I Want You to Know We’re Still Here, by Esther Safran Foer

Esther Safran Foer’s family history, as related in I Want You to Know We’re Still Here, is mostly a mystery. There is a very good reason for this. Like so many other people of European Jewish ancestry, most of Esther’s family in Trochenbrod and its neighboring villages in Ukraine were killed during the Holocaust. Her own parents, Leibel and Etel, were so traumatized by their experiences that they only rarely spoke about what they went through. But Esther has a few clues, from her mother’s reluctantly told stories and from a trove of family photographs. After her son had great success with his book Everything is Illuminated, Esther began to seriously track down everyone she could find who might be able to give her more information about her parents and her lost family members.

Esther reveals early in I Want You to Know We’re Still Here that she has three birthdays. The confusion is a result of all the paperwork her parents filled out (more or less truthfully) to relocate from Łodz, Poland; to a displaced persons camp outside of Berlin, Germany; to New York, in the United States. Esther’s parents had managed to survive the destruction of Trochenbrod and the other nearby villages and met, by chance, in Poland, after the war. Continuing acts of anti-Semitic violence led them to join the hundreds of thousands of survivors in the DP camps; the idea was to emigrate and start over outside of Europe. Decades later, after years of research, Esther travels back to where Trochenbrod was, to find the mass graves where her family members were buried, and to say kaddish for them.

I Want You to Know We’re Still Here is a meandering memoir. Esther wanders back and forth through her own history and what she knows about her parents’ histories. (To be blunt, there are some repetitive sentences that could’ve been cut. We only need to be told all the names of Trochenbrod once.) It was interesting to see the stories of the Safrans and others start to take shape as Esther collected more information. Esther seems to collect cousins the way she picks up rocks, soil, and plant souvenirs of the places she visits on her research trips and her pilgrimage to Trochenbrod. I lost track of all the connections, to be honest, but I had to marvel at the way that all of these survivors are related to each other and how much they can remember about people and places from before the Holocaust.

It’s very satisfying that Esther manages to resolve the biggest mysteries about her family history. Overall, the ending, that describes Esther’s trip with another son to Trochenbrod, is very cathartic. I was so happy that Esther was able to learn so much, in spite of the devastation visited upon her family and the Jews of Europe. The realization that Etel and Leibel Safran had so many descendants to carry on their names and memories made me tear up. I Want You to Know We’re Still Here is not a perfect book (it needed more editing and structure), but I enjoyed it a great deal because it tells a story that I don’t often see in Holocaust memoirs. This is not just a story about survival. It’s a story about a family that survived and thrived in spite of all that the Nazis threw at them.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Good Citizens Need Not Fear, by Maria Reva

Technically, the apartment block at 1933 Ivansk Street, in Kirovka, Ukraine, does not exist. The building was made of leftover material from its neighbors. It doesn’t appear on the official rolls. Consequently, its residents have a hell of a time getting heat, electricity, and other utilities. This lack of documentation also serves as a metaphor for the characters in Maria Riva’s brilliant collection of connected stories, Good Citizens Need Not Fear, who tend to fall into the cracks of Soviet and post-Soviet life.

The first half of the collection, which contains stories set before the fall of the USSR, was my favorite. For all the terrible absurdity and brutality, there was always the hope that the fall of the regime would make life better for the characters. I hoped that Daniil would be able to move out of assigned housing that he shares with far too many relatives (“Novostroïka”), that Konstantyn the Poet would no longer be persecuted for a joke, and that Smena would be able to openly listen to music from the west instead of secretively creating “Bone Music” (named for the historical recordings made on X-rays).

The stories in the second half—set in an independent but far from settled Ukraine—were harder for me to get through. I knew enough of history to realize that these characters with already marginal lives wouldn’t have much to look forward to unless that managed to ride the coattails of a rising oligarch. In “Lucky Toss” and “Roach Brooch,” characters scramble to keep themselves fed by cannibalizing anything of value. “The Ermine Coat” is particularly unsettling because of its subtext. It’s never stated directly, but there are hints that the narrator of this story is being prepared to support her family by going overseas and engaging in some kind of sex work.

The last story, “Homecoming,” features two recurring characters returning to 1933 Ivansk to witness the final collapse of a building that wasn’t supposed to exist in the first place. I had already noticed a theme building around the idea of foundations and systems, but this last story really brought home the idea that structures are only as good as their foundations. Communism was rotten. It was so riddled with inconsistencies, human error, human spite, and logical contradictions that it couldn’t last. Post-Soviet capitalism is so rapacious and unfair that it is equally doomed. Just like 1933 Ivansk, the only way forward is to tear everything down to rubble and start over.

Good Citizens Need Not Fear is an excellent collection of stories that I enjoyed for Riva’s deadpan humor and the way characters would walk in and out of the stories. I love a good collection of linked stories. The fact that they’re set in the Soviet Union/Ukraine meant they were just that much more interesting to me. Unlike a lot of Russian writing, this collection is not unrelentingly grim. There are disturbing moments and Kafka-esque scenarios, but things never got downright miserable or dreary. I enjoyed this collection quite a lot.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Solovyov and Larionov, by Eugene Vodolazkin

I don’t think that a lot of historians would like to have it pointed out to them that what they do with historical documents can look an awful lot like what literary critics do with the fictional texts. That comparison came to mind over and over as I read Solovyov and Larionov, by Eugene Vodolazkin (translated by Lisa Hayden in fluid, erudite English). Graduate student Solovyov is working on his dissertation about a White Army general named Larionov. So far, he has only found a few discrepancies in the only biography of the general, but his work is promising. When Solovyov receives a stipend and permission to go to a Larionov conference in Kerch*, he has the chance to answer the biggest question about the general’s life: how on earth did he manage to avoid execution by the Bolsheviks after the end of the Russian Civil War?

Solovyov and Larionov moves back and forth in time, from St. Petersburg and Yalta in 1996, to Yalta and the Crimea in 1920. We learn about Solovyo’s youth near an obscure railroad station at the same time that we learn about Larionov’s privileged upbringing as the son of military men and a railroad baron. While we learn about the two men’s biographies, we also see Vodolazkin making gentle fun of academia. Academia, it seems, is the same pretty much everywhere. There are university departments full of people who will defend their pet theories to the death or who can build castles in the air over the slightest evidence. I’m not sure what it says about me that I was nodding along with some of the papers delivered at the conference while laughing at others as ridiculous.

Because Larionov, apart from his defense of the Crimea against the nascent Red Army, led a quiet life, there’s not much information about him. Some of it, in the form of a memoir, was lost. This is part of what leads Solovyov south to the Crimea. He might be able to find more information about the general that has been overlooked before now. He even finds the dacha where Larionov lived from the 1920s until his death in 1976. (There is a blackly hilarious section about the various inhabitants of the dacha after it was divided up into apartments. Members of the Cheka keep killing each other to get a nicer place in the dacha.) Until Solovyov learns that it might be possible to recover Larionov’s memoir, all he has is what he can glean from White and Red Army records and what other historians have picked over. In lieu of documentary evidence, those other historians (and, on one occasion, a folklorist) have started to speculate about the gaps in Larionov’s history to theorize about how he managed to escape the fate of so many people who were killed by the Bolsheviks (including a lot of Bolsheviks themselves). Solovyov keeps his mind open, hoping to find out more about the hints in the general’s story that someone in the Soviet government was protecting him.

I wasn’t sure about whether I was going to stick around for the rest of the novel. Solovyov and Larionov is a slow burn with a complicated structure and heaping spoonfuls of satire and historical tangents. It took a while for me to warm up to Solovyov, though I was as interested in Larionov as the horde of historians in this book. Solovyov is more of a vehicle for plot and ideas than he is a character, at least until he learns about his own connection to the Larionov family. Readers who enjoy books about ideas—especially ones that make fun of the eccentricities and ridiculousness of academia—may like this book. Readers who want a fast, tense novel about the Russian Civil War will probably not appreciate all the discursions and tangents. Once I was hooked into this meandering, funny, interesting book, I couldn’t put it down.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

Yalta Quay, Yalta (Image via Wikicommons)

* Kerch and Yalta are located on the Crimean Peninsula, which is territory disputed by Ukraine and Russia. I am not getting into the middle of that conflict by assigning the peninsula to one country or another because I don’t want a flame war in the comments.

A Boy in Winter, by Rachel Seiffert

This brief novel by Rachel Seiffert has a misleading title. The boy in A Boy in Winter, Yankel, frequently takes backstage to other characters. While Yankel is off stage, hiding and caring for his younger brother, we visit three other narrators. These narrators relate the events of a terrible few days in a western Ukrainian village, the days when the SS and Wehrmacht take the Jews away.

The first narrator we meet is the one I’m most conflicted about. Based on an actual German engineer, Otto Pohl has been sent to Ukraine to built a road across the marshes. At times, he reminded me of Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson from The Bridge on the River Kwai. Otto has only joined the Nazi Party and the Wehrmacht to avoid bigger trouble. His wife thoroughly disapproves. And yet, Otto wants to built a road that will last. He tries very hard not to think about the fact that the immediate use for the road is for the German Army Group South to funnel men, weaponry, and supplies deeper into Soviet territory. He has also turned his attention firmly away from the concentration camps and brutality of the Nazis all around him.

The second narrator is a sudden hero. When she discovers Yankel and his brother about to go into a house that has been raided by the SS, Yasia hides them in her cousin’s woodworking shop in town. Unlike a lot of her other fellow Ukrainians, Yasia seems much more interested in surviving the near future instead of claiming independence from the Soviets, the way her family and fiancé are. She doesn’t think about the consequences when she spirits the two young boys away. The third narrator, who only appears in a few chapters, is Yankel’s father, Ephraim. Through his eyes, we see the bewilderment and fear of the Jewish people who have been forced into an old factory before a terrible, terrible event occurs.

A lot is packed into A Boy in Winter. All of our narrators provide troves of backstory and history, without bogging down the pace of a plot that unspools over a couple of days. On paper (‘scuze the pun), I should have liked this novel better. There are heroes. There is well described scenery and plenty of emotional depth. But I’m left feeling dissatisfied by A Boy in Winter. Perhaps it’s because I wanted to know more about the silent boy in question. Perhaps it’s because I had no time for Otto’s cluelessness and cowardice. Yasia did a lot to keep me reading, but not enough for me to recommend this book to other readers.

Mother Country, by Irina Reyn

Trigger warning for rape.

What should a mother do? Everyone has ideas about this, even people who aren’t mothers. It seems that, no matter who we are or what culture we’re a part of, we can’t help but have opinions about how women are raising their children. The protagonist of Irina Reyn’s thoughtful, troubling novel, Mother Country, is the target of judgment from friends, nannies, and relatives. Worst of all, Nadezhda’s own daughter judges her mothering. And yet, at every step in this heart-breaking novel, Nadia is absolutely convinced that she’s doing the right thing for her little Larisska.

Nadia has had one all-encompassing mission in life: to keep Larissa safe. This directive has manifested itself in her determination to bring her diabetic daughter from the war-torn western Ukraine to the United States. She tried once, just after the turn of the millennium, only to find that Larissa was too old to travel as her child. At 21, Larissa would have to apply independently. But Nadia’s own application was approved. So, in the interests of saving her child, Nadia made the awful choice of traveling thousands of miles away from her only child, leaving Larissa in her grandmother’s care in their small town. Nadia’s plan is to make as much money as she can and work the American bureaucracy to bring her daughter over.

By the time we meet Nadia—who is working two jobs to try and save money—it’s been years since she left Ukraine and Larissa is almost 30. Nadia is still trying to bring Larissa to the United States, but the years (during which war broke out in western Ukraine) have done a lot to separate the two. Nadia still sees her daughter as a child. In all of Nadia’s reminiscences about Larissa, Nadia always seems to be stopping her daughter from making choices about food, boys, and her future. It’s all done in the name of “saving” Larissa. But, even though I was getting things from Nadia’s point of view, I couldn’t help but wish that Nadia would make the effort to really understand who Larissa is and what Larissa wants.

Mothers will always be mothers, however. If Mother Country teaches us nothing else, it’s that mothers will always try to save their children. The hapless mother Nadia nannies for tries to shape her daughter into an idealized Russian child. The American mothers are all helicopter parents who also want to be their children’s friends. The Russian and Ukrainian women all want their daughters (and each other) to be “safely” married to a male breadwinner. It’s clear from an outside perspective that no one is going to get what they want. But, of course, who’s going to listen to an outsider when it comes to raising children?

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.


Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommended for mothers and daughters who don’t understand each other.

The Salt of the Earth, by Józef Wittlin

The Austro-Hungarian Empire was a strange creature. It spanned a huge swath of central and eastern Europe. Based in Vienna, it ruled over people who spoke Hungarian, Polish, Czech, and Ukrainian while ordering people around in German. It was bureaucratic and hidebound, as depicted in Józef Wittlin’s The Salt of the Earth (faithfully translated by Patrick Corness). This novel, the first in a planned but unfinished trilogy, gives us two views of the outbreak of World War I. In some chapters, it takes a macro view of the mobilization. In others, it zooms in to follow an illiterate Ukrainian peasant and other Austro-Hungarian citizens who got caught up in the war.

Because The Salt of the Earth is the opening novel in an incomplete trilogy, the pacing feels off. Instead of covering the arc of Piotr’s military experience, this novel is a long build up that takes Piotr from the outbreak of war to the beginning of his training in Hungary. The Salt of the Earth was clearly meant to be a big, sprawling epic of the war from the Austro-Hungarian perspective. But even though The Salt of the Earth is unfinished, it still provides an interesting reading experience. I ended up reading it more like a historical document, as a fictional account of events rather than a fully fledged novel.

Piotr, the protagonist at the heart of this book, is not as hapless or comic as Švejk or as tragic as Paul Bäumer, the protagonists of other iconic World War I novels. He’s an unlikeable man, dismissive of his lover (who loves him and serves essentially as a housekeeper Piotr can have sex with) and casually anti-Semitic. But he is a useful character for exploring the strange relationship people in the outskirts of the empire had with their Austrian rulers. Piotr believes in his government the way others believe in a religion. He has a completely one-sided relationship with his emperor. If he serves faithfully as a low-level railroad worker, he might someday be allowed to rise in the ranks and be awarded with the special cap worn by state employees. Just as he finally gets that special hat, Piotr is drafted and sent to basic training.

As I mentioned before, The Salt of the Earth is not a complete novel. It shouldn’t be read as one because it will only frustrate readers who want a satisfying conclusion. That said, I would only recommend this to readers who are curious about the experience of ordinary Austro-Hungarian men in 1914.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

The Winter Soldier, by Daniel Mason

37946436If Gavrilo Princip had not fired the shot that started World War I, Lucius Krzelewski would have had to slowly make his way through the ranks of the endless Austro-Hungarian medical bureaucracy to become a doctor. Instead, he enlists as a medical lieutenant and is shipped to a field hospital somewhere in the Carpathian mountains. The Winter Soldier, by Daniel Mason, follows him from his days as a student to the hospital to the end of the war, as he grows from the textbook definition of a callow youth into an emotionally battered field surgeon.

Lucius, when we first meet him, is the privileged youngest son of an aristocratic family living in Vienna. He doesn’t know how to make small talk. He definitely doesn’t know how to talk to women (including his mother). He stutters under pressure. The only thing that brings him pleasure is scientific observation. Medical school is pure joy for him, once he finally convinces his parents to send him and pay his tuition. Study does start to wear a bit thin when he realizes that the extremely stratified bureaucracy above him means that he will barely be allowed in the same room as patients for ages. It doesn’t take much wheedling from his closest friend to encourage him to enlist when war breaks out.

Because the Austro-Hungarian Army is desperate for anyone with any kind of medical knowledge, Lucius is readily accepted and sent to a field hospital near the Eastern Front. On arrival, Lucius learns that all of the previous doctors and medical personnel are dead or fled. The only one who knows anything about medicine is a nursing sister called Margarete. Without her, it’s a wonder anyone would have survived either in Lucius’ hands or during the doctor interregnum. There are scenes in the first half of the book that reminded me strongly of A Young Doctor’s Notebook, which is based on the life of Mikhail Bulgakov who found himself in a similar situation as an untested doctor in a remote part of the Soviet Union. Lucius slowly becomes a competent surgeon and field doctor under Margarete’s roughly diplomatic tutelage.

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Patients and personnel at an Austro-Hungarian field hospital on the Austrian-Italian front.
(Image via Wikicommons)

In addition to Lucius’ growth, a major theme of The Winter Soldier is the growing problem of what we now recognize as post-traumatic stress disorder. One soldier, named Horvath, is the first case Lucius has a chance to observe in his field hospital. We never learn what Horvath saw, but his condition is so extremely debilitating that Lucius fights to keep him from being re-conscripted by a sadistic Austrian officer. At the time, “shell shock” was viewed as cowardice or malingering. Men with this condition were subject to horrific punishments and “treatments,” in order to get them back into the fight. Lucius’ intervention has awful consequences, deepening The Winter Soldier from bildungsroman to a more complicated portrait of a naïve man caught in the middle of a collapsing empire at war. His intervention also means that his romance with Margarete takes a sharp turn towards tragedy.

The Winter Soldier is one of the best contemporary novels I’ve read about World War I. Characterization is fully-realized, which I appreciated. What I loved about this book, however, was the way Mason recreated the last years of the Austro-Hungarian empire and its catastrophic end. The book highlights the divisions between the empire’s ethnic groups which became fracture lines by the end of the war. Many of the recruits did not speak German (the empire’s official language) well enough to follow officer’s orders. There are shortages of everything. Transportation is a mess. All of that comes through sharply through Lucius peripatetic attempts to find Margarete in the later half of the book.

I would strongly recommend this book to readers looking for a good read about World War I.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 11 September 2018.

Red Sky at Noon, by Simon Sebag Montefiore

35407600It’s a shame that this book is the conclusion to Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Russian trilogy. Red Sky at Noon, while it has an interesting premise, is laden with a ludicrous romance plot and ahistorical scenes featuring Josef Stalin and Svetlana Stalina that made it hard for me to take the book seriously. I was so excited about this book since I’m a sucker for books about the Red Army during World War II and novels set in Russia before the end of the world in general. If this book had left out the subplots and focused on its protagonist, Benya Golden, I think it would have been an excellent read. Instead, it’s a melodramatic mess.

Benya Golden, like many people sent to the gulag during the purges of the 1930s, has only one option to rejoin Soviet society. He must volunteer for a prisoner battalion. As a shtrafniki, Benya has to serve in whatever function the Red Army gives him and survive being wounded. Only then will he “redeem” himself. Benya is fortunate in that he’s not just sent to the infantry. Instead, he’s turned into a cavalryman, trained by Don Cossack prisoners and a purged general. After receiving more training than many of the Red Army’s draftees and volunteers, Benya is sent to Ukraine in the days before the Battle of Stalingrad. He has a greater chance of dying, given the way the high command threw their men against the Nazis. I lost count of how many times Benya almost got killed.

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Soviet cavalry (Image via Gettyimages)

The chapters with Benya just trying to survive at the best parts of Red Sky at Noon. Unfortunately, the good parts are mixed in with a far-fetched romance plot in which Benya falls in instant love with an Italian nurse who instantly falls in love with him. While armies are raging across Ukraine, they somehow find time to dally. And then, even worse, there are chapters centered on Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana, that I just couldn’t believe. I hate it when fiction creates dialog and scenes for actual historical figures that can’t be supported by actual history.

I was very disappointed by Red Sky at Noon. It tried to do too many things that I just found ridiculous. If you choose to read this, skip the Svetlana sections entirely. The book works just fine without them.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 2 January 2018.

The Bone Mother, by David Demchuk

31944708David Demchuk’s The Bone Mother is the kind of story collection that left me wanting more. Each chapter is a grim fairy tale that, together with the other chapters, builds up a disturbing world centered on three towns in the Romanian-Ukrainian border. The towns are full of people and creatures inspired by Slavic myths and, sometime during World War II, something happened to shatter this community. For added atmosphere, each chapter begins with an image from the Costică Acsinte Archive, a collection of photos from an early Twentieth century Romanian photographer.

While there are only a few characters who appear in more than one story, a narrative about the three unnamed towns coalesces before long. There were three towns in Romania and Ukraine where people were born with strange abilities, hungers, and traditions. Somewhere in the middle of it is a porcelain thimble factory with royal customers. Then the war came, along with violent men (it’s unclear who they are) who killed their way through the towns. Survivors scattered around the world, taking their abilities and hungers with them.

Most of the stories are only a page or two long; a few get a little longer. The stories are so spare that I had to read deeply into the subtext and scrape up what I know about Slavic myths to feel like I had a handle on what was happening. This book was best when I let go of my need to know what was actually happening and let things wash over me. The Bone Mother turned out to be a terrific book to herald the beginning of October. It is delightfully creepy and packed with mystery to think about after the last story ends.

Red Famine, by Anna Applebaum

33864676For decades, knowledge of the Holodomor was suppressed or dismissed as a hoax. In Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, 1921-1933, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anna Applebaum was able to take newly available archival and oral material and build on the work of previous scholars’ work to create a throughout history of what Sovietization did to Ukraine. It is a harrowing read because all of the suffering and death could have been avoided if Stalin had bowed to reality and reversed his impossible grain policies.

Applebaum begins her history in the nineteenth century. Her argument in Red Famine is that Russia, and later the Soviet Union, had an established policy of squashing any Ukrainian nationalism, culture, and language. From the 1800s, the Ukrainian language was banned. Russian and Russians were preferred. Ukrainians had a brief chance at establishing an independent republic after the October Revolution. The Soviets, the Black Army, and others, however, had other ideas. After the Soviets won the Civil War, they set about imposing their version of Communism across the country. The early Soviet attempts at collectivism (along with political repression, chaos, and bad weather) caused famines in 1921, 1928-1929, and then another in 1932-1933 that took millions of lives.

Ukraine has been fought over for centuries because of its fertile soil. It’s part of Europe’s breadbasket. Because of this reputation and because of his determination to ramp up production everywhere (regardless of reality), Stalin demanded impossible amounts of grain for export. When party officials were unable to come up with the millions of tons of grains, they began to confiscate grain, livestock, and other food from the peasantry with official approval. Internal and external pressure led the Soviets to reverse their policies in the early 1920s, but nothing stopped Stalin in 1932. Applebaum lists policy after policy enacted that lead to inescapable mass starvation. And yet, even in the depths of the famine, farmers would write to Stalin asking for help. They didn’t know that Stalin not only didn’t care, but that the famine he created was also a tool to make Ukrainians surrender any hopes for independence.

A few months ago, I read A Square Meal about how food changed in America as a result of the Depression. Some politicians fought against direct relief, but the New Deal and other programs gave food, money, and jobs to people who struggled with poverty. The situation was almost the exact opposite in Ukraine. It was as if Stalin and his circle were deliberately trying to starve the entire country to death. As soon as the peasants found a way to make a bit of money or get a bit of food, there would be a policy blocking that route. It’s heartbreaking to read.

Applebaum concludes with a few chapters that discuss how Soviet officials, then, during the Cold War, and Russian officials now, manipulated demographic data and called the famine a fascist hoax. Only after Ukraine became an independent country in 1991 did many Ukrainians openly talk about the Holodomor and its aftermath.

In Red Famine, Applebaum gives voice to so many Ukrainians, Volga Germans, Cossacks, and Russians who haven’t been heard until now. By letting these voices speak for themselves after decades of silence, Applebaum has crafted a very human history of a tragedy in clear, undeniable language.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 10 October 2017.