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.

Book review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

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There’s nothing like a TV adaptation to spur you on to read the classics you’ve been delaying in favour of novels that don’t want to make you kill yourself. With Hulu’s recent adaptation of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, I thought I’d better get off my laurels and add Atwood’s flagship novel to my feminist credentials. We’ll pretend it didn’t take me a decade to get here.

The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a dystopian near/ever-present future where parts of the US have been taken over by a theocratic far-right. Under their regime, women are steadily and stealthily stripped of their rights and freedoms, leaving the protagonist Offred to navigate life as one of a number of “handmaids”, women attached to rich men for breeding purposes. The handmaids’ behaviour, appearance and movements are all strictly monitored and controlled. They have no personal agency and are simultaneously the desire and scorn of other parts of Gileadan society.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a fantastic book of course; presumably this is why they gave it a Booker prize! The prose is beautiful and hypnotic, capturing Offred’s dreamlike disassociation from the horror around her even as it suffocates her. I think it’s this contrast that makes the book so unsettling: it makes you question the appearance vs substance of everything, especially dearly-held notions of safety and order.

It’s no accident that Hulu should adapt The Handmaid’s Tale now when under Trump’s GOP the world’s most powerful nation leads a fresh assault on women’s rights. The Handmaid’s Tale is a timely reminder – and has been, since it was first published in the eighties – that civil liberties are hard won and far from guaranteed. While Atwood’s story may seem fantastical, its reality is never far-off.

So, what’s the verdict?

Title: The Handmaid’s Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
Publisher: Vintage Books
My rating: 4/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 4.05/5)
The book’s best feature: The writing itself; its prophetic message.
The worst feature: The oppressing patriarchy.
Trigger warnings: Rape and misogyny in general.
You’ll like this if… Liking this isn’t the point, I think.

Book review: A 21-Day Prayer Journey by Itumeleng Matlaila

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To my pleasant surprise, I won Itumeleng Matlaila’s A 21-Day Prayer Journey on Facebook from the publishers, Struik Christian Media. Not long after it was delivered I had the opportunity to use it in a seven-day fast. Though geared to congregations and study groups, I nevertheless found Matlaila’s book useful for my personal fast. The daily prayer topics were a great way to pray for those things I usually neglect (my country, the church and so on), and it kept my fast from being a purely self-involved enterprise. The prayers are well-written and Scriptural and helped to focus my fast, and I appreciated the space to make prayer notes. Altogether a well-put-together little book that’d work well in both individual and corporate fasting.

Title: A 21-Day Prayer Journey
Author: Itumeleng Matlaila
Publisher: Struik Christian Media
Rating: 3.5/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: [No data])
Best feature of the book: It’s pick-up-and-use. The prayers are prophetic.
Worst feature of the book: It’s not ideal for absolute beginners where fasting is concerned.
Trigger warnings: N/A
You’ll like this if… You’re looking for a tool to facilitate a fast, or if you’re keen on investing prayer in South Africa and Africa.

Book review: Friendship with God by Trevor Hudson

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While still in the middle of it I knew I’d be returning to Trevor Hudson’s Friendship with God. It’s a great book. Its length (it’s under 200 pages) belies its wisdom. Hudson has a pastoral heart, and the book is warm, empathetic and concise. It answered a lot of as-yet unasked questions of mine; not offering novel answers as much as practical insight.

Title: Friendship with God (republished as “Beyond Loneliness: The Gift of God’s Friendship” by Upper Room Books in 2016)
Author: Trevor Hudson
Publisher: Struik Christian Media
Rating: 4/5 (Goodreads rating, for comparison: 3.88/5)
Best feature of the book: Its wisdom, accessibility and practicality.
Worst feature of the book: The monastic influences won’t appeal to everyone.
Trigger warnings: N/A.
You’ll like this if… You have questions about having a relationship with God or if you’re looking for a practical starting point.