Book review: The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin by Masha Gessen, and Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia by Peter Pomerantsev

Until recently (say, the second half of 2016) Russia was a faraway blip on my day-to-day map: the country version of a mole you registered as possibly malicious but never really pay any attention to. Then Donald Trump happened. It felt like the mole tripled in size overnight but of course, it had been growing steadily over the years, ever since Putin came to power in the late nineties.

Wanting to cure my complete ignorance of Putin’s Russia, I turned to Google. A Guardian rec list put me onto Masha Gessen’s The Man Without A Face and Peter Pomerantsev’s Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible. Gessen and Pomerantsev are both journalists, and their books read like news blitzes to overseas audiences: absorbing and explanatory, like slightly harangued teachers who hope to convey a lot of information in a limited amount of lessons. Gessen explores the man Putin and is the more formal of the two, while Pomerantsev’s focus is on the Russia that’s sprung up beneath Putin’s floorboards.

So, what’s the verdict?

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Title: The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin
Author: Masha Gessen
Publisher: Riverhead Books (2012)
Rating: 4/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 3.79/5)
The best feature of the book: I’m pretty sure it pisses Putin off. It’s well-researched and well written.
The worst feature of the book: It’s quite dense, especially if your level of knowledge re: Russia is zero.
Trigger warnings: Mentions of things like war and torture.
You’ll like this if… You want to know more about the Russian government behind the American presidency.

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Title: Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia
Author: Peter Pomerantsev
Publisher: PublicAffairs (2014)
Rating: 4/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 3.95/5)
The best feature of the book: It’s street smart and entertaining.
The worst feature of the book: It’s a more subjective read than Gessen’s.
Trigger warnings: Mentions of things like war and torture.
You’ll like this if… You want to know how Russians have responded to Putin’s Russia.

Book review: The Mirror Thief by Martin Seay

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I finally finished Martin Seay’s The Mirror Thief a few days ago after a pleasurable few weeks of reading, and the bittersweetness of finishing the novel has been lurking around the corners of my life ever since. It was a fantastic read: immersive and absorbing, adventurous and intriguing. Seay paints vivid portraits of people and place in three different worlds and periods. That it’s his first novel is a marvel.

The book follows the interconnected lives of three men and their ghosts and tramps through the present, the fifties and the sixteenth century with ease. It’s no great effort to switch time and place when Seay does it so well, and the end result is a remarkable read that comes off effortless for all its complexity.

So, what’s the verdict?

Title: The Mirror Thief
Author: Martin Seay, who spent an impressive five years writing the novel.
Publisher: Melville House
Rating: 5/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 3.3)
The best feature of the book: It’s fascinating.
The worst feature of the book: It takes a while to get going.
Trigger warnings: There’s some violence and homophobia. Spontaneous wart removal and other bodily grossness occur.
You’ll like this if… This is a tough one. It isn’t a straightforward mystery or thriller, though it contains elements of both. There’s alchemy and coming-of-age and crime fiction. It’s literary and prosaic. Read at least until you hit Stanley’s back story. I think you’ll stick around for the rest.

#CoffeeTimePrayer: God’s freebie

 

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Growing up, I watched a lot of Oprah. My favourite episodes were the ones where she gave stuff away. Who doesn’t like freebies? As the years progressed and her show gained in popularity, the freebies escalated too. I remember in one show everyone got a car. The audience lost their minds.

Funnily, nothing brings out the worst in people like the prospect of a freebie. It either turns us into starry-eyed dreamers who show up for free toasters or microwaves and end up buying dubious timeshares, or we become staunch cynics with jaundiced eyes who don’t believe any good can come of anything. There’s no middle ground.

In Matthew 20:29-34 we read the story of Jesus healing two blind men. It’s outside of Jericho, and Jesus and a big crowd are coming past. The men had probably heard about Jesus – calling him, “Son of David,” presumes some knowledge of him – but whether they actually believed the rumours we can’t say. Still, a supposed healer and holy man coming through the neighbourhood? What did they have to lose?

Jesus turned aside to their calls and asked them, “What can I do for you?” I’m sure Jesus knew what they wanted. But did they? Would they ask Jesus for what they wanted or, faced with the prospect of a “freebie” healing, would they lose their heads like an Oprah audience or regard the opportunity as suspect at best?

Looking at the story’s conclusion – both men are healed and choose to follow Jesus – it’s easy to see that Jesus’ motives were pure. He didn’t confront the two blind men with an ultimatum before feeling compassion for them and curing their blindness. The “freebie” was a genuine, no-strings-attached miracle.

How do we approach Jesus when faced with the opportunity for “freebie” grace? Do we go mad with it, “squandering” it on ourselves with little to spare or care for anyone else, or do we decline it because we’re afraid there are Ts and Cs or hidden costs we don’t want to pay? Either is a waste of a wonderful miracle – a continual second chance with God!

Prayer: Lord Jesus, thank you for the miracle that is your grace! Help me to be generous with it, both with myself and the folks around me. Amen.

Book review: Mr. Churchill’s Secretary by Susan Elia Macneal

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I didn’t start this book expecting the best book of the century, but I was disappointed that it wasn’t even a good bad book. Macneal apparently did a great deal of research for the novel, but that research feels oddly absent from the book itself and the end product is vague and the writing without character, like the book has been edited too many times.

While ostensibly a Strong Female Character (which I love), protagonist Maggie Hope is unsympathetic and unlikeable and her cast of friends indistinguishable from one another. Even the love story – the most interesting part of the whole novel – was anticlimactic. I stopped reading the book twice and only finished it so I could add it to my “read list”. By all rights, the story should have been interesting – London, spies, love, mystery – but it was as bland as the writing itself.

Title: Mr. Churchill’s Secretary
Author: Susan Elia Macneal
Publisher: Bantam Books
Rating: 3/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 3.66/5)
The best feature of the book: It’s a quick read if it keeps your interest long enough.
The worst feature of the book: Vague and unsatisfying prose and characters and a plot that strains suspension of disbelief.
Trigger warnings: Violence, war, torture.
You’ll like this if… You like glib mysteries or if you’re looking for a less-than-rosy beach read.

#CoffeeTimePrayer: Little brown jobs

 

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Image source.

 

In Patrick Henry’s The Ironic Christian’s Companion, he writes about what he calls “Little brown jobs.” It’s a term borrowed from bird watchers who sometimes, despite being experienced at their hobby, simply can’t identify a bird and dub them “little brown jobs”. Henry equates this to grace in the Christian walk: sometimes Christians, despite being experienced in their faith, struggle to identify grace when they see it. Henry’s advice is to resist interpreting certain inexplicable things as God’s grace merely to pacify our fears and to accept LBJs for what they are—LBJs.

I like this. Far from negating God’s grace in our lives, it points to the truth that we understand so little about grace—and that that’s okay! Grace, like God, is a mystery, and while it’s often beyond our understanding, it’s never beyond our experience.

Have you ever come on anything quite like this extravagant generosity of God, this deep, deep wisdom? It’s way over our heads. We’ll never figure it out.

Is there anyone around who can explain God?
Anyone smart enough to tell him what to do?
Anyone who has done him such a huge favor
that God has to ask his advice?
Everything comes from him;
Everything happens through him;
Everything ends up in him.
Always glory! Always praise!
Yes. Yes. Yes.

(Romans 11:33-36 MSG)