Bite-Sized Russians

Bite-Sized Books

Penguin’s Little Black Classics series includes a number of works by Russian writers, who haven’t figured very prominently in my reading to date. It was time to correct that. These short stories gave me the chance to have brief encounters with Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Gogol and Chekhov, none of whom I’d read before, as well as renewing my acquaintance with the towering Tolstoy. It has felt rather like speed-dating with Russian authors. Along the way I’ve been introduced to ambitious officers, unhappy wives, unscrupulous peasants, mentally unstable dreamers and an errant nose with a penchant for disguise. My appetite has certainly been whetted and, in due course, I’ll be looking into some of these authors in greater detail. By the way, I must stress that I’m well aware Gogol is Ukrainian by birth, but I hope I can be forgiven for including him here, as he’s often cited among the great Russian-speaking writers. Now, don your fur hat, grab your tot of vodka and hie ye to your troika, as we delve into the 19th-century Russian mind…

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So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed: Jon Ronson

★★★★

We can all agree that there are some pretty terrible people in the world; but they’re rarely the people you see being publicly eviscerated on Twitter. Those who face the onslaught of social media are rarely murderers, child abusers, dictators or other bona fide nasty types. They’re far more likely to be celebrities, or even ordinary people, who’ve made a stupid comment or worn a misguided piece of clothing and have consequently become Public Enemy No. 1 for the next day and a half. We’ve all seen these furies explode on Twitter and then die off within a week, when the next big thing turns up. But the impact of this public annihilation doesn’t disappear so easily. Jon Ronson sets out in search of those who’ve been publicly shamed, seeking to understand why it happened, what it felt like, and how – and if – one can recover from it.

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The Radleys: Matt Haig

★★★

Nothing much ever happens in the Yorkshire village of Bishopthorpe. That’s exactly why the Radleys moved there from London before their children were born. With their unremarkable middle-class villa, their predictable middle-class people-carrier, their unobjectionable middle-class existence, their book clubs and their Sunday dinners, and their two shy and rather sickly teenage children, Helen and Peter Radley are barely worth a second glance. And that’s the way they like it. Unfortunately, their children are getting to a difficult age and events soon rapidly spiral out of control. It turns out that teenage self-discovery is much harder to handle when your entire family are vampires.

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The Madness of Moscow: Cary Johnston

★★

One Man’s Journey of Life and Love in Russia

I was attracted to this book by its promise of revelation. Even in the modern age, Russia is still ‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’, and its role on the international stage is becoming ever more complex, fascinating and not a little worrying. Recent news has cast it as a country of hackers, oligarchs, corruption and assassins; but how true is all of this? What’s it actually like to be in Russia right now, as a Westerner? What makes the Russians tick? How open is modern Russia to the West and what it stands for? I hoped to find the answers to some of these questions, and hopefully many others, in this book. Unfortunately, though, I was disappointed. Johnston’s account offers little beyond a memoir of partying, vodka-drinking and his eternal and somewhat wearying quest to find his ideal ‘Russian Bride’. For a reporter, it shows a profound lack of curiosity.

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The List of my Desires: Grégoire Delacourt

★★★½

We all have dreams about what we’d do if we won the lottery. In my case, it’d involve a lovely house in a garden square in Kensington, with enough room for a proper library; and even more travelling. We like to imagine that these things would make us happy and finally allow us to become the people we’re meant to be. But is that really so? What would it really be like to find our bumbling, workaday lives transformed by the sudden influx of riches? This bittersweet little novel is based around the eternal truth that wealth and happiness don’t always enjoy a positive correlation. With its modest heroine and cosy small-town air, it’s a moral fable with a surprisingly bleak sting in its tail.

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Swan Lake: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

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★★★★½

(Royal Opera House, 22 May 2018)

As most of you will be aware, I approach ballet with caution; but the one score I know better than any other is Swan Lake, partly because I’ve watched the Matthew Bourne version on DVD more times than I care to remember, and partly because Tchaikovsky’s gorgeous music has provided the motivational soundtrack for many revision periods and work deadlines over the last fifteen years. So, when I was lucky enough to be invited to the sold-out new production at Covent Garden – the first new staging for thirty years, devised by Liam Scarlett – I leapt at the chance. And, by heaven, it was a joy. Sumptuous staging, fabulous costumes and breathtaking skill all came together to create three hours of utter magic – a ballet with heart as well as visual splendour. Thank you E!

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A Man Called Ove: Fredrik Backman

★★★★

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ll know that I have a huge soft spot for Fredrik Backman. He has a talent for writing charming, heartwarming stories about human nature in small communities. Here are the vulnerable, real people beneath the spiny carapaces of the curmudgeons we meet in our daily life, laid bare with compassion and gentleness. And there’s no curmudgeon quite like Ove. This was Backmann’s debut novel and, while already displaying the hallmarks he would develop in his later books, it’s probably the darkest of the three I’ve read so far. That’s mainly because, when we first meet Ove, he’s very carefully preparing to commit suicide.

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Weekend at Thrackley: Alan Melville

★★★½

This jolly novel is part of the British Library’s Crime Classics series, devoted to resurrecting overlooked treasures from the golden age of British mystery writing. While not an avid fan of crime novels, I have read one book from the series before – Death on the Cherwell – so it’s really the subject that appeals rather than the genre. In Weekend at Thrackley, first published in 1934, a rather feckless young man is surprised by an invitation to a country house weekend in Surrey. But further surprises are to come. Stuffed with dastardly villains, jewel thieves, mysterious pasts and a good dose of pluck, not to mention lashings of humour, this is just the ticket for cosy escapism.

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The Art of Guido Cagnacci: Xavier Salomon

★★★★

Guido Cagnacci is probably an unfamiliar name even to many seasoned gallery-goers. He’s an Italian Baroque artist whom I’ve always liked, despite feeling that I probably shouldn’t. Shouldn’t my inner feminist revolt at the sight of his damp-eyed saints and tragic heroines, with their tumbling auburn hair and exposed breasts? But, despite all that, the man actually did paint some pretty fabulous pictures. In this monograph, written to celebrate the loan in 2017 of Cagnacci’s Repentent Magdalen, from the Norton Simon Museum to the Frick Collection and the National Gallery in London, Xavier Salomon fleshes out the life of this little-known artist. It’s only a short introduction, but it tantalises with its tale of a passionate, innovative and unconventional painter. Come join me – and enjoy a veritable bevy of lovely pictures.

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The Sealwoman’s Gift: Sally Magnusson

★★★★

For those who judge books on their covers, this is a stunner. Just look at that beautiful design: the stylised waves and breakers; the woman’s face emerging eerily from curls of foam on the front; and the galleon surging towards a precipitous white city on the back. Based on historical fact and informed by an account written by one of its main characters, this remarkably assured debut novel tells the story of a group of Icelandic hostages kidnapped by Turkish corsairs in 1627. Carried off to exotic slavery in Ottoman Algiers, the captives must decide whether to cling to a dream of home, or adapt in order to prosper. How should one choose to live, when you’re never sure if you will ever see your family again? Which chances should be taken? How precious is faith? And what should one do when the charms of captivity threaten to eclipse the lure of home?

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