– reviewed by Cathy Sakiyama –
Based on the cheery yellow cover with a smiling girl and the reviews of ‘delicious’ and ‘rollicking’ I was expecting a happy romp through Von Bremzen’s foodie recollections. The title seemed to suggest that Soviet cooking was the main subject matter. It was not. It ran a distant second to Russia’s grim history. The Seige of Leningrad and Hitler’s Hunger Plan are only a couple of examples she draws from in the last century. I had been anticipating Julie and Julia and was instead assailed by Stalin and Hitler.
Nearing 100 pages with famine and death the ongoing themes I thought perhaps the reviewers had experienced what Daniel Kahneman termed the Peak-End rule: maybe a wonderful resolution to the story overshadowed chapter after chapter of harsh detail. But sadly even in the closing pages her memory of Victory Day celebrations during her 2011 trip to Moscow were less celebration and more Requiem: “In the dreadful years of the Yezhov terror I spent seventeen months in prison lines in Leningrad …”
I might have settled into her memoir as a sad but well-researched tale were it not for her writing style. A sample: “Lenin, incidentally, transmigrated from this distant, idealized Spirithood into warm and fuzzy dedushka-hood during the Brezhnevian phase of his cult. That’s when the didactic cake stories became popular along with that silly iconographic cap on his bald head – asserting Ilyich’s modest, friendly, proletarian nature” Even if the reader possesses a vast knowledge of Russian history and politics (admittedly I do not) Von Bremzen’s writing is too dense; it simply needs more air.
In addition, it was difficult to develop a smooth reading rhythm since she interspersed much of her narrative with the equivalent Russian words. The effect was not unlike repeatedly hitting speed bumps. To Russian-speaking readers, however, it would be familiar, even comforting, to recognize so much of Von Bremzen’s descriptions and bolstering to know how courageous and strong-hearted fellow Russians have been.
Anya Von Bremzen likely needed to write this book for her own record and (hopefully) some healing. It is unfortunate that it was packaged lightly when the bulk of the content is about hunger and suffering.
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