Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay

Fiction — print. Harper Perennial, 2010. 496 pgs. Purchased.

Nina Revskaya, an eighty-year-old former acclaimed ballerina from the Bolshoi Ballet in the Soviet Union, has decided to sell her jewelry collection – unique for both its contents and its origins in Soviet Russia – in an auction to benefit the Boston Ballet Foundation. Since her retirement from the Boston Ballet, Nina has largely become a recluse in her Back Bay brownstone interacting with only two chosen friends infrequently and with her nurse on a daily basis. Nina is uninterested in sharing the story of her jewelry and refuses to expand upon her largely yes-or-no answers to questions posed to her by Drew Brooks, an associate from the auction house tasked with creating a book on the jewels included in the sale.

The unsolicited arrival of an amber necklace believed to match the amber set owned by Nina offers Drew an alternative source for answers. Yet Grigori Solodin, a professor and translator of poems written by Nina’s deceased husband at a local Boston office, is just as clueless about the source of the amber necklace in his possession and hopes Drew or, better yet, Nina herself can help fill in the holes of his own personal history.

I purchased this book at the library used book sale because of four words on the back cover: Boston, Stalinist Russia, and ballet. The cover evokes a melancholy, dreamy feeling, which is part of why I was drawn to the book in the first place, but I also seem to be reading a slew of books lately featuring faceless women on the cover. The faceless theme works in this case as much of the book is spent exploring who the real Nina Revskaya is – the person defined by the past she has tried to ignore for so long – and how exactly a favored ballerina in Soviet Russia came to defect one night in Paris nearly fifty years ago.

Central to Nina’s past are her husband, the poet Viktor Elsin; her childhood friend and fellow ballerina, Vera; and the Jewish composer, Gersh. Oddly enough, these characters felt far more developed than Nina herself, who seems to largely float along from one conflict in Soviet Russia to another. Clearly, Drew is a prop character used to open the door to Nina’s past without much development on her own. The story could have done without her intrusion in the later chapters.

The mention of Grigori’s mere existence exposes the overarching mystery the novel solves, although I did appreciate the red herrings Kalotay throws into the story to try to keep this mystery fresh. And maybe the ending felt a little abrupt given how slowly drawn out the book is, but I’m not sure there needed to be a longer march given how predictable the ending was.

For all its predictability, though, Kalotay’s descriptions of Soviet Russia, of the Back Bay in Boston, of the pain ballerinas are subjected to in order to dance, and of the fear her characters felt throughout of the novel kept me from putting this one aside in favor of something else. A third of the way through this book, I found myself pondering which brownstone exactly could be Nina’s as I walked through the Back Bay late one afternoon. The descriptions add to the slow pace of the novel, but they really helped me connect with the bleakness of the Russian winter and the bleakness of a past a person might be afraid to address in their own age.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Fiction — print. Vintage, 2008. Originally published 1987. 324 pgs. Library copy.

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1988, this tale focuses on Sethe, a young salve who escaped to Ohio to join her mother-in-law (although her marriage to Halle was not legally binding) and her three other children, and the young daughter named Denver that Sethe was pregnant with during her escape.

Eighteen years after her arrival in Ohio, she and her youngest daughter, Denver, live together in the house at 124 Bluestone Road in Cincinnati that is haunted by Sethe’s two-year-old daughter. The unnamed daughter is referred to as ‘Beloved’ after her death because that was the only word from the preacher’s sermon at her daughter’s funeral and the only word the funeral home would carve into the stone in exchange for sex.

The death of Beloved has marked every aspect of Denver’s life isolating her from the community at large, especially after her brothers, Howard and Buglar, escaped from the house and her grandmother, Baby Suggs, passed away. Largely housebound, Denver is unprepared for the arrival of two new people in their lives: Paul D, a former slave who knew her mother from their time together at Sweet Home, and a young woman who calls herself Beloved.

“Beloved. You are my sister. You are my daughter. You are my face; you are me. I have found you again; you have come back to me. You are my Beloved. You are mine.” (pg. 255)

Paul D is able to chase the spirit of Sethe’s eldest daughter from the home allowing Denver to finally leave the house at 124 Bluestone Road, but the supernatural presence returns when Beloved arrives and charms Sethe and Denver with her presence. As Paul D grows closer to Sethe and warier of Beloved’s presence, the black community of Cincinnati informs Paul D of how Sethe’s daughter died, of how Sethe tried to murder all four of her children in order to keep them from being returned to their owner at Sweet Home. Horrified, Paul D leaves the home allowing Sethe to become lost to the idea that the young woman named Beloved to actually her daughter returned to her at the expense of both herself and Denver.

In her preface, Morrison says she was inspired to write this book after reading an old newspaper article about an escape slave who murdered her child to prevent the her child from being returned to their owner under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required people living in “free states” to return all runaways to slavery. She explains both in the preface and in the text how slavery fractured familial relationships, how it left women like Sethe with few options to keep themselves and their families together.

Going into the story with this particular idea in mind did ruin Paul’s revelation of what Sethe did, but it also allowed me to see the forest amongst the trees, so to say. I could have easily become bogged down in Morrison’s prose, in the magical realism (which is rarely to my own taste), and in sudden shift to stream of consciousness more than halfway into the story. But I also knew I should be focusing on the complexity of mother-daughter relationships, on the guilt that accompanies hindsight, and on the everlasting mark of both slavery and murder.

On those three points, I adored this book for what it had to say. Slavery and murder are despicable evils in this world, but given the choice between the two – given the only choice one has – how can Sethe choose life in slavery over murder? She knew what that life would be like – how it would deprive her children of a family or the right to marry, how it cause them immense pain and suffering, how her daughters would be expected to bare children with a man chosen for them knowing they would be unlikely to see those children grow up.

We see the loss of her child haunt her after the fact in part because she and her three remaining children were allowed to remain free, but her actions cost the life of her beloved daughter and, eventually, the right to be in the lives of her sons. Yet she does not feel guilty about what she did even telling Paul D point blank that she cannot be faulted for “trying to put my babies where they would be safe”. She had already lost her husband, who failed to show up when it was time for them to escape from Sweet Home together, and she had already been brutalized by her new master, who had forcibly taken her milk from her that she had been trying to save for the unnamed infant upon their reunification.

And, of course, her decision cost her remaining daughter a happy and productive life as a member of Cincinnati society. Denver is an outcast because of what her mother did. She is forgotten by her brothers in their attempt to escape their mother and the haunted house, and her grandmother spent most of her remaining years keeping Denver close in order to prevent her mother from having the opportunity to kill her like she did Beloved. She never really has the freedom her mother was trying to afford to her, which is a tragedy in its own right.

I still cannot claim to be a fan of Toni Morrison’s writing, but I can say that I am a fan of what this book has to say and the viewpoint it offers to its readers. (Although, I admit that “fan” is a rather awful word to use in connection to the horrific tale told in this novel.) Another book I’m glad I added to my Classics Club list as I would not have picked it up otherwise.

The Classics Club:

I read this book for the Classics Club, which challenges participants read and discuss fifty or more books considered to be classics within a five year period. My personal goal for this project is to read seventy-five books in three years ending on August 15, 2017. You can find out more information by checking out my introductory post, project post, or spreadsheet of titles.

The Midwife of Venice by Roberta Rich

Fiction – print. Gallery Books, 2012. 352 pgs. Purchased.

In sixteenth century Venice, Papal edict forbids Jews from rendering medical treatment to Christians and confines all Jews to a squalled ghetto, which they are forbidden from leaving after nightfall. Late one evening, a wealthy Count arrives with the ghetto’s rabbi in an attempt to solicit the midwifery services of Hannah Levi, a woman renowned throughout the city of Venice for her skill with complicated deliveries. Hannah wants to refuse the request for her help as she fears the edict and the possibility that the Count might decide her secret “birthing spoons” (very crude forceps) were a gift for the Devil.

Yet the outrageous sum of money the Count offers for her services is more than enough of a temptation for Hannah. Her husband, Isaac, was captured at sea and sold to people claiming to be defenders of the Christian faith, and Venice’s rabbinical council has been unable to negotiate for his release. The Count’s payment would allow Hannah to travel to Malta, where her husband is being held, to ransom Isaac before the slave traders and abusive merchants can work him to death.

The first few chapters of this book hold an immense amount of promise setting the stage for a perilous and ethical decision – should Hannah use her God-given gift for midwifery when it could cause her to permanently lose her husband, could put her community in danger, and could cause her to lose her own life? And does she dare use her “birthing spoons” that even her rabbi had qualms about blessing? Rich also provides detailed descriptions of the scenery of sixteenth century Venice, which help to explain the rampant anti-Semitism in this region and highlight how perilous life is during this time for both Jews and women whether they are Christian or not, pregnant or not.

And then the whole story begins to fall apart. Rich repeatedly asserts that the noble family Hannah has been called to assist would also face prosecution if the Papal authority learned they had solicited the services of a Jewish midwife for a Christian mother and child. Yet the family invites her to dine with them in the weeks after the birth breaking social customs and the law, which conveniently provides Rich with the opportunity to plant Hannah right in the middle of a plot to kidnap the newborn child. Her sister, Jessica, is conveniently introduced after Hannah flees the house to provide Hannah with a place of refuge, and their tenuous relationship is quickly explained and patched up in a few pages.

The narrative abruptly shifts to Malta where a cruel man and a nun from the local abbey are in a bidding war over Isaac, which interrupted the suspense of Hannah’s story, and then continues to jump back and forth from Venice to Malta throughout the book. I imagine this was done to show the peril facing both Isaac and Hannah, to show why Hannah was so determined to rescue her husband.

However, other than Hannah learning how her husband refuses to leave her over her barrenness despite the Rabbi’s pressure, there was nothing about the introduction of Isaac to the story that added dimensions to both his characterization and his and Hannah’s relationship. And I ended up largely skimming sections devoted to the subplot of him helping a slave trader with his love affair.

The timeline rang false for this time period. So much of the action occurs in a span of a few days, including the Count sailing away to another city and news of his death from the plague arriving the next day – rather amazing speed given the time period – that the plot begins to feel even more convenient and farfetched. I just could not get over the idea of a woman in 1575 being named Jessica.

And neither, apparently, could the previous owner of this book because they littered the pages of this novel with a bunch of questions marks and attempted to take notes on the plot on the back cover.

In the Darkness by Karin Fossum

Fiction – print. Translated from the Norwegian by James Anderson. Harvill Secker, 2012. Originally published 1995. 314 pgs.

Walking along the icy riverbanks late one afternoon, Eva and her seven-year-old daughter, Emma, discover a dead body bloated from weeks in the river floating near the surface. Emma instructs her mother to call the police, and Eva complies instructing her daughter to wait patiently outside the phone booth while she makes the call. Instead, she calls her father – never once mentioning the dead body – before taking an overweight Emma to McDonald’s for a Happy Meal, which the little girl asserts they can now afford because her mother suddenly has money.

An elderly woman eventually alerts the authorities to the location of the body, and Inspector Konrad Sejer arrives on the scene to discover the body is that of a man named Egil who worked at the local brewery and has been missing for months. The man’s disappearance was cloaked in mystery – his wife insisted he loved his car, but both she and Egil’s son assert that the man disappeared when he went to meet a buyer for the car. And now that his body has surfaced and found to have fifteen stab wounds, Inspector Sejer begins to wonder how a disappearance presumed to be about money could have resulted in such a personal and violent attack.

At the same time, Inspector Sejer is investigating the murder of a known prostitute by the name of Maja who was found dead in her apartment just before Egil went missing. The case has gone cold, and there are few leads as to which one of Maja’s johns killed her. The only connection between the two cases is Eva, who Inspector Sejer eventually learns was the first one to find Egil’s body and was the last person to see Maja alive.

It is fairly obvious from the beginning who at least one of the killers is, but Fossum is far more interested in the how and, most especially, the why the killer did what they did. In fact, Fossum’s book follows a rather unique structure blending the killer’s confession with the investigation of the crime so the resulting narrative jumps from past to present as pieces of the puzzle fall into place.

It took me about a hundred pages to find my footing and it felt like Fossum was struggling, as well, since she uses the third person narrative throughout of the book. I can’t set aside mystery novels after a certain point because I have to know whodunit.

Yet, in this case, I couldn’t give up on the book because I had to know whydunit. And the physiological exploration of why as it unfolded in the second half of the book was well worth sticking with the book because while I cannot say I was shocked by the ending, I thought the way she tied everything together in the end was very clever. As such, I wouldn’t be surprised if more of Fossum’s novels follow me home from the library, especially since this is the first book in a series.

Finally, I do have to comment on the translation by James Anderson. I usually find with some of the lesser known Scandinavian crime writers that their work is translated into British English rather than American English. Obviously, I’m more than capable of adapting to the few differences – boot instead of trunk, phone box instead of phone booth – but there were words here and there that I had to look up  to make sure I was understanding correctly. The context provided by the rest of the sentence failed me, I guess, because I wouldn’t have classified these words as slang. (And, dummy me, I returned the book before remembering to write them down.) But this was more of a quirk I noticed than a complaint, and it shouldn’t be taken as a reason not to pick up Fossum’s novel.

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

Nonfiction – print. Riverhead Books, 2015. 290 pgs. Library copy.

If a chapter of your books ends up being published in the New York Times magazine, odds are I’ll end up adding it to my to-read list. Which is how I ended up reading this particular book – a portion of Ronson’s book was published back in February under the somewhat provocative title “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life”.

I remember seeing the Sacco incident unfolding in real time as people I follow on tumblr reblogged a screenshot of the tweet exclaiming their disgust over it and calling for Justine to be fired. I never saw the original tweet on Twitter, but I did see the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet trending in the United States as I logged on to delete the account I created for a project at work. (We needed a test account and I didn’t want to use the one linked to my book blog, obviously.)

I saw a story in the newspaper a few days later following up on the vitriol explaining that Justine was, in fact, fired after sending out a tweet to about 150 followers. And while I don’t defend what she said, I remember being struck at how one tweet to a smallish group of followers practically destroyed this woman’s life. I mean, while I had heard of people being bullied on Facebook and Twitter, I thought such large scale public smack downs were usually reserved for companies. Oh, the naiveté.

Turns out, others have experienced what Justine Sacco went through and Ronson interviews five others – a journalist who turned out to have plagiarized himself and others by the name of Jonah Lehrer, a young woman named Lindsay Stone whose offensive photography of an inside joke with friends earned her death threats, a world racing guru named Mosely caught having German-themed orgies, a computer programmer who made a sexual joke to a friend in the crowd of a conference and ended up losing his job, and the woman who publicly shammed the computer programmer in a tweet.

Jonah Lehrer’s experience seems rather cut and dry as journalists should be held to high standards and plagiarism and embellishment diminish their credibility. And I’ve seen people claim Justine deserved her public shaming because she works in public relations and should know better than to tweet something that could be perceived as racist, even if she later stated she meant to poke fun at the way most Americans view Africa. (An excuse I don’t buy.)

But the computer programmer and the woman who publicly shammed him were the two cases that really introduced shades of gray to this situation. Should the man have made a sexual joke for anyone to overhear? No, absolutely not. Should the woman have tweeted a picture of him in an attempt to publicly shame him? No. She could have just as easily tweeted her disgust without the picture, and Ronson explains that the conference organizers did investigate her charge of sexual harassment. (Would they have investigated it without the picture? Hard to say.)

The tweet ended up costing the man his job, which seems extreme, but it also ended up costing the woman her job after he posted that her tweet cost this father of three his job, which also seems extreme. He almost immediately went on to another job at a technology startup without a single female employee; she ended up receiving rape and death threats from anonymous internet trolls and men’s rights groups.

These antidotes were certainly food for thought in terms of my own personal, online presence, and I ended up discussing quite a few of them with my father during his recent visit. I do agree with his point that we (mainly Americans, it appears from Ronson’s book) have developed a “pile on” culture that is constantly out for blood. People cannot make mistakes because every misstep is logged online and scrutinized by millions of people they do not know.

Ronson tries to point out that public shaming was an accepted form of punishment for hundreds of years and, in fact, some judges in the South still sentence defendants to some form of public shaming.  At this point, the book starts to lose steam and the premise begins to fall apart. His research into this history is weak, at best, and his attempts to find a solution felt halfhearted.

Basically, a victim of public shaming has three options: (1) turn themselves into a super honest person which will probably land them in even hotter water, (2) refuse to engage or overengage by finding someone to sue for libel like Mosely did, or (3) pay a company hundreds of thousands of dollars to basically “up vote” good things about them to the top of Google’s algorithm so their transgression falls to the second page.

A quick Google Images search shows the latter did not work for Lindsay Stone, which is a shame because I had never heard of her or her picture until I read this book. And it makes me wonder what Ronson had hoped to accomplish with this book. He discusses that question quite a bit in the text, but I don’t think he ever figured it out.

He neither offers solutions for those who have publicly shammed (as one of his interviewers said they wished he would do) nor does he really trace the history of public shamming to provide context for how and why our society works this way. All he really accomplished is providing an opportunity for these people to publicly shammed all over again, and you can gleam enough of that from reading the portion of this book published in the New York Times magazine.