What I read in January, 2017.

I had a lot to finish in January before I left for Madrid.

While I had more ambitious goals, I also think I did pretty well for myself. I had a couple other books that I had going but will have to wait till I return to the US of A. In the meantime, here’s what I polished off in January.

The Invention of Russia, Arkady Ostrovsky

If you’re looking for a highly readable account of Russia’s transition from Gorbachov to Putin, I highly recommend this. Ostrovsky is a journalist, which comes with some pros and cons: On the one hand, his background gave him access to interview some incredible people—nearly everyone involved in the events he describes. On the other hand, being a journalist, I felt he focused an exceptional amount of energy on the role of the media in shaping recent Russian history.

Perhaps this was the premise of his book. After all, if his point is how the media influenced affairs by “inventing” the Russia we see today, then this makes a lot of sense. And I think there are a lot of pointed take-aways here about how state-sponsored television warps a population’s perspective on events. I can’t remember if Ostrovsky points this out in his book, or if this is just me riffing off of current affairs, but a huge part of media influence can just be making people feel confused enough about the truth that they stop acting.

Another surprise for me (and something I should have been more aware of, given that I’m a Russian major and all), was how suddenly Putin entered the picture. He really wasn’t well known until just before Yeltsin set him up to be his successor. I kept reading, wondering when he would turn up, and then when he did it was very abrupt.

In any case, this is clearly an incredibly important period, not just in Russian history, but for our lives today. Easy to get into, even if you don’t know much about Russia, and absolutely worth the read.

Swing Time, Zadie Smith

Thanks to this book, I had “Africa” by Toto stuck in my head for about a week. Not surprising, given a large theme is how foreigners don’t know how to conduct charity work in Africa, in part because they think of the whole continent as one country and are blind to the immediate needs of the people who actually live there.

The plot follows an unnamed narrator as she reflects on a childhood friendship gone sour, and the fallout from losing her job as personal assistant to a rockstar named Aimee. This book had me laughing out loud in a restaurant in the first hundred pages. I’m fascinated by stories of girlhood friendships, and the dynamics involved in this one felt very close to home for me. I think I was (and perhaps sometimes still am) a little like the narrator’s friend Tracey: a little domineering, and not entirely sensitive to other people’s interests. And yet, in spite of being the most flawed character of the book, I somehow liked Tracey most. Maybe I found it easier to forgive her flaws because she had so much against her. (In that respect, we are not much alike at all.)

The narrator, on the other hand, I found continually frustrating and somewhat milquetoast. I think this is intentional: when you sign away a decade of your life to live at some celebrity’s every whim, it’s hard to become your own person. I think she does, in a way, but it’s a sort of arrested development.

I also struggled to care about Aimee, the rock star, and her attempts at angel philanthropy. Again, this is obviously intentional: she’s meant to be out of touch with reality because of her station, and that means she’s out of touch with you, the reader.

Many of the other themes are about race and identity, particularly the mixed-race heritage of both Tracey and the narrator. This is not a thing I have very many reference points for, so I appreciate the insight provided by the dialogue various characters have on the subject throughout the book. Smith’s writing is as immersive as it is empathetic, a joy to read and not something to be easily forgotten or put aside.

Den of Wolves, Julliet Marillier

I have warm feelings for Julliet Marillier, mostly due to her quite excellent Sevenwaters series. The Blackthorn and Grim books are set in the same world, but some time after the Sevenwaters books and with not a lot of direct references, until this book.

On the whole, this series is not as good as Sevenwaters, but entertaining nonetheless. The character development of the main duo proceeds at a glacial pace, although it accelerated slightly in this novel. I get a little frustrated by how some characters react to events. There’s one sequence where Character A jumps to the conclusion that Character B betrays a secret and is super upset with that person. Then they sit down to talk about it, and Character B quickly explains things and Character A is like “oh, I misjudged the situation, sorry.” On the one hand: This was a kind of stupid and pointless piece of drama, and I am glad it got cleared up quickly because I had very little interest in reading pages of Character A being unreasonably angry with Character B. On the other hand, if you, the author, plan to deal with this situation so quickly, why even make it a plot point. It really serves no purpose to the story. It feels like a lot of these situations pop up in this particular series, and they don’t do much more than drag the story out.

Also, it slows down the pacing to have both characters reflect on the same series of events. And I notice the author does a less-graceful job of recapping earlier books in the series than she did in her Sevenwaters books. Actually, the pacing in general felt very strange, like she’d decided she was tired of this series and wanted to wrap it up early.

All in all, while most of her other books I’d rate in the 4- to 5-star range (compared to similar books), these ones are scraping in at a 3-ish rating. They feel like she’s just churning books out, and not taking as much care as she did with her earlier writing. Maybe she switched editors? Or maybe her editor isn’t pushing her hard enough? I guess I just feel disappointed to read an author who has done so much better not putting as much effort in.