Review Round-Up

I’ve noticed there’s a hidden law of physics that decrees that once a Best-Of list has been published for the year, you are bound to come across a number of books subsequently that you wish you could have included in it.  I’m now trying to figure out if there’s a flaw in my plan to post my Best of 2012 next September, thus ensuring myself an autumn of excellent reading.

In the last few days before Christmas I read The Dream Life of Sukhanov by Olga Grushin. How I wish I could remember on which blogger’s site I’d seen a mention of it! The cover has one word reviews from four national publications, and the words read: ‘Haunting’, ‘Stunning’, ‘Heartbreaking’ and ‘Wonderful’. I have to say that I completely agree. On the inside back cover, my paperback copy holds a picture of Olga Grushin and she looks lovely: a smooth cap of brown hair, sparkling dark eyes, a big smile, hands crossed under her chin. I can’t tell you how much I wanted her to be my friend, but instead, I rushed out and bought her second novel.

The Dream Life of Sukhanov begins in a state of deceptive calm.  We meet the eponymous Anatoly Sukhanov as he arrives at a prestigious retrospective exhibition of his father-in-law’s paintings, beautiful wife Nina and his two grown-up children in tow. Sukhanov is a highly respected art critic, who lives in a sumptuous apartment in Moscow and has his own chauffeur. Everything in his life seems to suggest a man at the apogee of his talents and achievements. But as the evening progresses, indications arise that his self-satisfaction comes at the cost of strenuous denial. Nina leaves early with one of her headaches, and while Sukhanov waits outside the state university, wondering how to get home without his chauffeur, he has a disturbing encounter with a figure from his past, the underground artist Lev Belkin. Over the course of the next few days, Sukhanov’s tidy existence begins to unravel, a host of memories, some welcome, some distinctly troubling, start to surface in his mind, and despite his resistance, Sukhanov finds himself on the brink of losing all he holds dear, obliged to confront the truth of his life.

This is such a beautiful and clever book, delicately paced, whose episodes stretch out effortlessly to encompass a vivid tapestry of details bringing Sukhanov’s hidden conflicts to poignant life. The novel is written entirely from Sukhanov’s perspective, and as he begins to make contact with the dark underside of his existence, so the prose shifts subtly from third person to first person narrative. Grushin also has fun playing with the uncertainties between dream and reality, as Sukhanov’s troubled state of mind worsens, his mental clarity deteriorates, and he finds himself with increasing  frequency in places and situations that he can barely comprehend. He must find out what really happened to his father, a man he believed had been spirited away to one of Russia’s many prisons, only to return to commit suicide in front of his wife and young son. He must consider what really happened to his own career as an artist with a taste for the sort of Surrealist painting that was strictly forbidden by the state. And he must confront the reality of his marriage to Nina, a woman who loved genuine artistic talent as much, unfortunately, as she loved money and comfort. Although most of these quests offer only disturbing answers, the effect on Sukhanov is ultimately liberating. But this brilliant book ends with the most ambiguous conclusion I think I’ve had the pleasure of reading, one that is wholly appropriate for its sustained tussle between dream and reality.

That outstanding read was followed by Gifts from the Sea, which you already know I love, and then Nora Ephron’s humorous essay collection, I Feel Bad About My Neck. This was also a treat and just so funny. I’ve become all interested in Ephron now, and have decided to watch Sleepless in Seattle when I next feel like a movie (I saw When Harry Met Sally many years ago). So, more about her another time.

The other novel I must tell you about is The Return of Captain John Emmett by Elizabeth Speller, one of the books I was given for Christmas. This was another excellent read, although to be strictly accurate, it was the first book I finished in 2012 and so not viable for any end-of-year lists. It is, I suppose literary crime fiction. It’s set a few years after the end of the First World War and focuses on Laurence Bartram,  a man who has survived the fighting only to end up alone and feckless, unsure of the direction his life should take. Interest comes in the form of a family friend, Mary Emmett, who has been stunned by the recent suicide of her brother, John. John and Laurence were boys at school together, and when Laurence’s parents died, he was offered warm welcome and a surrogate family life in the holidays with the Emmetts. At university their ways parted, however, so Laurence feels little more than common soldierly solidarity with his old school friend. For Mary, however, he feels more than he should, and so in order to please her he takes over the enquiry, aiming at first to find out more about John’s state of mind before his death. Before long, however, he has uncovered the bones of a terrible tragedy surrounding the execution of a deserter. Compelled to get to the truth of the matter, Laurence is horrified to discover that in wartime, the worst atrocities are not always committed by the enemy.

This was another gorgeously written novel, very rich in both information and atmosphere. Subplots abound about life in mental institutions in the 1920s and wartime poets, as well as the summary justice of the trenches. What I loved about it was the way that each witness that Laurence talked to had a full story to give him, one bursting with details about the time period as well as pertinent information to the enquiry. Each part of the jigsaw, if you like, was well-structured and satisfying, leaving the reader with much to consider. I can’t bear those investigations where the detective never asks the questions that seem blindingly obvious, and hedges about with the suspects, getting nowhere fast. I loved this, and will be watching out for the next in what I suppose will become a series, The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton. I thought Speller’s name was oddly familiar, though, and it turns out I have a memoir by her that was written much earlier, The Sunlight on the Garden: A Family in Love, War and Madness. The way that reading spawns even more reading is at once a delight and a frustration! Not that I’m complaining, really. With Olga Grushin’s next novel, Speller’s memoir, Anne Morrow Lindburgh’s diaries from the library and more essays by Ephron, not to mention her films to watch, I am actually a very happy woman indeed.

29 thoughts on “Review Round-Up

  1. I love when a book points to another book I’ve been wanting to read or introduces me to something new that looks wonderful.

    Do you have the link to search what I’m sure is the entire book blogging world? This is where I go when I just know a blog review was the inspiration but I failed to include in on my goodreads. notes: FyreFly’s Awesome Book Blog Search

    • Care – thank you for that link – I can never find it when I want it! I will remember it’s here now. And you are so right – that chain of inquiry through books is wonderful – you never know what you will find! Oh and I did have to retrieve this from spam. Silly wordpress – I think it was simply the link that triggered it

  2. Oh yes, I loved The Dream Life of Sukhanov which I read when it was first published a few years ago in paperback – subtle, beautful,unusual and completely outstanding.

  3. I’m was planning on making a trip to the book store on my lunch hour today to check out the bargain books, but I think I’ll look for Olga Grushin too. I love Nora Ephron, but I hate that she has already taken the title “I Feel Bad About My Neck,” since I was going to use something very similar. Sigh. I should have known someone would grab it first…considering the number of wrinkled necks out and about. I’ve tried holding my head higher, but it only makes me appear giraffe-like and I’m afraid someone will try to feed me a sugar cube or a handful of hay. I’ll look for Ephron’s memoir while I’m out as well; I feel better knowing I’m not alone.

    • Isn’t it a pain when someone nicks your cherished title? Perhaps you could do a cute spin on it? (‘I Feel Reconciled To My Neck’) But hmm, the photo I recall seeing briefly on you showed me a most attractive and youthful looking lady. Your comment made me laugh, but I think you may feel reassured that no one will feed you sugar cubes just yet!🙂

  4. I think you could have read about “Dream Life of Sukhanov” on my blog! I loved that book — it will be on my forthcoming list of the best things I read in 2011. I just gave it to a co-worker who hadn’t had read anything emotionally grabbing in a while. She loved it too, and I just found an ARC of “The Line,” her follow-up novel on our store’s abandoned advanced copies shelves. I’m excited to read it. What a writer! Glad you enjoyed it : )

    • Mbolit – yes! I do think it was you. Easy acid test – the blogger spoke about Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay too, which I have also just purchased. In the UK, that second novel by Olga Grushin has come out as ‘The Concert Ticket’ (because we Brits stand in a queue rather than a line, I suppose). I’m very excited to read it too! Well, a HUGE thank you for the heads up because I just adored the novel and it has catapulted Grushin onto my list of must-reads.

      • Yes – I read Russian Winter before Dream Life and mentioned in my post. The second far excels the first but I enjoyed both novels, and Daphne Kalotay is local to the book store where I work.

        Once I finish P.D. James’ “Death Comes to Pemberly,” Grushin’s second novel is up next. I’m excited.

  5. A Common Reader wrote about Gruschin. Not this title though but he mentioned it as well. Maybe it was there. I bought Sukhanov after he mentioned her. It must be very good. I hope I can read it soon.
    I watched You Got Mail a few years ago and I’m one of those people who occasionally watch a whole movie with the director commentary right afterwards and I did in this case and discovered how great Nora Ephron is. I got a few of her books and am sure she writes very well.
    I had The Return of Captain John Emmett in my hands in a book shop and hestitated because next to it were at least six other novels with almost the same cover and that is slightly off putting. there are slways much more duds among this type of historical novels but now that you liked it, I might get it the next time I see it.

    • I do remember him writing about The Concert Ticket, but I think I had her first novel by that point. I do hope you get to it soon! I’d love to know what you think. I’d forgotten that You’ve Got Mail is also by Nora Ephron – so glad that you like her too. I know what you mean about the cover to The Return of Captain John Emmett and I confess I hesitated over it for exactly the same reason. But I really did like it and thought it was very well written indeed. I think it’s worth a try.

  6. I read, loved and wrote about The Dream Life of Sukhanov many moons ago, because it was nominated for the Orange New Writer’s Prize in 2006 (and narrowly lost out to Naomi Alderman’s Disobedience). I remember her prose being very meaty and muscular, and how beautifully and evocatively she described art. I’m really interested to read her most recent novel, The Concert Ticket.

    • Victoria – oh yes! It was shortlisted for the Orange prize which would put it right in your ballpark. And I am SO glad you loved it – reaffirms my sense that we have very similar reading tastes and responses. I hope you get to her second novel soon; I’d love to know what you think of it.

  7. Okay, Litlove, I must get The Dream Life of Sukhanov! It sounds like a book I would absolutely love. I am looking for some fiction to grab my attention as I have plenty of nonfiction going right now.

    • Ali – I think you might well enjoy this one. It moves slowly and is delicate and detailed, but if you are in the mood for that, then I think you probably would get a lot out of it. I’ll be emailing you very soon as the book after next will be, I hope, Daniel Deronda. And there’s lots to chat about besides that!

    • I also love it when my tbr coincides with those of my blogging friends! And yes, it is a treat really when one book leads to another – a very unique pleasure of reading.

  8. Books and movies… they can certainly take up all of your time. Have you read Nora Ephron’s I Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections? If you’re a NE fan, it’s a must-read. It’s a memoir, where she talks about aging, and reminisce on how she wrote the script for “When Harry Met Sally”, which started her very successul screenwriting career. It’s pure fun. And yes, going through all her movies will be such an enjoyable thing to do… make that a new year resolution and I’m sure you’d be happy to achieve.

    • Oh bless you! What a lovely thing to say, thank you. And lol, yes, these things are always intuitive when you start blogging (it took me about a month to even discover where the book blogs were!).

  9. Your first paragraph cracked me up! Maybe you should do a best of list in February or March and guarantee yourself even more excellent reading. Or would that be tempting fate?

    • Lol! It’s a risk, isn’t it? But does that make it not worth running? I mean, what would I NOT do to guarantee great reading?😉 Actually, we’d better leave that question rhetorical, as I don’t want to get into the pros and cons of trading in Mister Litlove, etc.🙂

  10. Oh, oh, now I want to read ‘The Dream Life of Sukhanov’. I love that you would like to be Olga Grushin’s friend. That to me says it’s a very special book. I feel the same about Antal Szerb, whose short stories I’ve just finished.

    • Yes, that’s exactly it! It was a special connection I felt I’d made through her writing, and implicitly, through her perspective on life and art. Antal Szerb is a name that’s ringing vague bells – ah well, I will definitely look him/her up now that I know the short stories had that effect on you!

  11. I loved The Return of Captain John Emmett–whyever did I not put it on my own favorites list? In the mad rush at the end of the year I didn’t pay as close attention to my mystery reading as I should have. I also have The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton sitting just within arms reach of me right now! I will definitely be reading it this year and hoping she is writing yet another book right now! There is always at least one book that ends up being a great read after you’ve already posted your list! Will have to check out the Grushin, and I have Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s diaries pulled off my shelves at the moment as I am ready to go off on yet another reading tangent. I must read Gifts from the Sea sometime, too. I wonder if I even own it….

    • I thought I recalled seeing this one on your site! Oh don’t – I always forget a book I wanted to include on the list, every single year! Lucky you to have Kitty Easton ready to read – I will definitely buy the paperback when it come out. I really enjoyed that novel; such a good read. And I think you’d like Gifts from the Sea. It’s a very peaceful and encouraging sort of book, and I loved it wholeheartedly. I also got the first volume of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s diaries out of the library (although between you and me, it’s a biography of Anne and her husband that I’m really keen on – but I can’t yet track a cheap copy down!).

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