2011 Memoirs

The Possessed – Elif Batuman

Five words from the blurb: funny, thoughtful, Russian, writers, travels

I love the idea of Russian literature, but I have to admit that it scares me and so I have yet to try any (apart from The Master And Margarita, which scared me even more!) This book appealed to me because it allows the reader to glimpse into the world of Russian literature in an entertaining and less imposing way.

The Possessed is part memoir, part travelogue and follows Batuman through her Russian studies at Stanford University, to her adventures travelling through California, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Hungary and Russia. The book is littered with interesting little snippets of information about Russian authors and their texts.

On the third day of the Tolstoy conference, a professor from Yale read a paper on tennis. In Anna Karenina, he began, Tolstoy represents tennis in a very negative light. Anna and Vronsky swat futilely at the tiny ball, poised on the edge of a vast spiritual and moral abyss. When he wrote that scene, Tolstoy himself had never played tennis, which he only knew as an English fad. At the age of sixty-eight, Tolstoy was given a tennis racket and taught the rules of the game. He became an instant tennis addict.

But unfortunately I was less keen on the travelogue aspects of the book and frequently found my mind drifting from the page. There were too many unnecessary details and I felt that these detracted from the more insightful sections about Russian literature.

A few days after visiting Gur-i-Amir, we went to the old Soviet department store in the Russian part of the city to buy Eric some pants.

I’m pleased that I read The Possessed because it has inspired me to pick up some of the Russian classics, but I wish that the book had concentrated on the books rather than the travelling.


2000 - 2007 Booker Prize Historical Fiction Orange Prize Other Prizes

The Siege – Helen Dunmore


Short listed for 2001 Orange Prize and Whitbread Novel of the Year Award

In September 1941 German troops surrounded the city of Leningrad, cutting off all supply routes. This left the 3 millions residents battling for survival – most so hungry that they resorted to making soup from strips of leather. 

The Siege is historical fiction at its best. The writing was so vivid that I almost felt as though I’d been there.

Late in the morning a lilac-coloured dawn will come, with burning frost that glitters on branches, on spills of frozen water, on snow, cupolas and boarded up statues. Nothing has ever been more beautiful than these broad avenues, the snow-coloured Neva, the parks and embankments. Only the people mar its perfection as they crawl out of their homes into the radiance of snow. Perhaps today is the day when they’ll fail to reach the bread queue. So they move on, flies caught between sheets of glass.

The book focused on one family. This personal insight into the crisis made the events come alive. I felt a deep connection to each member of the family and I willed them all to survive.

The Siege also contained a few chapters from the view-point of Pavlov, the nutritionist controlling the amount of food that each person received with their ration card each day. This was a fantastic addition to the plot as it allowed the real facts and figures of the situation to be revealed to the reader. It also allowed us to learn about the numerous ways in which the citizens were advised get nutrition from objects they possessed in their homes – some much more unusual than others.

As you can imagine this could never be described as a happy book, but I can only admire the strength of human spirit – that desire to survive despite the odds being stacked against them.

Highly recommended.

The Siege is the prequel to the 2010 Booker long listed The Betrayal. If you haven’t read The Siege then I highly recommend that you avoid reading any reviews for The Betrayal – I discovered that my 2010 Booker research had led me to reading a few spoilers for The Siege.

The Siege is my first experience of Helen Dunmore’s writing, but I’m a convert! I hope to read The Betrayal next week, but will also be on the look out for all her other books.

Have you read any Helen Dunmore books?

Which one is your favourite?


2009 Memoirs

The Russian Countess – Edith Sollohub

Edith Sollohub was the daughter of a high ranking Russian diplomat, living in luxury on a large estate in St Petersburg. Her lavish lifestyle was brought to a halt by the Russian Revolution of 1917. Edith was separated from her family and had to endure imprisonment, hunger and loneliness. The Russian Countess is her memoir, giving detailed descriptions of her life as a child and her miraculous story of survival through the hardships of War.

I don’t read many memoirs, but the true story of a Russian Countess forced into unimaginable hardship really appealed to me – I find discovering how real people cope with a tradegy a fascinating subject.

The book was packed with photographs and documents which enriched the reading experience for me. It was lovely to see her family growing up!

The pace of the book was very slow. The story sometimes got lost as every person and tiny event was described. It was beautifully written, but at times I found the wordiness and intricate details too much.

Edith’s early life on the estate bored me. Stories of parties, dance lessons and numerous hunting trips held little interest for me. Her fascination with guns was especially alien to me and I often found my mind wandering from the page when she started shooting furry things. 

The book improved as things started to go wrong for her:

Strangely enough there was a certain lurid attraction in this complete disorganisation where everyone depended only upon his own self, his ingenuity, his courage, and frequently also upon his sense of humour or sporting spirit. Maybe in saying this I am expressing the feelings of those who were still young at the time and who had been smiled upon by fortune until then.  

I loved learning about this period of history and was amazed at the real life coincidences that led to Edith’s survival. Truth sometimes is stranger than fiction!

If you are interested in Russian history then this is a valuable resource. The small details in this book are the sort that get lost over the years and so it is great that these memoirs have been preserved and published after all this time, but I do think this book might be too specialised for the average reader.

2008 Audies Audio Book Booker Prize Other Prizes Recommended books Thriller

Child 44 – Tom Rob Smith (Audio Book)

Child 44 was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2008 and it’s presence on the list caused a lot of controversy. I had heard so many different reactions to it that I really didn’t know what to expect. I was planning to read it, but when I saw that it won thriller of the year at the Audies I decided to listen to it instead. I am very pleased I made that decision as it is one of the best audio books I have ever listened to.

The book is set in Stalinist Russia during the 1950s and follows Leo, a state security agent, who slowly realises that the system he is part of arrests and tortures innocent people. He decides to work alone, risking everything to find the identity of a man who is murdering children across the country.

I loved every moment of listening to this book – I was gripped throughout. The complex plot was perfectly paced, the characters believable and packed with layers of emotion which were gradually revealed over the course of the book.

I can see why many people objected to this book’s inclusion on the Booker list – it is not literary fiction and contained no symbolism or hidden meanings buried in the text. It is simply a very good thriller, so anyone after a book to study for hours would be disappointed. As a thriller I can’t fault it – the twists were surprising and well thought out, the dilemmas the characters faced were thought provoking and tragic, and the cold, icy setting was perfect for adding to the chilling atmosphere.

There  were a few gruesome scenes, so the squeamish (especially those who love cats!) should proceed with caution, but I thought the violence was appropriate and was needed to emphasize the difficult circumstances the Russian people had to endure on a daily basis.

I highly recommend this book, especially the expertly narrated audio version, to anyone who loves engaging thrillers.



Did you enjoy Child 44?

Have you read the sequel, The Secret Speech?

1960s Classics

The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov






Matthew’s raving about The Master and Margarita persuaded me to buy a copy, and I am very pleased I read it, although it has to be the most bizarre book I have ever read!

The book is set primarily in 1930s Moscow and begins with three men arguing over the non-existence of God. Suddenly a stranger appears, and amused by their conversation, asks if they believe in the devil either. The stranger goes on to predict that one of the men, the poet Berlioz, will die, which he does in a shockingly quick and bizarre way.

The others are stunned by his death, but this is only the beginning of the weird events which go on to occur. The stranger claims to be a professor of black magic and he brings with him a six foot tall cat called Behomoth who smokes cigars. The plot gets stranger as it continues, and also alternates between the trial of Yeshua (Jesus) in Jerusalem. It is really hard to summarize the book, as so much happens, but it is packed with action, inventiveness and political/religious satire.

I have to admit that there were many aspects of the book I didn’t like, and I’m sure that a lot of the religion and politics went over my head, but the inventiveness of this book was amazing. There were many parallels with Murakami, and I am also spotting similarities between this book and 2666, which I am currently reading with Steph and Claire.  

Overall, I’m really pleased that I read it, as I think it is an important piece of literature, but I prefer my books to be based slightly closer to reality.



The Master and Margarita website is one of the best website for an individual book I have found. It even contains maps showing where each event occurs. Only take a look if you’ve read the book though, as it is packed with spoilers.

Have you read The Master and Margarita?

What is the weirdest book you have ever read?