Friday, May 12, 2017

My Top 10 Russian Novels...and One Memoir


Here's something light to kick off your weekend. Social media is all about lists these days, so thought I would get on the bandwagon and share mine.

A friend from my childhood in West Philadelphia, Alex Kudera, kindly asked me to make this list recently. I'm not an expert in Russian Literature or Language; I had a crush on a stupid Russian guy at age 19 and was good at languages. Hence, my Russian major! Alex is a professor of English literature who has taught students in China, Ohio, South Carolina, and right here in Philadelphia. He has a more sophisticated blog than this one that you may want to check out. Ahem:

1. Anna Karenina (Lev Tolstoy, 1873 to 1877). Anna is rich and bored. Anna hates the way her husband chews his food. Count Vronsky—played by Christopher Reeve, so handsome—sweeps Anna off her feet! But things do not end well for Anna.

2. The Brothers Karamazov (Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1880). Not about a traveling circus acrobatic troupe. Its sweeping explorations of God, free agency, and morality are timeless and haunting. My favorite part is Ivan’s reciting of the poem “The Grand Inquisitor” in which Christ is resurrected during the Spanish Inquisition.

3. Crime and Punishment (Dostoevsky, 1866). Life-long graduate student Rodion Raskolnikov tries to justify an unspeakably immoral act with eugenics and hey—a guy needs to eat.

4. Rudin (Ivan Turgenev, 1856). Dmitry Rudin talks the talk, but boy does he not walk the walk. Or is it talks the walk? Either way, he fails to get laid.

5. The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin (Vladimir Voinovich, 1969). A peasant drafted into the Red Army is forgotten by his unit in a remote village (every Russian village is remote, natch) because he’s just not that memorable. The fellow takes care of a garden instead. Slapstick hilarity ensues.

6. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 1962). Life in a Soviet prison labor camp is not as fun as you think it is.

7. Moscow 2042 (Vladimir Voinovich, 1986). A utopian-dystopian future in which Moscow becomes the communist epicenter of Russia. Like Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid’s Tale), Voinovich has called his novel “prophetic.”

8. Hope Against Hope: A Memoir (Nadezhda Mandelstam, 1970). Not a novel, but personal memoir forms the backbone of modern Russian lit, in my opinion. The wife of exiled poet Osip Mandelstam details the unthinkable hardships she and her family endured during the Stalinist era.

9. Fathers and Sons (Ivan Turgenev, 1862). Like A River Runs Through It, but without the boring fly fishing, Brad Pitt, and Robert Redford’s droning voiceover. All the cool kids are embracing nihilism, but Pavel Kirsanov is having none of it.

10. War and Peace (Lev Tolstoy, 1869). Has anyone actually finished this book? I have not. Napoleon invades Russia. Beyond that, I have no more to say. 

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