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What did you just finish?
Bears in the Streets: Three Journeys Across a Changing Russia by Lisa Dickey. A sort-of travel book by an American woman who speaks Russian. In 1995 she spent several months traveling across Russia as part of one of the very first real-time updating travel blogs; she did the same journey in 2005, then for the Washington Post; and now she's done it again in 2015, this time as the basis for this book. Each time she meets the same people (well, mostly: some have died, moved away, or simply don't want to talk to her again) and tries to assess how their lives have changed over the last ten or twenty years. I call it a "sort-of" travel book because it's not meant to be a guide for tourists or to convey the physical experience of her journey. Rather it's an attempt to explain the culture and people of Russia to her audience of Westerners, since they believe – as least according to several of her encounters – that Russia is full of "bears in the streets".

Dickey visits a wide variety of people: lighthouse keepers in Vladivostok, a rabbi in Birobidzhan (capital of the Jewish Autonomous Region), farmers in Buryatia who trace their history back to Genghis Khan, scientists studying Lake Baikal, a gay man in Novosibirsk, an excessively wealthy family in Chelyabinsk near the Ural mountains, the mother of a soldier in Kazan, a rap star in Moscow, and a 98-year-old woman in St Petersburg, old enough to remember the last tsar, among others. The selection is a bit random, but they all end up having interesting stories or perspectives, and Dickey's writing is warm, funny, and friendly. A recurring theme is Dickey worrying about telling these off-and-on friends of hers about her life: back in America, she's married to another woman. However, each time she ends up coming out, she finds acceptance and nonchalance.

My one critique of the book is that I wanted more about politics. Well, look at the news any day for the last year; of course I did. I know the American perspective, but I would have liked to hear something about the "average Russian" (as much as such a thing exists) view. But she actively avoids discussing anything remotely political; the few times someone else brings it up, she changes the topic as soon as possible. And I understand wanting to avoid fights! Whether out of fear because she's alone, respect because she's a guest, or just kindness because no one likes hurt feelings, it is completely relatable to focus on what you have in common instead of on disagreements. And yet I was just so curious and over and over again Dickey refuses to go there. Besides all of that, her trip was in 2015 – it's not her fault, but in some ways that already seems so outdated in terms of American/Russian politics.

Ah, well. It's still a very enjoyable book, if a bit shallower than I wanted it to be.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

House of Names by Colm Toibin. A retelling of the Greek myth of the House of Atreus: Agamemnon, heading off to fight the Trojan War, sacrifices his daughter to gain the favor of the gods. His wife Clytemnestra is understandably not happy about this, and upon Agamemnon's (eventual) return home, she murders him with the assistance of her new lover. However their other children, Orestes and Electra, decide to get revenge for their father, and Clytemnestra is murdered in her turn.

Toibin deviates little from this traditional plot; what value his retelling does have is supposedly in the language and psychological realism of the characters. Unfortunately neither worked for me. The writing is distancing, meandering, and flatly reactive. Orestes and Electra in particular are oddly passive; they spend most of the book having no idea of the politics or history around them, and their attempts to gain power or knowledge are halfhearted at best. Orestes explicitly prefers the life of an unknown farmer to that of the son of a king. Most of the actual action is kept offstage, and we're left with endless pages of characters remembering what happened, or planning for what will happen next, but never actually doing anything. It ends up feeling fanficcy – which is not a criticism I normally apply to retellings! But this really does read like a long series of cut scenes: we already know the plot, so here's some prettily written navel-gazing to fill the inbetweens. It's hard to imagine how anyone could take a story with such powerful themes of revenge and justice and guilt and familial entanglements and turn it into something boring and apathetic, but Toibin managed it. It's Greek myth with all the characters turned into phlegmatic Hamlets – not a great idea.

I love retellings, but they need to add something to the original: perhaps give it a new twist, or simply be a very well-done version of a favorite story. House of Names doesn't qualify. Your time would be better spent with any of the ancient Greek versions.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.


Mount TBR update: Still at 18. I've been focusing on getting my Netgalley percentage back up, since I suspect a book I really really want will be appearing soon. (Barbara Hambly has mentioned working on the copy edits for Ben January #14, so can't be long now.)


What are you currently reading?
A Question of Order: India, Turkey, and the Return of Strongmen by Basharat Peer. Nonfiction which is sadly quite relevant to American politics as well.
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