Orlando Figes had me at the opening sentence of Revolutionary Russia 1891-1991: A History, “My aim is to provide a brief account of the Russian Revolution in the longue durée, to chart one hundred years of history as a single revolutionary cycle.”
This takes me right back to my happiest days at school reading French medieval social history and Soviet politics. The longue durée is a style of historiography that tries to show that history happens at a deeper social, material and environmental level than a purely political narrative can capture. A lot of these types of books are massive, this is not a big book in the traditional sense. Revolutionary Russia is a beautifully written work of historical concision; precise and clipped but never feeling rushed. It is a literary work that befits a recipient of the Wolfson History Prize. His writing stimulates all sorts of fresh questions and opens up vistas into the deeply tragic Soviet experience from which the reader can think about more deeply. I wish I had this excellent book in school. It is the best single volume on Soviet history I have ever read.
Figes picks his details like novelist. Like for example, the night of the October insurrection when the Lenin is smuggled back in Petrograd but is stopped by a policeman—he is not recognized and is allowed to pass, and rushes off to bully the Central Committee into launching the October revolution. A great “What If? “ question of history. And the torture techniques of the Red Terror during the Civil War in places read likes pages out of 1984 and Room 101: what is with police states and torture by rabid rats eating flesh? Or the social mobility caused by Stalin’s purges where young apparatchiks took the job titles and prestige of their seniors who were dragged off to the Gulag. The fact that Brezhnev and Khrushchev were both promoted off the factory floor in 1928 in the wake of their immediate party superiors being arrested personalizes the argument about the social basis of Stalinism in a way I hadn’t thought about before.
Soviet foreign policy also comes into sharper relief. That Castro and Cuba voluntarily chose Communism led the Kremlin to remember too fondly the lost opportunity of the suppressed Soviet uprisings of 1918 across Europe and to over play their hand in the Caribbean. This rings true to me for all countries are haunted by the spectre of the past success and failures (to misquote Marx). And the immense fortitude of the Soviet people to endure the unbearable comes across in almost every page; the slave labor used to dig the White Canal by hand in which tens of thousands died (and was used as PR triumph by the regime) or the great Patriotic War where the daily loss of life was double the Allied losses on D-Day. That is two D-Days every day for four years.
Revolutionary Russia came out earlier this year, just as Russia was pushing back into its traditional spheres of influence in Crimea and the Ukraine, acting on imperatives that would have been well understood by the Soviet regime. In doing so, the contours and control of the security state run by the former KGB officer Vladimir Putin have become ever more apparent. The last question then is whether Figes has been too optimistic in dating the end of the Revolution at 1991, perhaps the longue durée of Soviet history is longer than we suspected.
If you’ve seen Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line you’ll be well-prepared for what you’re getting into with Showa 1944-1953. The anti-war tone and island imagery are very similar; both tales also revolve around a central character whose positive experiences with native islanders contrast sharply with what they’re forced to endure fighting a short distance away.
I think that, like me, you too will be surprised when Shigeru Mizuki makes it out of the war alive (forgetting for a moment that there is a fourth volume coming that deals with events into the 1980s). It’s surprising that he survives not only physically, but also emotionally. If you’ve read the first two volumes, you know that Shigeru Mizuki’s possesses a unique sense of humour that is often expressed through his ravenous appetite and staggering capacity for punishment. That he didn’t lose his sense of humour or his life despite the severe mental and physical trials he went through is deeply affecting.
Mizuki’s escape from the war isn’t an escape from suffering. Postwar Japan was a hard place, and although Mizkui seems finally to have escaped regular beatings, his prodigious hunger rarely gets a break amid regular food shortages and frequent unemployment. Fishmongery will not contain Mizuki’s energies; running a boarding house merely provides an insecure launch pad into the world of professional art. We leave volume three with Mizuki poised for great accomplishment.
Showa 1953-1989 will be coming soon, but I really feel that Showa 1944-1953 is the heart of the story.
Mark Penney, Ampersand Inc.
It was easy to choose my favourite book of 2014. I looked back over all of the books I encountered and thought, “Which one stuck with me? Who made me care enough to lose sleep?” Without a doubt it's Ann M. Martin’s Rain Reign¸ inspired by her personal experience with the aftermath of Hurricane Irene.
Growing up, I devoured a steady diet of The Babysitter’s Club, Martin’s blockbuster paperback series now synonymous with the ‘90s. But even though I read every single one in numbered order with an almost religious fanaticism, they might as well have been magazines for the lack of an impression that the stories or characters had on me. Fast-forward 20 years later and I’m reading Ann M. Martin’s writing again, but this time to a much different effect. Rain Reign made me laugh and cry, feel worried for and proud of our heroine Rose, and hug my dog a couple of times.
Rose is very unique; she’s obsessed with prime numbers and homonyms, a side effect of her high-functioning autism, which in turn makes school, friendships and her relationship with her father fraught with stress. Her uncle Weldon and adopted mutt Rain are the bright spots in her world. Rose’s dad found Rain behind the neighborhood bar, wandering lost without a collar with owners nowhere to be found (although he didn’t put much effort into the search); girl and dog are inseparable until a hurricane blows in, Rain becomes lost, and Rose has to challenge her core beliefs about right and wrong to get her dog back home.
"There have been many books and articles that revel in describing exactly how grotesque and shameful the behaviour of alcoholic writers can be. That wasn't my intention. What I wanted was to discover how each of these men — and, along the way, some of the many others who'd suffered from the disease — experienced and thought about their addiction. If anything, it was an expression of my faith in literature and its power to map the more difficult regions of human experience and knowledge."
Olivia Laing, The Trip to Echo Spring
As I spend almost every day with books and authors, I think I’m probably predisposed to find stories about writers and alcohol fascinating—it rather comes with the territory. But you don’t have to work in publishing to be hooked by The Trip to Echo Spring by Olivia Laing, you just have to love great writing.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, John Cheever, and Raymond Carver were some of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. They were friends, allies, students, mentors and inspirations. They were also alcoholics. Booze defined their work and their everyday lives.
In The Trip to Echo Spring, Laing—who grew up in an alcoholic family herself—tries to get to grips with these men and their troubled relationship with alcohol by visiting the places they were closely associated with. As she criss-crosses the United States, slowly connecting the dots between them, it becomes a quest of sorts:
“I thought it might be possible to build a kind of topographical map of alcoholism, tracing its developing contours from the pleasures of intoxication through the gruelling realities of the drying-out process. As I worked across the country, passing back and forth between books and lives, I hoped I might come closer to understanding what alcohol addiction means, or at least to finding out what those who struggled with and were sometimes destroyed by it thought alcohol had meant to them.”
The result is a lyrical and introspective attempt to better understand these writers, and an poignant examination of addiction's parasitic connection to creativity—how is that alcohol can inspire writers even as it gnaws away at them? There are no easy answers here. But reading Laing's book is like floating slowly down a meandering river. It's best if you just let yourself be carried along.
(PS: if you’re curious about the title, it comes from a line in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. ‘Echo Spring’ is a nickname for a liquor cabinet.)
December 03, 2014
If you are invited to someone’s house for the first time do you ever catch yourself picking through your host’s bookshelves and subconsciously judging their taste based on the selection of books on those shelves? I’ve done it! Even though reading preferences cannot be the only criteria for understanding someone, they could certainly tell you a lot about a person.
I enjoy asking people about the books they’ve read, reread or never finished reading. So does Pamela Paul, the editor of The New York Times Book Review. This is why I didn’t hesitate to buy the collection of interviews conducted and compiled by Pamela Paul in the beautiful hardcover edition By the Book, published by Henry Holt & Co in 2014. This book includes interviews with sixty-five interesting personalities such as writers David Mitchell, Jhumpa Lahiri, J.K.Rowling, John Grisham, Khaled Hosseini, John Irving, actors such as Emma Thompson or Arnold Schwarzenegger, and singers like Sting. It is fascinating to learn their reading preferences, their likes and dislikes, and the books which have had the greatest impact on them as individuals and professionals.
I learned that Jane Eyre remains a favorite literary character for Amy Tan; that of all the people in the world, Malcolm Gladwell would prefer to meet Shakespeare’s wife; that Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland had the greatest impact on Joyce Carol Oates; that James McBride has never read “the great Russian writers”; that the first and last horror book Dan Brown has ever opened was The Exorcist and that Sting is absolutely ignorant of self-help books. Oh! And Nicholson Baker likes reading diaries.
Even a devoted reader might have a few titles which they consider as “guilty pleasures” or a book, which would be just so alien, that it feels like they don’t belong to one’s shelf. Imagine writers have those too!
You will feel better if you know that there are books everybody is supposed to like, but the writers didn’t; or books everyone had read in the childhood but famous people did not. And of course, some celebrities might also have secrets: “Nothing can be compared to the excitement of a forbidden book”, admits Isabel Allende, who “discovered the irresistible mixture of eroticism and fantasy reading One Thousand and One Nights inside a closet with a flashlight”.
I wasn’t familiar with all the writers in this collection, even less so with the books they talk about. Needless to say, I now have a long to-read list and I can’t wait until my next visit to the library.
Thoughts may already be turning to Christmas, but here are a few of next month's new releases from Raincoast Books:
Three people, each crying out for help.
There's Karen, about to lose her father; Abby, whose son has autism and needs constant care, and Michael, a family man on the verge of bankruptcy. As each sinks under the strain, they're brought together at Moreland's Clinic.
From the international bestselling author, Sarah Rayner, Another Night, Another Day is the emotional story of a group of strangers who come together to heal, creating lifelong friendships along the way.
Available December 23
From the New York Times bestselling author of Tempting Fate comes a powerful and riveting novel about a woman whose life begins to unravel in the face of infidelity and addiction.
Grace and Ted Chapman are widely regarded as the perfect literary power couple. Ted is a successful novelist and Grace, his wife of twenty years, is beautiful, stylish, carefree, and a wonderful homemaker. But what no one sees, what is churning under the surface, is Ted's rages. His mood swings. And the precarious house of cards that their lifestyle is built upon.
Saving Grace will have you on the edge of your seat as you follow Grace on her harrowing journey to rock bottom and back.
Available December 30
A pair of scarlet-rimmed coffee cups, two glasses of Bordeaux, light glowing rosily from a street lamp, a bouquet of bright red flowers-Nichole Robertson's follow-up to the beloved Paris in Color captures the hidden corners and secret moments that make Paris the most romantic city in the world. A love letter in rouge to the City of Light, Paris in Love is the perfect valentine for anyone who adores Paris!
Available December 2
Images of the Arctic and Antarctic
For ten years Camille Seaman has documented the rapidly changing landscapes of Earth's polar regions. As an expedition photographer aboard small ships in the Arctic and Antarctic, she has chronicled the accelerating effects of global warming on the jagged face of nearly fifty thousand icebergs. Through Seaman's lens, each towering chunk of ice takes on a distinct personality, giving her work the feel of majestic portraiture.
Available December 2
Essential Tips and Shortcuts (That No One Bothers to Tell You) for Simplifying the Technology in Your Life
Did you know that can you scroll a Web page just by tapping the space bar? How do you recover photos you've deleted by accident? What can you do if your cell phone's battery is dead by dinnertime each day?
When it comes to technology, there's no driver's ed class or government-issued pamphlet covering the essentials. Somehow, you're just supposed to know how to use your phone, tablet, computer, camera, Web browser, e-mail, and social networks. Luckily, award-winning tech expert David Pogue comes to the rescue with Pogue's Basics, a book that will change your relationship with all of the technology in your life.
Available December 9
FOOD & DRINK
New in Paperback
150 Plant-Empowered Recipes to Ignite a Mouthwatering Revolution
Kris Carr and Chad Sarno
In Crazy Sexy Kitchen, the woman who made prevention hot is now making it delicious! In her new book, New York Times best-selling author Kris Carr gives us a Veggie Manifesto for gourmands and novices alike, and it's filled with inspiration, education, and cooking tips-plus more than 150 nourishing, nosh-worthy recipes.
Available December 9
I refuse to discuss Christmas yet, so here are just some of the new (non-festive) books available this month from Raincoast Books!
With the scope of Dune and the commercial action of Independence Day, this near-future trilogy is the first chance for English-speaking readers to experience this multiple-award-winning phenomenon from China's most beloved science fiction author.
Set against the backdrop of China's Cultural Revolution, a secret military project sends signals into space to establish contact with aliens. An alien civilization on the brink of destruction captures the signal and plans to invade Earth. Meanwhile, on Earth, different camps start forming, planning to either welcome the superior beings and help them take over a world seen as corrupt, or to fight against the invasion. The result is a science fiction masterpiece of enormous scope and vision.
Available November 11
Join Small Print Toronto in conjunction with Chronicle Books, the Avenue Road Arts School and Mabel's Fables on October 8th for a live event for kids with artist Hervé Tullet, the New York Times bestselling author of Press Here and Mix It Up!
Mix It Up! A Live Art Event for Kids 3-7 with Hervé Tullet
October 8 4:00PM - 5:00PM
The Great Hall
1087 Queen Street West
> Toronto, ON M6J 1H3
For FREE tickets go to: www.smallprinttoronto.org
Here are just a few of the new books available from Raincoast Books in October!
An Irish Country Novel
Doctor O'Reilly heeds the call to serve his country the new novel in Patrick Taylor's beloved Irish Country series. Shifting deftly between two very different eras, An Irish Doctor in Peace and At War reveals more about O'Reilly's tumultuous past, even as Ballybucklebo faces the future in its own singular fashion.
Available October 14
Danielle Krysa is a Vancouver-based artist, curator and writer. Her blog The Jealous Curator receives 250,000 page views a month.
Get Unstuck, Discover New Ideas. Advice & Projects from 50 Successful Artists
ISBN 9781452118888 | $36.95 pb
Creative block is a crippling—and unfortunately universal—challenge for artists. No longer! This chunky blockbuster of a book is chock-full of solutions for overcoming all manner of artistic impediment. The blogger behindThe Jealous Curator interviews 50 successful international artists and mines their insights on how to conquer self-doubt, stay motivated, and get new ideas to flow.
Contemporary Artists Hunt and Gather, Cut and Paste, Mash Up and Transform
ISBN 9781452124803 | $33.95 pb
Chronicle Books | 16 Sept 2014
Collage has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity during the twenty-first century, resulting in an explosion of creativity. This showcase of cutting-edge contemporary art from across the globe features galleries of collage by 30 practitioners, from the surreal landscapes of Beth Hoeckel to Fabien Souche's humorous appropriations of pop culture.
Vancouver September 22
Talk / Q&A / Collage Workshop
Granville Island Hotel, 1253 Johnston Street, Vancouver
Monday, September 22, 1:00 PM – 3:30 PM Cost: $10.
Space is limited and registration is required. To register, please visit Opus Granville Island or contact them at 604‑736‑7028.
Toronto September 24
Talk / Q&A / Book Signing
Swipe, 401 Richmond St. West, Toronto
Wednesday, September 24, 6:00pm-8:00pm