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A Russian Short Story Sunday

January 27, 2008

This week, I read a stunning short story collection: Katherine Shonk’s The Red Passport.  All eight stories are set in the Short Story Challengepost-Soviet Union, the majority in Russia, but one in Ukraine.  The stories themselves all feature an intersection between Americans and Russians/Ukrainians, but the view points differ.  Shonk spent a year in Moscow in 1995, and her familiarity with the culture shows.  I felt as if I was back there much of the time, and when I finished the book I was left with a deep longing for Krasnodar and my host family there.  While I enjoyed all the stories, my favourites were “Our American,” “My Mother’s Garden,” and “Honey Month.”

In “Our American,” thirteen-year-old Ilya is trying to figure out why his brother Sasha, just home from the Chechen war, has changed so much.  Then a young American-Amy-moves in next door; it turns out she has Russian heritage and has a year-long job with a collective farm outside Moscow.  Sasha begins working as Amy’s driver, and soon Sasha, Ilya, and Amy have become close friends.  But when this close friendship leads to dangerous dreams, things get out of hand. I love how Amy’s introduced:

That evening, as they finished dinner on their balcony, the American girl burst onto Elmira Petrovna’s, the sude hood of a forest-green dublyonka coat shrouding her face. She stood sniffling and blowing her nose. When Sasha coughed, she whirled around and lowered her hood. Her pink nose and cheeks emerged as if from a pool of water, the sun’s last years flaring in her dark curls. “Hi,” she said, burshing dampness from her lashes. “I’m Amy.”

Shonk is so good at showing the fundamental differences between Americans and Russians, it’s so impressive!

“My Mother’s Garden” takes place in Ukraine, in an area of extreme radiation contamination. The main character is a grown woman, with a twelve-year-old daughter and a very stubborn mother. The mother’s moved back to their home village, despite the levels of radiation, which spurs most of the conflict. The main character hates having to go back to sucha toxic place, but doesn’t want to leave her mother alone. On the other hand, she categorically forbids her daughter from coming with her, despite her mother’s incessant pleas to see her granddaughter. Americans barely play a role in this story, although this is an American scientist, which is an interesting exploration of the effects on regular people of Chernobyl.

Finally, the last story in the collection is “Honey Month.” The main character is Rachel, an American who has been living in Moscow for the last year with Jack her boyfriend/fiance who’s conducting research there. They’ve planned a honeymoon to Prague, and yet circumstances make Rachel wonder about her relationship. If I say much more, I’ll give away most of the story; but I connected most with Rachel and her very human insecurities out of all of the collection.

Yegor’s eyes narrowed. “What are you, American?”
Did she really say “Da” with an accent? Or did her assitance betray uniquely American luxuries-an excess of time and naivete? Jack would be mortified if he were here, she thought, and for the first time she felt glad he wasn’t. “Da,” she sighed.

Other Favourite Passages (may contain spoilers):
Leslie sighed as the daughters stroked her arms with fingers smooth as satin. It had been so long since she touched someone, since someone touched her; even in the stories, money was passed back and forth on a dish.
Leslie had expected to accumulate a host of Russian friends in the course of her daily life, as she expected the love of a sensitive and passionate Russian man and two well-behaved Russian children. These riches eluded her.
(“Kitchen Friends”)

Just the other day, while waiting for the nightly news, Leslie caught a snippet of the show. What did we have shortages of ten years ago? the pin-striped host had asked a family of five from Novosibirsk. Cigarettes! the teenage daughter shouted. Sausages! the son piped. But it was their mother, flushing with a survivor’s proud certainty, who cried out the answer given by 68 of 100 randomly surveyed Russians: EVERYTHING! (“Kitchen Friends”)

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Myrthe permalink
    January 28, 2008 2:20 am

    I’ve seen this book pop up a few times already on blogs and in reviews, and I’m liking the sound of it more and more. I’d love to read it.

  2. January 28, 2008 11:09 am

    This sounds interesting, especially My Mother’s Garden. Nuclear disasters REALLY scare me, and yet I’m always interested in reading about them.

  3. January 28, 2008 12:46 pm

    Your reading of this book of Russian short stories is a reminder that, because English is now the lingua franca, English-speakers read far fewer books translated from other languages, than “foreigners” read books translated into their own language from English.

    The result is that “they” know far more about “us”, than “we” know about “them”.

    Because America is the dominant global power, and makes decisions affecting the lives of so many outside America’s borders, it behooves Americans to be more cosmopolitan in their thinking.

    And how better to do this than by reading more “foreign” literature.

  4. January 28, 2008 6:07 pm

    Myrthe, I can’t remember where I read about it, but I’d love to see other bloggers’ takes on it. Since I was in Russia for six months, I approached it very differently than, I think, most Americans-I could pretty much see, smell, hear, taste, and feel everything she was talking about. I’m not sure if that was her writing or my experience!

    Nymeth, I wish we had less nuclear stuff in the world (which explains why I want to get a master’s in nonproliferation!), but honestly I can’t say the idea really scares me…it seems too far-fetched, somehow. Maybe I’m still too young? I hesitate to read about things like Chernobyl or Hiroshima, just like I hesitate to read about the Holocaust, because I know I’ll end up crying over the senseless loss and pain. But then, I feel like I owe it to the survivors to not look away.

    Christopher, I completely, wholeheartedly agree with the second half of your comment (Americans ought to read more foreign lit). As to the first half, I’m a little hesitant….while non-Americans are exposed to a lot of American pop culture, I didn’t know many Russians who read American lit in translation (Coelho was very, very popular though!), and all of the non-Americans I’ve met (I’ve lived overseas about half my life) who’ve only been exposed to America through pop culture stuff tend to have wild ideas about the typical American lifestyle. So perhaps, it’d be better to say that they *think* they know far more about us? That being said, I’m very impressed with all of the non-native English speaking book bloggers out there who read a ton of American lit (but in English).

  5. Myrthe permalink
    January 28, 2008 10:41 pm

    I know you lived in Russia, Eva, that’s especially why I liked your review: you have your own experiences and you can compare them against the book.

    Eva, I agree with you re many non-Americans only knowing about the US through movies, musicvideos etc. (mainly those two) and thus having a somewhat warped idea of the US or “the West” in general. I see it around me all the time here in Armenia and I don’t know how many times I’ve tried to at least somewhat adjust those ideas and give people a more realistic picture.

  6. January 29, 2008 11:42 am

    Myrthe, one of my professors in St. Petersburg (a well educated woman) thought that the average American family made $100K! Wouldn’t that be nice? I noticed among the Armenian-Russians I hung out with that they all really liked rap music, but they often times didn’t realise that it was so violent and sexist. It’s funny how different pop culture is from everyday life sometimes!

  7. February 3, 2008 12:51 pm

    I so want to read this one. How amazing it must be to have that Russian experience to compare your reading to.

  8. February 4, 2008 12:38 am

    Melanie, it is pretty amazing-I’ve been lucky! If you read it, I can’t wait to hear what you think. :)


  1. A Mediocre Short Story Sunday (God Lives in St. Petersburg and Pu-239) « A Striped Armchair

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