Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Summer Nonfiction Roundup

It’s common knowledge around here that I don’t read a lot of book-length nonfiction… but I do sometimes read—and, yes, even enjoy!—the occasional book about Russian arts and culture. Here are some quick notes on three books I’ve read or been reading this summer:

Frank Westerman’s Engineers of the Soul: The Grandiose Propaganda of Stalin’s Russia, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett, is the kind of book that makes me want to seek out more nonfiction. Not only does Westerman address an odd combination of topics that interest me—Stalin-era control over writers, how writers handled said control, and irrigation in the Soviet Union—he also presents his material at a measured pace through intersecting narrative threads.

Much of the book concerns Kara-Bogaz, part of the Caspian Sea, telling of Westerman’s efforts to travel there to see the place Konstantin Paustovsky wrote about in his novel, Kara-Bogaz (he wrote the name as Кара-Бугаз), which was adapted for screen. Along the way, Westerman offers background on Paustovsky’s life and family, Maksim Gorky, Andrei Platonov, the nasty Belomor Canal junket for writers, plus various and sundry other figures and events connected with socialist realism and social control. I think Engineers of the Soul would appeal most to general readers with an interest in water issues, socialist realism, and/or Soviet-era authors. Don’t be surprised if I read Kara-Bogaz.

Valery Panyushkin’s 12 Who Don’t Agree: The Battle for Freedom in Putin’s Russia, translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz, also kept me reading. Though the book felt a little disjointed—each chapter profiles a person connected with the Russian opposition, which seems a little disjointed itself—I found lots of interesting chunks of recent history and updates on the Russia I knew in the 1990s. The portrait of Anatoly Yermolin, for example, includes bits on the so-called October Events of 1993, and Vissarion Aseyev’s story offers an account of what happened in Beslan in 2004.

One of the most affecting scenes is in the chapter on Ilya Yashin, who’s forced to get off a bus in the hinterlands during a blizzard, introduces an elderly, apolitical couple who take Yashin in for the night. When Yashin asks if they know the Yabloko party—or any other political party—the answer is “You eat and stop jabbering.” When Yashin presses a bit more and asks if they know the president, the man says, “Putin, I think?... Yeltsin’s over?”

Finally, there’s Rachel Polonsky’s Molotov’s Magic Lantern: Travels in Russian History, which I’ve been struggling with since one day last winter when the snow was so cold it sounded like Styrofoam under my feet when I went to the mailbox to find the book. I think my problem with Molotov’s Magic Lantern is that Polonsky travels so much, both around Russia and within her own mental filing cabinets, which are stuffed to bursting with names and stories related to history and literature. Though I read in small, manageable chunks and find lots of points that relate to my interests, the endless flow of data and constant zigzagging between historical periods and Polonsky’s thoughts sometimes gets so overwhelming and disorienting that I want to be a backseat driver and ask Polonsky to either slow down or let me out of the car. Despite all that, I’ve resolved that I will finish Molotov’s Magic Lantern. Polonsky’s visit to Staraya Russa—think Dostoevsky and The Brothers K.—was interesting, plus I’ve visited lots of the cities in the book and enjoy reading another traveler’s impressions of things like Cossack life outside Rostov-on-Don. My next stops include Taganrog, Arkhangel’sk, and Murmansk.

Disclaimers: A big thank you to the publishers of all the books—The Overlook Press, Europa Editions, and FSG, in that order—for supplying review copies. A big thanks, too, to Amy Henry of The Black Sheep Dances for requesting Molotov’s Magic Lantern for me from FSG. Beyond the usual disclaimers, I should add that I always enjoy speaking with Overlook, Europa, and Marian Schwartz.

Up next: I(rina) Grekova’s Кафедра (The Faculty) then Aleksei Slapovskii’s Большая книга перемен (The Big Book of Changes).

Photo credit: Space photography of Kara-Bogaz from NASA, via Wikipedia.


  1. I'm intrigued by Engineers of the Soul. I passed on The 12 and am regretting it, and I have Molotov's Magic Lantern in my TBR and appreciate your thoughts! I've been away from your blog for some reason but I've put you in my blogroll, finally (!) so I'll be back more often from now on.

  2. It's always nice to hear from you, Marie -- and thanks for adding me to your blogroll! I'll be interested to read what you think of any/all of these books. I enjoyed Engineers of the Soul even more than I'd hoped: the narrative voice and pace worked perfectly for me and it's tough to find books about irrigation *and* literature! Even if 12 is less my type of book--Big Politics isn't a topic I seek out--I found the personal (or back story) aspects of many stories particularly compelling. And I'll just keep working on Molotov's Magic Lantern!