A Terrible Country

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Thank You to Viking for providing me with a copy of Keith Gessen’s novel, A Terrible Country, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Andrei immigrated from Russia to the United States as a child and now in his early thirties, is a Russian Scholar. He’s struggling to find steady employment and to make his mark in academia, so when his brother calls on him to return to Moscow to care for their elderly grandmother, Andrei decides to go. Beyond caring for a grandmother whom he loves, he hopes that being in Russia will revive his career. Andrei is not prepared for the culture shock that he will encounter in his homeland. It teaches him that being born in a place and learning about it in books, is not the same as day-to-day living.

LIKE– Initially, I was drawn to Gessen’s novel by theme of caregiving. Like Andrei, I’ve been in the position of being caregiver and I could relate to both his frustrations and the joy from this precious time spent with a loved one. Andrei’s relationship with his grandmother, Baba Seva, is one of pure love and devotion. He gives her his all, even when he is struggling financially or is feeling doubtful about his own future. The best parts of A Terrible Country are the scenes between Andrei and Baba Seva. She has dementia and her confusion is heartbreaking.

I’m fairly familiar with famous Russian literature, but I don’t have a wide understanding of Russian history or what a modern Russia looks like. Gessen’s novel gave me a glimpse into Russia: the daily life in a major city and the culture. The title of the book is a refrain through-out the story, even Baba Seva tells Andrei that Russia is “A Terrible Country” urging him to leave, as she refuses to do so herself. This sentiment is multi-faceted. In the most simplistic sense, it is terrible because of the wealth disparity, the crime, and corruption. Andrei realizes that he has had it very easy in America. On the flip-side, this is the place of his birth, the place where he still has family. He feels a strong pull towards Russia. Andrei also manages to make friends during his year in Russia, including a girlfriend. He comes to see the beauty beyond the frustrations and he embraces Russia; warts and all. Russia is no longer a memory from his childhood or a mythology patched together from text books, but a place that is part of his soul. He has developed a strong bond with this terrible country.

DISLIKEA Terrible Country was uneven in keeping my interest. It took me several weeks to read. I suspect this was due to the heavy themes and slice-of-life style, but I kept reading it in spurts, a few chapters at a time and setting it aside in favor of other books. It wasn’t that I was disinterested, I just found the story world to be a place that I didn’t want remain for an extended stay.

RECOMMEND– Yes. Gessen is a talented writer and A Terrible Country is great for readers who want a deeper look at modern day Russia. It compels me to seek out non-fiction books on the subject.

The Subway Girls

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Thank you to St. Martin’s Griffin for providing me with a copy of Susie Orman Schnall’s novel, The Subway Girls, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– It’s 1949 and Charlotte Friedman has just finished a typist course at Hunter’s College. She is eager to figure out a way to break into the advertising industry, even if she must work in the typing pool while figuring out how to show her male superiors that she is not only eager, but also capable and creative.

Charlotte suffers a set-back when she learns that there are no jobs available in her dream agencies and what’s more, her father needs her help at the family paint shop. Charlotte is beginning to feel that her dreams will never come true, when she manages to become a semi-finalist in the Miss Subways contest. The Miss Subways are a joint venture between The New York Transit Authority and the famed John Roberts Power Modeling Agency: a contest where one ordinary, yet beautiful, local girl is picked a month to grace posters in Subway cars. Initially skeptical, Charlotte realizes that by winning the contest she might be able to leverage her five-minutes of fame to lure customers to her father’s business and in return, she will gain her freedom to pursue her dreams.

In 2018, Olivia is living Charlotte’s dream of working in advertising, yet, the dream is not fully realized. Olivia is smart and capable, yet she struggles to be heard in a business that is still a “boy’s club.” Olivia has a debilitating crush on her boss, Matt, with whom she has been carrying on a secret, casual sex-based relationship. When the agency has a chance to pitch a campaign to the New York Transit Authority, Matt pits Olivia in an idea contest, against Olivia’s rival, Thomas. One of Olivia’s ideas takes her down the rabbit hole of the Miss Subway’s contest and she meets women from a different generation who make a big impact on her life.

LIKE- I’m a fan of Historical Fiction and I love the concept for The Subway Girls. After finishing Schnall’s novel, I spent a few hours looking at the original posters and reading about the real-life inspirations for this story. It was fascinating and I hope to visit the New York Transportation Museum in the near future to see the exhibit about the Miss Subways campaign. Schnall had a great idea to write a story that parallels the lives of two characters, two women from different generations, both with huge dreams.

The comparing of women from two generations, looking at how much things have both changed and stayed the same with regard to expectations and opportunity, was compelling. Although Olivia isn’t expected to marry and let her husband take care of her, she still must fight for equal treatment in her workplace. As a woman born in the late 1970’s to a single, working mother, I had been raised to believe that anything was possible. If I worked hard enough, I could do or be anything that I wanted. I still believe that, but it is slightly dampened by my work experience in male dominated areas. It is a fight sometimes. I could relate to Olivia’s situation.

I did not anticipate the big twist with Charlotte’s character. That was quite a surprise and well-done.

DISLIKE– I can’t give specific examples because it happened throughout the story, but I often felt the dialogue rang false. It took me out of the story-world. I enjoyed the characters and overall plot enough to push past the dialogue issues. I felt the problems were primarily with the younger Charlotte chapters.

RECOMMEND– Maybe. Yes, if you’re a fan of Historical Fiction or mid-century New York City. I enjoyed The Subway Girls, but in the long-run, I’m not sure that it will make my list of most memorable novels of 2018. Whether or not you read Schnall’s novel, make sure to look up the Miss Subways for a bit of yesteryear nostalgia.