A valuable addition to the growing list of Soviet memoirs, countering sanitized depictions of martyrs and monsters with...

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MOSCOW MEMOIRS

MEMORIES OF ANNA AKHMATOVA, OSIP MANDELSTAM, AND LITERARY RUSSIA UNDER STALIN

Searing, unsentimental portrait of Soviet intellectuals’ sufferings under Stalin.

Emma Gerstein (1903–2002) created a furor in post-Soviet Russia when she published her blunt accounts of her friendships with poets Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova. Contradicting the well-known, highly selective memoirs of Mandelstam’s wife Nadezhda (Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned), Gerstein depicts the poet as high-spirited and brilliant, but difficult, and terrifyingly reckless; he recited his infamous “Stalin Epigram” (which referred to the dictator’s “fat fingers oily as maggots”) to many more people than was safe, and when arrested promptly gave his listeners’ names to the police. Gerstein also states that Mandelstam, who died en route to a labor camp in 1938 after a series of arrests and internal exiles, tried to lure her into a ménage à trois with himself and the bisexual Nadezhda. In the case of Akhmatova, Gerstein contradicts the bitter reproaches of the poet’s son Lev Gumilyov, who claimed his mother abandoned him during his lengthy incarcerations. Close to both of them (she had a stormy affair with Gumilyov and corresponded with him in the camps), the author shows Akhmatova doing everything she dared to help her son, crippled by the knowledge that the actions of a banned poet could easily do more harm than good. Herself a distinguished Lermontov scholar whose career was severely damaged by her relations with these and other dissidents, Gerstein freely acknowledges the compromises and betrayals forced on even the best-intentioned people by a brutally repressive state; she judges them gently, perhaps because her own father, a Jewish doctor, remained loyal to the Revolution even after it consumed some of his closest friends. Yet no one will come away from her detailed, pitiless record of the horrors inflicted on its citizens without concluding that the Soviet system was politically, economically, and morally indefensible.

A valuable addition to the growing list of Soviet memoirs, countering sanitized depictions of martyrs and monsters with plain truth-telling about human beings trapped in a murderous society.

Pub Date: Sept. 10, 2004

ISBN: 1-58567-595-4

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Overlook

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2004

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Doyle offers another lucid, inspiring chronicle of female empowerment and the rewards of self-awareness and renewal.

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UNTAMED

More life reflections from the bestselling author on themes of societal captivity and the catharsis of personal freedom.

In her third book, Doyle (Love Warrior, 2016, etc.) begins with a life-changing event. “Four years ago,” she writes, “married to the father of my three children, I fell in love with a woman.” That woman, Abby Wambach, would become her wife. Emblematically arranged into three sections—“Caged,” “Keys,” “Freedom”—the narrative offers, among other elements, vignettes about the soulful author’s girlhood, when she was bulimic and felt like a zoo animal, a “caged girl made for wide-open skies.” She followed the path that seemed right and appropriate based on her Catholic upbringing and adolescent conditioning. After a downward spiral into “drinking, drugging, and purging,” Doyle found sobriety and the authentic self she’d been suppressing. Still, there was trouble: Straining an already troubled marriage was her husband’s infidelity, which eventually led to life-altering choices and the discovery of a love she’d never experienced before. Throughout the book, Doyle remains open and candid, whether she’s admitting to rigging a high school homecoming court election or denouncing the doting perfectionism of “cream cheese parenting,” which is about “giving your children the best of everything.” The author’s fears and concerns are often mirrored by real-world issues: gender roles and bias, white privilege, racism, and religion-fueled homophobia and hypocrisy. Some stories merely skim the surface of larger issues, but Doyle revisits them in later sections and digs deeper, using friends and familial references to personify their impact on her life, both past and present. Shorter pieces, some only a page in length, manage to effectively translate an emotional gut punch, as when Doyle’s therapist called her blooming extramarital lesbian love a “dangerous distraction.” Ultimately, the narrative is an in-depth look at a courageous woman eager to share the wealth of her experiences by embracing vulnerability and reclaiming her inner strength and resiliency.

Doyle offers another lucid, inspiring chronicle of female empowerment and the rewards of self-awareness and renewal.

Pub Date: March 10, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9848-0125-8

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Dial Books

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2020

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An engrossing memoir as well as a lively treatise on what extraordinary grace under extraordinary pressure looks like.

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BECOMING

The former first lady opens up about her early life, her journey to the White House, and the eight history-making years that followed.

It’s not surprising that Obama grew up a rambunctious kid with a stubborn streak and an “I’ll show you” attitude. After all, it takes a special kind of moxie to survive being the first African-American FLOTUS—and not only survive, but thrive. For eight years, we witnessed the adversity the first family had to face, and now we get to read what it was really like growing up in a working-class family on Chicago’s South Side and ending up at the world’s most famous address. As the author amply shows, her can-do attitude was daunted at times by racism, leaving her wondering if she was good enough. Nevertheless, she persisted, graduating from Chicago’s first magnet high school, Princeton, and Harvard Law School, and pursuing careers in law and the nonprofit world. With her characteristic candor and dry wit, she recounts the story of her fateful meeting with her future husband. Once they were officially a couple, her feelings for him turned into a “toppling blast of lust, gratitude, fulfillment, wonder.” But for someone with a “natural resistance to chaos,” being the wife of an ambitious politician was no small feat, and becoming a mother along the way added another layer of complexity. Throw a presidential campaign into the mix, and even the most assured woman could begin to crack under the pressure. Later, adjusting to life in the White House was a formidable challenge for the self-described “control freak”—not to mention the difficulty of sparing their daughters the ugly side of politics and preserving their privacy as much as possible. Through it all, Obama remained determined to serve with grace and help others through initiatives like the White House garden and her campaign to fight childhood obesity. And even though she deems herself “not a political person,” she shares frank thoughts about the 2016 election.

An engrossing memoir as well as a lively treatise on what extraordinary grace under extraordinary pressure looks like.

Pub Date: Nov. 13, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5247-6313-8

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 30, 2018

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