Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Line, by Olga Grushin

This is for Historical Tapestry's blog challenge - L is for Line.

The line, a shuffling, sighing, gossiping organism starts hopefully, populated by people who aren't sure what exactly will be sold at the other end, or even when, but they all have their dreams. Anya hopes for a cake, an airy, sweet cake to color her drab existence. She lives with her husband in a loveless marriage, watching over their 17-year-old son and her mute mother, all caught in a tiny apartment but utter strangers to each other. As it becomes clear what the line does sell - tickets to a concert by a composer now banished to the West - the line becomes their family's life, the visceral representation of their government's wrongheadedness and repression, and then it transforms them.

This story is historical in the most magical way, blending the Soviet Union of the 1930s, the 1960s and the 1970s into a strange, timeless place never precisely identified (though the model is clear to the reader). Olga Grushin's language is similarly magical, as she brings both the characters and the stark, dim city where they live to sparkling, brilliant life. I first fell in love with Grushin's The Dream Life of Sukhanov for her skillful blending of language and theme, and she does almost as well here. Sukhanov is a tough work to beat, and I highly recommend it, particularly to artists or those who love art (which sould be everyone, right?). The Line is a little more universal in its tale of human disappointment and hope, and perhaps just a touch less sharp for being so universal, but overall it's an excellent, excellent book.

If you're interested in learning more about Ms. Grushin (a Washington local, by the way), check out this interview with the great independent bookstore, Politics and Prose. Ms. Grushin came to the US in her teens, and (amazingly), English is not her native tongue.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Known World by Edward P. Jones

This is for Historical Tapestry's blog challenge - K is for Known.

I am willing to bet you have never read a book like this before - unless you've read this one. The Known World is the story of black slave-owners in a fictious Virginia county, but it's also the story of the web of relationships that slavery built and destroyed. There's Caldonia, the newly-widowed mistress of the plantation her husband, a freed slave, built and populated with people still condemned to bondage. There's Moses, the black foreman who helped create that plantation and isn't sure where his heart lies. Plus Fern, the black woman who could have passed for white but never contemplated it, and Mister Robbins, the white slave owner who's both harsh overseer and racial diplomat, and many, many more. As all these characters move through the turbulent antebellum and Civil War periods, it's impossible not to get caught in their wake.

Written in a unique style that dips back and forth between attentive, tuneful omniscence and detached, anthropological chronicling, this book is a wonder. By just the first 7 pages the reader has experienced both:

"He paused before leaving the fields as the evening quiet wrapped itself around him. The mule quivered, wanting home and rest. Moses closed his eyes and bent down and took a pinch of the soil and ate it with no more than if it were a spot of cornbread. He worked the dirt around in his mouth and swallowed, leaning his head back and opening his eyes in time to see the strip of sun fade to dark blue and then to nothing."


"In 1855 in Manchester County, Virginia, there were thirty-four free black families, with a mother and father and one child or more, and eight of those free families owned slaves, and all eight knew one another's business. When the War between the States came, the number of slave-owning blacks in Manchester would be down to five, and one of those included an extremely morose man who, according to the U.S. census of 1860, legally owned his own wife and five children and three grandchildren."

This is a great book, written by a fascinating (and local!) man. I won't be giving away my copy - this one's a keeper.

Princess Nijma

Princess Nijma