More Recent Books: Dmitri Volkogonov, Susan Cheever, Serdar Ozkan

OK, an odd combination, but here goes:

1. Dimitri Volkogonov was a general in the Soviet Army, and high ranking assistant to Russian president Boris Yeltsin. He was also, for a while, in charge of the Soviet Archives. A committed Communist for most of his life, he began to have doubts as to the Soviet system, first assuming that the problem was Stalinism as a perversion of Leninist theory. His biography of Stalin was published in the early 1990s, and soon he realized that he was not only attacking Stalin, but also Lenin and the entire system. Biographies of Lenin and Trotsky followed.

These books earned praise in Russian (post-Soviet) circles; their English versions have been criticized more heavily, but some say it is because they are abridgements of the Russian versions.

“Lenin” runs over 500 pages, and you would not know it is an abridgement unless you were told that it was. It is filled with facts and assertions based on documents found in the archives that were previously unavailable, and paints a picture of Lenin as a cruel, arrogant opportunist of the first order. The book is fascinating and convincing, but needed a lot of editing, as much of it is unnecessarily repetitive and its organization is confusing (this is not a translation problem, but the writer’s problem).

Volkogonov is clearly someone who needs an ideology, however. When his Communist ethos broke down, he switched equally strongly to an anti-Communist ideology. While this is not to fault him, it is important to realize, because once his previous hero Lenin was knocked from his pedestal, he became the Russian devil incarnate, engaging in anti-Russian activities with the Germans to help engineer Russia out of World War I, encouraging tumult and civil war in his country, treating his Bolshevik compatriots harshly and unsympathetically. A pre-Stalin Stalin.

Perhaps I will read his biography of Stalin if I stumble upon it – but now I am reading another book about Stalin, by Simon Sebag Montefiore, “Young Stalin”. We will see how that (equally long) book goes.

2. Susan Cheever, the daughter of John Cheever, has written a number of books, fiction and non-fiction. The book I picked up is called “A Woman’s Life”. It’s an odd book. Cheever wanted to write a biography of an ordinary woman. Linda Green fit the bill. Born in Brooklyn, raised in Passaic NJ, a Jewish girl born to rather neurotic parents, she graduated from Passaic High School and married her high school sweetheart, who was planning on law school, but wound up as a society drop out and druggie. The marriage eventually failed and Linda, high school teacher, fell for one of her students, a local Catholic boy, and eventually married him and (more or less) lived happily ever after. An interesting tale – but now “ordinary” Linda Green is – that’s another story.

3. Serdar Ozkan is a young Turkish writer who wrote a fable called, in English, “The Missing Rose”. Not normally my kind of book, in fact I enjoyed it a lot. A wealthy woman living in Rio de Janerio is dying. She lives with her daughter, an attractive and intelligent young woman about to graduate from law school. As her illness progresses, the mother shocks her daughter by telling her that she has an identical twin (their father absconded when the twins were one year old, taking one of the girls with her), and beseeching her daughter to promise that she will find her sister (whom the mother has not seen in almost 30 years), giving her a number of clues based on a few recent feels from her missing daughter.

The rest of the book shows the young girl following the clues, coming close to meeting her sister in the garden of a friend of her mother’s in Istanbul, only to be called back to Brazil.

The end of the story? The moral of the fable? I suggest you find and read this short book.

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