Early each weekday morning, two hours before the library opens, one of my tasks is to find all the books, CDs, and DVDs that you, dear library user, have placed on hold. I start the hunt near the new books on the first floor and wind up in the 900s on the second floor where there is one of the best views in the city.
Titles on the holds list are sometimes so enticing that I have to add them to my ‘to-be-read’ list. My list is heavy on non-fiction, but on a rare occasion a novel will make the cut. This title didn’t even have to be put on any list. It jumped out at me when I was making my rounds: A Terrible Country by Keith Gessen. Displayed face-out, and not on hold for anyone, the cover caught my eye, particularly because above the title was this: “A Cause for Celebration.” – George Saunders. George Saunders is supposed to be a pretty big deal in the book world, so this book already had a leg-up on the rest.
The terrible county being referred to in the title is Russia.
After a lot of pressure from his older brother, Andrei agrees to leave his New York City life to help out their very old grandmother in Moscow. Brother Dima had been doing the caregiving up until now, but he has to hightail it out of the country just ahead of some Russian government/mafia types who are after him. Andrei is assured he will be playing as much amateur hockey (his first love) as he can stand, once he’s back in the land of his birth. It’s only going to be temporary, and since Andrei’s girlfriend just dumped him and his prospects of getting a university position seems to be drying up despite his 8 years of graduate studies in Slavic literature, he agrees to go. A change of scenery and culture may be just what he needs.
What he imagines happening – bonding over a lot of family history, joining a hockey team and fitting back into a culture he left when he was 5 – is not so simple. The time is 2008 and he has trouble getting wi-fi in the apartment and a good cup of coffee. Grandma can hardly hear, is in and out of the throws of dementia and barely remembers who he is. And, he has trouble infiltrating a hockey game. Black Mercedes and Audis are all over Moscow with mobster-like men getting out of them.
In Russia, everything has layers and layers of history and you’re never quite sure if talking with someone will get you pistol-whipped when you’re least expecting it. But there are ways to retaliate, whether it’s on the ice in a hockey game or by documenting your experiences and sending it out into the world. There’s not just danger and Soviet-era ruins and political intrigue here. There’s also romance in a reversed Dr. Zhivagian sort of way. And lots of beer and vodka.
What Andrei finds in Russia is not exactly what he was after, but he does figure out what’s important to him. This story will help you understanding Russia and Russian culture just a little bit more from a very human side, even if it’s just make-believe.
To tell you the truth, this book kind of made me want to go to Russia, but mostly, it made me think, what else has this guy written?