Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Stalin's Children: Three Generations of Love, War, and Survival

"Stalin's Children" was written as a memoir of a family but it is much more than that. It is an intimate look at life in mid-20th century Russia. The story of those years is told through the lives of three generations of the Bibikov family.

Scholarly histories can only give dry descriptions of the tumultuous years from Stalin's purges through Perestroika. The Bibikov's lived those events. Through them, we experience the despair of parents rounded up in a purge and sent to the Gulag, the helplessness of orphans caught up in the chaos of the mass evacuations as the German army invades Russia. We share the joy of two sisters, separated during the war, who are miraculously reunited. Then we settle down with the sisters in Moscow and endure the privations of the Cold War.

Owen Matthews, the author, is the son an Englishman, Mervyn Matthews, who studied Russian, worked in the British Embassy in Moscow and fell in love with both Russia and one of the sisters. It was the correspondence between Mervyn and Mila during the six years that they were separated while Mervyn worked to get his fiancée out of Russia that inspired this book.

Readers who came of age after the break-up of the Soviet empire may find the tactics Mervyn used in his six year campaign unbelievable, if not downright silly. Those of us who remember "duck & cover" drills, hiding under our desks in school in the vain hope that they would shield us from nuclear attack, will be less skeptical. We remember the extreme measures taken by those desperate to escape from behind the Iron Curtain.

There is danger in writing a true story about dramatic events. The result could be maudlin or read like a fictional thriller. The author has avoided both of these extremes. He allows the family members to tell their stories through reminisces, letters and official documents, accurately capturing the fatalistic attitude of the Russian people.

I was a little disappointed at the end of the book. The constant foreshadowing of the dramatic love story between Mervyn and Mila builds expectations so high that the actual telling is a letdown. The final chapters are an attempt on the part of the author to draw parallels between his parent's lives and his own. His effort to make his story, told in a rambling oblique manner, as dramatic as his parents' doesn't end the book so much as let it just fade away.

Review copy courtesy of Walker & Company

Thursday, September 10, 2009

America Eats!: On the Road with the WPA

During the Great Depression, many programs were created by the Federal Government to provide jobs for those who had none. We are still benefitting today from the fruits of that labor which created many public buildings, roads, bridges and parks. One project, however, never saw the light of day.

The "America Eats!" project was about traditional American food. Out-of-work writers were assigned to write about the events in their communities and the food that was served at them. The final document was not meant to be a cookbook. It was more akin to a documentation of regional foods made by non-professional cooks and served at regional gatherings such as fairs, church socials and harvest festivals.

Author Pat Willard, who stumbled on to the project while reading a book for research, was intrigued enough to visit the Library of Congress where many of the original manuscripts are stored. Reading the surviving documents inspired her to make a cross-country culinary tour, visiting the places and events written about in "America Eats!" to find out if they still existed and if so, how they had changed if at all.

She was heartened to discover that many of the local events mentioned in America Eats! are still going on albeit with a few modern changes. Squirrel meat, once the main ingredient in Brunswick stew, has been replaced by poultry, beef and pork due to the dangers of Mad Squirrel Disease (who knew?). She traces the evolution of the foodie culture in Washington State from the local harvest festivals mentioned in America Eats!, which are still going on.

Other local gatherings never made it to the 21st century. The traditional southern barbecues that were once mandatory for political events have disappeared. The mile long trenches filled with smoldering wood have fallen victim to zoning ordinances forbidding them on public land. Tobacco, once an important crop in North Carolina, is being replaced by vineyards that have led to new festivals celebrating wine.

Each chapter covers a particular type of event such as rodeos, funerals, harvest festivals and social clubs, to name a few. A relevant essay from "America Eats!" is followed by the author's own experience followed by more essays and occasionally, recipes. Because each essay was penned by a different author, the reader is able to get a sense of the local customs and culture as they were experienced by the people living at that time.

The book begins and ends with what can only be called rants about American cooking. Ms. Willard is rather defensive about our indigenous cuisine. In the first chapter she defends its shortcomings compared to European cuisines and then in the last chapter laments its demise thanks to the entry of women into the workforce leaving them no time to cook.

This would be a much better book without the author's long-winded opinions of American cooking. If you excise the first half of the beginning chapter and all of the last chapter, you have a wonderful book about Americans, their customs and their food, past and present.

Review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury USA