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.


The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian by Robert E. Howard—Goodreads Book Review

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Winning Conan Bingo Card: “thew,” “(blue) balefire,” “tigerish strength,” “ivory breasts,” “by Crom!”

The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian is a series of short stories that introduce Conan, as well as the Hyborean Age in which he lives (like a mythical, prehistoric Iron Age). Written in episodes that cover different times and circumstances in the barbarian’s life, the stories and their various scenarios show Conan to be a primal, instinct-driven type of mankind, who often conflicts with (though is rarely seriously threatened by) both primordial forces and monsters as well as more civilized – and, in the world of the book, thus more vicious – men.

Published in the 1930s alongside Lovecraft’s in the pulp magazine Weird Tales, the Conan stories often involve consistent themes and motifs (see Bingo card suggestion above). Conan is beset by trouble, and he must get out of it — usually without craft beyond his sword arm. There is usually a woman involved, and she unerringly discovers that she wants to be possessed by Conan. Men of civilization (members of court, politicians, magicians, tacticians, etc) are internally threatened by Conan, as are their pretensions.

This last point touches on one of the deeper themes of the Conan stories: the fragility, irony, and decadence of civilization. “Civilized men are more discourteous than savages,” Howard writes, “because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing.” Another quote indicative of this theme is, “The more I see of what you call civilization, the more highly I think of what you call savagery!” Throughout the stories, by the magnitude of his will for life (in battle, at board, in bed) and his respect for the primordial, Conan reveals those who presume themselves his betters to be fragile, inferior, and untrustworthy. His difference from them is the difference between being and seeming, and it becomes an indictment of civilizations that might think themselves infallible or beyond the more basic need for (or threat of) thew and steel. Many stories involve the discovery of the remains of past civilizations, and much of Conan’s wisdom inheres in his consistently keeping the rise and fall of empires in mind when engaging in the power politics of his time.

The Conan stories are excellent in their characterization of the titular hero, as well as the consistency of theme and setting. They can be read for both entertainment as well as for critical understanding of the role which fantasy literature plays in culture (is he an artistic concretization of the values readers wanted and needed during the height of the Great Depression? One could also read Conan as a Nietzschean overman — or do a compare/contrast with Superman, who was noteworthily created at the same time).

While my only complaint is that certain phrases/vocabulary appear so formulaically, that might be, for some, a good thing, since one of the major virtues of Conan is his reliability and simplicity. Besides, The Silmarillion (written by Tolkien at the same time as Conan), itself, contains only about 350 words it reuses, so perhaps I need to take a cue from Conan.

The Last Tycoon by F. S. Fitzgerald—Goodreads Book Review

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Scott Fitzgerald’s last and unfinished work, The Last Tycoon begins the story of movie producer Monroe Stahr trying to maintain his integrity in an industry that has passed its peak and is tending towards decadence. Told from the perspective of his business partner/rival’s daughter, Cecilia Brady, who is in love with the producer, Stahr must apply his expertise and standards to the works that come out of his company in spite of pressures from unions, writers, and his own business partner, all while dealing with an increasingly dangerous heart condition. Meanwhile, in a flood caused by an earthquake, Stahr meets a woman who bears a striking resemblance to his late wife, actress Minna Davis, and his Spartan lifestyle is threatened.

Unfortunately left unfinished, The Last Tycoon shows Fitzgerald’s writing process at its most mature. Though many ideas and plot points are left unfinished and unvarnished, it has many of the themes and motifs present in Fitzgerald’s other works—the 20th century and its continuity/contrast with the 19th century American ideals (hence the title), a lone character surrounded by those who, despite their higher status, are his inferiors in ability, an admiring narrator reflecting on the romantic hero, and unrequited love in every direction.

However, there are also elements lacking in Fitzgerald’s early works. Stahr is not an upper class debutante, but a dynamo who knows his craft (he reminded me many times, in character dynamic and situation, of Howard Roark from The Fountainhead, though Fitzgerald’s). The plot shows meticulous research on Fitzgerald’s part, and he presents and utilizes the Hollywood industry for excellent characterization and dramatic potential.

The edition I read had a synopsis after the manuscript cutoff of what Fitzgerald intended for the end, as well as copies of his notes and outline. My wife and I (we read it together) had already watched the miniseries starring Kelsey Grammer and Matt Bomer, and the two ended very differently (though the shows, itself, was unfinished, its second season being canceled due to production costs, so that’s debatable). Nonetheless, there were interesting differences between the two, and it was great to read and watch them for comparison. More importantly, there were many moments, phrases, and insights in the draft that showed Fitzgerald’s excellence as a writer. It was an excellent read, unfinished draft though it is.