Eugene Vodolazkin’s Laurus sat on my shelf for a number of years after a friend gave it to me. During that time I loaned it out at least once, my neglect being no testament to my valuation of it. On the contrary, I suspected it of being highly affecting on account of both craftsmanship and realistic representations of its fifteenth-century protagonist. But the travails of even a fictional saint seemed too much to traverse during a stretch of life that encompassed (sequentially, thank goodness, not all at once) a mother-in-law with dementia, a worldwide pandemic, and a husband with cancer, not to mention a daughter in middle school.
At length, however, advance notice of the impending publication of Vodolazkin’s A History of the Island prompted me to pick up Laurus. While the 2023 book is not a sequel to Laurus, I wanted to be familiar with the author’s earlier work before taking on the new one.
I discovered that while Laurus does engage weighty themes, the author’s wit and the protagonist’s (often implausibly) transcendent state of mind prevent the latter’s trials from overburdening those of us who trudge vicariously alongside him. The setting is our world, but it’s a half-mythic world, where signs and wonders are commonplace. Surreal elements extract the action from the realm of the literal into a space where I, at least, could observe and reflect from a certain remove.
I ended up reading A History for our mother-daughter book when we were assigned to select a book with an unusual narrative style. A History qualifies on many levels. It reads like the history book it purports to be, but the narrative is interspersed with commentary by the centuries-old monarchs of said island.
I borrowed Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo from the library last spring (2022), after a neighbor introduced me to Saunders’s Story Club for writers. I was intrigued by Lincoln’s multiple narrators, speaking in first person, passing off the story from one to another at irregular intervals, sometimes even interrupting one another or finishing each another’s sentences. But at the time the death of a child—Lincoln’s, to be precise—was a subject matter too oppressive to shoulder, and I returned the book after a close skimming of its contents.
But I was sufficiently impressed by Saunders’s innovation and the spiritual vein I thought I detected to queue up for the library’s audio version of Saunders’s A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. I finally reached the front in July; thus my association between Saunders’s selected Russian short stories, along with his commentary, and staining our back deck in the mild warmth of a Pacific NW summer.
A Swim in a Pond reprints seven short stories by Chekhov, Golgol, Tolstoy, and Turgenev. The discussion that follows each highlights essential strengths—or weaknesses—of the nineteenth-century works in question.
Among contemporary works of literature, Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow (2016) represents a rare combination of engaging storyline, appealing characters, master craftsmanship, and meditation on uncommon virtues. Five years after the Bolshevik Revolution, Count Alexander Rostov is sentenced to lifelong house arrest in a luxury hotel. His crime is writing a few lines of verse that the regime takes exception to.
The premise is intriguing though wholly fictional. A Gentleman is not so much a historical novel as a parable of modernism. While the reader waits for the blows of Soviet brutality to fall upon the hero, Towles focuses his attention on subtler evils.
Despite my bias against seasonal short stories, based on a possibly unjustified perception of their predilection for sentimentality, this collection caught my attention. The table of contents featured the names of several prominent twentieth-century writers whom I knew only as novelists (Madeleine L’Engle, Katherine Paterson, Pearl Buck), as well as some particular to my personal history (Selma Lagerlof, Elizabeth Goudge).
Several selections do circle around the predictable (though nevertheless valuable) theme of generosity at Christmas, but most avoid over-simplification or moralizing. The nativity figures into most of the stories, either by suggestion or as a central narrative feature. I derived greatest enjoyment from “The Riders of St. Nicholas,” by Jack Schaefer, and “The Vexation of Barney Hatch,” by B.J. Chute. The authors of both tales skillfully capture the tone and voice distinctive to their settings. Continue reading →
Ella Christie, identified on the title page of her books as a Fellow of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, traveled in Central Asia in 1910-11. The most attractive aspect of her book, for me, were her notes on daily life, such as a rather gruesome description of an outdoor barber extracting a long parasitic worm from a patient’s leg. Christie identifies the parasite as “guinea worm” or “filaria” (p. 128).Other sources corroborate her account of this reportedly common affliction, as well as the treatment.
Christie’s visit to present-day Istaravshan, formerly Uro Teppa (Christie calls it “Ura Tiubbe” and comments on the wild variations in spelling) caught my attention because of my translation work on the memoirs of Tajik folklorist Rajab Amonov (see that review here: ). We had the opportunity to spend two nights there in 2010, but I have run across few accounts from 19th-century travelers to that city. Christie describes the town’s situation on a mountain slope, the ruins of the fort, and the winding streets of the bazaars. I was intrigued by her report of encountering an “agent” for Singer sewing machines in this rather off-the-beaten-path location (pp. 197-199).
A valuable companion to Olufsen’s personal works is the two-volume Exploring Central Asia, by Esther Fihl (University of Washington, 2010). Partially a commentary on Olufsen’s travels, the work is largely a photographic tour of the museum artifacts Olufsen brought back to Denmark (see Olaf Olufsen Part I for more about the mission). A text box on page 140 (Vol. 1) contains an interesting account from his previously unpublished writings of how he acquired artifacts from the bazaar in Bukhara with the help of one of the emir’s men.
Exploring Central Asia contains numerous vibrant color photos of household items, clothes, shoes, ornaments, jewelry, accessories, tools, and so forth, from various regions. The captions for many of these include excerpts from Olufsen’s writings, both published and unpublished, describing their use or manner of acquisition. Fihl reports that Olufsen was instructed not to return with worn or cast off items ( p. 138). Accordingly, many of the artifacts are gorgeously decorated and in excellent condition, especially considering they are more than one hundred years old (of course, they have spent their entire lives in a museum). Thus, they may not be representative of articles of everyday use, but they at least give one an idea of some of the handicrafts in circulation at the time. Continue reading →
The title page of Ole Olufsen’s book identifies him as Professor and Secretary to the Royal Danish Geographical Society. He commanded Danish expeditions to Central Asia in 1896-97 and 1898-99. His personal account of these travels, The Emir of Bokhara and His Country, is one of the more readable and detailed volumes of its kind that I have perused. (See previous posts on 19th- and early 20th-century Central Asia travelogues.)
While exhibiting the Eurocentric biases exhibited by virtually all Western travelers of his time (OK–let’s be honest–we’re all a bit biased, even in these enlightened times!), Olufsen displays extensive knowledge of the area and gives evidence of having read all the relevant literature available in his day, dating back to ancient times. He possesses an impressive command of the topography and appears to have traversed much of it, though I’m not able to weigh in on his geographical accuracy. The edition of The Emir ofBokhara that I perused (William Heinemann, 1911) claimed to include a map, but I never located one (see part II of this post for more on that). Continue reading →
As a woman traveling in Central Asia in the late 19th century, Meakim was able to access the world of women, which was largely inaccessible to the predominantly male travelers of the time.
Of course, the biases of her times are evident, i.e. in her extended discussion and generalizations regarding the beauty or lack thereof possessed by Central Asian women. Meakim’s book is not, nor is it intended to be, an authoritative or comprehensive description of Central Asia, but it does represent sights and ideas that a European traveler would have encountered in the region and thus serves a purpose for those interested in the area. Continue reading →
Part I of this review deals primarily with Bukhara, the counterpart to this 1993 volume by Garnet Publishing (UK).Vitaly Naumkin is identified as the series editor and Andrei G. Nedvetsky as co-compiler and archive researcher.1
I found the volume on Khiva slightly less interesting than that on Bukhara, partly because it is farther removed geographically from my personal area of interest, and partly because there are fewer photos overall (105, as compared to 163) and less commentary.
However, the circumstances under which the photographs in the first part of the Khiva album were taken provoke speculation. Russian Colonel N. Ignatieff was sent on a diplomatic mission in 1958 to sign commercial treaties with the governors of Khiva and Bukhara. A.S. Murenko was assigned to the party as photographer; he was later awarded a silver medal by the Russian geographical society for his photographs. Continue reading →
Susan Meller’s books on Central Asian textiles are a rare find. Even if I weren’t researching a novel set in early twentieth-century Central Asia, the wealth of brilliant photos alone would be captivating. Since I am, Meller’s coffee-table sized books provide a treasure trove of information not just on textiles but dress, trade, agriculture, ethnic groups, and the impact of Russian colonization and the Soviet Union on all of these. Continue reading →