Posts Tagged ‘russia’

#CBR Cannonball 25: Dancing under the Red Star: The Extraordinary Story of Margaret Werner, the Only American Woman to Survive Stalin’s Gulag by Karl Tobien

Dancing Under the Red Star: The Extraordinary Story of Margaret Werner, the Only American Woman to Survive Stalin's GulagDancing Under the Red Star: The Extraordinary Story of Margaret Werner, the Only American Woman to Survive Stalin’s Gulag by Karl Tobien
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Side Note: If you can help it, try not to read too many books about death camps too close together. It can get very depressing and then, even worse, you could become numb to the suffering.

My friend let me borrow this book at the same time that she lent me Unbroken, and I was cautiously optimistic about it. But it was a mistake to read the two so close together because I couldn’t help but to compare the writing, and Dancing Under the Red Star, sadly, could not compare.

Karl Tobien, the author, is the son of the book’s subject, Margaret Werner Tobien. In some cases, an author close to the subject is able to add depth to the story by virtue of personal knowledge and a more intimate understanding of the subject. Unfortunately, a lack of writing ability will trump all of that. It’s not that Tobien is a terrible writer; he’s adequate, I suppose. It’s just that his level of writing ability can’t really do justice to his mother’s amazing story.

Margaret Werner moved to Gorky, Russia, when she was a little girl. Her father worked for Ford, and he moved to the factory’s plant in Russia during the Great Depression, hoping to improve his family’s situation. Unfortunately, things were even worse in Russia than they were back home. But Carl Werner was not one to go back on his word, so he kept his family in Russia.

russian yoda

Because he was American, he was eventually arrested and sent to a work camp. His family never saw him again. A few years later, Margaret was also arrested for treason and espionage. She spent ten years working as a prisoner. She survived, and eventually became the only American woman to survive the gulags (and this isn’t a spoiler because it’s right there in the title).

Margaret’s survival is nothing short of miraculous, but Tobien’s telling of his mother’s story is oddly lackluster. He kept emphasizing that his mother was the only American in all of the camps. Who cares? Did she suffer more because she was American? Countless Russians died, too. Were their lives worth less? Stalin’s cruelty knew no bounds; we’ve got that. Does it make him so much more of a monster because he wrongfully imprisoned an American woman?

I also had an issue with the title of the book. It led me to believe that there would be more about dance in it, like in Mao’s Last Dancer. But there was no mention of dance until well into the second half of the book, and it was only a small part of the story even then.

russian breakdancing

Karl Tobein is a Christian, and his mother became a Christian later in her life, too. I can appreciate that the cruelty of the gulag helped her to believe in the existence of God, which primed her to believe in the gospel later on. But the inclusion of so many random references to God, with only brief mentions of Margaret’s later faith in the appendices, made them seem tacked on just for the sake of mentioning God. I’m a Christian, so I can understand that urge, but if Tobien wanted to share her testimony of faith, I wish he would do it straight out and all at once, instead of scattering it throughout the book.

Ultimately, it’s an amazing story that isn’t told very well. I blame his editor.

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Cannonball 19: The Black Circle (The 39 Clues, Book #5) by Patrick Carman

I don't know what's cookin', but it doesn't smell too bad...

The Black Circle (The 39 Clues, #5) The Black Circle by Patrick Carman

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
There’s an old story about how you can’t cook a frog in a kettle of boiling water — he’ll jump right out to escape the heat. But if you put him in a kettle of nice, cool water and gradually turn up the heat, the frog won’t notice the change in temperature until his po’ legs is jes’ fried and it’s too late for him to get out of his predicament.

That helps to describe how I’m starting feel about this series. When I first started reading The 39 Clues, I jumped out of the boiling water, shouting protestations and vociferously decrying the decline in the quality of children’s lit. But the series tempted me back with an installment by an author whose works I enjoy reading. I denounced the series again — but not as forcefully.

By the time I floated my way through Book #4, I could hardly muster the energy to protest at all.

Book #5 in the series begins with a mysterious telegram that sends protagonists Amy and Dan Cahill to Russia. The book is the usual slurry of travel + mild intrigue + not knowing who to trust + historical trivia + bickering. Meh. And MEH.

And, since it’s set in Russia, of course one of the bigger plot points is related to the story of Anastasia. For those unfamiliar with the story, Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna Romanova was the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, the last tsar of Imperial Russia. She was seventeen years old when her father was deposed in the Bolshevik Revolution, and she and her family were all executed.

Speculations that she had somehow survived floated around for decades until her remains were finally positively identified in March of 2009.
Author Patrick Carman builds most of this book around that legend. I suppose it’s not his fault that the legend was debunked when the book was probably already well underway, but I can’t help feeling a little dissatisfied. Really, I think he should have built it around something else that was, I don’t know, proven to be true.
But, overall, the action was average, the mystery was average, the reveal was average – no screaming protests here, which is unusual for me.

I think that I’ve been sitting in this pot of hot water for too long. I wanna jump out, but the N kids keep supplying me with books. It’s like the water is nice and warm – and laced with roofies. I’m not going to start gushing over the books anytime soon, but I might stop whining about them. In the meantime, I’m going to just sit in this nice, warm water and relax my brain.

I guess that’s what I dislike so much about books like these. They’re not terrible, but you could easily get used to reading them. They get cranked out at breakneck speed, so there’s always a new one to read. Before you know it, you forget that just because they’re not terrible doesn’t mean they’re good, and your standard for literature could be irreparably damaged.

Hey, what smells so good? Smells like chicken…

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Cannonball 1: War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy

War and Peace (Wordsworth Classics) War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
When I was thirteen, my family took a cross-country road trip across the United States.

Anyone who’s ever driven for more than a few hours knows how tedious it can be to drive so far.

Anyone who’s ever done it for more than three weeks straight is probably curling up into the fetal position as I speak.

And anyone who’s made the trip with children is probably having an acid flashback and will be unable to read the rest of my review.

Well, in order to make the journey bearable, my dad bought a big van conversion that had a TV in it (this was before the days of flat screens and even DVD players). We hooked up a VCR to that baby and my parents relished the peace and quiet they’d get when they let us pop in a vid.

But we didn’t have many videos, and they knew it would take more than Mary Poppins and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II (that’s right, II. Back off) to keep us off their backs. So my dad went to Costco and came home with a new video for us kids.

He came home with War and Peace, starring Audrey Hepburn and Peter Fonda.

“What the heck??” was my first reaction. Then, I watched the film.

“What the heck??” was my second reaction.

Why would Pierre marry Helene? Why would Natasha try to leave Andrei for Anatole? And, most of all, how do you explain Pierre and Natasha hookin’ up at the end?? What? I thought she was like a kid sister to him! They hardly interacted in the movie and, suddenly, at the end, they’re together?? WHAT??

Granted, I was only a kid, but I re-watched it in college and still didn’t think it was very good.

After my first experience with War and Peace, I was understandably reticent about diving into the nearly one-thousand-page book that inspired this nearly four-hour-long crapfest. But when I ran out of reading material and spied a copy of the book on my sister’s bookshelf (it’s one of her life’s ambitions to finish it, and there’s still a bookmark stuck in Chapter One somewhere), I decided that I’d give it a shot.

Boy, am I glad I did.

The novel centers around a group of acquaintances who are living in St. Petersburg at the time of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. Their lives are turned upside down, but the war is more a backdrop to the events in their lives than it is the central event of the novel.

Tolstoy’s characters are easy to relate to, even if they are Russian nobility. Andrei is a disaffected prince struggling with guilt over his marriage to a beautiful woman he doesn’t love. Pierre struggles to conform to society’s norms and doesn’t find freedom or happiness until he begins to think for himself. Natásha has girlish ideals and forced to learn the cruel ways of the world she lives in through experience.

In short, they are human>, in the fullest sense of the word. Like us, they are flawed. They experience guilt, joy, anger, joy, sadness – the whole gamut of human experience! And all in the span of under a thousand pages!

War and Peace is considered Tolstoy’s masterpiece, and with good reason. It’s not a book about war. It’s a book about life that just happens to be set during a war that would define a generation of people in a land far, far away from my suburban life in Southern California.

But I’ve lived life, so I get it.

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