Stalin’s Children by Owen Matthews—Goodreads Book Review

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“It was much easier to live by one’s myths and to continue to believe in the ultimate wisdom of the party than to speak out and risk disaster.”

A family memoir by previous Newsweek Moscow Bureau Chief, historian, and spy novelist Owen Matthews, Stalin’s Children follows the author’s family as they eventually unite in the marriage of his parents, despite coming from opposite sides of the Iron Curtain. As he recounts the personalities and formative events of his family members, Matthews offers a unique, multifaceted view of Russia under the Soviets, constructed from both family members’ accounts and records from the previous USSR. Reaching from the beginning of the Russian Revolution to the present day, Stalin’s Children offers a nuanced understanding of the Cold War, with the focus being on the love story between his Welsh father and his Russian mother.

As in Matthews’s other works, a core theme of Stalin’s Children is how good people were able to live under and in spite of an oppressive regime. Contextualizing many of the book’s events through Solzenitsyn, Matthews mixes an honest contempt for the Soviet system and its failings with a sympathetic respect for those who lived under, and at times supported, it. Admitting, and at times lauding, the pragmatism of his grandparents, Matthews’s sympathetic perspective nuances the negatives of the Soviet structure by separating actual Russians from it and telling their stories. Matthews further maintains his multi-faceted honesty when describing his own time in post-Soviet Russia, which he does not present as automatically good because more nominally free. Throughout, Matthews recounts the major events and trends in twentieth-century Russia while keeping a Dostoevskian eye on the humanity of his characters, and he offers many insights into the Russian social culture and personality. As he writes, “To survive and be happy, Russians have so much to bury, to willfully ignore. Small wonder that the intensity of their pleasures and indulgences is so sharp: it has to match the quality of the suffering.”

Central in the book is Matthews’s mother, Lyudmilla. As a backdrop to his mother, Matthews describes the popular antihero of his parents’ generation, Kompromis Kompromisovich, who was a tribute to the men and women who successfully negotiated the disappointments of Soviet life by millions of small compromises. His mother Lyudmilla was not such an antihero: “where the most [Lyudmilla’s] contemporaries could aspire to is to get by, Milla believed that her will could conquer the world.” By the time she meets Matthews’s father, Oxford professor Mervyn Matthews, Lyudmilla has been established enough as a presence that one is unsurprised by her daring.

Hearing about Lyudmilla was especially enjoyable because, personally, I’ve always enjoyed the acerbic humor Matthews often includes in his characters, especially regarding the ironies of the Soviet system. Hearing about her and her capacity for such humor felt like a finding a much needed puzzle piece in understanding Matthews’s writing.

Matthews’s presentation of his father (whose description and background are just as well-rounded as are ‘Milla’s) is just as worth reading. Describing his father’s defiance of the KGB regarding Milla as noble & principled, Matthews finds it incomprehensible; “If I’d been forced to choose between being separated from the woman I loved and signing a paper saying I would work for the KGB, I would have unhesitatingly signed on the dotted line. Whatever my private feelings for the KGB, I would have considered the cause of my personal happiness supreme above all others.” In this and other moments, Stalin’s Children incorporates not only the genres of history and memoir, but also love story, with characters no less grand and romantic for being real. Indeed, with the hindsight the author uses in recounting the time period’s brutal circumstances, Matthews’s parents are shown to have been moreso.

As I’ve said, I approached Stalin’s Children so I could better understand Matthews’s other work, especially his fiction; it certainly helped with that. However, it also does much more, providing insight at many levels of focus and genre. Throughout, it gives a full perspective of the central figures’ choices, motives, and psychologies, never losing the sympathy, understanding, and honesty of a family member. If you’re looking for an account of what it was like to live in twentieth-century Russia, both before, during, and after the Soviet state, Stalin’s Children should be your next read.


Red Traitor by Owen Matthews—Goodreads Book Review

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“There was not a moment of Vasin’s waking or sleeping days…where Vasin was not surrounded by reminders of the power of Lieutenant General Yury Orlov. He felt as trapped as a dragonfly in glass.”

Set in 1962, less than a year after the events of Black Sun in which KGB investigator Alexander Vasin narrowly averted a nuclear disaster, Red Traitor by Owen Matthews follows Major Vasin as his successful rise in the KGB has meant just so much more scrutiny from among its ranks. Following the threads (real and invented) established at the end of Black Sun, Vasin must maneuver GRU Colonel Oleg Morozov into revealing himself as a possible American spy while the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolds in the Caribbean, all the while keeping himself abreast of the machinations of his own boss, General Yuri Orlov. The Moscow-based espionage plot that makes up half of the novel incorporates many of the themes, suspense, and gambits that made Black Sun excellent.

“‘That’s how our glorious Soviet Motherland works. Punish the innocent, leave the guilty at their posts.’”

To the investigative spy plot of Moscow, Matthews adds another plotline following submariner Vasily Arkhipov, who a year previous was among the only survivors of the K-19 submarine nuclear reactor accident that left most of his crew dead and him with a promotion. Selected for his prowess of surviving the traumatic ordeal of K-19, which has left him cautious of all things nuclear, Arkhipov is given fleet command of a secret group of submarines sent to run the US blockade of Cuba and, if threatened or cornered, to use the “secret weapon” of a nuke carried by each submarine. Paralleling Vasin’s “integrity vs party line” conflict from Black Sun, Arkhipov must avoid running afoul of the Party, embodied in his rival Captain Savitsky, while shrewdly trying to disobey orders and prevent nuclear war.

“In politics, there are things you do for show and things you do that really matter. The R-12 deployment? That matters.”

Though its deuteragonists never meet, Red Traitor moves back and forth between them to form a plot that is suspenseful and multi-faceted. Compared to Black Sun, which focused on the single location of secret nuclear facility Arzamas-16 to no less excellent effect, Red Traitor incorporates much more of the “historical” in the historical fiction, and the cinematic feel of the scene shifts—each foregrounded by place and date—shows Matthews deftly expanding his narrative style to meet the needs of his subject matter. Drawn from Matthews’s non-fiction work and from accounts of those who lived through the ordeal, the frequent details of KGB and GRU spycraft and the detailed descriptions of life on Soviet diesel submarine B-59 form a consistent setting that conveys one easily into the characters’ experiences. Though the scene-shifting form took a bit of getting used to, it ultimately made the dual-plot work well, especially nearing the book’s climax, and while the climax was not as cathartically hard-hitting as was Black Sun’s (possibly due to Red Traitor’s being more closely based on the history than the former book—and there, thankfully, NOT being a nuclear blast in the Caribbean), the book’s ending prepared the way for the Vasin trilogy’s third installment superbly.

“[An] idealist or a pragmatist, Sasha…What is your diagnosis of yourself, please?”

If Black Sun was a novel about Vasin’s discovery of the immorality of the system in which he is a cog, Red Traitor is a novel about his trying to uphold his own already compromised principles against the guttural, impulsive, self-centered chaos embodied by his boss Orlov—whom he is now fully aware he could become without difficulty. The book has many parallels, both within itself and with its predecessor: just as Vasin has his Orlov, Morozov has his boss Serov (no less unprincipled than Orlov), and Arkhipov’s conflict very much resembles many of the issues experienced by Vasin in Black Sun. All of these serve to reinforce the sense of oppressive, ever-watchful weight inherent in the Soviet system, where every success and favor comes with a hook (a consistent motif through the book).

Paradoxically, the frankness and irony with which Vasin and others admit the faults, if not malignity, of their system yield an air of dark humor to the book, even in its most tense moments. Drawing on his mother’s Russian humor described in Stalin’s Children, Matthews captures and maintains the fact that the Russian people and the Russian Soviet system were not synonymous. Another motif I found similarly endearing was the camaraderie of the sailors, whose easy manner, salutary superstition, and genuine friendship stood in stark contrast against the self-consciously forced comradeship of the book’s other relationships.

Though I have not read many Cold-War-Era spy or submarine novels, Red Traitor was an excellent read. I loved seeing Matthews’s utilizing elements from his non-fiction work for dramatic effect, as well as his expanding his novelistic style. The Author’s Note, wherein Matthews lays out exactly how much of the book is historically based (a vast majority of it is), was particularly useful, and I plan to recommend the book to my history students, as well as to anyone else who asks.

*Disclaimer: I received advance copy of the book from the publisher for review*

Uncle’s Dream by Feodor Dostoevsky—Goodreads Book Review

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“This was what distinguished Maria Alexandrovna from her rivals: at critical moments she never allowed any concern about a possible scandal to prevent her from doing something, on the principle that success justifies everything.”

Dostoevsky’s first work after leaving Siberia for his participation in an illegal socialist printing scheme, Uncle’s Dream follows the attempts by provincial antiheroine Maria Alexandrovna to secure a marriage for her daughter, Zinaida Afanasyevna, to a local aged prince. Drawing on Dostoevsky’s new experience of the provincial life in Semipalatinsk, whence he had been stationed for four years’ military service after leaving the labor camp, Uncle’s Dream provides lighter fare that the author hoped would not run afoul of government censors. The result is a rare glimpse at Dostoevsky the comedian and a work that introduces several things that would become staples of the author’s later work.

From the first page we meet the unnamed omniscient gossip narrator (a type he would later use in Demons and The Brothers Karamazov), whose presentation of events and mixed prescience and lack of self-awarness create a consistently earnest yet ironic tone. Consistently descrying the perniciousness of gossip and rumor in in the intimate terms of gossip and rumor that draw the reader in while maintaining the implicit compliment of dramatic irony, the narrator confesses a soft spot for his protagonist, Maria Alexandrovna, who is herself so adept at gossip and rumor that she exerts an implicitly threatening influence in her community. Indeed, though she is at best of the middling class, Maria Alexandrovna stands as a kind of Napoleon figure in the book, willing to dispense with good form and respect if it means achieving her ends.

This is made clear through the motif of Shakespeare—who, ironically, is brought up by Maria Alexandrovna more than any character in the book. She consistently references doing away with Shakespeare, whom she implicitly blames for her daughter’s romance with her brother’s tutor (a possible lampooning of Heloise and Abelard, with the roles reversed?). Shakespeare becomes a touchstone for how Maria Alexandrovna sees Romanticism, at large; thus Uncle’s Dream shows, if ironically, Dostoevsky’s considering the liabilities of that literary movement, as well as the possible character and motives of some who might want to leave it in the past. And yet, despite Maria Alexandrovna’s supposed desire for Realism, she is consistently shown as the character most adept at weaving Romantic perspectives and dreams to cajole others into doing what she wants.

This is the core conflict of the book: Maria Alexandrovna tries to manipulate others—highest of which being a humorously decrepit prince—to achieve her ambitions, and in so doing she must maintain the balance between her own capacity to deter threat via rumor and her own growing vulnerability to it. The results are hysterical, and Dostoevsky’s exploration of the psychologies involved—not just that of the provincial gossip, the ambitious herridan, or the decrepit prince, but also of the resentful daughter, the foolish suitor, and the hapless husband—underlays the comedy with that which, in my opinion, is best in Dostoevsky.

I’ve previously recommended that people new to Dostoevsky start with Crime and Punishment, but now I might recommend Uncle’s Dream. There’s hardly a page where he isn’t making fun of somebody, including his own narrator, and what the book lacks in philosophical musings by the characters it makes up for in sharp psychological explorations of those who, with almost Austenian irony and despite their banal setting, reveal some of the 19th century’s central questions and conflicts of values.

The Landlady By Feodor Dostoevsky—Goodreads Book Review

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Dostoevsky’s first focused study into the character type of the dreamer, The Landlady follows Vasily Ordynov, an denizen of St. Petersburg whose search for a new apartment and his desire for love find their object in Katerina, landlady and wife to the domineering mystic, Ilia Murin.

Like several of Dostoevsky’s pre- and post-Siberia characters whose inner lives take over and sabotage their real experience, Ordynov is a weakling who nonetheless (or therefore) possesses the tendency to extremize his interpretation of the world in ways that allow Dostoevsky to use the language of the steadily passing Romanticism in a growing Realist context. Thus, though set in mid-19th century Petersburg, the novella features the enigmatic Murin, who, due to both scenes where he obviously controls his co-dependent ward/wife Katerina, as well as scenes where he presents himself as little more than a humble, if much misunderstood, peasant, may or may not be a manipulative old sorcerer.

I enjoyed The Landlady, especially when read among Dostoevsky’s other pre-Siberian works. At times engaging and pathetic, the work shows Dostoevsky exploiting the mid-19th-century move from Romanticism to Realism (not to mention the cultural attempts to move from Old Russian mysticism to a European-influenced enlightenment) in a way that redirects the Romantic forms and tropes into a new, ironic direction. Though it lacks much of his post-Siberia surety and forcefulness, The Landlady also foreshadows many other figures and themes in Dostoevsky’s later works, from Raskalnikov to the Grand Inquisitor.

An approachable and engaging read, and, though unique in its content, indicative of many topics and tropes found in Dostoevsky’s work.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy—Goodreads Review

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Consistently within people’s choices of the top five novels ever written, War and Peace follows the impetus and results of Napoleon’s Russian campaign, presenting events through their impact on the book’s characters and reinterpreting them according to the unnamed narrator’s metaphysics. Its breadth of cast, scale of scenes, and consistently near-perfect choice of analogy for the moment show Tolstoy as among the best at his craft, and the book rightly belongs on any list of necessary 19th-century reads.

Part of the Russian Naturalist-Realist school, Tolstoy eschewed the selectivity, emotion, and idealization of early 19th-century Romanticism for a presentation of life as it is. As such, Tolstoy’s depiction of life is brutally, even cynically, accurate: his presentation of his characters—with faults and all—undercuts their values and desires in a way that shows even the best characters as all too human. His multi-faceted depiction is not a painting that omits the accidents and highlights the essentials of the subject but a photograph that presents the subject as-is, depicting the warts as being as essential as any other quality. Thus, his style of representation conflicts with one of the central premises of the novelistic form, as such, and at several moments the book comes off more as a piece of journalistic history than a plot-based novel.

Nonetheless, the selectivity of the novelistic form breaks through: though the narrator’s external focus and refusal to speculate into the deeper psychology of his characters make it take a while, he does layer his characters through the book. However, because of the book’s core thesis—that human action is impotent in the face of a people’s collective history—War and Peace depicts less a “conflict-climax-resolution” plot than a “things happen to characters and they concede to change” progression. The fact that the climax of one of his main characters (only implicitly presented as the protagonist, though his being such is debatable), Pierre, involves conceding the impossibility of achieving one’s values is indicative of the work as a whole.

As a metaphysical novel, which seeks to give a complete understanding of human life, War and Peace moves between specific scenes of the lives of the characters and broad discourses on the philosophy of history. The latter explains the presentation of the former: because Tolstoy’s narrator sees human life not as a result of individual choice, values, and will, but of historical determinism, the individual values, desires, and choices of his characters do not influence where their lives lead. He more often presents his characters as passively reacting to things that happen to them, rather than actively achieving their values through consistent choice and integrity amidst unforeseen obstacles.

War and Peace was worth reading, though I wouldn’t include it in my top ten novels. Personally, I wouldn’t want to confuse length for profundity. While a broad view of life and a humble view of one’s own self and presumptions are good and worth fostering, Tolstoy’s didactic elaborations on historical philosophy are not only patronizing (all historians got it wrong, guys), but implicitly nihilistic, in that they argue that the characters, values, and choices he spends 1300+ pages describing (and, implicitly, the reader and their own values and choices) are ineffectual in the grand scheme of things.

The effect this has is not one of wisdom in the fact of historical determinism (which the narrator at several points calls God) but of nihilism. His characters cannot achieve their ideals because such a thing is not possible according to the book’s metaphysical assumptions. When a character does choose a value, the narrator presents them as implicitly naive—as if reality will teach them better. Frankly, I’ll never forgive him for how he treats his implicitly Romantic heroine, Natasha—not in how her life changes (notably because of a FAILURE to pull off a chosen course of action, itself a result of misplaced Romantic idealism on her part), but because of how he undercuts her even in her character’s climax. The narrator can allow no character to have a moment of aspiration that is not in some way tainted by some failing. Because of the book’s consistent assumption of determinism, the implicit capacity of humans to achieve virtue despite their natural deficiencies or vices—the central premise of the novelistic form—is not only absent but argued as being impossible.

Thus, for all its wonderful breadth, description, and narrative quality, War and Peace eschews the previous Romantic conception of mankind (that mankind’s essential nature inheres in our highest ideals and virtues, with deficiencies and mundanities being mere accidents) and presents the opposite view: that that which is low, imperfect, and impotent is the essential in man, with greatness being at best an anomalous illusion, at worst a pretext for and enabler of evil. Rather than being wisely accurate, the book’s perspective comes off as cynical and degrading, if not deeply vicious, in that the prescribed passivity before the impulses of collective history would, later in the century and early in the next, enable worse depredations than those Tolstoy depicts in his lampooning of Napoleon.

(*Of course, my review should not be taken as an implicit endorsement of Napoleon, though I think Dostoevsky does a better job debunking the value of his legacy than does Tolstoy; to Tolstoy’s credit, the central conflict of War and Peace is contained in its first lines, with Napoleon being an antichrist figure and symbol of the European movements threatening to upend the values and social structure of Russia—which, nonetheless, are presented in collectively deterministic, not individual, terms).

Welcome to the Monkey House by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.—Goodreads Book Review

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My second Vonnegut, I’ll let others review the book more thoroughly. However, while I don’t know that I’d call myself a Vonnegut fan, his style is excellent and his satire sharp (if at times reductionary), and several of these stories will make their way into my teaching curriculum. Of note among them:

“Harrison Bergeron”: America finally achieves equity—by punishing any upward-moving difference. The strong must wear weights, the beautiful must wear masks, the intelligent must wear in-ear thought interrupters. An excellent prediction (prophecy?) of the sacrificing of greatness, uniqueness, and ability for strict egalitarianism, and how doing so only fosters mediocrity and ressentiment.

“All the King’s Horses”: “AKH” features Colonel Bryan Kelly who has crash landed in Asia with his family and men. Captured by guerillas under supervision of the USSR, Kelly must play a game of chess with the guerilla leader, Pi Ying, with his men being killed as he loses his pieces. What follows is provides an examination of the responsibility of those in the military who must strategize with men’s lives, as well as a general critique of militarism in the vague parameters of the Cold War.

“The Euphio Question”: Scientists discover and broadcast a radio frequency from deep in space which causes anyone who hears it to experience absolute euphoria; tapped for marking as a new form of entertainment, the frequency subsequently becomes similar to a drug, dragging people’s lives to a halt. An excellent examination of drug addiction, as well as implicitly of the assumption that drugs are simply a problem of the lower classes.

“EPICAC”: A retelling of Cyrano de Bergerac with a supercomputer supplying poetic lines for its overly analytical handler in love with his lab-mate.

“Tomorrow, Tomorrow, and Tomorrow”: The invention of anti-gerasone has made dying of old age a thing of the past; subsequently, cities have sprawled (with the outskirts of Chicago being in Iowa), families have soured, and the old man just refuses to die. A humorous motif is the central family head’s will, which has been changed so many times it resembles little of the sombre document it once was. A satire that borders on the absurd, “T,T, and T” questions the presumption that we should want to live forever.

Elantris by Brandon Sanderson—Goodreads Book Review

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Brandon Sanderson’s debut, Elantris follows betrothed deuteragonists Prince Raoden of Arelon and Princess Sarene of Teod as, in their respective spheres into which each was unexpectedly thrown, they try to deduce the reasons for the curse of Elantris and prevent revolution in Arelon.

The story opens with Raoden enduring the Reod, which turns him into an Elantrian, a walking corpse unable to heal and unable to die; he is subsequently cast into the once great but now ruined city of Elantris that stands adjacent to Arelon’s capital. Meanwhile, his betrothed Sarene arrives by ship to discover he is, for all intents and purposes, dead—and, yet, the marriage contract will not allow her to annul the union that never happened. The story progresses from there, with both characters making their way through familiar fantasy subplots, which Sanderson nonetheless uses excellently and in new ways to form a great story.

While Sanderson is never polemical about his book’s perspective (the narrator’s focus is always clearly on the characters and their own assumptions, and on telling a great story), Elantris is an example of great plotlines coming from tried and true but, now, rarely seen viewpoints—here, those of the aristocracy against the revolutionary mob, as well as of the reformer who knows that charity is not always helpful, nor compassionate. The former perspective, shown in the political back-and-forths between Princess Sarene and Derethi priest Hrathen, who despite his position regrets previously taking part in a revolution that destroyed a country, lends nuance to what might otherwise be a simplistic revolution/reformation narrative; the book’s overarching plot of restoring the Elantrian monarchy, which has been wrongly denounced by history, also plays into this theme. Similarly, Raoden’s attempts to raise the half-dead denizens of Elantris above their misery by encouraging them to seek purposeful work and to build a community at times clashes with the charity of Sarene, who does not know Raoden is her lost betrothed.

I am normally ambivalent about fantasy, but with its well and steadily developed world, its incorporation of dynamic characters who are excellently fleshed out, and its reinvigoration of the restoration plot and other tropes, Elantris became a fantasy I’d very much recommend. Very much reminded me of other fantasies I enjoyed, like Tigana or The Wayfarer Redemption.

I, Robot by Isaac Asimov—Goodreads Book Review

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The Olympians::the Titans; the monster::Dr. Frankenstein; Robots::modern man?

In I, Robot, Isaac Asimov explores artificial intelligence and robotics from different perspectives and in different situations. Set up as an interview by a reporter-narrator of Susan Calvin, lifelong robo-psychologist who was there for all major advancements in robotics between the late 20th century and the mid-21st, the book joins different chapter vignettes (previously published as short stories), each focused on one type of robot and subsequent issue or problem. Speculative in nature, the book provokes as many questions as it tries to answer (Are humans–often considered “rational animals”–really as rational as we think, especially when compared with supposedly fully rational robots? Are robots, though unknown to us, more or less dangerous than humans? Are the laws of robotics really as foolproof as the characters assume? What are the dangers of relying too heavily on robots; are those the robots’ fault? If a robot were to be made indistinguishable from a human, what would be the difference between the two? Would there BE a difference? etc).

Though the book does not follow a single robot (very little like the Will Smith movie, except in concept and some story sourcing), Asimov forms an engaging progression through the growth of characters that link the stories and the gradual building of the book’s world. Looking forward to reading more of his robot series.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh—Goodreads Book Review

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A reflection on the pre-WWII English upper class and of Oxford University, Brideshead Revisited follows captain Charles Ryder as he and his battalion are sent to Brideshead Castle in Wiltshire during the final years of the war. Returning to Brideshead provokes the memories in Ryder that make up the content of the book.

The main bulk of the story follows Ryder at Oxford, where he is befriended by a young aristocrat, Lord Sebastian Flyte; their relationship introduces Ryder to the Marchmain family at Brideshead and their way of life. In the intervening scenes, Ryder maneuvers the Catholicism of the Marchmains (Ryder is an agnostic), the homosexuality of Sebastian’s eccentric friends, and Sebastian’s alcoholism, as well as the romantic prospect of Sebastian’s sister Julia. Throughout, Ryder negotiates his own beliefs and desires with those around him, and he discovers, often after the fact, the roles that friendship, art, and religion can play in adding beauty to one’s life (though it’s not as cliche as I probably just made that sound).

To be honest, I don’t think I got all I could out of the book, so I’m hesitant to say more than this brief summary. The close male-male friendship of Charles and Sebastian — which has homoerotic overtones and arguably provokes Charles’s initial love for Julia — was one of the best articulated aspects of the book. For better or worse, Charles becomes a part of the Marchmain family, and their reliance on him in dealing with Sebastian’s addictions, as well as the discussions on Catholicism (a consistent motif) that result from his pursuit of Julia really drew me into the relationships of the characters. Being a remembrance, the book consistently has an elegaic tone, which Jeremy Irons brings out excellently in the audiobook version.