The Captain's Daughter

Alexander Pushkin's historical novel, The Captain's Daughter, caught my eye in the sale section of the bookstore I was wandering through yesterday. I remembered Pushkin from a comparative literature course I had taken ("Short Fiction: Russia & the West," we read Pushkin's "Queen of Spades", which you should go read if you haven't) and figured for £3, it was worth the purchase of what the back of the book described as "a fairy tale and a thrilling historical novel." And over the course of three hours, I was totally engrossed into the story of Pyotr Grinyov. Pushkin based the story on the real rebellion of Pugachev (also known as the Cossack rebellion). Ultimately, I read The Captain's Daughter as a love story more than a commentary on the historical happenings. One of my favorite parts of the book were the small epigraphs before each chapter, attributed as "popular saying" or "song" or from popular authors of time. The epigraph at the start of the novel says "take care of your honor when you are young." Throughout the story, Pyotr is honest, courageous, and giving. You have faith that things will work out in his favor (just like you know James Bond is always going to turn out okay). The poem prefacing Chapter 9 ("Parting") reads
Meeting you, sweetheart,
Made my heart whole;
Leaving you, sweetheart,
Is the loss of my soul.
 -- Kheraskov
A silly little love poem poem kind of represents what I loved so much about this story - it was embedded with so much culture and history of the time. While it was definitely an fantastical version of history (the commentary describes how the Pugachev of the story is a the Pugachev of folk legend), the descriptions of various characters  made it accessible. The Empress is described as a stranger at first: "she looked about forty years old. Her plump, rosy face was calm and dignified; her slight smile and light blue eyes had an ineffable charm..." Definitely a great work of Russian fiction, and a lovely, short read if you're looking for a historical escape. Rating:★★★★★


A Tale for the Time Being

"A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be."
A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki, was one of the most entrancing books I've read this year. It tells the tale of 16-year-old Nao and Ruth (who shares a lot of characteristics in common with the author) and how Ruth finds Nao's book washed up on the shore of her remote western Canadian island. It focuses heavily on disaster and suicide and I won't spoil anything for you besides that I'm tagging this "buddhism," "climate change," "Japan," "Canada" and "family..." I don't really know how to process the story. Visceral and graphic and poetic and mysterious... I can't put my finger on what made Ozeki's story work so well. One review writes that the story is "a fascinating multigenerational tapestry of long ago, recent past, and present" and "the writing resonates with an immediacy and rawness that is believable and touching." (review) "Rawness" is definitely an appropriate word to describe the story. A Tale for the Time Being was reality rooted in a framework of Japanese history and climate change fears, but also intertwined with myth and religion and ideas about consciousness and living in the now. I can't really explain the plotline, besides encouraging to read it for yourself. The New York Times Books Review puts it more succinctly than I can: "Many of the elements of Nao’s story — schoolgirl bullying, unemployed suicidal “salarymen,” kamikaze pilots — are among a Western reader’s most familiar images of Japan, but in Nao’s telling, refracted through Ruth’s musings, they become fresh and immediate, occasionally searingly painful." The dual stories of Nao and Ruth worked so wonderfully well and the ending left me wanting so much more... Rating: ★★★★★ 


The Last Resistance

A collection of essays examining "Zionist identity and imagination," Jaqueline Rose's book The Last Resistance was an interesting read. I can't say I loved it (the emphasis on Freud went a little over my head), as the guardian review said it wasn't "an easy read. Rose's critique, weaving back and forth between Freud and Zweig, Grossman and Jabotinsky, is a dense tapestry of literature and psychoanalysis that seeks to define the nature of her race and her religion, then strip away the contortions of Zionism." Regardless of the density of the material, I found some of her insights to be extremely intriguing. Her musings on evil and suicide bombings were particularly interesting. The world's first suicide terrorists were probably two militant Jewish revolutionary groups against the Romans, the Zealots and the Sicarii (126).
Suicide bombing is most often considered as a peculiarly monstrous, indeed inhuman, aberration that cannot - or indeed must not - be understood... suicide bombing is in itself an act of passionate identification - you take the enemy with you in a deadly embrace. As Israel becomes a fortress state, and the Palestinians are shut into their enclaves, with less and less possibility of contact between the two sides, suicide bombing might be, tragically, the closest they can get. (127). 
While I think Rose spends too much time on Freud in the first few chapters, when she delves into the comparisons between Palestinians and Israelis, it gets extremely interesting. I don't know if I would recommend the book as a whole, some of her essays are definitely worth the read. Try "Failed State" in London Review of Books (On David Grossman). Rating: ★★★