Archives for posts with tag: review
18668081

Waiting for the Electricity by Christina Nichol (image from GoodReads)

Nichol, Christina. Waiting for the Electricity: A Novel. New York, NY: Overlook, 2015. Print.

I read this on my flight from Georgia to the US, and in some ways it was the right choice for the circumstances. Slims Achmed Makashvili is a Batumeli in 2002, who believes that life could be better, and asks Hillary Clinton for help and advice. He is chosen for a US Government exchange program and visits America, but gets deported back to Georgia. Then (as those who know Georgian history will know) comes the Rose Revolution, and things change.

I was struck both by Nichol’s deep understanding of Georgia, and some very VERY basic mistakes in Georgian language, geography, and culture. I just couldn’t square this disparity in my mind. That said, though I certainly know a lot about Georgia, I haven’t lived in Batumi (I’ve visited multiple times, and have friends who’ve lived there, though); I don’t know any of the Adjaran dialect of Georgian; and I didn’t visit Georgia before the Rose Revolution. These facts could explain many of the things that don’t feel right to me, though not all of them. I’ve never been particularly good at suspension of disbelief, but I’m not sure if that applies to things like spelling and the location of Borjomi. This is probably something that would not even register to the vast majority of people interested in the book, even those who also read my blog, so  I can’t say it’s a deal-breaker.  I also found Slims’ frequent letters to Hillary hard to read…it’s just too soon. I’m usually a character-driven reader, and I didn’t particularly connect to any of the characters in Waiting for the Electricity, which probably made me less of a fan.

This wasn’t the right book for me right now, but there isn’t anything off-putting about it. Despite my quibbles, it was OK. I’d like to hear what others think, and see if they connected more.

Readers, have you read this? Thoughts?

Advertisements

Two (Relatively) Recent Mainstream Novels about the Armenian Genocide: The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak and Orhan’s Inheritance by Aline Ohanesian

I’ve recently read two novels about the Armenian genocide and its rippling effects on the Turkish and Armenian families who witnessed it. One of these novels was written by a Turk, the other by an Armenian (though both the writers have global biographies). The writing styles and literary genres of the books were different, as were (obviously) the plots, but nonetheless there were undeniable similarities between the two books. Both were powerful and compelling reads. While The Bastard of Istanbul had a dreamy feel to it, Orhan’s Inheritance was more of a page-turner. Both are recommended, though the different styles are likely to appeal to different readers.

98920

The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak (image from GoodReads)

Shafak, Elif. The Bastard of Istanbul: A Novel. London: Penguin, 2007. Print.

Availability: Available in the US and UK, both physical and e-book editions; English editions for sale in Georgia at Biblus bookshops.

The Bastard of Istanbul tells the story of the many generations of the Kazanci family, particularly the women including their youngest member, Asya (most of the men have mysteriously or tragically died). Entwined with this family’s saga is Armanoush and her family’s own tale. Armanoush is an Armenian-American who decides to secretly visit her grandmother’s home city of Istanbul as a way to better understand her Armenian heritage. She contacts her stepfather Mustafa’s family, the Kazancis, and she and Asya become friends despite Armanoush’s (and her online community’s) skepticism of Turks. Asya’s mystical Auntie Banu becomes curious about the truth of the Armenian genocide and consults her djinn to show her the truth of Armanoush’s family…and later to reveal her own family’s secrets. A family emergency in America leads Armanoush’s mother and step-father to come to Istanbul, the stepfather’s first visit in 20 years, where Auntie Banu’s knowledge brings old events to a head, leading to shocking events that permanently change both families.

I particularly liked the structure of this book–with each chapter titled with the name of an ingredient that is used in Mustafa’s favorite food, ashure. The titular ingredient of each chapter also make an appearance within the chapter, and a recipe for ashure is provided in the latter part of the book. This dish even plays an important role in the plot. Other foods are also described in mouth-watering detail. This is very much a novel for foodies.

The author Elif Shafak was put on trial for “denigrating Turkishness” because of this book. If you like reading as a way of fighting the power, this novel is a great choice.

Orhan4_pg2-HCjkt.indd

Orhan’s Inheritance by Aline Ohanesian (image from GoodReads)

Ohanesian, Aline. Orhan’s Inheritance: A Novel. Chapel Hill: Algonquin, 2015. Kindle e-book.

Availability: Available in the US (physical and e-book) and UK (physical book); English editions for sale in Georgia at Biblus bookshops

Orhan’s Inheritance made many lists of the best books of 2015, which is where I first heard of it. Like The Bastard of Istanbul, the novel features a multi-generational Turkish family, though unlike the Kazanci family, the Turkoglu family is oddly lacking in women. When the family’s patriarch, the title character Orhan’s grandfather, passes away, his will leaves the family home in the village to an Armenian woman no one has ever heard of. Orhan travels to an Armenian retirement home in California, where he meets his grandfather’s surprise heir, Seda Melkonian, and ultimately learns her story which gives him the explanation as to why his grandfather has left the house to her.

Much more of the action of this novel is set in the past as Seda’s story is told. Her story is, unsurprisingly, quite upsetting, but Ohanesian’s writing is compelling, and I wanted to get through the tragedies to find out how Seda lived and learn the mystery of why she inherited the house and how she came to be living in California.

One thing I particularly liked in this book was the interactions between the characters from different ethnic groups, both in the past and in the present. All the characters had flaws, and many were prejudiced against other ethnicities, but in the end the main characters were all people and recognized the human core in others, even when they disagreed. In this way, Ohanesian makes an argument for tolerance, even when the past cannot be forgotten.

 

img_176777

The Chandelier at the Opera. Photo from agenda.ge. See the full gallery here.

The Georgian National Opera and Ballet Theatre (Tbilisi Opera) has finally reopened to great fanfare. Most shows have been sold-out, and it seems like everyone is itching to get inside and see the renovations. I was one of those people. Friday night, my friends and I went to see Swan Lake. While Swan Lake was a great choice of performance to watch, we would have been happy to see anything we could get tickets for that fit into our schedule so we could get into the building and take a peek. I’m the furthest thing from qualified to give a critique of the ballet, so I will just leave it at “It was pretty.” The performance was accompanied by a live pit orchestra, which always adds a nice touch. You can check upcoming performances on the Opera’s website (NB: I can’t find an English version) or see the schedule and buy tickets on tkt.ge. Tickets can also be purchased at the box office. The upcoming schedule features a Georgian ballet and a Georgian opera, in addition to some international favorites. I know nothing about these performances, but it seems like it would be an interesting and unique experience.

The renovations of the building did not disappoint–everything is sumptuous. Every inch is painted with beautiful designs, there are oodles of chandeliers, and the chairs are all velvet-covered. Leg room isn’t generous, but the seats are comfortable enough. The restrooms seemed to be the only place where money was an object during the renovation–in contrast to every other nook of the building they were not luxurious, but they were clean and functional, so I have no complaints. Throughout the hallways and in some of the smaller spaces there are exhibits of memorabilia from the theatre’s history.

My only complaint is beyond the theatre’s–audience behavior was quite shocking. I haven’t gone to the theatre in any other country in years (even before I moved here, I wasn’t living in a place with lots of theatre-going opportunities), so maybe this is not a Georgian problem, but one that has grown worldwide, but I was shocked to see people who had paid 80 GEL for the most expensive seats in the house who were fiddling with their phones on throughout the performance (they didn’t appear to be filming, which would have been even worse)–the glow was distracting, even from three floors up. The doors to the hall were constantly opening and closing, and there was quite a lot of loud talking. (from the adults. The little girls nearby were quite well-behaved) Despite the annoyances which kept me from being fully swept up in the performance, it was still quite enchanting.

I took a few snapshots of the decor, but they pale in comparison to those the pros took for the grand opening…so look at these instead.

 

Heretics and Colonizers (image from GoodReads)

Heretics and Colonizers: Forging Russia’s Empire in the South Caucasus by Nicholas B. Breyfogle* 

Breyfogle, Nicholas B. Heretics and Colonizers: Forging Russia’s Empire in the South Caucasus. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2005. Print.

Availability: Available in the US and UK in physical editions; formerly available at Prospero’s, but currently out of stock. Check your local academic library.

Let me begin by saying that this book is a little different from most of the others I have reviewed here. This is a true academic work, not a non-fiction book for the general public, and it assumes a certain amount of background knowledge. Since I have a solid background in the history of the region, I had HEARD of Dukhobors, but I was coming into this book without much specific background information, and I found it fascinating. The writing is interesting and accessible–not the snooze-fest that sometimes plagues academic writing. The research explores the Dukhobors, Molokans, and Subbotniks (sometimes referred to in English as Spirit-Wrestlers, Milk-Drinkers, and Sabbatarians respectively) in the South Caucasus. These religious sects were composed of ethnic Russians, but they were not Russian Orthodox, presenting a challenge to the traditional idea of Russian nationality. Some were exiled and others chose to move to the South Caucasus, where the regime thought they would be less likely to spread their “heretical” beliefs to other Russians, but they could be of use spreading Russianness to other areas of the empire. The tsarist regime’s treatment of the sectarians and their legal status was in near constant flux. In some ways and at some times, the sectarians achieved great successes in their new homes, while the (spoiler alert) Dukhobor Movement and weapons burning resulted in retaliation and exile/immigration for many of the Dukhobors.

This was one of those books that raised a lot of questions for me and encouraged me to look up some more information and learn more. I’d be interested in reading a biography of “Queen” Lukeria Kalmykova, for example, and I’m very interested to find out what’s going on with those who remained in Georgia at the end of the time frame covered in the book. (I asked a Georgian friend, and his reply was “Yeah, there are Dukhobors in Kakheti and Molokans on Aghmashenebeli Avenue. They’re still Russians. I don’t know about Subbotniks.”)

This book is perhaps not something with widespread popular appeal, but if you are curious about the topic I strongly recommend that you read it.

*I studied under Professor Breyfogle, so you may consider me biased. I don’t think knowing him changed my opinion of the book, but it did encourage me to read it, which I probably wouldn’t have otherwise.

Flight from the USSR (Image from GoodReads)

Flight from the U.S.S.R. / ჯინსების თაობა (“Jeans Generation”) by Dato Turashvili  

Turashvili, Dato. Flight from the USSR. Trans. Maya Kiasashvili. Tbilisi: Sulakauri Publishing, 2008. Print.

Availability: Easily available in almost any book or souvenir shop in Georgia, in Georgian, English, or Russian. US/UK editions to be released February 2016.

The story of a group of young Soviet Georgians who just can’t take it anymore so they decide to hijack an airplane and defect to the West. This historical fiction novel is more on the historical side (per my quick Google research), and most of the fictionalization lies in giving personality and dialogue to the historical personages. The story was initially written as a play in 2001, while Shevardnadze (who makes an unflattering cameo in the novel version) was still in power. That was certainly a brave act of artistic resistance. The novel version of the story was published in 2008, though the play remains popular (but I haven’t seen it yet). US and UK versions of the novel are slated to be published in February 2016.

When I decided to start reading this, I didn’t realize how timely my choice of reading material was–I began just after the Paris attacks, and therefore the idea of terrorism was at the forefront of my mind while reading it. One of the main themes of the book is the oft-quoted idea that the difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter is where you stand, and that the line between good and evil is not always clear-cut. The hijackers’ actions are not defended–everyone admits that engaging in terrorism is wrong, but they are all portrayed as sympathetic characters who are just trying to make the world better. As the novel tells it, the casualties of the hijacking were inflicted by the authorities, while the hijackers shared water with the passengers trapped aboard the aircraft. This brings into focus the harshness of life under the late-Soviet regime, and the upside-down reality that the terrorists took more care of citizens than did the officials whose duty was, theoretically, to protect them. The novel engages with the philosophical questions of violence, freedom, and the connection between the two. To me, Turashvili didn’t answer these questions; rather, he created an environment suitable for the reader to ponder them.

Though the book has a philosophical side, it remains a quick and enjoyable read. The action is fast-paced, and the prose is concise and readable. At under 200 pages, it’s also a quick read. Kiasashvili’s translation was quite good; it maintained a readable and colloquial style. The one real problem I found with this book was that the proofreading was terrible (/non-existent)! It was riddled with typos–some of them comically awkward (“shedding teats in the cemetery”) and some just bizarre (a Russian letter inserted in the middle of an English word). Note to Georgian publishing companies–I (and I’m sure plenty of other ex-pats) would be happy to check for typos in exchange for some lari. These errors prevented me from fully engaging with the book and immersing myself in it. I assume that the forthcoming US and UK editions of the book will fix these problems, making the book much more readable. I can’t speak to the quality of the Russian translation.

One last point to make is that the Georgian editions of the book (Georgian, English, and Russian) are published by Sulakauri Publishing, who have been in the news recently for an ad featuring a Hitler impersonator, which many feel is in poor taste. You may want to keep this in mind when deciding if you would like to purchase the book.

2108juliusbann-1

Poster for the Premier of Julius Caesar at Rustaveli Theatre

Julius Caesar / იულიუს კეისარი

performed by the Rustaveli Theatre Company in the Rustaveli Theatre

The Rustaveli Theatre Company seems to have been inspired by my 10th Grade English curriculum. We read both 12 Angry Men and Julius Caesar that year…perhaps To Kill a Mockingbird and A Tale of Two Cities are next in the repertoire.

Unfortunately, my attendance at this play was off to a bad start when my attempts to buy tickets online sucked me into the biletebi.ge drama. My money was taken, but no tickets appeared and customer service did not reply to multiple messages. In the end, I bought the tickets direct from Rustaveli Theatre’s box office, my bank returned my money, and I did not hear a peep from biletebi.ge. I retract my previous endorsements of their service.

I was looking forward to seeing this production, because I know the story well, and like it. In addition to reading it in school, I’ve seen two other professional productions of the play, so you could say I’m a fan. This version was also directed by Robert Sturua, someone so famous in Georgia that even I’ve heard of him! So my hopes were high.

Now, this could be considered a spoiler, so stop reading if you’re sensitive, but I suggest you continue reading on anyway. It might spare you some disappointment.

THEY ONLY DO HALF THE PLAY. Yup, that’s right. They only do half the play, clocking in at under 2 hours for a Shakespeare play! It’s crazy. It also changes the whole play. Caesar dies, everyone claps, and the cast takes their curtain call. Now the play is not about Antony, but about Caesar. And also, this version of the play is pretty boring–it doesn’t get into the psychology and aftermath of an act the way the real play does. It’s just a bunch of guys walking around, then killing their friend. I’m pretty sure my 10th grade English teacher, Mrs. Mealey, would NOT approve of this change. I certainly don’t.

In addition to my artistic differences over when to end the play, I didn’t understand some of the other choices made in the production. The setting seemed to be an old theatre or cinema, but who the characters were supposed to be or where/when they were never clicked for me. (My Georgian friend confirmed turned to me at one point and said that he also didn’t get it, so this was not just a language issue). I got the impression that the setting and costumes (mid-century gangsters, I think?) were chosen because they were cheap and accessible. I’ve been involved in and/or watched some productions that had similar constraints, but most high school and college productions I’ve seen have pulled it off MUCH better (and they are not the national theatre company, so the audience is understandably a bit more forgiving). They might have been able to pull it off had they done the second half of the play, because I was just starting to get into their world when they just stopped.

Like in most other productions I’ve seen in Georgia, the actors did occasionally burst into song or just start dancing. I didn’t find it added or subtracted anything from the overall play, but it seems to be the fashion.

Unfortunately, this was the worst play I’ve seen in Georgia, but it must be commended for its creativity. This production failed because it took a lot of risks; it’s just that they almost all fell flat. Nonetheless, it was certainly a more thought-provoking performance than the very risk-free and traditional performance of The Cherry Orchard at the Griboedov Theatre.

If you want to see Shakespeare in Georgian, I recommend you give Julius Caesar a pass, but run and buy your tickets to As You Like It as soon as you can!

My Grandmother (Image from GoodReads)

My Grandmother
(Image from GoodReads)

My Grandmother: A Memoir by Fethiye Çetin 

Çetin, Fethiye. My Grandmother: A Memoir. Trans. Maureen Freely. London: Verso, 2008. Print.

Availability: Available in the US and UK, both physical and ebook editions; originally published in Turkish, and translated into many other languages.

I’m publishing this post today as April 24, 2015 is the 100-year commemoration of the Armenian Genocide (It’s also my birthday, so…yeah). This memoir was significant as the first book in Turkey to break the silence surrounding the Armenian Genocide. Because of the intended audience, the story shies away from discussing the politics or the big picture, and focuses on one woman’s life and stories. Fethiye Çetin’s grandmother, our main character, lived as a formidable Turkish housewife and materfamilias, but she had hidden her Armenian identity and past, and only revealed it to her granddaughter late in life. Çetin discusses her own reactions to her grandmother’s revelations: the challenge she felt to her Turkish identity, and her confusion over how such tragedies could square with her view of Islam. She also mentions her distant American cousin’s similarly tumultuous reaction to meeting her, a relative who identified as Turkish, and his feelings on the complicated situation. “All my life I’ve been afraid of Turks. I nurtured a deep hatred of them. Their denial has made things even worse. Then I found out that you were part of our family but Turkish at the same time.” (p. 113). This quotation captures what I think is the real message of the book. Though it’s a book about the Armenian Genocide, it’s more a book advocating love over hate, and illustrating that ethnicity is not so important as humanity. (Çetin is a lawyer and human rights advocate in addition to memoirist, so this squares with what I imagine to be her goals). Çetin’s love for her grandmother glows through every word. This makes reading about an incredibly difficult topic so much easier. The writing style is simple and clear, the right choice for this kind of book and message. It’s a relatively easy read (in terms of skill, not emotion): I finished it in an afternoon. Recommended, particularly as a first source on the Armenian Genocide.

Play Poster

The Cherry Orchard / Вишневый сад

performed by the Griboyedov Theatre Company on the small stage of the Griboyedov Theatre

This was the most traditional and least creative play I’ve seen in Georgia, but that doesn’t mean it was bad. Everything was done more or less by the book with traditional lighting, sound and staging. I particularly enjoyed the set decor featuring lots of lace; it captured the idea of crumbling grandeur very well. At one point, dresses hung from the lights were used to reminisce over the grand balls held at the estate in days past, and I thought that was particularly evocative.

The things I do for you! Attempting to replicate the lead actress' make-up, but not heavy-handed enough

The things I do for you! Attempting to replicate the lead actress’ make-up, but not heavy-handed enough

The actresses seemed to have a little trouble remembering their lines, but they still performed well. The costumes were as expected, but the hairstyles and make-up were strangely anachronistic. I’m not someone who spends a lot of time thinking about make-up, but I found the lead actress’ strange make-up quite distracting, I actually spent time thinking “What is going on with that eye shadow?” rather than focusing on the plot. You can see it a bit in the poster for the play, and I’ve added a close-up of my attempted re-creation to the right. I mentioned this later, and a Georgian friend explained that the lead actress, Guranda Gabunia, is somewhat famous, and in her most famous role she wore that style of make-up. Doesn’t make it good, but it’s something of an explanation.

The theatre itself has been recently renovated. It doesn’t have the antique charm of the other theatres, but the seats are brand new and quite comfortable, and the rows are raised stadium-style, so every seat has a good view. We paid only 5 GEL each, and we had excellent seats, though we had to buy them a month in advance. This show is quite a hit, and multiple performaces have sold out in advance. Oddly, though, we smelled cigarette smoke wafting through the theatre at times.

The play was performed in the original Russian, though my friend who is more familiar with Chekhov said it was abridged. Our non-Russian-speaking friend who joined us said he enjoyed the performance, despite not knowing the language.

There are two more performances (at least) scheduled for the up-coming weekend. Tickets are available at biletebi.ge.

Poster and ticket from the play’s run at The Globe (Image from Google Images)

As You Like It / როგორც გენებოთ

performed by the Marjanishvili Theatre Company on the Large Stage of the Marjanishvili Theatre

“As You Like It” isn’t one of the Shakespeare plays I’m most familiar with–my Mom tells me I saw it as a kid at a Shakespeare festival. I remember going to that Shakespeare festival, but I couldn’t tell you what play I saw there, or even what it was about (I think it might have been set in the woods–that only narrows things down a little). We’ll trust her on this one. Since this production was in Georgian, I did do what any sensible person would do, and read the Wikipedia page to give myself an idea of the plot and characters so I’d be better able to follow along. Overall, the production was excellent, and captured that magical surrealness of a Shakespearean comedy. The friend I attended with hadn’t seen much theatre in the past, and seeing him become entranced by the production reminded me of the magic of good theatre.

The scene was set with a smaller stage on the stage, where most of the action took place. The actors who were “offstage” were still visible, sometimes driving the plot from there and interacting with the “onstage” cast, making minor costume and prop changes, “playing” cards, “prompting” the characters who “forgot” their lines, and providing many of the sound effects and much of the soundtrack. It was an interesting touch. The other show I have seen also involved some on-stage percussion by the actors, so I think it might be in fashion in the world of Georgian theatre.

One thing I found really impressive about the play was the choreography. Though there were no dances, as such. Leaves fell onto the stage, and rather than clearing them away, they were utilized in later scenes. The ways the actors used the leaves and moved with them and through them was really beautiful. I also enjoyed the style of the fight choreography–it was comedic and sometimes purposely false and over-the-top, but still just threatening enough to move the plot forward. It conveyed both seriousness and comedy.

Another interesting directorial decision was the casting of women in two “man” roles. The actresses played the parts well (they weren’t roles where gender was actually important, they were just customarily men), and it was an interesting turnabout on Shakespearean tradition, since in the original Shakespeare plays, all the roles, even the women, were played by men.

The theatre itself wasn’t as spectacular as the Rustaveli Theatre, but it was still quite nice. The seats weren’t as comfortable, though. Ticket prices for the show were in the 6-16 lari range. I bought 14 lari tickets to make sure we had a good view, but it seems to be a small enough theatre that there are no bad seats in the house.

Of course many are interested in the “language question”. The play was almost entirely in Georgian, (a word or two of French, and some interjections of “As You Like It” in English) with no subtitles or language assistance. That being said, this show did play at The Globe in London, and it’s designed to be follow-able for people who don’t speak Georgian. Even with my level of Georgian, I wasn’t always able to understand–they spoke quickly, and made many verbal jokes and puns (probably). However, it was easy to follow the general plot, and the play was visually interesting. If you don’t speak Georgian, it’s OK if you’re interested in the performance visually, but if you’re an auditory person it might not be the best choice.

There’s another performance scheduled for March 13 (tickets available at the theatre or online), and the play remains part of the company’s repertoire, so should come up again. You can look for future information here.

“Trailer” for the play

 

The Ghost of Freedom (Image from Goodreads)

The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus by Charles King 

King, Charles. The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008.

Availability: Available in both the US and UK, both physical and ebook editions. Often in stock at Prospero’s in Tbilisi.

There’s a bit of a funny story regarding how  I read this book at this moment, but if you’re not interested, feel free to skip on down to the next paragraph. The town where my parents live, and I spend lots of time on vacation, has an excellent used bookstore, so whenever I’m in town, I make a few stops there to see what I can get. I usually also volunteer to search for things for friends, since the prices are so good. An acquaintance from university is now teaching elementary school in a low-income community in the US, and she had posted on Facebook asking for donations to her classroom library. Since I had access to a good used bookstore, I figured I would pick up a few things for her kiddos. I also looked at her personal wishlist which contained lots of Russia/Eastern Europe titles, so I thought I’d try to find something for her, too. Imagine my surprise when I saw a book on the Caucasus on her list, and my shock when this was her only request that was in stock at the bookstore! So I picked it up, and I read it first before I sent it along to her.

Now, on to the book itself. I know that back in grad school, I’d checked this book out of the library many times, but I hadn’t read it cover to cover. At that point, I used it as a reference when writing papers–what year was that treaty signed? who was the leader during that event? Although it worked very well for that purpose, that didn’t allow me to appreciate just how good this book is–the writing style and structure are excellent. One of the best parts of the book is the chapter on the creation of the Caucasus in the Russian imagination–King goes beyond the usual discussion of Pushkin, Lermontov and Tolstoy (all of course, very important) and also discusses the effects of mountaineering, ethnographic missions, and the role of Circassians as sex symbols in Europe and the US in this chapter. I also learned a few new stories from this book–the Armenian Archbishop murdered in New York, and Queen Mariam’s refusal to surrender to the Russian military (which I can’t believe no one had told me before). Even though this book was published in 2008 (just before the Russia-Georgia war) it hasn’t lost its relevance.

Verdict: Read it. Read it all!

%d bloggers like this: