A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

9780770436407_p0_v4_s260x420Although the Olympic Games in Russia presented an image of physical prowess among pristine hills and beautiful venues, Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a stark reminder of the turmoil and oppression in that part of the world. Marra’s novel is set in war torn Chechnya, but present day Kiev is not that far away. And Putin’s name first appears on page 141.

After eight year old year old Havaa sees her father killed by Russian soldiers and her house burned down, her neighbor, Akhmed, rescues her and hides her in an abandoned hospital with the help of a weary but determined Sonja Rabina, the only doctor remaining in the rundown building. Taking advantage of Akhmed’s desperation and that he has completed medical school, Sonja promises to keep the child hidden as long as Akhmed (“the worst Doctor in Chechnya”) returns everyday from ministering to his bed ridden wife, to work at the hospital. Havaa’s life is still in danger, and the resident traitor, Ramzan, who lives and thrives in the neighborhood, threatens to find her and turn her into the Russian authorities.

Although the story runs through five days, Marra inserts flashbacks in the characters’ lives – before the first war, between the two wars – and conveniently identifies the year at the beginning of chapters. By creating a timeline measuring from 1994 to 2004, Marra emphasizes the horror of how recent this history is. The characters – their dreams and personal sacrifice – are all affected by the realities of war and deprivation, making the action personal. Lives mysteriously intersect, and the ending is both devastating and promising.

At times, the descriptions of white slavery and brutal torture are graphic and hard to bear, but Marra tempers the horror with moments of humor and compassion, using art as the conduit for understanding and memory. I read through this engaging book quickly, hoping for some redemption for Havaa – it came, but at a price.

Enhanced by Zemanta


In a fictional account narrated by Rasputin’s daughter, Masha, and the young heir to the Russian throne, Alyosha, Kathryn Harrison recreates the final months of Tsar Nicholas II and his doomed family in Enchantments.


Rasputin’s strange death opens the story; the politically influential mystic who was seen as a holy man by some and a degenerate womanizer by others –  was almost impossible to kill.

“Enough cyanide to finish off ten horses. A dozen bullets. An ax to the head. And still they had to drown him.”

With hope that Rasputin’s mysterious power to stop the bleeding of their hemophiliac son had been passed on to his daughter, the royal Alexandra and Nicholas decide to adopt Rasputin’s young daughter, Masha, after his gruesome death.

The Royals

Masha and her sister are brought to the palace to live, and the tale begins.  As the days grow grimmer, with Nicholas forced to abdicate and the royal family imprisoned, Masha shows her power not to be mystical or medical.   Her talent lies in weaving stories – some based on folklore, others on her father’s exploits – that distract the young prince from his constant pain.  The prince cannot be relieved by morphine in the fear that he would become dependent on the drug.   Through Masha, the narrative goes back and forth from opulent times of the past to their current imprisoned state.

Harrison uses her own power with language to inform the reader about the lives of the royals with their sumptuous surroundings and expensive trinkets (those  Fabergé eggs among them).   To follow Harrison’s meandering from Nicholas’s courtship of Alexandra to Rasputin’s early escapades before becoming the tsarina’s advisor, it would help to know the history of the Russian revolution. Harrison ruthlessly hopscotches back and forth and sideways through the years, and it’s easy to get lost.

Although the execution of the royal family is well documented in history, Harrison’s description of their death is no less jarring, and with more brutal impact because the scene does not appear chronologically.  Harrison inserts the details unexpectedly, between blithe stories of Rasputin’s escapades and Masha’s new life with her husband, a royalist supporter who never abandons hope that the tsar is alive and will be reinstated.

Just as in real life, Masha eventually makes her way to America to become a lion-tamer in the Ringling Brothers Circus, and  Alyosha’s diary of his last days, is mysteriously delivered to her, confirming his death and the end of the dynasty.

With young Alyosha’s bravery as he grows into a manhood suddenly cut short, and Masha’s circumspect observations of Rasputin as a kind  and loving father, the historical fiction becomes a poignant account of a brutal time in Russian history.  Not an easy read, Enchantments requires undivided attention to follow, but if you’d like to imagine how these legends of history lived, loved, and managed each day, Harrison offers a believable possibility from a different perspective.

Catherine the Great

From obscurity to greatness –  with the help of an ambitious mother –  Catherine the Great offers insight and historical context with drama.

After eight years of research and writing, Robert K. Massie leaves nothing out.  Through a dense and fact filled documentary, Massie manages to reveal the human personalities, and suddenly you are in the eighteenth century – with court deceptions, dukes and emperors trading lives for power, royals using overwhelming wealth to show favor or take it away, secret lovers, lives ruined for the wrong allegiance – a great way to learn history.

Massie, who won the Putlizer for his Peter the Great, creates a suspenseful plot with the innumerable facts at his disposal, and he manages to instill humanity into the historical icons as if they were characters in a play. The result will have you attending to his words, and reading for the next installment as Catherine’s life unfolds. Nevertheless, I found myself dozing off in some sections; this is a slow methodical read and you will have to persevere to reach the end.

Becoming Catherine

Ensconced in posh surroundings, weighted down with jewels and silver, the teenage German princess is summoned by the Empress Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great, to be betrothed to the heir of the Russian throne, an immature and petulant boy.  They have no choice but to marry, but it’s nine years before the marriage is consummated.  In the meantime, Catherine has learned the language, converted away from German Lutheranism to Orthodox Russia, and solidified her ambition to someday be Empress.

Massie uses letters and references to document the saga – many from Catherine’s own memoirs – and he maintains interest by inserting humorous episodes when they are available.  In attending a ball with the men dressed as women and the women as men (better to show off Empress Elizabeth’s legs), Catherine writes:

The very tall Monsieur Sievers… was wearing a hoop skirt the empress had lent him…Countess Hendrikova, who was dancing behind me, stumbled over the hoop skirt as he turned…I fell beneath the hoop skirt which had sprung upright beside me…there we were all three of us, sprawling on the floor with me entirely covered by his skirt.  I was dying of laughter trying to get up…no one could get up without causing the other two to fall down.”

Not all is balls and frivolity.  Massie describes poignant moments of despair, and illnesses that almost sever ties.   In his thoroughness, he relates every toothache, court gossip, and secret – some are entertaining.  Catherine’s invention of a side-saddle she could unobtrusively switch to ride astride to avoid her mother-in-law’s criticism foreshadows Catherine’s later “triumphant entrance into the capital” riding in uniform on her horse as the new ruler.

Empress Catherine

Pages of colorful portraits of the principals divide the book, with the first two hundred pages providing the background to the second half – Catherine’s reign.  Like other powerful women, Catherine overcame obstacles, asserted her independence, and managed people as well as countries.  She learned early that people prefer to talk about themselves, and she listened.  But she believed in “enlightened autocracy – what I despair of overthrowing, I undermine.” Massie writes that…

“she was intelligent, well-read, and a shrewd judge of character… She softened imperial presence with a sense of humor and a quick tongue.”

By writing her Nakaz, a suggested code of laws that condemned torture and capital punishment, and endorsed the principle of the  “equality of all before the law,” Catherine hoped to lead her country away from the feudal rules of serfdom.  She founded Russia’s first College of Medicine, established hospitals, and became one of the first to be inoculated against smallpox. Her collection of art gave her the reputation as “the leading prospective customer for all owners with major collections,” and she housed her holdings within magnificent architecture.  Catherine was a reader, motivated by the “dullness” of her husband.  She wrote in her memoirs: “When he left me, the most boring book seemed delightful.” Massie notes that she “always kept a book in her room and carried another in her pocket.


To maintain the historical momentum, Massie finishes each section of Catherine’s life, and then backtracks to comment on others who influenced her.  He manages to insert Voltaire’s life into the mix as well as King George of England’s problems with the “colonies.”  John Paul Jones, Father of the United States Navy, has a cameo appearance in the Russian war with Turkey.  This zigzagging can be distracting, but without providing the information, Massie’s portrait of Catherine would not be as complete or understandable.



Her personal life was never forgotten; although she suffered through a miserable marriage with Peter (who she may have managed to have assassinated), she had at least a dozen lovers – usually young handsome guards – and had three children.  Massie’s chapter on Catherine’s “favorites” offers insight into a powerful woman who was lonely and yearning for love.  She found it many times, and with Potemkin, ten years her junior and possibly her second husband,  sustained a relationship that survived – even after both took other lovers. Potemkin became powerful in his own right, building cities, “ruling southern Russia like an emperor…{and gave} Russia access to a new sea.”

Her Children

Massie ends his saga with Catherine’s progeny, specifically Paul, her son (whose father could have been either her husband Peter or a lover).  Massie reminds you who everyone is and where they came from, eventually focusing on her son’s second fruitful marriage to Sophia/Maria – yielding nine grandchildren, and her favorite, Alexander.  Although Catherine groomed Alexander from a young age to be her successor, his marriage never produced an heir, and the dynasty passed on to Nicholas, Alexander’s younger brother and Catherine’s youngest grandson – the one who had “escaped her strict supervision.”  Not even an Empress can control everything.

Massie’s Marvel

Robert K. Massie

Massie tells Catherine’s life from her point of view and, for the most part, turns dry historical facts into a readable and entertaining story full of intrigue and messy politics.  Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman may be one of those books that is good for you to read, as well as a good read.

A magnificent history lesson – and you won’t have to take a test after digesting it.

Read about another powerful historical woman: Cleopatra

Russian Winter

Winter is coming soon to some places – even here in the tropics, the sun sets in a different spot as it sinks into the ocean, the wind blows a little chillier, mornings are crisper.  Not too many fireplaces where I live, but if you have one, Daphne Kalotay’s Russian Winter could be cozy solace as you sip your hot chocolate or brandy.

A romantic mystery involving a famous Russian ballerina who defected with precious jewels, Russian Winter slowly unravels the life of one of the Bolshoi’s stars, Nina Revskay.    Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana, who defected to the United States in the sixties, died recently – giving Kalotay’s book an eerie timeliness.

The story meanders back and forth from Nina’s flashbacks; in the present Nina is an old frail woman who is mysteriously bitter about her past and holds a terrifying secret.  She decides to sell the jewels she hid in her escape from Stalin to the free world, with her amber bracelet and earrings holding special value for their personal history and provenance.

Drew, the young associate at the Boston auction house where the jewels will be sold is dealing with her own personal demons; Grigori Solodin, a professor of Russian literature, who owns the necklace in the amber set, is determined to discover the jewel’s link to his parentage. They both have questions that Nina is reluctant to answer.

Kalotay sprinkles her narrative with historic references to Russian life before and after Stalin, including information about the labor camps and amber mines.  Kalotay  also documents the changes in the work and life of artists living in Soviet Russia and offers clear and detailed insights into that culture.  The cast of Russian characters has a number of minor supporting characters, with the principles including Vera Borodina, Nina’s childhood friend; the Jewish composer, Aron Gershtein, who is in love with Vera; Nina’s renowned poet husband, Viktor; and Viktor’s devious mother…

{Nina}:  “People think I fled Russia to escape communism.  Really I was escaping my mother-in-law.”

The complexity of the plot and the number of characters may keep you off-balance, but in the end, love letters, a poem, and the jewels come together for the final revelation of betrayal and misunderstanding – and, of course, a happy and satisfying resolution.

Russian Winter is a slow read – you may doze off now and then while reading – but the artistic movements are graceful and the Cold War history unnerving.

Related Article:  How Stalin’s Daughter Defected

City of Thieves

Deliver a dozen eggs by the end of the week – or die.  In Nazi held Leningrad, where the daily meal could be a crust of bread, two young Russians face this directive in David Benioff’s City of Thieves.  Lev, a seventeen year old who is caught stealing from a dead German, and Koyla, a handsome student who has deserted his military unit, are arrested but given a temporary reprieve from execution when the colonel in charge sends them on a mission to find the eggs for his daughter’s wedding cake.

The quest becomes an adventure riddled with the horrors of war and sprinkled with Gallows humor.   Bernioff does not gloss over the misery or the atrocities of wartime, but he manages to insert a wry humor and laughter in the face of despair.   A scrawny chicken they’ve stolen, hoping to nurse it into a fast egg-laying frenzy, turns out to be a rooster.

When the two young men barely avoid capture (and being eaten) by a team of cannibals, Benioff adeptly balances the cruelty with Lev and Koyla’s exciting escape -worthy of a Harrison Ford episode.   They connect with a group of young revolutionaries and the story continues to detail the personal devastation of people struggling to survive in the midst of war, but with Benioff’s clever shifting back and forth from fear to nervous laughter.

The book has all the excitement of an action movie, and moves at that same fast pace. Each chapter has another obstacle to overcome with a little coming-of-age romance thrown in.

When you get to the ending, you might remember the premise Bernioff used to start the tale – asking his grandfather about the war.  You might remember that his grandfather’s index finger is a stub, and that he is a master chess player.  The last name of the story’s young hero is Beniov. I had forgotten, until Benioff cleverly brought it all back as he neatly tied all the loose ends.  Still, the satisfying ending doesn’t seem contrived – more a comment on survival.

The Washington Post called the book a “tale that clenches humor, savagery, and pathos squarely together on one page.”  The barbaric assaults are hard to take, but Berlioz tempers them with the personal courage and humor that makes it worth reading.  Lev tells his war story, but also a memory of growing up – too fast.