Thursday, December 11, 2014

2014 Best of the Best

I guess its that time of year when all of us make lists of the best books we've read all year. Here's mine, i.e., here are the books that touched me the most; that inspired me and lingered in my thoughts throughout the year- my personal best of the best:

Best Book about Nature
Queen Fish - by Viktor Astafyev
A wonderful short story cycle about nature, hunting and fishing in Russia's far north. I'm no hunting and fishing buff, but this book really won me over in a big way. The character Akim is one of my absolute favourites! Although I highly recommend this entire short story cycle, if you can only read one of the short stories, don't miss "Dream of the White Mountains"; an unforgettable short story that will stay with you long after its been read. 

Golden Ass

Best Comedic Works
The Golden Ass - by Apuleius
This was one of the year's most pleasant surprises. Those of you who think the classics are dull and boring are in for a real treat here. In fact, Ancient Rome which really didn't seem so 'ancient' and 'uncontemporary' to me anymore after reading this book

Carps and Pikes - by Arkady Averchenko
Sadly overlooked by contemporary readers, 19th century author Arkady Averchenko's short stories are good fun. My favourite is the Dobble's Galoshes story (a spoof on Sherlock Holmes)

Алексиевич Светлана - У войны — не женское лицо… скачать бесплатно

Best Books about War
War doesn't have a Woman's Face - Svetlana Alekseyevich
Not literature so much as a compilation of women's accounts of their wartime experiences; this book is a real eye-opener to the suffering and sacrifices of Soviet women during World War II. A must-read.

The Punishers - Ales Adamovich
This is one of those rare World War II books where you're invited into the heads of the Nazi officers. Why did they do what they did?

Абрамов Федор - ЦИКЛ: ПРЯСЛИНЫ (Весь)
The Pryaslin Tetrology - Fyodor Abramov
One of the best series about the effects of the war on the Russian countryside

Front Cover Jamilia front apge.jpg
Best Books about Love
Jamilia by Chingiz Aitmatov
Described as 'the best love story ever written', I might not go that far, but I will confidently say that this tale set in rural Kyrgyzstan was the best love story I read all year.

Best Childrens Stories
The Scarlet Flower - by Sergey Aksakov
"Beauty and the Beast", Russian style. 

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The Secret of Two Oceans - by Gregory Adamov
A great, educational, at times thrilling adventure novel with positive role-models for the children in all of us.

Волос Андрей. Возвращение в Панджруд
Best Historical Fiction
Return to Pandzhrud - Andrey Volos
My favourite contemporary novel of the year. A brilliant, and I mean brilliant biography of 8th-9th century Tajiko-Persian poet Rudaki and really...what "The Alchemist" ought to have been.

The Trilogy of Books - by Sergey Antonov
Another wonderful author who has unfortunately been too often overlooked. His at times funny, educational and ultimately touching series of historical novels about the NEP, collectivization and Moscow metro construction periods in Soviet history are well worth a read.

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The Thinker Tetrology - Mark Aldanov
An incredible masterpiece of historical fiction. Aldanov takes us on a fascinatingly educational trip around Europe. We learn indepth details about the great revolutions of the 17th-18th century and more about the mechanics of revolutions in general. Wished you had been able to lurk around in the backrooms of Napoleon, Robespierre and Tsar Pavel among others? Then read these books. Highly recommended.

Works that Completely Exceeded my Expectations
Short Stories - by Aleksandr Ampiteatrov
Yet another overlooked 19th century author who wrote some really wonderful, rather mystical short stories. 

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The Best of the Best
Data Tutashkhia - Chabua Amiredzhebi
An epic masterpiece about a Georgian outlaw, morally compelled to do good, by Georgia's most renowned author. This book is huge, dense, thought-provoking and one that I would love to read again.

Capitães da Areia
Captains of the Sand - Jorge Amado
an immensely touching novel about the street children of 20th century Brazil

Russian Tragedy - Pyotr Alyoshkin
The second of two contemporary novels that really blew me away this year. I couldn't stop reading this extremely well-written, thriller of a novel. I devoured it in two hours. Incredibly clever; its rather unfortunate that this book was not translated into English.

Return to Pandzhrud - Andrey Volos

The Thinker Tetrology - Mark Aldanov

Spotted Dog Running Along the Seashore - Chingiz Aitmatov
A beautiful, almost fable-like short story by Kyrghizstan's most famous writer

A Day Lasts Longer than a Thousand Years - Chingiz Aitmatov
I first read this book 3 years ago and it has haunted me since. Complex, layered with legends and overlapping stories from the past, present and future, it is almost certainly like nothing else you have ever read.

The White Steamship - Chingiz Aitmatov
I have read this short story at least 4 times and will most likely read it many times over. A beautiful fairytale for adults that will reduce you to tears each time you read. Classic Chingiz. 

The Pryaslin Tetrology - Fyodor Abramov
What can I say? Its a tetrology about collective farming, of all things, yet its brilliant, with some of the best characterizations in fiction. Misha Pryaslin in particular, is one of my favourite characters in fiction.

(RNL #56) "Red Cavalry" by Isaac Babel (Ukraine)

Red Cavalry Isaac Babel

Rating: 1.5 out of 3

We are now moving along to the 'B's on the Russian National Library 1000 Greatest Works of Literature list. That means that in upcoming months, I'll be reading works by famous literary names such as Balzac, Blok, Bulgakov and... Babel'. 

Isaak Babel' (1894-1940, ne Bobel') was born in the Ukrainian city of Odessa; the third child in the family of Jewish merchant Manya Itskovich. Babel' was fluent in Russian, Hebrew and French (his first literary works were, in fact, written in French). He studied commerce and economics in Odessa and Kiev. In 1916, he moved to Petrograd, despite not having had the right to (at the time, in Tsarist Russia, Jews were not allowed to live in the capital). In Petrograd, he attended law school. 1916 was a notable year for Babel' as it was the year when he met a certain Maksim Gorkiy. Gorkiy published his stories "Mama, Rimma and Alla" and "Elya Isaakovich and Margarita Prokofievna" in his literary journal. These stories, unfortunately, garnered the wrong kind of attention for Babel' and almost got him tried on charges of blasphemy, pornography and attacks against the establishment(!) He was only really saved by the events of 1917. 

In 1918, Babel' served for a few months as a soldier on the Romanian front; deserted, then returned to Petrograd. In 1920, under the pseudonym Lyutov, Babel' enlisted in the Red Cavalry as a war correspondent. As such, Babel' subsequently participated in the Soviet Polish war of 1920. His notes taken during the war served as the basis for the cycle of short stories ("Red Cavalry") that would make him famous.

From the 1920s onwards, Babel' started publishing some of his most famous works: the aforementioned "Red Cavalry" stories and the even more renowned "Odessa Tales" (review to follow shortly).

In 1939, Babel' was arrested for anti soviet conspiratorial terrorist activity and spying. At the time of his arrest, several literary manuscripts were confiscated from him and lost forever. Babel' was convicted and shot on January 27, 1940 and from 1939 to 1955 he was removed from Soviet literature. In 1955, he was rehabilitated postmortem. 

There are two works by Babel' on the Russian National Library list. "Red Cavalry" is the first. As previously mentioned, "Red Cavalry" is a semi-autobiographical collection of short stories based on Babel's own experiences in the Soviet-Polish war. The stories are at times very short and jump quickly from one character and/or event to another.

Now, "Red Cavalry" is a bit of a difficult literary work for me to review. I concede that Babel is a talented writer with a unique style, i.e., sparse, but very vivid and original descriptions of persons, places and things (e.g. . 'The wind jumped between the branches like a crazed rabbit'), however, I found the tales and characters themselves to be, for the most part rather forgettable (this may have partially been due to the fact that I never felt I had the time to really get attached to any of the characters, as the stories were often very short and jumped often from one character to another). I also found Babel's writing style, a mix of fact and absurdism/humour to be a bit, well...almost inappropriate when speaking about war (e.g. a man riding out of nowhere on multiple occasions to steal captured Polish soldiers' clothes, a woman trying to get her horse pregnant in the middle of a war, a man who leaves the communist party because he didn't get the horse he wanted, etc.) I also found the stories to be rather one-sided (i.e. painting Red Cavalry officers in a negative light, whereas, I think that war atrocities and bad behavior are more often than not found on both sides). This could of course be due to the fact that Babel' had less knowledge of what the 'other side' was up to, so maybe I'm being a bit harsh (?)

I'm giving "Red Cavalry" a 1.5, but I'm sure I'll give "Odessa Tales", Babel's other famous work a much more favourable review. (I'm a third of the way through and really enjoying it!)