Thursday, September 29, 2016

STALIN by Edvard Radzinsky ✮ ✮ ✮

I had a real love/hate relationship with this book. When it came to elements of writing style, I found that I enjoyed Radzinsky very much. However, I found that I was rather disappointed in the level of analysis that the book provided.
To the best of my memory’s reliability, I think this is the third biography of Stalin that I have read over the last twenty-five or so years. Given what I remember of the others, I found Radzinsky’s style of writing to be very lucid and simple in comparison. There were none of the lengthy sentences and hefty vocabulary that one normally finds in a significant work of nonfiction. In short, the book was a very easy, if lengthy, read. I also felt that, despite its length, it was well organized and decently edited.

Despite its strengths, there was one critical element that I found quite lacking: analysis. Radzinsky marches through Stalin’s early years in Georgia and his growing role in the history of the Russian revolution, laying down the course of events in brisk, brief kernels. Unfortunately, there was nowhere near the synthesizing of information that I would like to have seen. Quite frequently, the why of things was not explained. Over and over, the reader is told about shifting alliances, but there is very little written to help the reader to understand why these shifts kept happening. If the book had been a novel, a reviewer would have said that the characters lacked motivation for their actions. Based on what is given in this book, a reader would have serious difficulty understanding Stalin’s Purges because it seems that the vast majority of the players went from cohort to out of favor in a very big way in a very big hurry.

Although it was often easy to loose track of which direction the relationships were heading, many sections of the book, such as those about the tragic years of famine, read quite compellingly. Many sections of the book gave the feeling of having been written as self-contained stories which were then compiled into a book. It was not always a bad thing, as often the sections flowed very well within themselves. However, for the most part, it made the book feel very choppy.

The one thing that makes Radzinsky’s book stand apart from other biographies of Stalin is that the author had unprecedented access to documents from the old Soviet archives. He quotes extensively from these primary source materials to give the reader an inside view into the minds of his subjects by using their own letters and reports. I am a huge fan of authors who extensively direct quote their subjects, so in this, I loved the book.

I do not think that I would recommend this book for people who are new to the subject matter, given the lack of continuity of story line and explanation of motivations. If you would like to learn more, I would highly recommend Albert Marrin’s Stalin. Although aimed at the young adult crowd, this biography remains one of my favorites for taking a very complex man and making him understandable. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

THE GREAT THINKERS OF THE KAZAKH STEPPE by Yerkebulan Dzhelbuldin (trans. Dana Jeteyeva) ✮ ✮ ✮

I was motivated to read this book because I was participating in a reading challenge for the Olympics, for which I needed a philosophy book either about Kazakhstan or by a writer from there. After a lot of digging I found this title, just released in the United Kingdom.
In the interest of full exposure, I must admit that I really am not overly fond of pure philosophy. This book, however, was about how the cultural factors in the area and its unique global location between the Arab west and the oriental east affect the thinking of this region.

The book contains twelve chapters, each of which deals with the life and work of a single great Kazakh thinker. Some of these people were involved in politics, some in music and literature, and others were known for their intellect and their role as teachers.

My one issue with the book was that it was quite a difficult read. Not because of the ideas that were central to the book but because the translation was very rough. My guess is that the Kazakh language does not have article adjectivesóa, an, and theóand that their sentence structure is vastly different from ours. I am thinking that plural nouns might not be present either. There are also a large number of vocabulary words which, while the definition might make one think that the word worked, had a connotation that was not in keeping with the circumstances in which the word was used.

Overall, I did enjoy learning about the culture and intellectual life of this country at the crossroads of the east and west. It appears to be a one of a kind book, and although it wasnít an easy read, neither was it a slog. If the topic interests you, I would read the book.

Monday, September 12, 2016

GIRL AT WAR by Sara Nović ✮✮✮✮✮

What a wonderful find this novel was! I have been reading, for an Olympic challenge, books by foreign authors or set in foreign countries. This is one of those books that I never would have read had I not been taking part in a challenge that caused me to look for specific genre of books from specific countries.

On the surface, there wasn’t anything seemingly extraordinary about the plot line. This is a contemporary book about a Croatian girl who suffers several tragic experiences before physically moving to a safer environment. Unfortunately, her mind doesn’t make the leap to safety as easily as her body.

Author Sara Nović writes in a spare style that is perfect for the starkness of this story. In many ways the writing reminded me of Cormac McCarthy”s The Road. I am always in awe of authors who can convey such powerful emotion in such simple language. This debut novel is a powerful testament by a young Croatian writer about just what it means to grow up in a war-torn homeland.

Given the complexity of the characters, the clear plot lines, and the emotional heft, it is amazing to think that this is Nović’s freshman effort. Watching her grow as an author is going to be such a pleasure. I highly recommend this novel for all readers of historical fiction (although the book is technically set too recent to qualify), war fiction, and international domestic fiction. If you enjoyed All the Light We Cannot See and The Tiger's Wife, you will definitely not want to miss this one.

Saturday, September 10, 2016


The perfect writing spot: Liberty Creek--along
its decent into the Copper River
I had the fun coincidence of finishing this novel while traveling in the area in which it is set. At the time of this writing, I sit on the banks of Liberty Creek, along the falls that drop from a height of some 4,000 ft a total of 3,000 ft before surging into the mighty Copper River, almost visible below. Readers of Eowyn Ivey’s newest novel, To the Bright Edge of the World, will know the Copper by her fictional name: the Wolverine River. A few miles downstream of this point can be found the confluence of the Copper and the Chitna, know to Ivey’s readers as the Trail River.

To the Bright Edge of the World is a work of historical fiction which recreates the actual 1885 journey of Lieutenant Henry T. Allen and Private Fred Fickett, who traveled the length of the Copper River, a feat never before accomplished by a white man, before portaging overland to the previously explored Tanana River, which they followed to its joining with the then partially settled mighty Yukon and traveled that third river’s length to the village of St. Michael on the coast of Norton Sound. Since Ivey adds some magical realism elements to her story, she renames Lt. Allen Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forrester and Private Fickett becomes Ivey’s Sergeant Tillman. 

The confluence of the Chitna/"Trail" and the
Copper/"Wolverine" Rivers
Just as she gives her characters her own names, so too does she rename the rivers and even some of the native tribes—her Midnooskis appear to be an Athabaskan people, the Ahtna. In my research I did find some reference to a real people called the Midnooski’s, but from the novel’s details, it seems that the Ahtna are the tribe to which she refers. I am unclear as to why she does this only some of the time. The first tribe that assists the fictional Lt. Col. Forrester is the factually named Eyak. My assumption is that she confers upon her Midnooskis the mythical characteristics which became her trademark style in her first novel, The Snow Child, and she either does not wish to offend the Ahtna by association or perhaps falsely portray their folklore.

Our youngest daughter out blueberry picking
I very much enjoyed The Snow Child, with its sense of whimsical wonder and the relatable pathos of a couple longing for a child. In To the Bright Edge of the World, Ivey absolutely out-writes that debut novel. Both novels bring the reader home to our Alaska, sharing early settlement in our state and giving a sense of our rich culture and the challenging daily lives of those who have built lives in the wild. Many of the things she writes about still hold true today. Devil’s club is still the bane of every Alaskan hiker, our mighty rivers still boom and crackle as they break up and begin their journey once again each spring, and just three days before reading of blueberry pie in the novel, my husband and daughter had picked fresh berries that I made into a pie. In this novel, as opposed to her debut, her history is richer and more varied, her characters deeper and more diverse, and her magical elements far more subtle.

Magic was present in her first novel, but it permeates every plot line of this sophomore effort. Just as in her first novel, those elements are so finely drafted that at times the reader is drawn into the realm of belief. If you have a serious dislike of magical realism, then you might be one of the few people who would not enjoy this novel. I would encourage even those people to give it a go, as the historical fiction elements are much stronger in this book and could carry through even a reticent reader.

In addition to the journey of exploration that is based on fact there are two other plot lines. All plot lines are shaped using journal entries, letters, drawings, maps, and photos. The two main threads involve the letters, dispatches, and private journal of Allen Forrester and the letters and journal of his wife, Sophie Forrester, left behind at the army post in Vancouver, Washington Territory. In addition, there is a further set of letters which pass between a great-grand-nephew of the Forresters and the curator of a small museum in a town along the Wolverine/Copper River. Writings of several other people weigh in as well: Forrester’s companions, Sgt. Tillman and Lt. Pruitt, and a pharmacist that Sophie corresponds with in search of assistance for her venture into the new technology of the taking and development of photographs. Through the insights of this variety of writers all elements, both mythical and factual, begin to emerge and take shape in a far more subtle fashion than any other form of narration could have achieved. These multiple first person narrators allow the story to expand and give the reader a feel for both the trials and grandeur of the Alaskan wilds and the life in a territorial post during the later years of the nineteenth century.

There are very few readers who wouldn’t, in my opinion, fall in love with this novel. Those who have zero tolerance for magical realism might fall in that group. Readers of psychological thrillers might find that they enjoy this one more than they might normally enjoy a work of historical fiction as the magical realism lends a genuine feel of suspense to the plot as it toys with the characters’ sense of mental stability. This novel comes highly recommended—it might well become my number one work of fiction this year. Many thanks to my reading sister, Nicole Rohr, who messaged me about this novel before I even knew its release was imminent and allowed me to be first on my library’s waiting list for what will surely become another international bestseller.

If you would like to see some of our family photos from the Copper River area, I have put together a second post (click here). There are photos of the Copper River Basin, the terrain that the explorers would have traversed, how the modern Ahta subsistence fish on the Copper River, and from a Wrangell St. Elias National Park exhibit on Lt. Allen's exploration of the river. 


Although I do not personally know Eowyn Ivey, we do live less that fifty miles apart in our magnificent state of Alaska. In tandem with my five star review of her latest novel, To the Bright Edge of the World, I thought I would share some of our family pictures of the Copper River Basin area in which her novel is set. I have included pictures from two trips, one in 2011 and the second late August of 2016, when I, by sheer coincidence, happened to finish and review To the Bright Edge while camping in the area. There are three sections of pictures: what the terrain would have been like, how the modern natives subsistence fish, and an exhibit that tells about the real people who were Ivey's inspiration.

What would the terrain have been like for Ivey's Lt. Col. Forrester and company?

From high points along the way the expedition group would have seen stunning views of the Copper/"Wolverine" River basin.

In the distance they would have seen some of the tallest peaks in North America.

Their path would frequently have been blocked by tributaries such as Liberty Creek shown here.

"Um, yeah no! Wouldn't want to have to pack too much gear across this way!"

" logistical issue after another!"

Journeying through the surrounding woodlands would not have been a whole lot easier for the men of the expedition.

Both Ivey's fictional and the real expedition party used the high ground to orientate themselves and no doubt, as my middle daughter did, took a minute to rest and marvel at the view. 

Just as the Ahtna people did, my youngest daughter enjoys collecting sticks and using them to whittle and build her own bows and arrows.

 The flatter places, such as this one further down Liberty Creek, certainly make for an easier crossing than the route  my daughter chose above!

Both the real and the fictional explorers gained valuable assistance from the native people that they met along the Chitna/"Trail" River. These two rivers meet in a mighty convergence near a major Ahtna tribal fishing area along the Copper River. 

Life was very difficult for the members of the expedition, but the land they explored was certainly stunning! To see how the modern modern First Nations people pull their food from the mighty Copper River, check out the next section.

Life in Alaska is no doubt easier now, but some things, such as the Ahtna people feeding their families through traditional methods of subsistence fishing for salmon, haven't changed much.

In July of 2011, my middle son and I took a midnight stroll. We found a couple of water routes leading from the airfield of the tiny town of Chitna down to an Ahtna fishing camp. The first one was drivable:

The second was just a series of planks across a much faster creek. Can I just say that I would not want to have to haul my catch of the day out along that route?

Down each route, we found fish wheels, a traditional method still used by the Ahtna for subsistence fishing for salmon. The drivable creek was criss-crossed with planks to make walking around the camp easier. 

The camps included simple picnic tables and processing tables set close to the wheels.

Most of the wheels were accessed by planks, but one enterprising family used a railroad rail.

While we were there, a family came down to check their wheel and filet their salmon. The lady very kindly spoke to us a while. It had been a "pretty good day" as the wheel had brought in over ninety fish. Although her husband isn't Native Alaskan, they are still allowed subsistence rights, as she is Ahtna and they live on tribal land. Along to help them were her brother and brother-in-law. Their family runs their wheel for about three months each year and preserves their fish in many ways, from the most traditional method of smoking to the more modern canning in oil or freezing. Natives may share their catch with any family and with other Alaska Natives, but they are not permitted to sell any--either to other natives or to non-native people. 

Fish wheels are works of art and engineering. Each one is different, as they tend to be cobbled together with whatever the family has on hand or can find.

We saw a number of wheels that had old highway and street signs on them.

We also found a couple of wheels that were built in the traditional fashion, using only natural materials.

This August, our family paid a visit to the Copper River, and we were amazed at how high the water was running! My husband took my picture with this ingenious wheel.

Its builder made clever use of a couple of grocery carts! 

During our 2011 trip, we were there at the height of the season, in July. There were whole islands of fish wheels connected together in the middle of the Copper River, allowing their owners to walk from one to another all the way to the middle of the river.

Some wheels were close to shore as with those at the fish camps.

Both near shore and in the middle of the river, the wheels stretched almost as far as the eye could see.

During our trip this August, we stopped in at the visitor's center for Wrangell St. Elias National Park. I was delighted to see that they had an exhibit about the real-life inspiration for Eowyn Ivey's Lt. Col. Allen Forrester, Lt. Henry Allen. The exhibit also shared some great information about the river, the natives, and the history of the area.

This board showed where the Eyak people, the first group of natives that assisted the explorers, made their home and where the expedition truly began.

There was an excellent history timeline. I snatched a picture of the section that pertained to Ivey's book.

I was ridiculously excited to find a whole section of boards pertaining to a number of people who were central to the novel. The first of these was Lt. Henry Allen:

In addition to Allen himself there was a board for the Ahtna chief who clearly inspired the character of the Midnooski chief in Ivey's story.

And finally, there was even a board for the miners who helped the expedition until they discovered an area where they wanted to stake their claim--with all its ramifications for the history of our state and her native people.

I cannot say enough how much I loved Eowyn Ivey's newest book! The Snow Child was a lovely novel, but To the Bright Edge of the World was absolutely brilliant on so many levels. Again, if you would like to read my complete review, you can find it here.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

BEING MORTAL by Atul Gawande ✮ ✮ ✮ ✮ ✮

In his newest work of nonfiction, Atul Gawande speaks frankly about aging and death: how we can make the final years—our own and those of our loved ones—rich and fulfilling. 

The first major section of the book focuses on nursing homes and assisted living facilities, giving a history of how these forms of care giving for the elderly came into being and have evolved. Gawande also talks about cultural elements of elder care and how the issue is approached around the globe. This section of the book really hit close to home for me, as ten months ago my mother passes away. Prior to her passing, she failed rapidly, too rapidly for her independent spirit to adjust to the changes that were becoming necessary in the way she lived her life. 

The second major section of the book addressed the time in a person’s life when they are actively dying. When is it time to let go and how can we confront head-on this traumatic end-phase of living? Almost two years ago, we had to make just such a decision for our sixteen-year-old daughter, who had a brain that didn’t grow and spent her life in a severely handicapped and medically fragile body that in no way was equipped to house her powerful soul.

No doubt like many readers, this book was very personal for me. Many of my friends advised me not to read it, as they were concerned that it might be too soon after the loss of my daughter and mother. While I cried during many parts, I am so glad that I did read it. I wish I had read it before either of these two losses occurred in my life. As I listened to the first section, a frequent thought was how differently I might have approached the end phase of my mom’s life had I had the benefit of Dr. Gawande’s insight prior to her life reaching a critical point. My thoughts as I read the second part were more positive, leaving me feeling like we had made the most loving decision possible in helping our daughter have a pain and distress free death that allowed for her personal dignity through the very end.

In both sections, the personal dignity of the elderly and ill is a crucial factor. Dr. Gawande focuses on the patients themselves, frequently reminding his readers that one of the common mistakes in elder care is treating them in much the same way we would treat a child, a practice which is both demeaning to these people in our lives who have the most wisdom born of living and frustrating to them in a time when they themselves are becoming most distressed and annoyed by the limitations their bodies are placing on them.

Being Mortal is bold in asking the difficult questions and giving answers that might not be what the reader wants to hear. I highly recommend this book for all readers, especially if you have yet to personally experience the illness or death of a loved one. As the saying goes, death and taxes are unavoidable in life. Dr. Gawande’s book is a wonderful instruction manual for enabling people to make the most respectful and loving choices during what is always a time of great trial.


I had very mixed feelings about this generally highly rated memoir by Joan Didion. The purpose of the book was to work through her grief following the unexpected deaths of both her husband and her daughter. If I were rating the book completely on this premise, I would have given the book five stars. However, the book came across as highly pretentious, which utterly ruined it for me.

All throughout the book Joan refers to numerous famous people, high end real estate and hotels, and other accoutrements of the lives of the rich and famous. If it had been occasional or if the references had directly related to the point of her book it wouldn’t have been an issue. Unfortunately, only one story of a friend whose daughter had been murdered had the remotest connection to Joan’s emotional journey. The book was an endless namedropping litany of people who I had never heard of but assume I should have based on her writing, recitation of hotel names such as the Ritz, and stories about jetting to Columbia for film festivals with famous actors taking a turn as pilot. The point of the book was supposed to be about loss and grief, and the majority of the book missed the mark completely.

In December of 2014, we lost our sixteen year old daughter. ten months later, in October of 2015, my mother passed away. With this shared experience of losing two loved ones so close together, I anticipated really being able to identify with this memoir. In that, I was not disappointed. I could absolutely identify with the author’s experiences in the hospital and with her feelings about trying to move forward after so tremendous a loss. Sadly, this element of the book was so overshadowed by the absolute pretension that permeated the work.

Despite not being as excited about the book as others, I still found the book a worthwhile read. I very much enjoyed Joan Didion’s writing style. Her prose was lucid and contemplative in places, lending a gentle, touching quality to her observations. There were some parts that I felt were a bit too close to home for me at the moment, making me happy I hadn’t read it sooner, but overall it felt comforting to know that she seems to understand where I am at. If you have been through the death of someone you are close to, I do recommend this book, even if it had its drawbacks.


I have heard so many things about Kundera, and about this novel in particular, that I couldn't wait to read it. An Olympic reading challenge put on by my friends over at The Reader's Room was the perfect opportunity.

Unfortunately, one of the things that I find is that when I am on a deadline to read books I don't always enjoy them as much because I read them at a time when I am just not in the mental space to maximize the experience. Don't get me wrong, I love challenges. Challenges often get me to read a great work that might have languished on my shelf forever. That was the case with this novel. The only problem was that I knew by the time I was twenty pages in that it just wasn't the right time to read this book.

Like any great book, this one is composed of many layers: marriage, infidelity, philosophical musings, history--you get the idea. And Milan Kundera writes them all well. Central to the novel are two writers and the typist that they, for a brief span, shared. I even found his secondary characters particularly well developed, although I never found a single character that I could honestly say that I would have liked to call friend. As the plot circles back and forth through their intertwined lives, you find yourself sympathizing with characters you might otherwise despise, which is always a sign of great empathetic writing, and even if you don't share in the character's inner musings you nonetheless are willing to wander along down the mental garden path.

This, though, was why I think I would have enjoyed this book more had I read it at another time. My life was particularly emotional while I was reading this book, and I found the prose too deep for what I needed at the time. I did give the book four stars in the end--out of recognition for the author's undoubtable talent and his ability to build his characters from their inner selves out. Had I read this novel while in a better place, it would no doubt have been a five star read for me.