I thought I was pretty familiar with Alexander Herzen. I’d read Isaiah Berlin’s articles on him and parts of his autobiography, and I could have told a good story about how as a teenager he swore an oath to fight tsarist tyranny, how he fled Russia for Western Europe and established the first free Russian press, and how he was vilified by both conservatives and radicals for his unfashionably nuanced views. All of that is true, but in reading Aileen M. Kelly’s new biography, The Discovery of Chance, I found that I really knew hardly anything about him. In the first place, he studied the natural sciences in college rather than history or philosophy like almost every other socially aware student of his generation, and this gave him the lens through which he viewed everything else: man was part of nature, and history was the product of natural laws. He had this crucial insight before Charles Darwin, and publicized it long before Darwin dared to. Furthermore, history, like life in general, was driven by chance rather than any kind of higher plan; it wasn’t heading inevitably toward a socialist paradise or any other destination. This idea was unacceptable to almost everyone then and is resisted even now, and Herzen himself took many years to assimilate it. Herzen’s twin emphases on truth and freedom carried him through to conclusions that still have the power to surprise and provoke: “There is no universally valid idea from which man has not woven a rope to bind his own feet, and if possible, the feet of others as well...Love, friendship, tribal loyalty, and finally even love of freedom have served as inexhaustible sources of moral oppression and servitude.” He opposed what he called “the mysticism of science,” and asked his fellow radicals “why belief in God is ridiculous and belief in humanity is not.” Kelly maintains a fine balance between the events of his life and the intellectual currents that shaped him; she has useful summaries of the work and ideas of thinkers like Georges Cuvier, Buffon, Montesquieu, and Emmanuel Kant, and a paragraph on Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling explains that mistily transcendental philosopher in a way that for the first time gives me an idea of what he meant and why he was so popular. She gives vivid descriptions of radicals like Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Mikhail Bakunin, who had a huge influence on both Herzen and all of Europe. She seems to have absorbed everything relevant to her subject, and she challenges received opinion with brio. As I was reading it, I was thinking that anyone interested in the intellectual life of the 19th century would profit from this book, but having finished it, I think anyone interested in intellectual life, period, should get it. It’s the best work of history or biography I’ve read in a long time. Robert Bartlett’s The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change, 950-1350 is an absorbing and detailed analysis of medieval history; his discussions of the interplay between the military and social meanings of words for "knight," the history and spread of the general label “Frank” (“The classic enterprise which stimulated the use of this term was the crusade, the ‘Deeds of the Franks’ as its earliest chronicler called it”), race relations in the frontier zone of Latin Europe (“If we define, say, ‘German’ and ‘Slav’ by customs, language and law rather than by descent, the grandchildren of Slavs could be Germans, the grandchildren of Germans Slavs”), and localized repertoires of names (“It is easy, given a few personal names, to tell which region or ethnic group is being talked about”) kept me reading with interest and taught me a great deal. David Stahel’s Kiev 1941 shows that Adolf Hitler's war in the east was lost by the end of August 1941; the rest was a long, drawn-out, incredibly destructive demonstration of that fact, with the Soviet advantage in manpower and resupply grinding down the German war machine. Hitler and Joseph Stalin both made major errors, but Stalin learned from his and started letting his generals make decisions; Hitler learned nothing and insisted more and more on his unique genius. This is a superb book of military history, with a fresh and convincing analysis. Like so many other people, I devoured Elena Ferrante’s glorious Neapolitan quartet; when I was done, I had a Naples itch, and to scratch it I finally read my ancient copies of John Horne Burns’s The Gallery and Norman Lewis's Naples '44, and was bowled over by both. The first, a set of stories whose characters often find themselves in the Galleria Umberto in downtown Naples, won renown when it was published in 1947 (John Dos Passos called it “the first book of real magnitude to come out of the last war”) but seems to have been forgotten along with its author, who faded quickly; NYRB Classics revived it a few years ago, and I hope it regains its deserved high reputation. Lewis was a British intelligence officer before he became one of the finest travel writers of the last century, and his account of his experience mediating between the triumphant Allies and the starving but resourceful Neapolitans is alternately funny, horrifying, and just plain humane. Together they provide a stereoscopic view of a time and place that will help Ferrante readers understand the world her characters were shaped by, and will help any reader understand the behavior of armies among civilian populations. Also during 2016 I went on a Herman Melville binge (Moby-Dick is as great as I remembered, Israel Potter was surprisingly enjoyable, and The Confidence-Man turns out to be an amazing novel the vision of which is too dark to allow it the popularity it merits), and my wife and I continue to make our way through Anthony Trollope (we’re not enjoying the parliamentary novels as much as the Barchester series so far, but that’s a high bar, and we’re only up to Phineas Finn). More from A Year in Reading 2016 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
My year has been even more filled with good reading than usual; fortunately, some of the books are so well known there is little need for me to give them a plug, and I will list them at the end so you can point and laugh (“Seriously, you went over half a century without reading Jane Eyre?”). That frees me to talk about the ones that may not be as familiar, the first of which was Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350–550 AD. I know what you’re thinking: you know little and care less about the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries; why not go back to Julius Caesar or forward to Charlemagne? I would have said the same, but the book was a Christmas gift and I knew Brown was a good writer, so I plunged in. He begins with a passage about the “Harvester of Mactar” (in North Africa), who had his biography recorded on a stele; he rose from a lowly foreman to the owner of a comfortable farm and finally became rich enough to have a seat on the town council of Mactar. From this account of one forgotten and unimportant man, Brown develops a description of the social and religious structure of Roman Africa and how it was changing in the late fourth century; at that point Christians, though tolerated, were expected to be ostentatiously poor, and the central theme of the book is how that situation changed to one in which Christians were increasingly running the Empire and coming to decide that wealth could be godly after all. He does this to a large extent through a lengthy and riveting account of the life, connections, and personality of St. Augustine (with whom Brown moves from Africa to Italy, expanding the scope of the book to the whole Empire) as well as less well-known figures like Paulinus of Nola, Decimius Magnus Ausonius, and Pelagius and the rich and powerful women who supported and opposed them; by the time I put down the book I felt I’d been immersed in a nonfiction equivalent of a Leo Tolstoy novel. (It may also cause you to think about wealth and power in our own time.) For my birthday I was given Stephen Kotkin’s Stalin: Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928; I was looking forward to it because I’d liked other things of his I’d read, but also somewhat dreading it because it was very long and only went up to 1928 and I had already read quite a bit about both Joseph Stalin and that period of Russian history. It turned out there was no need to worry -- I enjoyed it so much I’m already impatient for the next volume. I have to immediately offer a caveat, though: it’s not exactly a biography, so if that’s what you want (Stalin was born a poor Georgian lad, he had good times and bad, and then he came to power and started executing people) you may be better off with a shorter and more focused, if less comprehensive, work. Kotkin goes for many, many pages, entire chapters, mentioning Stalin only as an afterthought or not at all; his idea is that you can’t understand the man without understanding the society and country he grew up in, so he starts with a detailed history of late-19th-century Russia and the people who affected its development (he made me so interested in the great industrialist Sergei Witte I took a break to read a whole biography). He is constantly turning away from Stalin to explain the forces at work in the Civil War or the evolution of Bolshevik ideas and practices. (I was reminded of Robert Caro’s magisterial multivolume history of LBJ.) If you can deal with that, though, I can’t recommend the book highly enough -- Kotkin seems to have read and absorbed all the available material, and his judgments are consistently interesting and persuasive. If you want to read more about the Civil War, by the way, I highly recommend Evan Mawdsley’s The Russian Civil War. And if you want a short history of the period to orient yourself, you can’t do better than Sheila Fitzpatrick’s The Russian Revolution, a brilliant condensation of a complex subject; she doesn’t spend time on biographies or personalities, just tells you what happened and why between 1917 and 1937 in under 200 pages. The most recent of these grand reading experiences was Leonid Livak’s How It Was Done in Paris: Russian Emigre Literature & French Modernism. It’s a specialized topic, but if you’re interested at all in Russian émigré writers and interwar French literature you have to read this book. Livak is one of those rare academics who can apply theory without becoming impenetrable, and he made me rethink everything I thought I knew about the subject. (He also won my heart by quoting Venedikt Erofeev’s gloriously bibulous and heartbreakingly romantic novel Moskva-Petushki in the acknowledgments; if that description intrigues you at all, run out and find one of the translations, Moscow to the End of the Line or Moscow Circles.) You probably haven’t heard of Boris Poplavsky, Gaito Gazdanov, or Yuri Felzen, but Livak will make you care about them and their struggles to find a way to write in the competing shadows of Marcel Proust and Soviet literature, and he ends with a tour de force comparison of Vladimir Nabokov’s Dar [The Gift] to André Gide’s Les Faux-monnayeurs [The Counterfeiters] that sent me back repeatedly to my well-read copy of the former (for my money, the best of his novels) and made me want to give the latter a try. Oh, and those other books? Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation, Anthony Trollope’s Barchester novels, and the aforementioned Jane Eyre. That Rochester is a real louse, let me tell you! More from A Year in Reading 2015 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
I earn my living copyediting books, usually for Oxford University Press; while this is a reasonably pleasant occupation, and I often learn things from the material I edit, it doesn’t usually intersect with the range of books I read for pleasure and report on for The Millions. This year, however, I was lucky enough to work on Ivan Pavlov: A Russian Life in Science, by Daniel P. Todes, a book I would have been glad to read under any circumstances and the most impressive biography I’ve read in years, in places having the feel of a classic Russian novel. Todes has a gift for explaining the details of biological research in a way that I, no science maven, could follow without difficulty, but I will leave to others the evaluation of the scientific part of the book; the aspect that enthralled me is indicated by the subtitle. This is very much a Russian life, and because Todes knows Russia well (he has spent a great deal of time there and speaks the language), he gets the details right and puts them in an illuminating perspective, something all too rare in foreign accounts of things Russian. Chapter 1 begins, “Every Russian name contains a bit of family history,” and Todes traces the name Pavlov back to a peasant named Pavel who “became a reader and chanter in a small rural church in central Russia” during the reign of Peter the Great. He correctly identifies service to the church as “a rare means of upward mobility” in tsarist Russia, which sets up the drama of Ivan’s refusal to follow in the footsteps of his father the priest (who was furious) and rejection of the church in favor of science. Young Ivan got his only formal education in psychology, surprisingly, at the seminary, and Todes describes in vivid detail how he was taught. But reading materialist scientists like Ivan Sechenov and radical political thinkers like Dmitry Pisarev turned him permanently away from religion, and he never wavered in his unbelief, even mocking his wife’s faith until (in a touching scene) he realized how much it hurt her. Both he and his wife, Serafima, were strongly influenced by Fyodor Dostoevsky (she considered her meetings with him “the most important moment in my religious life”), and there is a distressing account of how the great writer was cool to her until he realized she was a gentile (she was usually called by the nickname Sara, which he assumed was Jewish). The account of the young couple’s rocky road from extreme poverty to the security he achieved in 1891 as head of a well-funded physiology lab is riveting, and still more so is the even rockier road through the horrors of World War I and the October Revolution and ensuing civil war (in which he lost friends, coworkers, and his favorite son) to his final status as the hero of Soviet science, protected by his 1904 Nobel Prize and international fame. It’s amazing enough that a Russian born in 1849 lived to 1936; what’s nearly unbelievable is that Pavlov did so, dying in his bed of natural causes, while maintaining a firm and unyielding public opposition to the brutality of Joseph Stalin’s regime. Pavlov’s life intersected with those of many others, from Dostoevsky to Nikolai Bukharin, and I was particularly delighted to encounter one of his assistants, whom I had known from her literary work: “One newcomer to the IEM lab in 1924 was the writer Rita Rait-Kovaleva (then still known by her original name, Raisa Chernomordik), who would later translate Vonnegut and Faulkner into Russian.” It goes without saying that anyone interested in Pavlov will want to read this first serious biography, but anyone who cares about the modern history of Russia should do so as well. It’s one of those rare works that actually deserve the adjective “magisterial.” Two very different works of criticism have changed my thinking about Russian literature in the last year. Peter Hodgson’s From Gogol to Dostoevsky is a groundbreaking look at perhaps the most crucial decade in Russian literary history, the 1840s, when the effervescent mix of styles and approaches that had existed until then was channeled into the socially conscious “realism” that we are familiar with from the classic Russian novelists. Hodgson takes as his focus the unjustly forgotten Yakov Butkov, an ambitious, self-educated writer from the provinces who died young and poor after publishing the remarkable collection Petersburg Attics (and a few other stories), and uses Bakhtin’s concept of the grotesque to analyze Butkov and the other writers of his day: “There is in Gogol and Dostoevsky an obvious reluctance to westernize Russian fiction, a reluctance which is gradually being recognized as essential to the history of the forties...I intend to explore the connection between the grotesque in Gogol and Dostoevsky, and their reluctance to fall in line with Belinsky’s utilitarian naturalism.” I can’t even begin to describe the many insights into how these writers worked and how they were misunderstood by critics like Belinsky (and almost everyone since); I’ll just urge anyone interested in the period to go find a copy. The other work is Gary Saul Morson’s Narrative and Freedom: The Shadows of Time, which focuses on Leo Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Anton Chekhov, as well as Sophocles, George Eliot, and many others, to illustrate ways writers have found to avoid the determinism inherent in the idea of foreshadowing; Morson comes up with the term “sideshadowing” to describe an alternative: “sideshadowing admits, in addition to actualities and impossibilities, a middle realm of real possibilities that could have happened even if they did not.” Bakhtin is put to good use here as well; again, there’s no point trying to summarize, and all I can do is say I was sorry when it was over. Like many Americans, I tend to pay attention to soccer only every four years, when the World Cup rolls around; this year I decided to remedy my abysmal ignorance of the game, and I read three superb books. David Goldblatt’s The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer, almost certainly the best history of any sport I’ve read, brilliantly combines sporting and social history; to take just one of the many nuggets I got from it: “In a strained compromise [in 1908], indicative of the fundamental weakness of Italian ultra-nationalism, the ban on foreigners was rescinded in return for the official adoption of calcio as the name of the game rather than football.” I always wondered about that. Jonathan Wilson's Inverting The Pyramid: The History of Soccer Tactics explained its topic so well, using diagrams and biographies as well as descriptions of matches (many of which are available on YouTube, at least in highlights), that I wound up feeling I was starting to understand how the game works. And Robert Edelman’s Spartak Moscow: A History of the People’s Team in the Workers’ State taught me a great deal about the history of working-class Moscow as well as that of the soccer team whose long rivalry with Dinamo is comparable to those of Real Madrid with Barcelona and Celtic with Rangers; I recommend it to anyone with an interest in the Russian game. More from A Year in Reading 2014 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
I don’t tend to read a lot of new English-language fiction. This isn’t from any sort of prejudice; it’s a side effect of the fact that I’m trying to go through the entirety of Russian literature, which takes up most of my available reading time. Fortunately, my writer friend Jim Salant occasionally forces me to get out of my Russian rut and experience a book he’s enthusiastic about, and most recently this was Tessa Hadley’s novel The London Train (P.S.). I wasn’t familiar with Hadley (and as of this writing she doesn’t have a Wikipedia article to her name), but by the time I got to the end of the first paragraph (“On the wall behind her desk was pinned a colorful year planner, almost every square scribbled over with busyness and responsibility: he imagined a space on the planner where his mother's occupation of her room abutted abruptly onto blankness”) I was entirely willing to put myself into her hands and go where she wanted to take me. Her characters are drawn with clear-eyed affection, her prose is endlessly pleasurable without needlessly calling attention to itself, and she has a daring way of constructing a book (the “P.S.” in the title serves as a warning) that makes for an unexpected and enjoyable ride. When I finished it, I liked it so much I wanted to experience it again, so I read it to my wife. Hadley also writes short stories (I’ve since read a memorable one in the New Yorker), and I look forward to reading more of her work. My great find in the field of Russian history this year was Karl Schlögel’s Moscow, 1937, which immerses you in just about every imaginable aspect of that place and time, from construction projects to literature to music (jazz, pop, and Shostakovich) to the brand-new Gorky Park to the unstoppable, unmanageable flood of people from the starving countryside to the capital, where at least there was the hope of a job in one of the many new factories and therefore of survival. It's the kind of blend of literary, cultural, and political history, with constant references to geography (and a nice annotated map of Moscow on the endpapers), that I love. If you want to understand the era of the great purges, this is one of the first books I would recommend. My understanding of Russian literature and its history was shaken up by Muireann Maguire’s Stalin’s Ghosts: Gothic Themes in Early Soviet Literature; I had never given a thought to that side of Soviet literature, and I doubt many people have, but she convinced me that (as she puts it) “The centrality of the Gothic-fantastic to Russian fiction is almost impossible to exaggerate.” If you’re interested in, say, Bulgakov or Platonov, you’ll want to understand this aspect of where they came from. And there’s a companion volume, the anthology Red Spectres, which provides eleven stories in the genre; the pick of the bunch are the two stories by Bulgakov and one by the relatively unknown Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, but they’re all good reading. As for Russian literature itself, in the course of working my way through the early nineteenth century I’ve come across any number of writers I think should be better known, and at the head of the pack is Alexander Veltman. Veltman was extremely popular in his heyday, he was one of the pioneers of Russian science fiction, both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky praised him (his Serdtse i dumka [Heart and head, 1838] was one of Dostoevsky's favorite novels), and he’s tremendous fun to read. As far as I know, the only translation into English is Selected Stories, edited and translated by the late James J. Gebhard (Northwestern University Press, 1998), which I am hereby recommending, but I would urge any adventurous publishers out there to commission translations of his novels, starting with Strannik [The wanderer], which burst onto the somnolent Russian literary scene at the beginning of the 1830s and made its author instantly famous. It begins “This sedentary, monotonous life has grown wearisome; let us go, sir! — said I one day to myself — let us go a-traveling!” and whisks the reader off to Bessarabia and Bulgaria; it’s a war memoir, a travelogue, a fantasy, a dream of fair women, with poetry and ethnography tossed in. It explains its own wild discursiveness thus: “In everything, harmony arises from disharmony... Thoughts, opinions, speeches, deeds, all of life, everything is subject to this law.” Veltman clung stubbornly to that law, even after tastes changed in the 1840s and the Russian public started wanting serious novels of social realism with explicit points of view on serfdom, nihilism, and the like; he kept writing books where you couldn’t make out what was going on for a long time (in Koshchei bessmertny [Koshchei the immortal, 1833], there is no mention of Koshchei until the twelfth chapter), and you just had to hold on tight and trust to the author’s fertile mind and ever-lively prose. It’s postmodern fiction, is what it is, and I think the world has finally caught up with it. Any publisher who takes the plunge will not only be delighting readers and making money, they’ll be helping to rewrite the received history of Russian literature. More from A Year in Reading 2013 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
Growing up during the Cold War, I envisioned Eastern Europe as a vague collection of entities between Germany and the Soviet Union, the two important countries of the region. Poland, to me, was a land over which German and Russian armies fought, and Ukraine and Belorussia (as it was then) were just bits of the Soviet Union that the Kremlin pretended were independent enough to be member states of the UN. This year all that changed when I read Timothy Snyder’s The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569-1999. Snyder is well known now for his 2010 Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (which I have not yet read), but the earlier book completely reoriented my ideas about the history of the region. Snyder does not view the countries he writes about as sideshows, and he does not treat any one of them as central (with the others viewed from that perspective) – he takes all sides equally seriously and presents all points of view simultaneously, which doesn’t make for easy reading but is invigorating and winds up leaving the reader far better informed. Furthermore, he keeps pointing out the potential futures that people saw as real possibilities but that we have forgotten about (example: Stalin almost gave Vilnius/Vilna/Wilno/Vil’nya to Belorussia instead of Lithuania; he seems to have changed his mind at the last moment and had all the Belorussian activists sent to the Gulag instead of put in high official posts), and he reminds us of the effects of self-deluding propaganda (to quote Snyder: “When Lithuanian troops marched into Vilnius on 28 October 1939, they were shocked to find ‘instead of the princess of their fairy tales, the streets of alien Wilno, unknown, speaking a foreign language’”). And once you’ve read Snyder, you’ll be equipped for Oksana Zabuzhko’s novel The Museum of Abandoned Secrets, a suspenseful, sexy, funny, and occasionally devastating look at the last seventy years or so of the history of western Ukraine (much of which was part of Poland in the earlier years) through the eyes of an ambitious young woman dedicated to advancing her career as a television journalist while digging up difficult truths about the past, her family’s and her country’s. Leaping across European Russia to the Urals and beyond, we come to another book that changed my view of history this year, Yuri Slezkine’s Arctic Mirrors: Russia and the Small Peoples of the North. Most of us have a pretty good idea of what European colonization of the Americas was like; I suspect most people are far less familiar with how Russia wound up ruling the vast area between its heartland and the Pacific and what its relations with the various natives of the region have been. I know I was, and I’ve been reading about Russian history for a long time now. This book does not give you the view from the other side (for that, you’ll want James Forsyth’s A History of the Peoples of Siberia, which I haven’t read, or anthropological looks at specific peoples, like Bruce Grant’s In the Soviet House of Culture, about the Nivkh of Sakhalin, and Marjorie Mandelstam Balzer’s The Tenacity of Ethnicity: A Siberian Saga in Global Perspective, about the Khanty of northwest Siberia, both of which I have read and can recommend), but it lays out in gripping detail, with plenty of quotes from contemporary sources, what the Russians were up to and the various ways they dealt with the people they ran into as they headed east. A couple of extracts will give you an idea of how he sets local events in a larger context. In the first chapter, he compares the Cossacks who carried out the conquest with Westerners like William of Rubruck, who visited the region and felt themselves in a new world: “The Cossacks, however, never entered a new world because unlike William, they had not been sent to a new world and because they had no ‘public’ that wanted to hear about new worlds. Most important, however, the Cossacks’ own world was not as starkly divided into the Christian and non-Christian spheres as was William's. Rather, it consisted of an apparently limitless number of peoples, all of whom were assumed to have their own faiths and languages. This was not a temporary aberration to be overcome through conversion or revelation — this was a normal state of affairs whereby foreigners were expected to remain foreigners.” And on the change of attitude in the early nineteenth century: “More important, by the late 1840s both Siberians and Circassians — as well as Lord Byron, Sir Walter Scott, and numerous aliens and exotic sons of nature — had become largely irrelevant to the world as conceived by the Russian intelligentsia. The increasingly alienated cultural elite of Moscow and St. Petersburg had discovered a noble savage with whom it would concern itself to the exclusion of most others: the Russian peasant.” Most of the book is concerned with the Soviet period, and it does a great job of untangling the competing approaches (all proclaiming themselves unimpeachably Marxist-Leninist) and the ways (almost uniformly unpleasant) in which decisions reached in the Kremlin wound up affecting people trying to make their livings as they always had, from hunting and herding and fishing. The book focuses on Siberia, but uses it as a lens with which to view Russia, the Soviet Union, and humanity. Ian Frazier has no need of my recommendation, and his Travels in Siberia got enough rave reviews and awards that you’re very likely aware of it, but just in case: it’s one of the best travel books I’ve ever read. Frazier was so fascinated with Russia he learned the language and read all the histories and early accounts he could find, and he makes the people he travels with and encounters as three-dimensional and vivid as the characters in a good novel. Don’t miss this book. More from A Year in Reading 2012 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
A mist hung over the earth. So begins one of the great novels of the twentieth century, Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate; the short drumroll of a sentence is somehow ominous, and we soon discover we are outside a German prison camp, looking through barbed wire at a set of identical wooden barracks. The next chapter takes us inside the camp, where we meet a collection of Russians of various political persuasions, as well as Spaniards, Italians, Englishmen, even an American colonel (who finds it strange that an intelligent-looking Russian major can’t understand his English). This movement, from outside in, is typical of the novel, which takes us places we don’t want to go, but does so with a humane insistence we find impossible to resist. After six chapters in which we get to know these people – especially the Old Bolshevik Mostovskoy, who is troubled that “much in his own soul had become alien to him” – we are suddenly dropped into a command post in the besieged city of Stalingrad, where we are confronted with an entirely different collection of people, some of them historical figures (generals and commissars) and others fictional. This too is typical; the novel does not let us rest for long in any situation, but whisks us up and down the Volga (much of it is set in cities like Kazan and Saratov), west to Moscow, and further west to the German camps, showing us a vast panorama of Russia (and Germany) at war. If this is reminiscent of War and Peace, it should be; Grossman, a war correspondent who visited the front as often as he could and shared as much as he could of the soldiers’ lives, carried a copy with him and read it constantly, and he was deliberately creating a counterpart to Tolstoy’s epic. A foolish undertaking, you might think, but he pulled it off. His huge novel has nothing in common with the modernist works that stand beside it on the shelf of twentieth-century Russian masterpieces, Bely’s Petersburg and Olesha’s Envy and Nabokov’s The Gift; there are no magical interludes or language games or hidden messages, just a well-told tale of an extended family caught up in circumstances beyond their, or anyone’s, control. We get to know Lyudmila, annoyed with her husband, her daughter, and her mother (who lives with her in Kazan), terrified for her son Tolya (who’s in the army), and concerned for her sister Evgeniya; Evgeniya’s ex-husband Krymov, who’s sent to Stalingrad as a commissar; and especially Lyudmila’s husband Viktor Shtrum, a physicist who almost as soon as we’re introduced to him we find thinking “about something he’d never thought about before, something fascism had forced him to think about – the fact that he was a Jew, and that his mother was a Jew.” Those facts are guns on the wall, and following Chekhov’s prescription they go off. It is of course inevitable that the Nazis play a considerable role in a World War II novel, and the horrors of their beliefs and their actions are not stinted; what is astonishing is that they are presented as human beings with understandable motives, unlike in almost any other Russian war novel. And what is even more astonishing is that the doctrinaire communists are presented as no better than the doctrinaire Nazis – the Soviet system of camps and terror is explicitly compared to the German one. It is almost inconceivable that Grossman thought this book could be published in the Soviet Union in 1960, but he did; he was doubtless prepared for it to be rejected by the magazine he sent it to, but not for the secret police to show up and confiscate every scrap of it they could get their hands on – Grossman was told by a top member of the Politburo that it could not be published for two hundred years. However, a copy was eventually smuggled abroad (long after the author’s premature death in 1964) and published in 1980; at that point, in the depths of the Brezhnev stagnation, no one could have guessed that in less than a decade it would be published in the Soviet Union, shortly before that country ceased to exist. It had a powerful effect, but it was only one of a flood of forbidden works that were suddenly appearing; we can only imagine the effect it would have had if it could have appeared in its full, scarifying glory in 1960, with the war fresh in memory and Stalin even fresher. It might well be Grossman rather than Pasternak or Solzhenitsyn who was remembered as the writer who exploded the frozen Stalinist world of literature. I said there were no language games, but I didn’t mean the writing is not superbly effective. Remember that opening sentence? The payoff comes hundreds of pages later, in part II, chapter 29 (chapter 28 in the NYRB translation). Obersturmbannführer Liss is visiting the site where an extermination camp is being constructed, and as his plane lands Grossman says A mist spread over the earth. Even if a reader doesn't consciously remember the first line of the novel, this reprise should make a chill run up the spine. Unfortunately, the existing translation does not bring this out (I’ve retranslated all the quotes here); it’s well enough done that I encourage everyone to go out and get it, but it’s got enough omissions and mistranslations that it’s high time another one appeared. Many of the other recent Russian classics (like Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita and Venedikt Erofeev’s Moscow-Petushki) have multiple translations, and it’s the least Grossman deserves. His combination of bravura storytelling and clear moral vision has few peers. More from A Year in Reading 2011 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
These days we tend to write as we speak, with a certain allowance for fancy words and allusions. Our sentences march from subject to verb to object like a horse heading for home, and we quickly become impatient with what is usually considered under the ancient heading of rhetoric: elaborate parallelism, repetition, mirror constructions, and so on. It looks like showing off; it feels tricksy. But until recently those tricks were the foundation of public discourse, and a knowledge of chiasmus and Cicero was a prerequisite for anyone who wanted to be thought cultured. There are many reasons for the change, and they are largely good reasons, but there has still been something lost, and Ward Farnsworth is here to remind us of what it is. Farnsworth is a Boston University law professor whose professional writing runs to texts like “The Use and Limits of Martin-Quinn Scores to Assess Supreme Court Justices.” But he has thought a great deal about what makes for effective writing and in his Farnsworth's Classical English Rhetoric has amassed an impressive array of illustrative quotations by writers ranging from the famous (Dickens, Lincoln, Churchill) to the now less remembered (Goldsmith, Webster, Kingsley) to the nearly forgotten (Henry Grattan, Richard Lalor Sheil); he has arranged them by their prominent use of various classical devices ranging from epizeuxis to prolepsis and shared them with us. What might have been (and in many texts on rhetoric is) a dry analysis full of rebarbative Greco-Latin terminology (epizeuxis!) becomes an enchanted garden of lively English prose. Farnsworth begins his preface thus: “Everyone speaks and writes in patterns. Usually the patterns arise from unconscious custom; they are models we internalize from the speech around us without thinking much about it. But it also is possible to study the patterns deliberately....” He asks how one should study “techniques that succeed only when they seem unstudied,” and says “The answer lies in examples,” adding that the selection “reflects one of the chief purposes of the book, which is to help recover a rhetorical tradition in English that is less familiar because it is outside of living memory.” He does not try to cover all the traditional figures, just “the eighteen or so that, in my judgment, are of most practical value.” He omits metaphor and simile “not because they are unimportant but because they are too important; they are large enough topics to require separate treatment of their own.” But enough theory. What is epizeuxis? It’s a fancy term for repetition; in his introduction to the first chapter he gives well-known examples like Conrad’s “The horror! The horror!” and the Bogart line from Casablanca, “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” The chapter proper begins with Shakespeare (“Reputation, reputation, reputation! Oh, I have lost my reputation!”) and Thoreau (“Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!”) and continues with the wonderful Grattan, who deserves the prominence Farnsworth gives him: “Like the Draconian laws, this bill had blood! blood! – felony! felony! felony! in every period and in every sentence.” The next chapter is on anaphora, the repetition of the same word at the start of successive clauses; it is used to powerful effect in the Bible (“The enemy said, I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil…”) and Churchill (“we shall seek no terms, we shall tolerate no parley; we may show mercy – we shall ask for none”) and to very different effect by Henry James: “He’s too delightful. If he’ll only not spoil it! But they always will; they always do; they always have.” After several chapters on various types of repetition, he moves on to “structural matters” like isocolon (parallel structure, as in Burke’s “He practiced no managements. He secured no retreat. He sought no apology”), chiasmus (“when words or other elements are repeated with their order reversed,” as in Chesterton’s “Men need not trouble to alter conditions, conditions will so soon alter men” and Melville’s “Pity if there is nothing wonderful in signs, and significant in wonders!”), or anastrophe (“when words appear in unexpected order”: Chesterton again, “Sad he is; glad he is not,” and Melville again, “breathe he must, or die he will”). The final section, on “dramatic devices,” begins with praeteritio (“saying things by not saying them”: Erskine, “I will not speak to you of his great youth, of his illustrious birth, and of his uniformly animated and generous zeal in Parliament for the constitution of his country”), continues with aposiopesis, or “breaking off in midstream” (Beerbohm: “‘If you are acquainted with Miss Dobson, a direct invitation should be sent to her,’ said the Duke. ‘If you are not –’ The aposiopesis was icy”); metanoia, or “correcting oneself” (Conan Doyle: “And now, Doctor, perhaps you would kindly attend to my thumb, or rather to the place where my thumb used to be”); and others, ending with prolepsis (“when the speaker anticipates an objection … and comments on it”: Fielding, “It may be objected, that very wise men have been notoriously avaricious. I answer, Not wise in that instance”). By the time you’ve read through the varied examples in each chapter, you not only understand the technique involved, you feel a warm glow of pleasure (and perhaps a desire to read an author who has been only a name to you, if that). The book is beautifully designed (in Sabon Next type) and provides its examples in a handsome format, laid out on the page with plenty of white space with the source (author, title, date) in smaller type in the outer margin. I admire it; I appreciate it; I recommend it.
It's always a fraught moment when you sit down with a book you've been meaning to read for many years. It's exciting, of course, but you're aware that the book is not likely to live up to your expectations, and most of the time it doesn't. Sometimes it does. Marshall Berman's All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity was first published in 1982; even back then I was a fan of Berman's idiosyncratic blend of leftist politics with cultural and literary history, but I was too broke to buy new books, and somehow I never got my hands on it in the intervening decades. This year a friend gave me the beautiful Penguin edition, and it lived up to its promise, moving in dizzying, exhilarating fashion from Goethe to Marx to Baudelaire to Petersburg ("The Real and Unreal City") to "Some Notes on Modernism in New York." That probably makes it sound off-puttingly formidable, so I'll repeat Robert Christgau's words, leading off the review that first made me want the book: what's most important about it is that it's a good read. Anyone can toss a bunch of cultural touchstones into a blender and come up with a dense text; very few can make anyone but grad students want to read it. At the beginning of his introduction, Berman says "To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world – and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are." That's what the book is about, and that sense of adventure, joy, and danger is carried through triumphantly. To give one small example of its effect, I had never been particularly interested in Goethe's Faust, regarding it as one of those sacred monsters of two centuries ago that inexplicably got everyone excited; now I actually want to read it. And I expect to be rereading Berman every few years from now on. The most exciting literary discovery I made this past year was Andrey Platonov, who died in obscurity the year I was born. His major works were first published in the '80s, and reliable texts only appeared in the '90s; since then his reputation has grown to the point that he is frequently considered the greatest Russian prose writer of the twentieth century. His masterpiece is The Foundation Pit, which boils all the utopianism and horror of the forced collectivization and industrialization of the early 1930s into 150 tightly written pages about a laid-off worker, a bear, and a little girl, among other unforgettable characters. (You can read more about the book at Languagehat.) English-speaking readers are lucky to have the superb translation by Robert Chandler and Olga Meerson, published last year by New York Review Books; the novel was so important to Chandler that he translated it twice, this NYRB version superseding a 1996 one he did for Harvill Press. Platonov's other major novel is Chevengur, a sprawling work (three times as long as The Foundation Pit) whose inherent tragedy is leavened by picaresque humor; I'm happy to report Chandler and Meerson are working on a translation of that as well, and I look forward to reading it when it appears. Platonov's brilliant short works can be sampled in the collection Soul, also published by NYRB. Anyone interested in the Soviet Union of the 1950s and '60s should read Zhivago's Children: The Last Russian Intelligentsia, by Vladislav Zubok, which is, like Berman's, one of the best works of cultural history I've read in many years. After I finished it, I felt as if I'd been reading a great, tragic novel; Zubok's work is thoroughly reliable (every paragraph has several footnotes referencing histories, diaries, and other sources) but gripping and full of the kind of human insight you don't usually get from academic history. Michael Scammell, in his review, complained that Zubok slighted dissident heroes like Solzhenitsyn, Brodsky, Sinyavsky, and Daniel, but their stories are so familiar it's hard to see what yet another account could provide; the people Zubok writes about were hoping to create an intellectual and artistic renaissance within a country whose leadership turned out to be unwilling to countenance it, so that it all dissipated into the stagnation of the Brezhnev years. For a while, though, it seemed as if anything was possible. More from a Year in Reading 2010 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions
As usual, my reading has focused on language and history, and I’ve got some recommendations in each field. In language, unfortunately, two of the most exciting books of the year (both from Oxford) are very expensive, but you might want to see if your library has them. The Oxford History of English Lexicography is the best reference history I've read in a long time, and I feel confident in saying that if you love dictionaries, you will want to set some time aside for reading it. Volume I covers standard dictionaries, going into the early development of glosses and bilingual dictionaries and monolingual dictionaries of English, with chapters on Johnson, American dictionaries, and the OED, as well as dictionaries of national and regional varieties and of Old and Middle English; the long discussion of Webster's Third in particular is a triumph, doing full justice to the greatness of the dictionary while fully acknowledging the justice of some of the criticisms. Volume II covers specialized dictionaries of science, dialects, synonyms, etymology, pronunciation, slang and cant, quotations, phraseology, and personal and place names. The two volumes of the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary are heavy (they come with a slipcase) and somewhat intimidating, but once you get used to them you wonder how you managed without them. Let's say you look up squirrel in the OED and discover it entered English in the 14th century, and it occurs to you to wonder what they called the creature before they borrowed the French word. Until now, you would have had to ask a medievalist; now you look up squirrel and are directed to 01.02.06.20.05.08 (n.), where you discover that what they used to say was aquerne. And what if you want to know in general what words were available in a given period? Any historical novelist who cares about linguistic accuracy must have struggled with this; if your novel is set in the 1820s, how can you be sure you're using vocabulary appropriate to the time and not introducing anachronisms? Now you can find out. Some less expensive and more immediately appealing books I was happy to encounter during the year: Ambrose Bierce's Write It Right: The Celebrated Cynic's Language Peeves Deciphered, Appraised, and Annotated for 21st-Century Readers by Jan Freeman is a fine updating of the great cynic’s very idiosyncratic little usage book. Besides the well-written, sensible introduction, each of Bierce's entries is followed by Freeman's well-written, sensible update, saying pretty much what I would have wanted to say about each of his rants and shibboleths. The third edition of Jesse Sheidlower's The F-Word is a must for anyone interested in the most notorious of English obscenities. This is not one of those pro forma "revisions" that correct a few errors, toss in a few added items, and add a new preface; the text of the dictionary is twice as large as the second edition, over a hundred new words and senses have been added, and it now aims to cover the entire English-speaking world. This book makes me proud to be a part of a civilization that could produce such a thing. H. W. Fowler's A Dictionary of Modern English Usage: The Classic First Edition is another indispensable update. Keeping Fowler's original text unchanged, it adds a superb introduction and a concluding section of notes updating some 300 entries, both by David Crystal. In the introduction, Crystal has written the best discussion of Fowler that I have seen or, really, can imagine, and the end notes are very useful, providing pointers to how things have changed since Fowler's day and, in some cases, when he went astray. If you want to explore the ideas of one of the most interesting thinkers about English style in the early twentieth century, guided by a reliable modern linguist, this is the book for you. Finally, In the Land of Invented Languages was the most unexpected pleasure of my reading year. I've never had much interest in artificial languages, but this completely won me over. Arika Okrent writes well and tells a great story, but she also has a PhD in linguistics, which makes all the difference; any good journalist could spin a lively tale out of some of this material (people who spend their lives creating and trying to publicize languages tend to be pretty colorful), but it takes a linguist to see what's going on with the languages and be able to point out where they succeed and where they fail. Okrent has written a gripping account of some amazing people and some fascinating changes in the European cultural environment. Two books have fundamentally affected the way I think about large chunks of history. Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present by Christopher I. Beckwith is a reevaluation of the entire history of Eurasia, focusing on that often neglected portion called Central Asia. You can read the Introduction online, and it will give you an idea of the approach, but it's the details that make the book. As a minor but telling example, each chapter starts off with an epigraph: perfectly normal, but he also includes the originals, in the original script. This isn't just a nod to multiculturalism, it's a refusal to privilege the easy-to-read translation over the normally effaced original, an insistence on the fact that people see and express the world through their own languages and we have to bear that constantly in mind. The author's rethinking of not only Central Asian history but just about everything we think of as "world history" is convincing and important. The epilogue, "The Barbarians," would make a superb little booklet on its own, and sums up the essence of what he's trying to convey throughout the book, demonstrating that the Central Eurasians were no more violent than the "civilized" states with whom they sometimes fought, that what they desired above all else was trade (which requires peace), and that it was generally the peripheral states that attacked the Central Eurasians in an effort to expand their own territory and impose their own power, which they believed should be universal. (Unfortunately, the last two chapters are devoted almost entirely to a denunciation of "Modernism," by which he means pretty much everything bad that's happened since the nineteenth century, but they can be ignored.) Gary B. Nash's The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America is a complete overturning of the conventional picture of the Revolution, according to which a few white male geniuses who loved liberty aroused a nation of citizen-soldiers to overthrow the British yoke. Nash, who for years has been producing studies of the people forgotten in this account – the poor, the working-class, the women, the black, the Native American – has consolidated his work into a powerful history that will make you rethink everything you thought you knew. For instance, one of the main motivators of the Revolution was the Proclamation Line of 1763, which banned white settlement west of the Alleghenies; an attempt by the British Crown to secure its native subjects in their lands, it infuriated the land-hungry colonists, both the poor who wanted farms they could own and live on and the rich who wanted millions of acres they could rent out profitably. Among the latter were most of the revered Founding Fathers; in a single devastating paragraph, Nash names them and describes their financial interests: George Mason, author of Virginia’s Declaration of Rights, “had watched the Proclamation of 1763 destroy first his beloved Ohio Company and then his hopes of obtaining fifty thousand acres of Kentucky land”; Richard Henry Lee, who introduced the Declaration of Independence to the Continental Congress in July 1776, had hoped by his Mississippi Land Company to lay his hands on 2.5 million acres; George Washington “had thousands of acres of bounty lands that he purchased cheaply from veterans’ claims slip from his hands”; Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry likewise saw their land ventures “disappear like smoke. All these disappointments could be undone through… a double war: against England, and against the ancient inhabitants of the fertile region watered by the Ohio and its tributaries.” One of the strands of the book is the increasingly desperate attempts by the Native Americans – Iroquois, Shawnee, Cherokee, and others – to find a way to survive and hold on to at least some of their land in the face of the increasingly brutal attacks of white invaders supported by greedy governments, and Nash does not try to hide his indignation at the language of the Declaration of Independence, which claims the king “has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” Jefferson, who wrote these lines, knew they were a lie, knew that it was the white settlers who had practiced “an undistinguished destruction” upon those they were trying to displace; this lie was left untouched by the drafting committee (Franklin, Adams, et al.) and by the Congress as a whole, and according to Nash it has been ignored ever since: “The silence of historians on this disingenuous charge is deafening in the most notable studies of the Declaration of Independence spanning more than eighty years. In Carl Becker…, in Garry Wills…, and in Pauline Maier… not a word appears on this vicious caricature of the American Indians, who had been trading partners, military allies, and marital consorts as often as enemies for two centuries.” I could go on citing examples for pages, but I’ll cut to the chase: Nash’s well-chosen and vividly presented snapshots of people and events are tied together convincingly into a powerful picture of the have-nots rising up and demanding their rights against both the far-off British oppressors and against the local elite who kept them hungry and poor for their own profit, and his book makes me realize that the Revolution did not end with the War of Independence in 1783 but is still ongoing. Finally, I finished War and Peace! I've read it twice in English (in college and in the mid-'90s) and now in Russian, and each time the characters come to life in the same mysterious way. From the protagonists to the minor walk-ons, they have the unruly undeniability of actual people. How does Tolstoy do it? More from A Year in Reading
Stephen Dodson is a freelance editor in Hadley, Mass.; he is coauthor of Uglier Than a Monkey's Armpit, a collection of international curses and insults, and sole proprietor of the blog languagehat.com.As usual, my reading this year has focused on language and Russian history and culture, and I have books to recommend in each area.The best language book I read during the year is Mikael Parkvall's brand-new Limits of Language: Almost Everything You Didn't Know You Didn't Know About Language and Languages. Parkvall is a Swedish linguist, so this is not one of the usual pop language books full of "fun facts" that aren't actually facts. He says in the foreword, "I hope that Limits of Language can show the uninitiated some of the incredible aspects that linguistics and human languages have to offer, teach beginners some of the basics of linguistics, but also to serve as a reference book for experienced linguists - here, the linguist can identify the extremes, and thereby judge to what extent his or her own language is 'normal'." Opening it at random, I find a section on using linguistics to catch the Unabomber, one on odd phrase-book examples ("I was stabbed with a spear"; "At what time were these branches eaten by the rhinoceros?"), and one on linguistics in films ("Ball of Fire, Howard Hawks, 1941: A lexicographer [Gary Cooper], realizing that the slang section of his dictionary is outdated, visits a nightclub in order to update it..."); there are also, of course, basics like "Language change," "Consonants," and "Language myths." It's the best combination of fun and education I've seen in a long time.Other language books I can recommend are Nicholas Ostler's "biography of Latin," Ad Infinitum (I'm now reading his earlier history of language, Empires of the Word, and enjoying it greatly), and George R. Stewart's Names on the Land, a classic history of American place names recently reprinted by New York Review Books (if the author's name sounds familiar to you, it may be because he also wrote the science fiction novel Earth Abides, for which he won the first International Fantasy Award in 1951).On the Russian front, I loved Julie A. Buckler's Mapping St. Petersburg: Imperial Text and Cityshape. In her introduction, she says: "this study poses two central questions: What kinds of writing correspond to specific places in Petersburg or to particular aspects of imperial-era Petersburg life? How does writing constitute imperial Petersburg, both before and after the imperial period? ... My project aims at an archeological reconstruction of a complex discursive formation - the full textual articulation of imperial St. Petersburg as a cultural object." Yes, I know, that sounds off-puttingly academical, but she mostly confines the jargon to the introduction, and the book is full of fascinating tidbits about the city and the writers who have tried to describe and interpret it, and not only the famous ones; she seems to have worked her way through every memoir, travel guide, and long-forgotten novella that ever described the imperial capital. To give an example of the kind of thing you're unlikely to find anywhere else, in Chapter Four she investigates "a story about dancing chairs that circulated in Petersburg during the 1830s," quoting Pushkin's diary ("In one of the buildings belonging to the chancellery of the court equerry, the furniture was so bold as to move and jump about") and a letter from Petr Viazemskii ("in one of the clerk's rooms, the chairs and tables danced and turned somersaults; glasses filled with wine hurled themselves at the ceiling..."), ending with the casual mention in Gogol's famous story "The Nose": "And the story of the dancing chairs on Koniushennaia (Stables) Street was still fresh." Who knew that wasn't just another wild invention of Gogol's? If that kind of thing interests you, you'll enjoy the book.I was also bowled over by Entertaining Tsarist Russia: Tales, Songs, Plays, Movies, Jokes, Ads, and Images from Russian Urban Life 1779-1917, edited by James Von Geldern and Louise McReynolds. Sure, it's important to read the Great Works, but you can't really understand a country and its culture unless you've spent some time with the less exalted material most people devour. There's an eighteenth-century knightly tale that begins: "Prince Zilagon, ruler of the Princedom of Florida, was a great and glorious man who who greatly expanded his territory and struck fear into the hearts of neighboring peoples." (Zilagon conquers Canada and marries the daughter of the king of Mexico.) There are (among many other things) half-admiring accounts of famous criminals, bedroom farces, examples of war correspondence, prison songs, and a bizarre "novel of the occult" by V. I. Kryzhanovskaia ("The following excerpt picks up in the year 2284, with characters introduced in the first books: Supramati, who began life as British Dr. Ralph Morgan but was enticed by the original Prince Supramati, born in Egypt around 300 B.C., to exchange drops of blood so that the doctor would now live for eternity...") that displays, as the editors point out, good old-fashioned Russian nationalism projected into the far future ("As for Tsargrad [i.e., Constantinople], it's now the capital of the Russian Empire, one of the most powerful states in the world, standing at the head of the great All-Slavic Union"). This stuff entertained tsarist Russia and it will entertain you!Finally, for bragging rights I must mention that I finally finished Proust this year (in English, I'm afraid), and am now reading War and Peace in Russian. Let me tell you, this guy Tolstoy is a good writer!More from A Year in Reading 2008