#tobyreads: Russian Politics and Desolation, and Helen Oyeyemi’s Quiet Masterpiece


Last year, for the music writing book group I run at WORD, we read The Feminist Press’s anthology of writings related to Pussy Riot. It was an interesting glimpse at the group, their origins, and the horrific show trial to which three of its members were subjected. Reading it, I felt as though I’d been given more knowledge, but was also hoping to be taken through the group’s art and criticism in the greater context of Russian society. Enter Masha Gessen’s Words Will Break Cement, which is exactly what I’d been hoping for. Gessen’s writing on Russia is essential (her Vladimir Putin biography is one of the most unsettling things I’ve read in recent years), and she doesn’t disappoint here.

Gessen gives a quick history of the group’s origins in the avant-garde art scene, and reminds the reader a few times that, despite the performative aspect of their art, calling Pussy Riot a band would not be entirely accurate. (Something useful to remember, given recent headlines that seem to obviate this.) She also places their actions within a political context — both in terms of larger protest movements and relative to increasingly repressive governmental restrictions; Gessen also finds the greater historical context of the trial of three of the group’s members, hearkening back to Soviet-era show trials and finding ominous parallels. This is essential reading.

Another book group I’m in will be reading Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Definitely Maybe soon, and I thought it might make sense to read their earlier Roadside Picnic to prepare. (Thanks are due to Jenn Northington for the recommendation.) That Roadside Picnic inspired Tarkovsky’s Stalker didn’t hurt, though I wouldn’t call the film a particularly faithful adaptation — one does one thing, the other does another, and there are definitely some areas of overlap. The central concept — of humans struggling to understand the left-over technology of an inherently alien society — is fantastic, and the thoroughly flawed characters behave, well, exactly as you might expect real people would in such a situation. It’s damn good, and I’m eager to read more from the Strugatsky brothers’ body of work.

Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird also came highly recommended by two friends whose recommendations are generally spot-on. I’m not going to be saying much about it here, but that shouldn’t be taken as a warning — quite the reverse. This is a precisely-written book — so precise and so well-structured and so thematically unified that its structure never feels imposed on the reader. It unfolds with the sort of seeming effortlessness that can be incredibly difficult to pull off, and the way it twists and turns is never not compelling. It begins with a young woman named Boy fleeing New York and her abusive father for a small New England town, where she gradually settles into life there — she meets friends, catches the eye of a widower who’s left behind academic life, and finds a job. Where the story goes from there, I’ll leave up to the reader to discover; I will say that there are echoes of familiar stories and of history, but the novel never feels like it’s retracing older steps as much as building on them. Highly recommended.

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