My to-be-read list is so long. It rarely decreases because I am continually adding new titles. Since I have taken a hiatus from the presidential biography project, I am making my way through my list. There are books that have been on it for YEARS. I can't remember when I added them or whose recommendations they were or which magazine highlighted them. So I've begun to capture all of that information in my Wunderlist app on my phone. The one bit of technology that suits me very well.
All of that to say, I finished Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking - A Memoir of Food and Longing by Anya Von Bremzen yesterday. I know it's been on my reading list long before I captured titles on Wunderlist. I suspect this title was in a "you should read this" magazine highlight.
I wish I had captured this information because this is an entirely different kind of read than I would ordinarily be drawn to and I am curious how it wound up on the list. I am stalling with all of this context stuff because this book was so amazing, I do not know how to aptly review it.
I found two "proper" reviews that I will leave here and here. (There's a knack for writing reviews...it's a skill on which I can improve.)
The rest of the post will be my impressions and experience of reading the book. That'll take the pressure off.
The memoir took some effort getting into because so little of the subject was familiar. The Russian names and vocabulary slowed me up. But the storytelling did the trick. There are no adequate superlatives to describe Von Bremzen's writing. It is masterful in its own right, but then to consider English is one of four she speaks and isn't her native tongue--well, it left me speechless. She also has an extensive vocabulary, one that sent me to the dictionary on my phone frequently. These qualities astounded me and kept me reading.
I also read the bulk of the book on the Fourth of July. It was the ideal holiday plan for this introvert. I didn't feel like making plans and I didn't have any parental responsibilities, so I spent the day reading a chapter and then changing out my laundry. Reading another chapter, and another household chore, etc. It was perfection. The caption on that day would read: Lesson in Appreciation. I may be dismayed by the political landscape we are in right now, but pales in comparison to the decades-long traumas the author, her family, and their countrymen and women endured. This I must remember as I continue to work toward being an informed and active citizen.
The subject matter is gripping and astounding to read by an American perspective. Von Bremzen's account of life within the U. S. S. R. goes beyond the news reports and b-roll I grew up seeing and hearing. What's extraordinary about this memoir is her ability to weave the Soviet story, its propaganda, and its collectivism shortages with her experience of food, which was mostly in short supply or in dripping, reeking states.
She is such a gifted writer and storyteller that I didn't feel like I was reading a textbook, but I was definitely being provided a comprehensive history of a people and their political experience over one hundred years.
Given my relationship with the narrative I long lived in the kitchen, I am intrigued that such a title would pique my interest, but it did. I love memoir as a genre particularly because it's the one I feel most comfortable writing. I have read a lot of memoirs. Von Bremzen's has immediately become one of my favorites. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
This book also raises the bar very high when it comes to writing my own memoirs. It will be hard to not compare my efforts with hers. I am grateful to have this title to mentor me as I tell my own stories.