Month: February 2016

Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich

Posted February 20, 2016 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Non-Fiction / 0 Comments

Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana AlexievichTitle: Voices from Chernobyl (Goodreads)
Author: Svetlana Alexievich
Translator: Antonina W. Bouis
Published: Aurum Press, 1997
Pages: 288
Genres: Non-Fiction
My Copy: Hardcover

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In 2015, Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for literature, thus resurging some buzz for her 1997 book Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster. Originally translated into English in 1999 by Antonina W. Bouis, the book was also released in a new translation by Keith Gessen in 2005. This translation went on to help Alexievich win the National Book Critics Circle Award for General Nonfiction in 2005. Svetlana Alexievich is a Belarusian journalist who set out to interview more than 500 eyewitness accounts of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. She interviews people involved with the clean-up, including firefighters and liquidators (a name given to the clean-up team), as well as politicians, physicians and citizens. The book Voices from Chernobyl is just a few of the stories that came from the interviews.

I found a copy of Antonina W. Bouis’ translation at a fete and picked it up for $2, not because it was so cheap but because it was the first time I have seen this book for sale. I have been wanting to read this book for a while, as part of my interest toward Russian history and the Soviet era. The preface of the book offers a few facts that I was unaware of, at the time of publishing, Belarus still had over 20% of the land contaminated by nuclear fallout. The reason this book was published was mainly because Russia and Ukraine are normally associated with this horrible disaster and Belarus is often forgotten about. Even though around 70% of the radiation fell onto this small country.

I picked up Voices from Chernobyl back in November 2015 but due to a loss of a family member I had to put it aside. I did slowly work my way through the book one devastating story at a time and found this book to be a very emotional journey. It not only explored the physical devastation but also the psychological and cultural impact the Chernobyl disaster. I do not think I have ever found a book that explores the impact of nuclear accident quite like this.

It is hard to review a book like this; it is not a comfortable read but it provides some valuable insights into such a devastating event. Most people know that I love the Soviet era and ever since reading All That Is Solid Melts into Air by Darragh McKeon, I knew I needed to know more about this disaster. I think this is an important book to read. I would have preferred to read the Keith Gessen translation, because my research shows that to be a better translation. I think this is my biggest problem with Voices from Chernobyl and should not deter people from picking up this book.


The Librarian by Mikhail Elizarov

Posted February 17, 2016 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Magical Realism / 1 Comment

The Librarian by Mikhail ElizarovTitle: The Librarian (Goodreads)
Author: Mikhail Elizarov
Translator: Andrew Bromfield
Published: Pushkin Press, 2007
Pages: 410
Genres: Magical Realism
My Copy: Paperback

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The books by Gromov, obscure and forgotten propaganda author from the Soviet era, have gained a bit of cult following. However this is not your normal fandom and his book are unlike anything you will ever read. These books have the ability to magically transform anyone; make the weak strong, the cowardly brave. Small groups have formed to protect these supernatural book with their leader given the title The Librarian. War breaks out between these libraries in desperate attempts to seize any copies of Gromov’s books they may have. The Librarian tells the story of Alexei, a loser who unexpectedly stumbles across one of Gromov’s books that changes his life forever.

This dystopian world created by Mikhail Elizarov is an obvious allegory for the Soviet Union, however it is something to be expected in post-Soviet literature. However Elizarov explores some interesting themes as well, in particular an idea of ‘blind faith’ in politics. The Librarian looks at the way people will thoughtlessly adopt a political system in which they are forced to inhabit. The author has a lot to say on the Soviet system and, like other Russian authors (in Soviet and post-Soviet literature), he adopts a satirical method to explore these ideas.

Alternatively, you could look at The Librarian from the perspective of the power of books. The entire novel is about people reading these books and gaining power, knowledge, and so on. This is the true power of books; as readers, we educate ourselves and learn empathy, and also get different political, historical or cultural points of view. While we might not gain the same amount of power as the people in this novel, we do gain power.

I found this book extremely interesting and I was engrossed the entire way through it. It is violent and could be a little too hard for some to handle but there is something worth exploring here. The Librarian won the Russian Booker Prize in 2008; this is very similar to the Man Booker Prize but for Russian novels. I had not heard too much about the Russian Booker Prize previously but I am now very interested. As a fan of Russian lit, I will keep an eye out for books translated into English so I can continue to explore more post-Soviet literature.


A Meal in Winter by Hubert Mingarelli

Posted February 13, 2016 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Historical Fiction / 2 Comments

A Meal in Winter by Hubert MingarelliTitle: A Meal in Winter (Goodreads)
Author: Hubert Mingarelli
Translator: Sam Taylor
Published: Portobello Books, 2014
Pages: 138
Genres: Historical Fiction
My Copy: Paperback

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Three German soldiers set off early one morning through the frozen Polish country side to search for Jews. If they are successful they will be able to do it again, if not they will have to go back to their job as executioners. Having found a man hiding in the woods they settle in an old abandoned house to warm up and share a meal. Tensions increase when an outspoken Polish man joins them to escape the cold. A Meal in Winter is a highly emotional French novella that is worth checking out.

It is hard to talk about this book, it is a very emotional book. It is the type of book that will rip out your heart, punch you a few times in the face and then end abruptly. Leaving you emotionally and physically drained and having to think about all the themes. I love A Meal in Winter because it really explores so many interesting ideas and themes and leaves you thinking well after finishing it.

This is such a quick read and explores the idea of following orders and issues of mortality. The Jewish man has done nothing wrong and these Nazi soldiers know this, but if they take him back as a prisoner then they might be able to go out searching again. Is it better to hunt or kill, both will end the same for the Jew, but which one would make you feel better about your actions?

I truly love what Hubert Mingarelli did with such a small book like A Meal in Winter. I have not been able to stop thinking about the book since I finished it. I love when a piece of literature leaves me contemplating about life and philosophical questions that I had not considered before. A Meal in Winter did just that and I think this short hundred page novella will stick with me for many years to come.


The Whites by Harry Brandt

Posted February 11, 2016 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Crime / 1 Comment

The Whites by Harry BrandtTitle: The Whites (Goodreads)
Author: Harry Brandt
Published: Bloomsbury, 2015
Pages: 333
Genres: Crime
My Copy: Library Book

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In the mid-90s, Billy Graves worked in the South Bronx as part of a special anti-crime unit. He made headlines when he accidently shot a ten year old boy, emotionally scarring Billy and damaging his career.  Eighteen years later, Billy has finally become a sergeant in Manhattan Night Watch. The Whites follows the life as Billy Graves as he gets a 4:00 am slashing of a man at Penn Station. However The Whites is much more than a police procedural, rather it covers the life of the people in working the night watch.

Harry Brandt is a pseudonym of crime writer Richard Price who has been acclaimed for his books, like Clockers. He adopted the pseudonym so he could explore his writing in a new direction. However, I have heard that the writing style turned out to be very similar to his other stuff. I have not read anything by Richard Price, but hearing it is similar I hope to pick up Clockers in the future.

What I think stands The Whites apart from a typical police procedural is the fact that Richard Price focuses mainly on the character development. I love exploring the lives of people working in a similar field and how the people are effected in different ways. Sure, Billy Graves is the primary focus and there is a great deal to do with the crime but Price really did a good job of not making this a typical crime novel.

The Whites is a fascinating read and the style of book I look for in police procedurals. The novel even made the Tournament of Books list, but I do not expect it to make it too far. It was a wonderful book but not something I would consider high literature. If you have some recommendations of other books similar to this, please let me know.


Superman: Red Son by Mark Millar

Posted February 3, 2016 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Graphic Novel / 0 Comments

Superman: Red Son by Mark MillarTitle: Superman: Red Son (Goodreads)
Author: Mark Millar
Artist: Dave Johnson
Published: DC Comics, 2014
Pages: 168
Genres: Graphic Novel
My Copy: Library Book

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What if Superman never crashed in Smallville Kansas? What if he lands in the Soviet Union? How different would the story be? Mark Millar has created this alternative history in Superman: Red Son. Growing up in a Ukrainian collective farm, Red Son explores an alternate version of the Cold War. Rather than fighting for ‘truth, justice and the American way’, Superman works with Joseph Stalin and champions the communist ideals.

I was a little hesitant in reading Superman: Red Son; there was always a chance that this mini-series would just be propaganda, proclaiming the brilliance of Capitalism and the American way. While there is a little of this that bleeds through, for the most part, Mark Millar has taken a fair approach. If you think about the ideals that Superman has, it does closely align with the Communist ideal; equality for all. In the graphic novel, we often see Superman and Soviet leaders in disagreements about the way things should be done, reminding them of their own greed or desire for power.

There was an ideology within the soviet era of how a man should act, this is known as the new Soviet man. A new Soviet man is selfless, learned, healthy, muscular, and enthusiastic in spreading the socialist Revolution. I found it interesting how Mark Millar managed to capture this ideology and how easy it fits Superman’s own personality. While eager for the international expansion of the Warsaw Pact, Superman championed the Soviet ideals but would avoid violence whenever possible.

Interestingly enough, Mark Millar seems to capture a problematic America, that wish to intervene in the way the Soviet Union is run. While time and time again, Superman shows that he does not intend to inflict harm on the country. They still enlist Lex Luthor and S.T.A.R. Labs to help fight the spread of communism, exploring what I think was the major problem with the Cold War. If you look at the history of the Cold War, it feels like the majority of it could have been avoided if America just let the Soviet Union (and other Communist countries like Vietnam) fail on their own. This is obviously a personal opinion on the Cold War, I am aware that it was far more complex than an anti-communist war.

I may have read Superman: Red Son differently to others, but I truly enjoyed the experience. There are some interesting ideas explored, and I enjoyed the alternative versions of not only Superman, but other superheroes like Wonder Woman and Batman. There are a few flaws with the comic mini-series but for the most part, I found this to be a fresh take on the Superman story. It would be nice if this was a bigger series but for the most part Mark Millar wrote a great story and the illustrations by Dave Johnson and Kilian Plunkett were stunning.