on its own, cause for liquidation. Hence the justification for working people to death in the gulags. At least this way the state can wring a little value out of them.

As for the nature of good and evil - well, let me leave you with this Solzhenitsyn quote:

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

***

For the worst books, let’s see. I don’t think I read anything rage-inducingly terrible this year. I was very disappointed with the new American Girl series, about the 1950s girl Maryellen, because they seemed so shoddy and ill-constructed - not even any illustrations! In an American Girl series! The outrage! But they were really too flat and uninteresting to provoke long-lasting rage.

Oh, and there was Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, which I might have appreciated more on its rather slender merits if my friends hadn’t recced it to the high heavens beforehand. As it was, Richard’s ability to win through obstacles by sheer force of his protagonisthood made me cranky - I think the most aggravating moment was when, despite his total lack of hunting experience, Richard managed to slay a beast that had just killed a legendary hunters.

I was also not impressed by the fact that Richard spent the whole book careening from terror to terror, desperate to get home… Only to get home and then decide that actually life was much more interesting in the underworld of magical homeless people, and then toss his cozy life aside. If Gaiman wanted me to buy this ending, he needed to show Richard becoming fond of his unpleasant magical underworld more than three pages before the end of the book.

Gaiman couples his aesthetic of gritty darkness with a glib understanding of evil. Richard is a modern middle-class Londoner; he has never been betrayed before, certainly not in a life or death situation (because he’s never been in a life-or-death situation before), and yet when it happens, he takes it almost casually and forgives it at once. He is mildly perturbed to be find himself somewhere where people die casually, but it doesn’t bother him all that much.

Gaiman’s “darkness” is skin deep. There’s no sense that suffering has any weight or leaves any lasting marks and I find that incredibly grating.
osprey_archer: (books)
What I've Just Finished Reading

Or I suppose I should call this "What I've Read Over the Last Three Weeks," because it's been a while since I posted it.

I read Jane Mayer's The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals, which is a good book to read if you want to be reduced to seething rage about the level of mendacity and fear that turned torture (sorry, "enhanced interrogation") into official American policy. The book presents a fairly compelling argument that in the aftermath of September 11th, Bush and Cheney both took it as an article of faith that the war on terror would demand the use of torture, and therefore reached out for any advice that bolstered this belief with both hands. Any contrary advice, they ignored, even when it came from lifelong Republicans who were military lawyers or experienced FBI interrogators and therefore had no political reason to oppose Bush's policies and also had the legal knowledge and on-the-ground experience to realize that torture was illegal and wrong and also didn't work, if by "work" you mean produce useful intelligence rather than reduce the victims to gibbering wrecks, which it tends to do pretty well.

This would be bad enough if all the people arrested were genuine terrorists, but in the early months especially hundreds of innocent people were arrested - this is according to internal investigations within the military, by guys who figured that this was a problem someone might actually want to fix. HA. Release suspected terrorists? Even though there was absolutely no evidence that this suspicion had any basis in fact? That would mean admitting to making a mistake! Much better to keep them there as along as possible.

It's worth reading, but it's probably not good for your blood pressure.

Otherwise, I read Mary Stewart's The Stormy Petrel, which is very similar to her Rose Cottage: both are atmospheric books with beautiful descriptions of small communities in beautiful countryside with thriller/mystery elements that never gather enough momentum to become properly thrilling or mysterious. They heat up a certain amount, but the plot never quite boils, if you will. But they're both pleasant comfort reading.

I also read Dick Francis's To the Hilt, which I enjoyed but not so much that I think I'll be seeking out his other books.

And finally, Maureen Johnson's Shadow Cabinet. I was under the impression that this was the final book in the Shades of London trilogy, rather than the third book in an ongoing series, which as you can imagine is a misunderstanding that made for an unnecessarily frustrating reading experience. I suspect that made my judgment of the book unnecessarily harsh, but I also think that the series as a whole is just moving in a direction that is less interesting to me than the place where it started. I really liked the combination of boarding school story and ghost mystery in the first book, but the series has moved entirely away from the boarding school plotline and I think I was, unfortunately, actually more interested in that than the ghosts.

I'll probably check out the next book when it comes out, though, because this book did introduce a quite interesting pair of villains.

What I'm Reading Now

Varlam Shalamov's Kolyma Tales, which I'm actually finding less soul-destroying than The Gulag Archipelago, if only because they're short stories and therefore offer a natural breaking point to walk away from the book every few pages. I would definitely recommend them if you want to know more about the gulag but don't feel like committing to 1,500+ pages of Solzhenitsyn. There's definitely a spiritual affinity between the two works, even though Shalamov's interpretation tends to be more hopeless than Solzhenitsyn's. Or hopeless isn't the right word, necessarily; his characters are often too exhausted even to feel despair.

I've also, on the much brighter side, been reading Malcolm at Midnight, the story of a classroom pet rat who has taken to sneaking around the school. I've started volunteering at the library once a week to process and mend books, and I saw this book's sequel and was charmed by the footnotes (I am such a sucker for novels with footnotes), so I picked up the first one. It's cute.

What I Plan to Read Next

Marie Brennan's The Voyage of the Basilisk. Yay dragons!
osprey_archer: (books)
What I've Just Finished Reading

Susan Elia MacNeal's Princess Elizabeth's Spy, which is billed as "A Maggie Hope Mystery" but is actually much more of a thriller and therefore not exactly to my taste. I suspect that mysteries and thrillers probably have about the same number of unlikely genre conventions, but for whatever reason I can skate happily through most mystery conventions, while most thriller conventions tend to torpedo my suspension of disbelief. (And the casualness of the body count in thrillers often bothers me.)

Princess Elizabeth's Spy has the added issue that the main plot focuses around the heroine's mission to protect Princess Elizabeth from evil Nazi schemes. Will Maggie save the princess from the Nazis???? Well, said princess grew up to become the queen of England, so...yes. Yes, I rather think Maggie will. It rather drains the story of tension.

I also finished Robert Conquest's The Great Terror. A quote that stuck out to me, in the chapter about Westerner's attitudes toward the Terror while it was happening: "not even high intelligence and a sensitive spirit are of any help once the facts of the situation are deduced from a political theory, rather than vice versa."

And for political theory perhaps substitute any overarching worldview, any strong inclination to say "Socialists/Christians/social justice bloggers should be better than that," and to believe that because they should be better, they are better than that, and therefore their cruelest acts must be somehow justified. Somehow. Because they have the correct beliefs, and surely the correct beliefs ought to lead to the correct actions.

What I'm Reading Now

Jane Mayer's The Dark Side, which I may not be able to get through, because reading about a political train wreck that occurred during my lifetime and warped the government, possibly permanently, is a bit like standing still to be repeatedly poked in the eye with a sharp stick. I'm sure it's good for me, but goddamn, it's not very pleasant.

What I Plan to Read Next

Maybe I should actually read Varlam Shalamov's Kolyma Tales? They've been waiting patiently for months now.
osprey_archer: (books)
What I've Just Finished Reading

Who has two thumbs and has finished reading The Gulag Archipelago? That's right, me! I think that most of the meat of the trilogy is contained within the first volume - not that the second and third books aren't worth reading, because they are, but they are in a sense supplemental material to Solzhenitsyn's thesis, which he expounds in volume one, "that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either -- but right through every human heart -- and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains ... an unuprooted small corner of evil."

And therefore any and all attempts to clean or perfect humanity by killing the portion of it that you deem evil are not only evil in themselves, but useless at the outset. If you want to kill the evil portion of humanity, then you'd have to kill all humans.

There is this one quote, though, from the third volume, which I've been turning over like a stone in my hand - about forgiveness. It's a long one, so behind the cut: )

I also read Oliver Sacks The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, which I really enjoyed. It's a series of case studies about unusual neurological disorders that have come through Sacks' office over the years, some of which are a bit nightmarish (I suspect which cases one finds most upsetting will change from person to person; the one about the woman who lost her proprioception, her sense of her own body - who now feels literally disembodied, like a ghost - really got to me), but all of which are thought-provoking. Some of his terminology is a bit dated - the book was published in 1984; I don't believe anyone uses "moron" as a diagnostic term anymore - but Sacks is nonetheless a thoughtful, compassionate writer.

I also finished Annie Jacobsen's Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program that Brought Nazi Scientists to America, which is a book that is interesting more for its subject matter than for its treatment of it. Jacobsen lays out a convincing case that the US Department of Defense willfully turned a blind eye to the Nazi pasts of many German scientists it brought to the US - up to and including scientists who committed human experimentation at concentration camps - but somehow all the details slipped through my mind like water through a sieve. The subject is clearly worth exploring, but I can't quite recommend this particular book.

In less heavy (both in size and in subject matter) reading material, I read the latest Penderwick book, The Penderwicks in Spring, which I enjoyed but not as much as the earlier books in the series.

What I'm Reading Now

I've returned to Sarah Rees Brennan's Unmade. I am determined to finish this book, but my progress is dragging because of two seemingly contradictory reasons. First, because I've heard that a character (I don't know which character, but apparently someone everyone likes, because all the reviews I've seen were annoyed) is going to die; and secondly, because the supposedly wicked murderous sorcerer now in charge of Sorry-in-the-Vale has failed to kill any of the characters we like, which makes it hard to take his wicked murderousness seriously.

Possibly when I get to the death, that will make him seem like a slightly more formidable antagonist, but so many characters have escaped certain death already, I suspect that it's going to make the authorial intervention when someone finally bites the dust seem very obvious. You've taken care of everyone else so far, so why didn't so-and-so deserve your protection too, Brennan?

What I Plan to Read Next

Oliver Sacks' Musicophilia.
osprey_archer: (books)
What I've Just Finished Reading

Lev Tolstoi was right when he dreamed of being put in prison. At a certain moment that giant began to dry up. He actually needed prison as a drought needs a shower of rain!

All the writers who wrote about prison but who did not themselves serve time there considered it their duty to express sympathy for prisoners and to curse prison. I...have served enough time there. I nourished my soul there, and I say without hesitation:

"Bless you, prison for having been in my life!"

(And from beyond the grave come replies: It is all very well for you to say that - when you came out of it alive!)


This quote is from the second volume of The Gulag Archipelago, and illustrates, I think, one of the animating tensions of the books. Solzhenitsyn sees adversity as a great testing ground for morality, something that not only proves but can also strengthen character (although it can also ruin character - although not, in Solzhenitsyn's view, as badly as unconstrained power does), but he's also keenly aware that deadly adversity is, well, deadly, that many people don't come out of it alive, and for those who died of it - even if they didn't die badly; if they died without betraying their own beliefs, or anyone else - it is an unalloyed evil.

What I'm Reading Now

I'm on the third volume of The Gulag Archipelago. Right now I'm reading the bit about prison escapes, which is much easier going than the hopelessness of the second volume. Admittedly, the prison escapes are mostly hopeless too, in the sense that the prisoners rarely stay free for long, but at least they haven't yet consigned themselves to a miserable death.

Also reading Annie Jacobs' Operation Paperclip, about the American program to bring German scientists to the US after World War II. Right now Operation Paperclip and the War Crime Commission are dueling over who's going to get a certain aviation engineer who conducted human experiments on prisoners on Dachau. Spoiler alert: Operation Paperclip is going to win.

It's an excellent book, and I can even sort of if I squint a lot see where the Operation Paperclip people are coming from (I wouldn't want Stalin getting his hand on biological weapons experts either), but man, I feel like turning some of these people over for trial and hanging would have kept them out of Stalin's hands just as effectively.

I'm also reading Sarah Rees Brennan's Unmade. Brennan is trying to depict a town under the sway of evil rulers who have cowed most of the local populace into submission; juxtaposing her book with The Gulag Archipelago really highlights the flaws in her depiction. She tells us the townsfolk are scared, but I'm not really feeling it. So far, all of Kami's friends have stayed staunch, and none of the people cooperating with the sorcerers seem to be doing so out of crushing terror instead of either lust for power or weak wills.

What I Plan to Read Next

I have a book called The Great Beanie Baby Bubble: Mass Delusion and the Dark Side of Cute on hold at the library. Because who doesn't want to read about the dark side of cute?

And hopefully it will be a bit of light reading after all these gulags and Nazis.
osprey_archer: (books)
What I’ve Just Finished Reading

Vintage Murder, one of Ngaio Marsh’s New Zealand-set murder mysteries. I realize she could probably only come up with so many excuses to send her Scotland Yard detective around the world to investigate murders in New Zealand, but I really think it’s too bad she didn’t set more of her mysteries in New Zealand, because they have a certain pop! that her English mysteries don’t have.

I think it’s partly lack of competition. English Golden Age mysteries are thick on the ground, but I can’t think of anyone else who wrote New Zealand Golden Age mysteries. (Admittedly, I haven’t made an exhaustive search. Or really much of a search at all. Maybe New Zealand has a secret groundswell of mystery novels of which I know nothing.)

Continuing the mystery theme, I also read the new Veronica Mars book, Mr. Kiss-and-Tell, which is about 1) investigating a rape, and 2) trying to vote the sleezy corrupt sheriff out of office. I am always a little leery of mystery novels that center around a rape, because there are so many ways that can go wrong; but I thought this one did all right. The damage is clearly fairly brutal, but none of the rapes are graphically described.

And the fight against corruption, as one would expect from Veronica Mars, is pretty excellent, although I wasn't sure about Spoilers )

If anyone else has read this book, I'd like to talk about some of the characterization choices for Veronica near the end; I think it is in character, but I didn't expect the book to go there, so I was rather surprised.

What I’m Reading Now

Volume 2 of The Gulag Archipelago. I've just gotten through the part about the Belomar canal, which chewed up tens of thousands of prisoners in its construction... and ended up being so shallow (because the construction was pushed through so fast) that barely any boats could actually use it. Tens of thousands of prisoners, dead for nothing.

I suppose it's not really that much worse than if they died for something - they're still dead either way, after all. But somehow it's especially depressing.

What I Plan to Read Next

Guess who FINALLY got Sarah Rees Brennan’s Unmade from the library! Yes, that’s right, ME.
osprey_archer: (books)
What I Just Finished Reading

Khrushchev's "secret speech" denouncing Stalin, which is one of those speeches that I've read about for years but never actually read. Sometimes in this situation, the real thing seems quite at odds with the things that I've read about it; but this was not one of those times. It really is pretty much a speech about how Stalin was treated as "a superman possessing supernatural characteristics akin to a god" (to quote the introductory paragraph), despite the fact that (1) this elevation is foreign to the spirit of Marxism-Leninism and (2) Stalin was actually a paranoid control freak who devastated the Soviet Union's military preparedness right before the Nazis attacked.

The one thing that did surprise me is the number of personal anecdotes about Stalin that Khrushchev scattered through the speech. One gets the impression that he spent the last five years or so of Stalin's life gritting his teeth about the fact that he had to work for this nincompoop, and is now finally - finally! - letting out some of that pent-up frustration.

I also finished reading volume 1 of The Gulag Archipelago, which is bristling, porcupine-like, with little slips of paper marking passages that I wanted to note down. To do what with? I don't know. I just felt they needed to be marked somehow.

Writing of a rumor that the Petrograd Cheka fed condemned prisoners to zoo animals during the Civil War years: "How else could they get food for the zoos in those famine years? Take it away from the working class? Those enemies were going to die anyway, so why couldn't their deaths support the zoo economy of the Republic and thereby assist our marsh into the future? Wasn't it expedient?

That is the precise line a Shakespearian evildoer could not cross. But the evildoer with ideology does cross it, and his eyes remain dry and clear."

(Ideology, for Solzhenitsyn, is "what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination.")

Or on the fatalism of prisoners: "Submissiveness to fate, the total abdication of your own will in the shaping of your life, the recognition that it was impossible to guess the best and the worst ahead of time but that it was easy to take a step you would reproach yourself for - all this freed the prisoner from any bondage, made him calmer, and even ennobled him."

On a rather different note, I also read Ruth Goodman's How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life, which is unique in that Goodman supplements her book research with her work as, essentially, a period reenactor. So she's actually lived a lot of the advice that sounds so odd to us, like keeping clean by wearing full-body linen underclothes and changing them rather than washing yourself (it works much better than most modern people expect, apparently).

For instance, the ambient temperature of the houses of even the wealthy was much cooler than in most houses today, which is something I think most people know - but knowing this fact doesn't mean that we've thought through all the implications, like the fact that wearing layers and layers of clothes actually makes sense in that environment, or that the (to our eyes) appalling fattiness of much of Victorian food is actually a way to cope with that.

Quite an interesting book! It's not often that a history book surprises me not merely with its information, but with its research method. Definitely worth a look if you're interested in that sort of thing.

What I'm Reading Now

The second book of The Gulag Archipelago.

What I Plan to Read Next

Probably the third book of The Gulag Archipelago. What? There are other books in the world, you say? LIES.

OH! But actually, I do have another book to read! The second Veronica Mars mystery (someone on my flist mentioned it; I can't remember who, but whoever you were, thank you!): Mr. Kiss and Tell. I intend to save it for my next day off to immerse myself in the glory of Veronica.
osprey_archer: (books)
What I've Just Finished Reading

Brian R. Little's Me, Myself, and Us: The Science of Personality and the Art of Well-being. I suspect this book is better if you go into it without a lot of background in personality studies (is that a phrase? whatever), because I had seen a lot of this material before. However, Little's presentation is fun and occasionally funny, so it was a pleasant review.

I also read Zilpha Keatley Snyder's The Velvet Room, which is delightful. The story takes place during the Great Depression - it actually reminded me irresistibly of Doris Gates' Blue Willow, which is also about the bookish, imaginative daughter of a family who lost their home and have been itinerant farm laborers ever since. (I also highly recommend Blue Willow.) It's a perfectly charming book (and the titular Velvet Room does not disappoint when our heroine comes across it); it goes off a bit at the end, but I feel that way about many of Snyder's books, and it doesn't detract from the enjoyability of the book as a whole.

What I'm Reading Now

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago (volume one), because I am a glutton for punishment, apparently. He's marvelously sarcastic, probably because if you can't mock, then you'll never stop crying about some of these things.

A couple of quotes: "These limiters were pursued for several years. In all branches of the economy they brandished their formulas and calculations and refused to understand that bridges and lathes could respond to the enthusiasm of the personnel."

It reminds me of what we were talking about last week, [livejournal.com profile] asakiyume, the Maoist farming manuals that recommended things like using glass for fertilizer - as if you could make things work the way you want them to just by wanting it enough. Wishful thinking elevated to philosophical system, and setting out tentacles from philosophy into agriculture, engineering, psychology, everything else on the way.

Or this one, about victim-blaming, Stalin-style: "when our soldiers were sentenced to only ten years for allowing themselves to be taken prisoner (action injurious to Soviet military might), this was humanitarian to the point of being illegal. According to the Stalinist code, they should all have been shot on their return home."

As if they got themselves taken prisoner on purpose, out of a vindictive desire to hurt the Soviet state. Because the world bends according to human will, right - so anyone who gets taken prisoner does so willfully, or at very least did not throw their whole will behind supporting the USSR, because that would presumably have shaped reality to give them a glorious death in battle.

Or, speaking of the section of the legal code referring to espionage: "This section was interpreted so broadly that if one were to count up all those sentenced under it one might conclude that during Stalin's time our people supported life not by agriculture or industry, but only by espionage on behalf of foreigners, and by living on subsidies from foreign intelligence services."

What I Plan to Read Next

Probably Solzhenitysn for the foreseeable future. I have a list of gulag memoirs I mean to get next time I go to the university library, but I'm going to try to pace myself on those.
osprey_archer: (books)
What I've Just Finished Reading

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which is excellent.

I also finished The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, which is interesting for the neuroplasticity stuff but does not, generally speaking, add up to more than the sum of its parts. I'm thinking that books actually about neuroplasticity would be a sounder bet for future reading.

What I'm Reading Now

I've started Brian R. Little's Me, Myself, and Us: The Science of Personality and the Art of Well-Being. Generally I love personality books (let me tell you about my feelings about the MBTI sometime), but I'm having some trouble getting into this one. I'll give it a couple more chapters, perhaps.

What I Plan to Read Next

I'm thinking about getting my hands on Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago, although I suspect that I will either end up utterly worn out by three volumes of gulag - or, alternatively, I will do nothing for the next week but read about gulags, the way that I spent an entire week engrossed in Simon Sebag Montefiore's Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar.

That was during finals week. The timing could have been better. No regrets, though.

I might also read Varlam Shalamov's Kolyma Tales, or at least a selection of them - there are apparently six volumes, and I don't think I can take six volumes of stories so grim that they make the convicts in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich look like boy scouts (at least according to the writer of the introduction of Ivan Denisovich, whom one can only presume yearned to be writing an introduction to Kolyma Tales instead).
osprey_archer: (Winter Soldier)
December 4: Bucky Barnes the Bolshevik. Tell me more. (for [livejournal.com profile] sineala)

MY TWO OBSESSIONS, LINKED TOGETHER IN ONE. YES.

My thinking is this: while Hydra might be happy to create a hollow human shell, the Bolsheviks would never go for it. You don’t brainwash someone to leave their brain empty; you brainwash them to fill their mind up with other (from the Bolshevik point of view, better) things.

And the Bolsheviks didn't merely want to remake government: they wanted to remake human nature, too, to create the New Soviet Man. (For all that the Bolsheviks talked about gender equality, at least in the early years, they tended to focus on men.)

The New Soviet Man would be a heroic creature, an entirely different breed from the pathetic specimens created by bourgeois society. He would look like a Socialist Realist statue come to life, strong, tall, physically courageous, bursting with energy. But he would be smart, too, well-educated about Marxist doctrine, always up for a rousing chat about Leninism.

Selflessly loyal to the party, naturally, in that particularly Bolshevik way: full of partiinost, which is "partyness," most literally, or "party-mindedness." A loyal party-minded Bolshevik is willing to sacrifice everything and everyone to the party, because the party is the vanguard of History, spearheading the charge toward a Communist heaven-on-earth. No sacrifice is too great: all suffering will be redeemed when this paradise arrives.

(Stalin liked to arrest Politburo members' wives or children or brothers to test their partiinost. A good Bolshevik bows his head and says "Let the Party's will be done." Partly out of ideological fervor, and partly because otherwise Stalin will just arrest the whole family, placing personal love above party loyalty being a clear sign of moral rot.)

And anyway, the New Soviet Man doesn't suffer much. He's a happy, optimistic fellow, full of good fellowship towards his partners in the fight against socialism, and just as full of ruthlessness toward enemies. His whole life is subordinated to the struggle for Communism, and with the glowing vision of a beautiful future forever before his eyes, who could help being happy?

The Bolsheviks believed they could create this paragon. They subscribed to the idea that humans are born tabula rasa. People are bad now because they've been raised in bourgeois society. Raise them in socialism, and how could they help but become better?

And then providence (or, as the Bolsheviks might prefer, History) plopped the perfect test case in their laps. He already looks like a Social Realist statue (barring the arm thing, but whatever, they'll build him a new one. Do we know for sure he lost it in the fall? Maybe he lost it later on, during a Soviet mission.). And he's sharp as a tack. And he doesn't have any nasty bourgeois memories to gum up his mind.

(And he came back to life after they thawed him out. Stalin will be more than interested in that! Stalin was always super interested in longevity research, and if Zola's supersoldier program was anything but a massive failure, Stalin absolutely would have signed himself up in the hopes of living FOREVER. He probably would have handed Zola an entire gulag full of test subjects if he got the chance. I need to consider the timeline for when Zola could have visited the Soviet Union...)

In short, this amnesiac supersoldier is the perfect raw material for the New Soviet Man.

Even more perfect than they realize, because Bucky already had most of the qualities they wanted: physical courage and good fellowship and ruthlessness toward enemies (think of the scene near the beginning of The First Avenger where he chucks the bully off Steve. This is not a man who has qualms about using his physical strength against people who he thinks deserve it), and of course loyalty.

Admittedly, his loyalty is personal loyalty to specific people, not partiinost (“I’m following the skinny kid from Brooklyn”: words to make a good Bolshevik gag.) But it's easy to mistake one for the other – especially when your experiment is riding on your ability to create partiinost. Probably even the Winter Soldier thought he was a beacon of partiinost.

And, of course, having taken so many pains to teach him Marxist-Leninism, they probably used the chair as little as possible. Why wipe that out? Especially as it became clearer that Zola's experiments were a dead failure, and the Winter Soldier was the only supersoldier the Soviet Union was going to get.

The Winter Soldier probably took the fall of the Soviet Union very hard. At least until Pierce burned the knowledge out of his head.

What use was a good Bolshevik to Pierce, after all? Pierce had to scorch the Soldier’s memories away with the chair – so he’s not the Soldier anymore, just the Asset.

But the Asset’s not nearly as useful without any memories. Sullen, silent, easily confused, unpredictably violent. It disappoints Pierce: he put so much trouble into getting his hands on the Soldier, only to have to wreck him like this. But what was he supposed to do? Send him on missions “for the good of the party”? Like he has time to waste mouthing that Bolshevik mumbo-jumbo.
osprey_archer: (books)
What I’ve Just Finished Reading

Marie Brennan’s The Tropic of Serpents, which did indeed pick up as soon as Isabella and company arrived in the aforementioned tropics and joined a hunter-gatherer society as part of their plan to get close to the dragons of the region. I haven’t read many books set among hunter-gatherers, so I enjoyed the novelty of it: I really, really enjoy Brennan’s world-building, because all her societies feel like places where people could actually live.

In fact, Brennan seems rather better at characterizing societies than characterizing individuals: aside from Isabella herself, none of the characters in these books are all that memorable. I think it’s the reason I found the beginnings of both A Natural History of Dragons and The Tropic of Serpents so slow: until Isabella has a new society to interact with, there’s not much to latch onto.

I also read Julia Strachey’s Cheerful Weather for the Wedding, which I bought at Persephone Books in London and hauled across the ocean… and didn’t like very much when I finally read it. It’s a little story about little, petty people: a girl who marries the wrong man because neither she nor the man she actually loves have the guts to admit that they love each other, and her relatives wander about being boring and bourgeois in the background.

It would be tragic, but I don’t think Dolly and Joseph would have been happy in the end anyway, given their lack of courage and integrity. Frankly, I suspect that the relatives are not half as bad as Dolly and Joseph believe: I think they’re projecting their own absolute dullness onto everyone around them.

What I’m Reading Now

Anya von Bremzen’s Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing, which has rather less food than I expected (although I defy anyone to read her description of pre-Revolutionary kulebiaka without salivating), but I don’t really mind.

Mostly it’s a memoir and a family history, sharing the way that the Soviet Union shaped von Bremzen and her mother (who is really the star of the book, so far). It’s excellently done, which means that sometimes I need to take a breather because it’s intense.

For instance, von Bremzen writes about the time that her mother, not long after World War II, wrote some musings about death in her diary. Unfortunately, she left the book out, and her mother read those musings, and lit into her: “We beat the Germans! Your father fought for your happiness! How dare you have such bad, silly thoughts!” And then ripped the diary to shreds.

Yes. Depression? Unhappiness? CRIMES AGAINST THE GLORIOUS SOCIALIST FUTURE.

What I Plan to Read Next

Still waiting for the library to get Barbara Hambly’s Crimson Angel. COME ON, LIBRARY, IT’S BEEN LIKE A MONTH.
osprey_archer: (window)
1. Castle season five. I was worried that the show would go downhill now that Castle and Beckett got together. But aside from a couple hiccups early in the season - which are not even Caskett related, but a result of the Castle writers’ unfortunate and apparently growing fondness for conspiracy plots - it remains as delightful as ever. The sci fi convention episode, you guys! Castle’s comment that he’s fond of some space operas, like “that Joss Whedon show!” Beckett’s fervent defense of letting yourself love terrible things for their good parts!

(Beckett the secret nerd is a thing of beauty and a joy forever.)

I also enjoyed the Christmas episode. I am a total sucker for Christmas episodes and there were lots of sparkly decorations, but I also loved the meditative aspect of the episode, the themes about Christmas traditions and traditions in general and the way they change as life goes on - Ryan and Esposito’s old Christmas traditions shift now that Ryan is a married man (happy for Ryan, sad for Esposito; I really like how they deal with the changes Ryan’s marriage has wrought for their friendship.)

And Beckett got another great speech in this episode, about her Christmas tradition: standing guard at the precinct to watch over other people’s Christmases.

2. I’m almost caught up with New Girl. I would be entirely caught up with New Girl, except that the Fox people have apparently decided not to let the newest episodes online until eight days after they’ve aired. So if you missed an episode, there’s no way to catch up before the next one airs.

WHAT THE HECK, FOX? WHAT KIND OF POLICY IS THIS. DISAPPROVE.

I am growing increasingly certain that if someone drowned Schmidt in a bucket, nothing of value would be lost. I suspect that I am the only person in the world who feels this way about Schmidt.

3. I went to the cinema to see a Russian movie called Garpastum, which is about a couple of soccer-loving brothers in pre-Revolutionary St. Petersburg who are trying to make enough money to build a stadium. I feel like something must have been lost in translation, because I’m not actually sure what the point of this movie was, or if it even had one.

Their stadium must be much less expensive than what I envision when I think “stadium,” because they manage to hustle enough money to buy the field by betting on their street soccer games. Then they send a friend to buy the field, at which point the friend walks into some kind of feud and gets killed for seeing too much or something. Naturally the brothers lose their money, and then the revolution happens somewhere offscreen - we just skip over that part - and they never get their stadium.

Actually, maybe not having a point is the point? The brothers work hard to make these plans come true, but World War I and the Russian Revolution means that it all comes to naught.

Having a theme does not make the movie any less of a slog, but at least now I feel slightly less cheated.
osprey_archer: (cheers)
So I have finally come up with my fantasy casting for Brutus, if someone decided that they were going to make a film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar! James McAvoy, because I have seen him in two movies where he excellently portrays young idealists cruelly betrayed by reality, which is clearly the most important quality in any interpretation of Brutus.*

I say this because I have just recently seen The Last Station, where McAvoy reaches the acme of idealism undercut by reality in his part as Valentin Bulgakov, who is an infatuated convert to the doctrines of Tolstoyanism: pacifism, vegetarianism, celibacy, living in general peace and harmony. Driven by the fire of his convictions, he becomes Tolstoy’s secretary near the end of Tolstoy’s life.

Unfortunately for idealistic young Bulgakov, Tolstoy’s estate at Yasnaya Polyana is a hotbed of acrimony. Before he even arrives at the estate, Tolstoy’s acolyte Chertkov gives him a journal to write down, oh, things that Tolstoy’s wife Sophia says, things like that... a request soon bookended by Sophia’s request that Bulgakov should report to her about Tolstoy’s conversations with Chertkov.

Sophia and Chertkov, Bulgakov eventually realizes, are battling over the posthumous rights to Tolstoy’s work: Sophia wants the family to retain them, while Chertkov wants Tolstoy to sign away his copyright so his works can be distributed free to breed converts to Tolstoyanism (which will, of course, increase Chertkov’s prestige).

McAvoy is good, and Helen Mirren is particularly affecting as Sophia, balancing histrionics and pathos to remain a sympathetic character. (It helps that the moviemakers seem to be not-so-secretly on her side. I have the impression that they feel they are settling a score against Chertkov sympathizers.) It’s an excellent period piece.

***

*Apparently most of my fellow Julius Caesar fans ship Brutus/Cassius, which I cannot fathom. Cassius is clearly not fit to kiss the hem of Brutus’s toga, while being simultaneously so prideful as to believe that kissing the hem of Brutus’s toga would be a degradation rather than an honor to which he should aspire.

I am sure the moment when Brutus realized that Cassius had convinced him to assassinate Caesar not for the good of Rome and the saving of the Republic, but to salve Cassius’s own miserable pride, was one of the most terribly disillusioning of his noble life.

...As you may have guessed, I first read this play in ninth grade, and I had ~feelings~. Brutus was forced, forced by the dictates of his conscious to kill his beloved friend Julius Caesar, who had become a danger to the ideals of the republic! It was so sad and glorious and gloriously tragic.

Stilyagi

Apr. 30th, 2013 01:31 pm
osprey_archer: (cheers)
Stilyagi! I made a post about Russian movies a while ago and two different people urged me to watch Stilyagi, a Russian musical about stilyagi subculture in the 1950s in Soviet Moscow: young people who played jazz off records made on old X-ray plates, chose their clothes based solely on how eye-bleedingly bright they were, and occasionally got raided by over-zealous Comsomol members seeking to stamp out their colorful deviance.

Seriously, the stilyagi's clothes are so bright. There are a number of shots that contrast the butterfly stilyagi with the rest of Moscow's denizens, who dress mainly in gray; the contrast is startling every time.

Our hero, Mels, begins the movie as one of these Comsomol members. Led by their fearless leader, Katya, they raid a stilyagi party. They cut off the stilyagi's long hair! They slash their bright-colored clothes! Presumably they break the records, too, but we don't see that because Mels has pelted off to chase a stilyagi girl through the woods.

She outruns him, despite wearing high heels. But her high heels trip her up by the waterfront, and Mels, who is a gentlemen, stops to help her up. "What's your name?" he asks.

"They call me good-time Polly," she says.

"Why?"

"Help me up and you'll see."

He helps her up. She pitches him into the lake. This means war love! Mels, brain permanently addled by his fall in the lake, sets out to become the jazziest stilyagi of them all in order to win Polly's heart.

But unfortunately for Mels, the fearless Comsomol leader Katya is not about to let just let him go over to some jazz-heads in checkered coats.

Katya is my favorite, in the sense that she is most interesting, rather than likable, because mostly she's kind of a jerk. She puts her virtues - her bravery (I was not just calling her "fearless leader" as a joke), her fierce belief, her spine of steel - to such misguided use that they become vices.

She wants Mels to come back to the Comsomol. Her ostensible plan is to seduce Mels back to the path of righteousness. Actually, although she hasn't quite admitted it to herself, she's in love with him and this is just an excuse. But unfortunately (for Katya) Mels is in love with Polly (who by this time has begun to return his feelings), so Katya's plan fails.

There's a quite chilling scene where Katya rouses the whole Comsomol against Mels: they chant (this being a musical) his sins, until Mels, tight-lipped, stalks down the steps to the rostrum and slaps his party card on the podium, glaring at Katya, angry and betrayed - he didn't love her, but they were friends - daring her to be happy.

She isn't quite happy: she may realize, perhaps, that she destroyed a friendship because of jealousy, and did it so viciously she can't even properly apologize. But for now she is secure in her self-righteous triumph. Her coldness is what makes her fascinating to me.

And then a bunch more stuff happens! (Indeed, a bunch of other stuff happened that I left out. Mels' transformation from straitlaced Comsomoletz to stilyaga is fascinating.) But the movie's so jam-packed with things that it would take a ridiculous amount of time to summarize, and in any case, I don't want to spoil it. If you like musicals - maybe even if you don't! It's got less singing than a lot of musicals - I definitely recommend it.

(Also, if you're looking for it in the English-speaking world, the title was translated as "Hipsters," which seems unfortunate: I don't think there is an English word that stilyagi translates into - it being a pretty specific social movement - so they should have just left it as it was.)
osprey_archer: (cheers)
My papers are finished, almost a week early, so I have nothing to do but relax and READ READ READ. Fun books, I mean; I have put a moratorium on all serious for-school reading until I get back from my jaunt to Chicago.

And reading I have been!

1. Gail Carson Levine’s A Tale of Two Castles.

This was cute. I don’t know, I think perhaps I’ve outgrown Levine’s prose style: it may be time to stop reading her books in the hope that another Ella Enchanted will arise.

It doesn’t help that A Tale of Two Castles is a mystery as well as a fantasy. I have Feelings about how mysteries should work, and A Tale of Two Castles just doesn’t come together the way I like.

2. Speaking of mysteries! I read Sam Eastland’s Archive 17, which is the third in his series of Inspector Pekkala mysteries, which are set in Stalinist Russia and thus unite two of my minor passions, murder mysteries and Russian history. Stalinist Russia sort of lends itself to conspiracy theories, which generally I hate, but so far Eastland has avoided tripping my “Oh, please, people just do not conspire that secretly for that long” feelings.

This book also deals with one of the things I didn’t like so much in the earlier Pekkala books, the romanticization of the tsar - Pekkala discovers something about the tsar which compromises his previous admiration for him. Unfortunately we see almost none of the emotional fallout of the discovery, although I guess being stuck in Siberia, Pekkala doesn’t have a lot of excess emotional energy.

Given that Pekkala spends the book in a camp in Siberia (investigating the murder of a special prisoner, although if I were Pekkala and Stalin sent me to a camp “to investigate,” I would be wondering the whole way there if the investigation was just a ruse to get me to go quietly), one expects it to be pretty grim - and it is - but I rarely got the feeling that Eastland was wallowing in the grimness, the way grimdark authors often do.

3. And a bonus movie! Someone recommended The Road to El Dorado to me as “the gayest animated conquistador movie ever made,” to which I said, one, “Is there competition for this honor?” and two, “I guess I’d better watch that.”

Unfortunately it doesn’t have much else to recommend it, although it is, in fact, the gayest conquistador movie ever made, even though the love interest Chel has clothes so flimsy that only the miracle of animation physics kept them on her. She is sassy, because sassy seems to be the hot new thing to do with love interests you don’t want to characterize too much; but then none of the characters in this movie are overly characterized. I never did figure out which one was Miguel and which was Tullio, never mind they look nothing alike.

Seriously, Chel’s wearing like...a tube top and a loincloth. It looks so uncomfortable.

Even more uncomfortable: I have now had the theme song, “El Dorado,” stuck in my head for three days. Make it stooooooooop.
osprey_archer: (nature)
Recently I showed my friend Emma my favorite Russian movie, House of Fools, which I've seen an unprecedented three times and still love and think is a brilliant introduction to Russian movies. The cinematography is characteristically stunning, none of the characters we care about die, and when characters are offered chances to behave horribly - they don't automatically use them!

So at the end of the movie, misty eyed with cinematographic bliss, I looked at Emma - only to find her huddled on the opposite end of the sofa. "Most depressing movie ever!" she croaked.

Which I suppose it is, until you've seen other Russian movies; then you will realize that House of Fools is in fact far, far behind in the brutal race for the "most depressing" Oscar. Consider its competition:

There's Tycoon, which is The Social Network, Yeltsin-era Russian style. Platon and his college buddies make a ton of money by manipulating the newly liberalized Russian banking system to steal from widows and orphans. Then Platon betrays everyone and his former friends come after him. With guns!

And if that's not enough betrayal for you, there's always Brother, in which a veteran of the Chechen wars becomes embroiled in criminal shenanigans that end with him shooting his older brother who planned to offer him up as a fall guy to his criminal bosses.

And speaking of the Chechen wars - and who can get away from the Chechen wars - House of Fools also takes place during the Chechen wars - there's Prisoner of the Mountains. Two Russian soldiers get taken prisoner by partisans in the Caucasus, escape, get caught, at which point the older one gets shot, but the younger escapes again with the help of the young daughter of one of his captors with whom he has developed a Stockholm-syndromian affinity.

And then, as he trudges away, her village gets carpet-bombed. He's the only character in the whole movie who survives.

But we’re still several echelons above the bottom of the barrel of despair. Next up is Burnt by the Sun, a slice of Stalinist Russia with gorgeous sun-dappled cinematography reminiscent of that in Bright Star.

But as we all know nothing gold can stay, particularly not in Russian movies. A bitter NKVD agent proceeds to insinuate himself into this golden world in order to get his former beloved's current husband arrested. The titles at the end helpfully inform us that this will lead to the whole rest of the family, including the adorable daughter, getting shot or sent to the gulag.

Don't date future NKVD agents. It never helps.

For a lower body count but, stunningly, even higher misery quotient, there's The Barber of Siberia, in which young cadet at a tsarist military academy falls for a visiting American woman. Unfortunately, his commanding officer falls for her too. The cadet, driven mad by jealousy, leaps off the stage in the middle of a performance of The Magic Flute, attacks his commanding officer, and is duly sent to Siberia.

This may be the single most depressing movie ever made, not so much because it is brutal - it's not like anyone's died, after all! - but because the tragedy is so pointless. Really? He couldn't even wait till the opera was over to attack his commanding officer? Really?

I could go on, but there I’ll stop. Almost every Russian movie I've seen, but for a couple Soviet comedies and the delightful Cheburashka children's movies, wends its way through misery to end in black despair.

Why, then, do I keep watching?

Well. The cinematography is stunning. The light is crisp, the colors are saturated, and the depth and length of the shots gives the stories an epic quality - the more so when coupled with despair. There’s lots of despair in epics. Beowulf dies, Achilles dies - actually I think that doesn’t happen in the Iliad proper - Odysseus’s entire crew bites the dust, etc. etc.

And they’re unpredictable. Doubtless Russian movies have their own patterns - all kinds of movies seem to have their own patterns; but the patterns are different from Hollywood patterns, which means I can’t necessarily shout “That’s the love interest/red herring/villain!” at the screen with 99% accuracy whenever we meet a new character. It's so refreshing!

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