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Thick as Thieves

June 23, 2017

What did I do to celebrate the summer solstice? Took the afternoon off, sat on the deck in the sun, and read Megan Whalen Turner’s Thick as Thieves. I highly recommend this as a summer activity.

The action starts immediately, with a reader’s sympathy for the first-person narrator, a slave named Kamet, culminating in his escape from torture and death. He is aided in his escape by an unnamed man he calls “the Attolian” and they adventure together, each continually proving himself almost as quick-witted as the other. The first time this happens, Kamet thinks “he had an open face and an honest one, and I’d mistaken that for stupidity. He was not a liar by nature, certainly, but he was not the fool I had taken him for.”

Kamet is subtle, well-educated, and cynical at the beginning of his journey. He does not believe in the offer of freedom the Attolian makes. He thinks to himself
“There was always unrest, of course. Fear of the poor and of slave revolts, the occasional corn riot. Demagogues rose and fell, and the empire was always cutting down one or another. It would be possible, I supposed, for an outsider to see disruption and think the empire might collapse, but it was too all encompassing, too well sewn together to come apart.”

Of course, he is proved wrong in the end. A character you know well if you’ve read previous books in this series (not necessary to enjoy this one) uses him and extends friendship at the same time. This character wants “all the information I had gleaned from my master’s correspondence. Everything I had learned as a slave—wholly attentive to any detail that might someday be used to my advantage.”

The Queen of Attolia interacts with Kamet only once, but it is memorable, and might make you cry a little.

In the best fantasy tradition, there are three different happy endings—one showing what happens to Kamet and “the Attolian,” one a letter from Kamet to someone at the Attolian court, and the last an incident with the former Attolian ambassador, showing the cleverness of the characters we love and predicting what readers of this novel long for most—another novel about this world.

Swallow

June 21, 2017

IMG_9775We went to Spain in celebration of Walker’s college graduation, a family tradition for travel begun by my mother and continued by my brother and me. There were eight of us. We flew into Barcelona and spent a couple of days there and in Granada, Cordoba, Sevilla, and Madrid, with half a day in Toledo. Here we are with our Barcelona driver Daniel and our tour guide Tate.

I kept singing “I am Easily Assimilated” (from Candide) inside my head:
“In one half-hour I’m talking in Spanish:
Por favor! Toreador!
I am easily assimilated.
I am so easily assimilated.
It’s easy, it’s ever so easy!
I’m Spanish, I’m suddenly Spanish!”
Even those of us without much Spanish quickly learned to say “ocho personas” when we came into a restaurant.

IMG_0455We had to come in to most of them, despite the wider availability of tables outside, because my youngest niece is afraid of birds. She made me notice birds where I wouldn’t have, ordinarily—lots of pigeons, swallows, and starlings, and also peacocks. There were two peacocks at the café near the Alcazar in Seville, and this one on a windowsill at the royal palace in Madrid.

Swallow, by Donika Kelly

The first time you swallow—
the light, lurid and cold—

you know you mean
to swallow—again and again—

a woman’s voice crawling and heavy
in your body, trying to escape.

Stay calm. You cannot let go.
There isn’t an abstraction
you believe in and you are sad for it.

You need a mission to return to,
you need a flock to follow.

IMG_5083Following our flock, I limped along behind to find that sometimes my brother’s family had gotten a table for four inside and my family had another outside, or the youngest niece sat inside with one parent and the rest of us sat outside, while about once a day we managed to get a table for all eight of us inside and enjoy the air conditioning. It was about 40 C (100 F) every day after Barcelona, and it was exuberantly, extravagantly sunny! So much light! So much heat! Palm trees!

Ron had bronchitis the whole trip, coughing almost continuously and visiting various pharmacies in the different towns, all of which were easily identifiable by a green cross and which sold only medicines.

My older niece is allergic to shellfish, so we avoided restaurants serving only seafood, which was harder than you might think, especially in Granada. We sampled the sangria and paella everywhere, though, and enjoyed a honey-glazed eggplant dish and the local ham, dried and sliced thin, often served with very ripe honeydew melon.

Despite our assorted fears and weaknesses, we enjoyed being together and trying to see everything as we walked very slowly up and down the narrow, cobbled streets of each town.

We saw La Sagrada Familia, Castell de Montjuic, Parc Guell, the museum of modern art, and a lot of signs in Catallan (including the Super Mercat) in Barcelona.

This is mi familia en la Sagrada Familia.  19029524_10211839367612699_2205184741993349172_n

IMG_5056In Granada we saw the Alhambra, including a sunset view from the Mirador de San Nicolas, the cathedral, and an unexpectedly splendid Carthusian monastery. Here is my family with the Alhambra behind us, standing in a plaza at Mirador de San Nicolas.

In Cordoba we saw a Jewish synagogue with a Christian cross and Islamic decorations on the wall, and the famous candy-stripe arch mosque (mezquita). Ron and Eleanor and Walker saw some of the local Alcazar and gardens. Here are a few of us looking up as our tour guide David points at one of the candy-stripe arches.IMG_5078

19105936_10211883796523394_8009550740514221669_nWe were in Sevilla for the Corpus Christi holiday and got to see the parades and decorations, although we didn’t get to see anything of the cathedral except the bell tower and courtyard since it was packed full for the holiday. We saw the beautiful Alcazar there (where some of the Dorn scenes for Game of Thrones have been filmed) and the Plaza Espana, which influenced the downtown Plaza in Kansas City, Missouri.

In Toledo we drove around the walled city and admired it from a nearby hill before entering (by escalator) and touring the cathedral. Across from the cathedral there was a display of gigantic figures that had been used for decades on Corpus Christi; we were told that people walked inside them on the morning of the holiday, calling everyone to wake up and get to church. We also went into a shop to admire the swords and bought some letter-openers and scissors.  Here are Eleanor, Walker and a cousin on one of the narrow, canopied streets in Toledo. IMG_5153

In Madrid we saw some of the Prado, the fountains and plazas, the Royal Palace, and a flamenco show. Here’s a photo of Ron with Eleanor and Walker and their cousin at the Plaza Major just as the sun was setting. IMG_5147

It was an exhausting trip and very fun; although we couldn’t have sustained the pace much longer, it seemed over much too soon.

If you get to take a trip this summer, where will you go? Or where have you been?

Everybody’s Son

June 12, 2017

I got an advance copy of Thrity Umrigar’s novel Everybody’s Son from HarperCollins (it’s available now) and found it an absorbing and thoughtful look at black/white race relations in the US today from the perspective of a relative outsider, a novelist who didn’t even arrive in this country until she was 21.

The main character, everybody’s son, is a 9-year-old mixed-race boy named Anton who was taken by Children’s Services after being left alone for seven days in an apartment while his mother was in a crack house nearby. The white judge who fosters Anton, David, has signed up to be a foster parent because his own son died in a car accident five years previously, on the night of his senior prom. David believes that fostering a child will help his wife recover from the loss of their son, but from the very start it’s obvious that he is the one it’s helping:
“But then the boy tilted his head up, and David’s breath caught in his throat. Anton’s skin was golden, almost luminous. His large amber eyes dominated a beautiful, slender face. When those eyes landed on David, he felt—there was no other way to say it—privileged, as if some rare bird had alighted on his shoulder.”

David is hurting; I can’t imagine the pain of losing a child. And he does struggle with his feelings of wanting to hold on to Anton for as long as he can. Eventually, however, he gives in to the temptation to use his power and influence to make it possible for him to adopt Anton, despite the fact that his mother is still alive. So the longer the story goes on, the less I like David. When we see what’s happening from Anton’s point of view, or from his mother’s (her name is Juanita), we see that they love each other and that “she’d made a bad mistake,” so the way they are separated is hard for a reader to forgive.

When Anton goes off to college (Harvard; he’s a legacy) he meets a girl and “heard the term ‘the white gaze’ for the first time. He had spent his boyhood and teenage years, he realized, mindful of that white gaze….What would it feel like, he wondered, to be free and direct….To not have to constantly smile to prove that you were unthreatening, to continually demonstrate that you were intelligent, articulate, and not an affirmative action charity case?”

The girl, Carine, comes home from college with Anton for Thanksgiving vacation and there are some moments that rang true to me, as the mother of a college-age son who has been staying at my house with his girlfriend for the past 18 days. Just when David is getting to talk to Anton and share what he calls “some quality father-son time,” Carine comes in to say someone needs to run to the store. And although David starts to ask Anton if he’ll come with him, he is too late, because Anton has already asked Carine to go with him. This is the situation of a parent when the adult child falls in love. The situation is complicated, however, by the fact that Carine is black and doesn’t shy away from discussing current events, even when Anton’s adopted family make it clear that there is a party line. The conversation/quarrel ends with Carine telling them that “in my house, we discuss everything. No subjects are off limits. My immigrant father encourages debate….That’s what he thinks it means to be an American.”

When Anton finally finds his mother again, in Georgia, she tells him something that he also experiences: “down here, you know exactly where you stand. White man is king here, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. But up north, they talk sweet to your face. And then cut your throat when you ain’t looking.”

During his time in Georgia Anton gets the whole picture of the circumstances surrounding his adoption, but then has trouble placing blame squarely on any one person. His father, he sees, has abused his authority, but “David had risked his legal license, his profession, his family name, for the sake of—for the sake of what? Him?”

Visiting Carine, who is living in Georgia and happily married, helps Anton put together the pieces of his life and realize that “he was a technocrat, he wanted to fix problems and improve people’s lives but without too much interaction with the people themselves.” There’s some explicit criticism of the methods of liberal democrats here, timely in its publication as those sometimes condescending and frequently paternalistic methods have come under attack with the GOP majority in congress.

Umrigar manages to carry her message with the plot, rather than let it take over, but it’s fairly explicit at some points, like when Anton thinks
“He understood why David had done what he had. He also understood that the passage of time and its retrospective gaze could lengthen the shadows of an original deed and give it a more monstrous shape. The men who owned slaves were thinking about their cotton yield that year, and how to protect their wives from the roving eye of that particular Negro, and not about original sin. Anton had always believed that the great fatal flaw in Marxist theory was that it had never accounted for actual human behavior—the yawn, the stretch, the shrug, the looking away. And that was exactly what David had done. He had not battled with complexity, had not tried to figure out a way to remain a presence in Anton’s life after his mother was released from prison. What was unforgivable was not that David had wanted Anton to remain in his life or even his conceit in believing that he knew better than anybody else what was in the boy’s best interest. It was that he’d taken a shortcut and exploited Juanita’s situation. It was the oldest story in the world—the ends justifying the means.”

The end of the story is pure wish fulfillment, as Anton thinks to himself that “people always want their politicians to be father figures. I won’t be. But what I think I can be is a damn good son. A responsible heir, a sober custodian of what belongs to them.” If only a few more politicians believed that.

If any outside view can make us Americans see a few of the flaws in our system, the ones that politicans have been exploiting until it seems to many of us that there’s little system left, it’s the view in Thrity Umrigar’s newest novel.

Planet

June 5, 2017

DBaedy4UMAAhG-kWe’re back from our now-annual trip to the Walker Percy Weekend in St. Francisville, Louisiana. My shirt had a quotation from Percy’s novel The Moviegoer this year, one that I had to abridge to fit on the shirt (see photo) but which in its entirety reads: “Ours is the only civilization in history which has enshrined mediocrity as its national ideal. Others have been corrupt, but leave it to us to invent the most undistinguished of corruptions. No orgies, no blood running in the street, no babies thrown off cliffs. No, we’re sentimental people and we horrify easily. True, our moral fiber is rotten. Our national character stinks to high heaven. But we are kinder than ever.”

We also enjoyed a visit with our friends who live near St. Francisville, people I met through book blogging. My blogger friend gave me a gift subscription to The Southern Review, which is one of the best and most thoughtful gifts I’ve received in a very long time—it’s full of new poems, delivered right to my door!

I read through the first issue and found this poem, which comes close to what I’m feeling on this lovely June morning after the wonderfulness of being in Louisiana, hearing what other people think about Walker Percy and sitting out on a porch in Feliciana Parish, talking and listening late into the steamy and bug-serenaded night:

Planet, by Catherine Pierce

This morning this planet is covered by winds and blue.
This morning this planet glows with dustless perfect light,
enough that I can see one million sharp leaves
from where I stand. I walk on this planet, its hard-packed

dirt and prickling grass, and I don’t fall off. I come down
soft if I choose, hard if I choose. I never float away.
Sometimes I want to be weightless on this planet, and so

I wade into a brown river or dive through a wave
and for a while feel nothing under my feet. Sometimes
I want to hear what it was like before the air, and so I duck
under the water and listen to the muted hums. I’m ashamed

to say that most days I forget this planet. That most days
I think about dentist appointments and plagiarists
and the various ways I can try to protect my body from itself.

Last weekend I saw Jupiter through a giant telescope,
its storm stripes, four of its sixty-seven moons, and was filled
with fierce longing, bitter that instead of Ganymede or Europa,
I had only one moon floating in my sky, the moon

called Moon, its face familiar and stale. But this morning
I stepped outside and the wind nearly knocked me down.
This morning I stepped outside and the blue nearly

crushed me. This morning this planet is so loud with itself—
its winds, its insects, its grackles and mourning doves—
that I can hardly hear my own lamentations. This planet.
All its grooved bark, all its sand of quartz and bones
and volcanic glass, all its creeping thistle lacing the yards
with spiny purple. I’m trying to come down soft today.
I’m trying to see this place even as I’m walking through it.

IMG_4882My own lamentations—that we have only a few weeks with Walker before he goes off to Siberia, that my right knee is still so bad I’ve scheduled its replacement on July 11th even though last time I vividly remember telling a friend that I’d rather shoot myself than ever go through that again, that my favorite Walker Percy novel, Love In the Ruins, seems to be coming true, with its satire on how liberals and conservatives can’t work together and the country is falling apart—are drowned out by how many of the ephemeral glories of this planet I’ve gotten to see in the past few days, and the presence and promise of more right here in my own backyard.

Note Worthy

May 28, 2017

Riley Redgate, the Kenyon student who published her first YA novel last spring, has already published a second one, Note Worthy, and it’s interesting and well-written. I didn’t find it all that compelling, but I’m not the intended audience for this kind of book and no longer have teenagers to bring home to me the ups and downs of adolescence.

Then I heard about the disappointment of my youngest niece when she didn’t get into a madrigal group she’d auditioned for, and remembered Walker’s disappointment when he didn’t get into an a capella group during his first year at Oberlin (to make it even more disappointing he got a callback but didn’t make the group because his voice didn’t blend as well as others’).

So I sent my niece a copy of Note Worthy, and will tell all of you who have ever been disappointed in the results of a singing audition to read it, because it’s got a great premise: a tall girl with a great low alto voice doesn’t get cast in the school musical at her high school for the performing arts, so she tries out as a high tenor for an all-male a capella group and makes it. Then she spends a year singing to her heart’s content, making lifelong friends, and living as a boy.

There are some great comments in the novel about being poor and female and what it’s like to try to get into a selective college (like Kenyon).

One of the reasons the tall girl–whose name is Jordan but who goes by “Julian” as a boy—tries out for the all-male group is that she thinks:
“It was downright depressing, the lengths it took to feel special when you wrote yourself out on paper. All As? Who cared? That was the standard here. Some shows, some activities? Big deal. How were you changing the world?
Sometimes, when I wasn’t too busy, I wondered why we had to change the world so early.”

The sections about being poor provide a perspective many of the young adults who will read this novel haven’t experienced:
“Here’s what can happen at the crossroads of being poor, disabled, and sick, a road that’s about as pleasant to travel as I-80 during rush hour. Let’s say, as a totally hypothetical example, you’re a paraplegic dad in San Francisco who works a checkout job, enabling your daughter’s flights out to a fancy boarding school in New England. One particular month, let’s say July, you get a nasty cough, but you need the hours, so you work through it. The couch evolves into a chilling fever. You soldier, on, determined to support your family. But when that cough starts turning up blood and rattling sounds, and a fist of pressure builds in your chest, and one day you can no longer breathe without choking, you land in the emergency room with a tube draining a thick packet of fluid out of your left lung and an $18,000 medical bill accumulated before you’re conscious again.
You don’t have the money. Not even close. To date, your family has mustered up $3,500 of savings. Actually, you find yourself wishing you’d saved less, because past a $3,000 threshold, your disability benefits evaporate and along with them, your health insurance.
Your wife thinks that this must be a mistake—that policy can’t work like this—but it does. Now, without insurance, you somehow need to come up with the difference. $14,500 that the three of you have no way to pay.”

Comments about being female in this novel mostly show how constricting it can be. Jordan says “I liked the invisibility of being a boy, inhabiting a bigger and broader space.” She finds more opportunities to do what she’s good at, too:
“Lately, I’d been eyeing the male roles in The Greek Monologue and Character and Humanity with envy….The parts girls workshopped in classes were usually filled with flirting, swooning, seducing, or heartbreak, only one of which I’d ever been any good at. I found myself wishing I could switch into being Julian. He could dig into some of those guys’ roles, powerful or stubborn men, stoic or genius men, authoritative men—parts I would’ve loved to play for wish fulfillment, if nothing else.”

As the school year goes on, Julian discovers more of how it feels to perform more aspects of masculinity, and the complications of expectation and desire. At one point she feels
“the same twinge I’d felt when I’d come across the trans resource website. I’d slipped beneath another mantle that wasn’t mine—as if I could understand what being a gay guy was like. All I understood about sexuality was its uncertainty, discovering your way through yourself day by day, stepping tentatively, hitting on some term that seemed to fit and hoping it stuck.”

Before the end of the year, Julian is told to “man up,” and she does. We’ve all had to do that at one time or another, I think, so if you’ve had to recently, especially as a singer, read this book for some of that “misery loves company” consolation and perspective.

As Kingfishers Catch Fire

May 24, 2017

IMG_4836On Sunday we went to Oberlin for Walker’s graduation weekend, to walk through parts of the Allen Art Museum, see the kittens at the Ginko Gallery, meet some of his professors at Russia House, and have dinner with a few of his friends. We spent the night at a B&B in Wellington, about ten minutes away, and arrived on campus the next morning about 8:30 am to stake out some folding chairs, along with our college friends who drove up from Kenyon to see the last one of our children graduate from college.

The weather on Sunday was wet, with occasional thunderstorms and a beautiful full-arch rainbow right before sunset. On Monday morning, everything looked bright and full of promise. Some of the graduates, including ours, milled around with their families and friends before lining up for the procession.

IMG_4848The first speaker said that the reason for the ceremony was “to let our hearts catch up” with events, and that’s certainly what it felt like to me, under the warm sun in the wet grass in the middle of a campus I have become fond of but may never visit again, with hundreds of other people who were probably feeling about the same way.

Since Kent State, hats and gowns have been optional at Oberlin (the original idea was to donate what you would have spent on them to charity, although we didn’t know this until after the ceremony). So there was variety as we heard each name read out and watched each student cross the open-air stage.

I was thinking of some phrases from the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem “As Kingfishers Catch Fire,” as we had to listen a little faster than we’re used to at Kenyon, where the list is shorter and so we take more time “to fling out broad” each name. The Oberlin list is about 700 students long.

As Kingfishers Catch Fire

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

Each of the graduates appeared “lovely in limbs,” most wearing traditional caps and gowns but some using hats and clothing to help them cry “what I do is me.”

The address, by the Ford Foundation’s Darren Walker, focused on nothing less than the responsibility of these students to save our republic, and he noted that “ours is a nation where ideas have always existed in tension. The same country that declared all men to be equal was founded on slavery. The nation of the Statue of Liberty, which asks for the world’s tired and poor, “Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” is the same nation that may build a wall along its border with Mexico.”

IMG_4838We have our graduate home with us for a few weeks, before we take him on a graduation trip to Spain and then wave to him as he embarks for Siberia at the end of June.

Our hearts and house are full, as Eleanor came for the graduation, Spain, and a few weeks beyond, and Walker’s girlfriend, a soprano from the conservatory, is also staying at our house for a little while. They will march with us on our town square a few times and then set forth to help keep the world safe for all we hold dear.

A Gentleman in Moscow

May 15, 2017

For the past few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about the importance of the personal, the extent to which it’s true, as Rick says in Casablanca, that “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Or whether the father in Special Topics in Calamity Physics is right: “Dad always said a person must have a magnificent reason for writing out his or her Life Story and expecting anyone to read it.”

Finally, though, the authors who don’t believe that have moved to the forefront of my mind. There’s Tolkien, as always, saying “There is no such thing as a natural death. Nothing that ever happens to man is natural, since his presence calls the whole world into question.” I understand this to mean that since each of us only gets this one way of perceiving the world, as an individual, then each individual’s version of events is important; the movie versions of The Lord of the Rings popularized this idea with Galadriel’s line “even the smallest person can change the course of history” (in the book it’s “the future,” rather than “the course of history.”) And there’s Oscar Wilde, saying “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” That’s always the danger, with a reader—that she won’t keep trying to articulate ideas of her own, but allow the words of others to shape her thinking. (Obviously there’s an irony in quoting while talking about why it’s important for me to continue telling my story; it’s an irony I relish.)

And really, there’s nothing that can bring home the idea that the personal is political quite like reading a Russian novel, something I haven’t done very much since I was twenty. But I recently picked up Amor Towles’ novel A Gentleman in Moscow because Walker is graduating from Oberlin this weekend and I thought I could give it to him as a graduation present. In my family, it’s an even better present if it’s been “pre-read for your enjoyment” because that means once the recipient has read it, the giver is willing to discuss it. I meant to read the book as part of my gift to my son, who is voluntarily exiling himself to Siberia—a double-major in Biology and Russian, he’s gotten an internship to work at Lake Baikal this summer and fall.

But it turns out that this novel is exactly the book I needed to read just now, as I try not to despair about what is happening in my own country while trying not to worry as my youngest child leaves it for the country I grew up thinking of as the “evil empire.” One of the big questions the novel asks is why Russians kill what they love–how, for example, in 1812 they could burn Moscow rather than let it be taken intact.

The character who asks this question, Mishka, has been a political prisoner in Siberia, where he developed the habit of saying “we” instead of “I” because “for Mishka, ‘we’ encompassed all his fellow prisoners—and not simply those who had toiled on the Solovetsky Islands or in Sevvostlag or on the White Sea Canal, whether they had toiled there in the twenties, or the thirties, or toiled there still.”

Mishka asks his friend, the “gentleman” of the title,
“What is it about a nation that would foster a willingness in its people to destroy their own artworks, ravage their own cities, and kill their own progeny without compunction? To foreigners it must seem shocking. It must seem as if we Russians have such a brutish indifference that nothing, not even the fruit of our loins, is viewed as sacrosanct.”

The answer, Mishka says, came to him in a dream about the Russian poet Mayakovsky. “When I awoke,” he says,
“I suddenly understood that this propensity for self-destruction was not an abomination, not something to be ashamed of or abhorred; it was our greatest strength. We turn the gun on ourselves not because we are more indifferent and less cultured than the British, or the French, or the Italians. On the contrary. We are prepared to destroy that which we have created because we believe more than any of them in the power of the picture, the poem, the prayer, or the person.”

Yes, the person. The individual. The idea that telling your own story can make a difference in the world, can affect the way other people see it and then, perhaps, how they act. A person doesn’t have to be famous or important to do this, just persistent.

So I’m going to continue to resist, and persist in talking about books, buoyed by the friendship expressed in the comments to my previous post and the ideas I found in A Gentleman in Moscow, including that
“it is our friends who should overestimate our capacities. They should have an exaggerated opinion of our moral fortitude, our aesthetic sensibilities, and our intellectual scope. Why, they should practically imagine us leaping through a window in the nick of time with the works of Shakespeare in one hand and a pistol in the other!”

I haven’t even told you about the plot of the novel, which centers around a Moscow hotel called The Metropol where a Russian gentleman, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, spends his life under house arrest, as a “former person,” and yet persists in finding ways to express his love for the art, literature, music, spiritual life, and individual people of his country. He continues to make nice distinctions, such as the “difference between being resigned to a situation and reconciled to it,” throughout a period of politically mandated simplification and upheaval. The irony of the ending, which is delicious, is echoed, for me, by the way this novel about Russia re-awakens my hope that what an American character says–something I think most Americans have grown up believing–might be true again someday soon: “everyone dreams of living in America.”

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