reading YA and pretending to understand obtuse Russian literature – book reviews for the week

Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov is a satirical allegory of the Russian Revolution, telling the absurd story of a dog implanted with the testes and pituitary gland of a recently dead man

Just finished

Fangirl is a novel by Rainbow Rowell that tells the story of Cath Avery as she navigates her first year of college

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

This book was a special treat that I’d been saving as a sweet palate cleanser between two much more challenging novels (Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer and Mikhail Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog). It served its purpose well, but I didn’t love it as much as the other Rainbow Rowell books I’ve read, Carry On in particular. In case you’re unfamiliar with the Rainbow canon, Carry On is the name of the fanfic that the main character, Cath, in Fangirl is writing. It’s also the name of an actual novel written after Fangirl by the author Rainbow Rowell with the same world and characters. The IRL Carry On wasn’t meant to be Cath’s book, more an interpretation of it. A fanfic of a fanfic of a fictional book inside a book. Phew. Anyway, point is, I LOVED Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On and found myself distracted whenever Cath’s version was mentioned or excerpted. You can’t help but compare the two books and I was just unlucky to have read them in the wrong order. As for Fangirl, it’s typical Rowell fare: sweet with shouldn’t-be-surprising-but-still-comparatively-refreshingly complex and well-developed female characters. The boy-girl love story is central but doesn’t dominate Cath’s world. She navigates her first year of college and deals with issues in her family as she tries to accommodate new input into her 18-year-old identity. As a result, it’s a well-rounded coming of age story that isn’t too boy crazy; however, the characterization of love interest Levi does suffer a bit. Levi is a little too convenient and his own personality and motivations are cloudy (especially in comparison to the well-defined preciseness of Cath’s twin sister Wren and roommate Reagan). It’s almost as if Rowell herself isn’t sure if she wants the romance to be the focus or definitely doesn’t want the romance to be the focus. Still a nice, easy read that I enjoyed and would recommend as a precursor to Carry On.

Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov is a satirical allegory of the Russian Revolution, telling the absurd story of a dog implanted with the testes and pituitary gland of a recently dead manHeart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov

Oh, book club picks. The best and worst thing about book club is that it forces me to read outside my comfort zone. This absurdist allegory about a dog implanted with the testes and pituitary gland of a dead man meant to satirize the Russian Revolution certainly meets those criteria. With my limited American education about anything in history outside Paul Revere, words like “proletariat,” “tsarism” and “counter-revolution” are mostly just words to me. I can barely hang on to a straightforward account of what happened in Russia with Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks, and a parody where historical and symbolic figures are represented by fictional characters, identifiable only by what they wear, eat, say and read… I’m just nodding and smiling over here. “Mmm… yes. Redistribution of wealth. Yep. Those are words I, too, read. Indeed.” It’s obviously meant to be a funny critique and has that smug and obtuse New Yorker-ish quality; it’s not meant to entertain you as a stand-alone novel and doesn’t seem to be interested in trying. I could pretend that I absorbed this uproarious little nugget of satire and stroked my beard while smoking a pipe and referencing my dog-eared copy of Condition of the Working Class in England, but the dog-man in this book has read more Engels than I have, and I’d never even heard of Kautsky. My own ignorance aside, I’m also a little underwhelmed at the translation of my edition (translated from Russian by Michael Glenny). Not all translations are created equal and this one has that flat, “just the facts, ma’am” quality that lacks what I hope was the original’s depth and humor. Further, with a short allegory like this, there’s not a lot of character or plot development to sink your teeth into. It’s only 128 pages, so I might take another crack at it after doing some additional wikipedia research. Forward, comrade!

Currently reading

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Confession time. I didn’t do all the reading for 11th grade English. If you know me, or knew me then, you know that this is actually kind of a big deal. I’m not just a nerd and a book worm, I am an obsessive stickler for the rules. Up until that point, I’d read every page of every book ever assigned for school, but when The Grapes of Wrath came around it all started to fall apart. I didn’t finish anything else for the rest of the year (I did start reading the books again in senior English). Sorry, Mr Fothergill. Your class sucked. To be fair, I think I read a lot of Grapes, but I’m positive I never finished it. I know there’s some weird breastfeeding at the end? Anyway. I remember nothing else except Dust Bowl and agrarianism and I’m excited to make a fresh start. Extra excited for the notes I doodled in the margins of the first 50 pages.

On the horizon

Met de wind mee naar de zee – Guus Kuijer

The 4th book in the Polleke series is up next which means the end is rapidly approaching! I’ve loved reading these books so much; developing my Dutch skills has been no small part of that. I’m on the hunt for more Dutch literature, so if you have any recommendations for fun, easy-to-read books in Dutch – let me know.

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