April 26: I finished "The Master and Margarita" and I'm 2/3 of the way through Solzhenitsyn's "A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich". My Russian period is in full bloom. The second half of TM&M was a wild ride for sure. The Devil and his retinue's exploits in Moscow finally involve "The Master", a failed author whose life's work is a non-religious account of Pontius Pilate and the last days of Yeshua (Jesus). Margarita is The Master's mistress, who sells her soul to the devil for her beloved. Bulgakov explores the nature of good and evil, of religion and history, and of freedom and totalitarianism. A good background in literature and religious history will help the reader, but the story can also be appreciated for its humorous and satirical aspects. Not for everyone, but certainly of interest to avid readers of all ilks.
April 19: Working backwards through my stack of books, I finished Isabel Allende's "Ines of My Soul", the woman's eye story of the founding of Allende's home country of Chile. Allende writes a great adventure story, and describes the tension (and much worse than that) between the Spanish settlers and the Chilean natives very well. Title character Ines Suarez is apparently a historical figure, overlooked by the male-dominated view of the times. Ms. Allende tells her story, but one has to wonder if any one person could be so amazing, as Ines feeds, clothes, builds, loves, understands, and forgives all around her, while taking up arms against the enemy every so often. (Footnote: Ms. Allende's editor recognized this issue and asked her to include a bibliography to substantiate the factual details of Ines Suarez's life.) Still, I recommend this book to readers wanting to learn more about the history of South America, and to fans of Allende's writing. "Daughter of Fortune" and "Portrait in Sepia" are two other Allende books, these set in both Chile and the US, that feature strong female characters.
Jhumpa Lahiri explores the "shrinking world" in "The Namesake", a novel about a first-generation Indian-American trying to navigate the traditional world of his immigrant parents and his own life in the culture of the U.S. Gogol, the "namesake" of the title (named after the Russian novelist), explores the entire range of possibilities in this fascinating and touching story. We also saw and enjoyed Mira Nair's film adaptation in the theatre. She did two other excellent movies about the cross-section of Indian and American cultures - 1991's "Mississippi Malasa" (with Denzel Washington) and 2001's "Monsoon Wedding" with an all-Indian cast.
"This Far By Faith" by Juan Williams (author of "Eyes on the Prize") and Quinton Dixie is a companion book to a PBS series of the same name. Those who think that religion plays either a destructive role or no useful role in people's lives will have their beliefs challenged by this account of the critical role of religion in the struggle for equality undertaken by African-Americans during the days of slavery and Jim Crow. Civil rights giants such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X are given their due, but more interesting are the "untold" stories of such figures as Sojourner Truth, the daughter of a slave who dedicated her adult life to improving the lot of her people.
"Through the Burning Steppe" by Elena Kozhina is a short, first-person account of life in Nazi-occupied Russia during World War II, and another fascinating book recommended to me by my stepson Eric, who's studying Russian history in college. The author and her mother, Communists from Leningrad, evacuated that city and lived among the fiercely independent Cossacks in rural Russia. The overarching story for me was the how humanity can overcame both cultural barriers and the constraints of any political system. Unlike Anne Frank, whom Elena will no doubt remind the reader, the author went on to live a long and accomplished life after the deprivation of much of her childhood.
Since I started this post, I've read 2 1/2 more books.
"So Sad to Fall in Battle" by Kumiko Kakehashi was a convalescence gift from a generous friend at the office. It was the basis for the recent film "Letters from Iwo Jima" by Clint Eastwood, which received a Best Picture nomination. Individual humanity and systemic inhumanity are again themes. The "letters" of the movie title were written by General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, commander of the Japanese forces on Iwo Jima as it prepared for and then defended against the American invasion of 1944. Kuribayashi's tender regard for the most mundane details (and ultimate survival) of his family in Japan, and his professional soldierly conduct and regard for the men under his command are contrasted with the cynical and reactive ways of the Imperial High Command in Tokyo, who had written off Iwo Jima before they send Kuribayashi there to defend it. "So Sad" makes you think hard about the burden placed on and accepted by soldiers, a burden that civilian (or in this case, imperial) authority too often takes for granted.
I was reading "The Year of Magical Thinking" by Joan Didion when the Virginia Tech massacre happened. Ms. Didion, a noted novelist, playwright and screenwriter, conveys and analyzes her feelings and behavior in the first year following the sudden death by heart attack of her husband of 40 years, writer John Gregory Dunne. Adding to her burden is the grave illness of the couple's only child, Quintana Roo Dunne, who is unconscious in Beth Israel Hospital in New York City when her father dies. Didion's exploration of the physical impact of grief is compelling--we often think of such events as being strictly psychological and emotional in nature for the survivors. Her honesty in describing the experience is amazing. I can't imagine what the parents and loved ones of the Virginia Tech victims are going through, but Ms. Didion's memoir moves me just a little closer.
I'm about halfway through the novel "The Master and Margarita" by Mihkail Bulgakov, a 1995 publication that was suppressed in the Soviet Union when Bulgakov wrote it in the 1930's. The title came at me from three unrelated directions within a week--it was mentioned in another book (Kozhina's memoir or "The Namesake", I don't remember which); one of my "Amazon Friends" had it on his list of recently read books; and a member of my doctor's staff mentioned it as one his recent favorite books (I carried "Ines" into the office, which touched off the conversation about books), so I felt I had to read it. The current English edition is touted as the first reliable translation. (A censored version was published in the 1960's). The Soviet authorities weren't known for their sense of humor, so there was no way that this allegorical tale of a visit by the Devil to 1930's Moscow was going to be allowed an audience. The efforts of the determinedly atheistic Communist society to deal with both the temptation and consequences of the Devil are in a word hilarious. I'll post a longer review when I finish (so far I've only met "The Master"; we meet "Margarita" in the second half).