Anna Campbell

April 2021

Recent Reads – Part 9

I’ve got some more books that I’ve recently enjoyed to recommend to you today! This time, it’s nonfiction, two with a distinctly Russian flavor and one about our feathered friends that was just a delight.

I’ll start with Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing by Anya von Bremzen. This one was sad and funny and fascinating. Until she was 10, Anya Von Bremzen lived in Soviet Moscow in a crumbling communal apartment block, where 18 families shared one kitchen. Then she and her mother migrated to the U.S. where she went on to become a famous food writer with numerous awards under her belt.

But her first and most powerful memories of food are based in that early life in Moscow. Using a famous Soviet cookbook, she and her mother set out to recreate a Russian meal from every decade of the 20th century from the pre-revolutionary days to Putin’s Russia of today. This gives structure to a memoir that is full of tragedy and absurd moments of comedy, not to mention a potted history of Russia in the last 100 years. Entertaining and shocking and in the end, very moving, this book turns into a meditation on the meaning of home and family and love and nationhood.

My next choice this month is Mud and Stars: Travels in Russia with Pushkin, Tolstoy and Other Genuises of the Golden Age by British writer Sara Wheeler. Every so often (although not THAT often!), I go on a reading binge when only a Russian classic will do. One of my favorite books is War and Peace which has this reputation for being turgid and unreadable and in fact is the most wonderful book full of various romances, happy and sad. So Mud and Stars is right up my alley.

Sara Wheeler travels through Russia using the classics as her starting point to see what from those books remains true to Russia now and what has changed. In the process, she visits museums, houses, and places significant to these great writers, and gives us vivid potted biographies of each author as she goes.

Goodness me, these Russians led interesting lives. Although sometimes interesting translates into tragic with a trace of the absurd that lent such color to Anya Von Bremzen’s memoir. It was fascinating too to see how these writers interacted and influenced one another and how their titanic presences still overshadow Russia today.

My last selection gets right away from Russian history. In fact, it’s not about humans at all, but about new research into the lives of birds. The birdlife where I live on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast in Australia is spectacular and as a result, I’ve become very interested in things that fly and chirp and build nests.

The Bird Way: A New Look at How Birds Talk, Work, Play, Parent, and Think by Jennifer Ackerman is fascinating and reveals just how complex these feathered creatures and their society are. One of the loveliest things for me personally is that because Australian birdlife is so rich and varied, a lot of the stories she tells about new discoveries come right from my backyard (well, not exactly my backyard, but definitely places I’ve been in Australia). You’ll find yourself amazed at how smart and resourceful some of these birds are! Not a birdbrain or a henwit among them! Definitely worth a read.