Title: The Russian Debutante's Handbook (Goodreads)
Author: Gary Shteyngart
Published: Riverhead Trade, 2002
My Copy: Paperback
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Vladimir Girshkin is not your typical hero, but the unhappy and sickly, twenty-five year old bureaucrat is just that in The Russian Debutante’s Handbook. His mother gave him the nickname “Little Failure”, he spends his days as a clerk for the Emma Lazarus Immigrant Absorption Society. An encounter with an old Russian war hero leads Vladimir on an adventure away from his job on the Lower East Side of New York to Prague. Surrounded by a Prava expat community Vladimir launches a scheme so ridiculous that it is actually brilliant.
Czechoslovakia was a satellite state of the Soviet Union, ever since the coup d’état of February 1948 when the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia seized power of the country with the help of the USSR. The Soviets call this Victorious February but most people are more familiar with the Velvet Revolution of 1989. This non-violent protest against the one-party government of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia saw the end of a 41 year rule by the Communist party. Then finally the dissolution of Czechoslovakia into Czech Republic and Slovakia as of 1 January 1993. In the 1990s Prague saw an invasion of expats and the city was often referred to as the “Paris of the 1990s” or “the Eastern European Paris”.
As many people are aware, I am a bit of a fan of Gary Shteyngart, he has a way about writing humorous and satirical novels, and I am all too quick to recommend Super Sad True Love Story to anyone that is willing to listen, especially since it is very relevant to today’s society. After reading his memoir Little Failure I was surprised to find just how autobiographical his novels were, I had an idea of some of it but not to this extent. Since reading Little Failure, I was determine to read all of Shteyngart’s novels starting with his debut The Russian Debutante’s Handbook.
This is a highly imaginative novel blending satire with some bizarre humour. I really enjoyed the use of language within this debut but found the rest lacking, although this is a testimony of the growth of Gary Shteyngart as a writer. I have to say that The Russian Debutante’s Handbook is a novel for people that enjoy and know what to expect from Shteyngart and I would recommend starting with Super Sad True Love Story (obviously) or maybe his memoir Little Failure. Shteyngart is a brilliant writer and while I did enjoy The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, now I need to try his next novel, Absurdistan.
Title: The Dark Path (Goodreads)
Author: David Schickler
Published: Riverhead Trade, 2013
My Copy: Hardcover
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If I was Catholic, I would want to be a Jesuit; they seem to be the most pretentious of all the Catholic congregations. Not that I would want to be a priest as I’m married but for David Schickler the desire to be a priest was a driving force in his life. The Dark Path is a memoir of Schickler’s struggle between a call to priesthood and his attraction to women. A memoir that explores his faith, sex and the internal conflict, The Dark Path is a funny and boldly honest look at his struggle.
I grew up in a strict religious home, though not Catholic, but I really connected with The Dark Path. Growing up, my parents were ministers and I often felt the pressure to join the ministry. Though it isn’t as daunting as becoming a priest, it made this book relatable. I’m often drawn to books with an internal struggle and when I first heard about this book, I knew it was something I had to read. The whole idea of choosing a life in service to God or giving into your sexual urges is an interesting topic and Schickler tackled it in a way that remained respectful to both choices.
While this is a book about religion and Catholicism in general, I think of this book as a struggle to decide what path to take. In our high school and college years we all face choices that will affect the rest of our lives and The Dark Path is essentially about those decisions. As I’ve had a strong religious upbringing there was just so much in the book that I could relate to and enjoy, this does make my review very biased but I can’t help it. I also married a Catholic so I had the opportunity to learn more about Catholicism while also having someone to answer all my questions I had in the book.
David Schickler has written one novel which is mentioned in this memoir called Kissing in Manhattan and also co-created the TV show Banshee, which I haven’t had an opportunity to watch. I have to wonder if both the novel and show portray a similar element of struggle in the characters as well as maybe a hint of religious politics because I think he captured this really well in this book. I get a sense that his writing style is dark, gritty and transgressive. You can see hints of this in his writing but he still managed to make this memoir hilarious and heart-warming.
There is so much I want to say about this book but I don’t want to give too much of the book away. The Dark Path is the first book to receive a 5 star rating for 2014 and I hope to find many people to talk to about this memoir. If you have a religious background and want to read about a struggle of faith then I highly recommend The Dark Path. I plan to go read Kissing in Manhattan soon and maybe even try and get a hold of Banshee.
Title: Tipping the Velvet (Goodreads)
Author: Sarah Waters
Published: Riverhead Trade, 1998
Genres: Historical Fiction
My Copy: Borrowed from a Friend
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Nan King is an oyster girl in a small seaside town who dreams of a better life. Her life drastically changes when she falls in love with a Masher named Kitty Butler. When Kitty is called back to London for a new show, Nan decides to join her and work as her dresser. Their love is forbidden and they keep it a secret but it’s inevitably doomed. When the relationship ends, Nan has to face London on her own, this is when her adventure of sexual discovery truly begins.
I was told by my sister in law that I don’t review enough lesbian romances, but to be honest I think this is the only one I’ve read (and possibly not a romance). I read Tipping the Velvet a few years ago and still remember it fondly, it was unlike anything I’ve ever read before. As a literary explorer this is always something I look for. The relationship between Nan and Kitty was doomed from the start and was an interesting way for the reader and Nan to discover her sexuality. Though this was not the best first love, it got her to discover who she was as a lesbian. There is a sense of self-discovery throughout this book, she doesn’t always make good choices, in fact most of them were bad but this is part of the journey.
I really liked Nan as a character and seeing Kitty through her eyes, I also liked Kitty. But the heart break was almost like a heart break for me too. I don’t often get so emotionally invested in a book so it was interesting that I was so invested with this one. While this book was very predictable it was still a great read and I was surprised just how much I enjoyed it.
This is Sarah Waters’ debut novel and I would highly recommend it; its historical fiction like you have never read it before. The first part of the book was so obvious but there may be some surprises in the second half to keep you reading. There are some explicit sex scenes in this book but if you are not put off by them, this is well worth your time.