Curious Pursuits: Occasional Writing 1970-2005

bookshelves: autumn-2014, published-2005, under-500-ratings, essays, nonfiction, radio-4x, autobiography-memoir

Recommended for: BBC Radio Listeners
Read from November 21 to 28, 2014
Description: ‘Whenever I resolve to write less and do something healthful instead, like ice dancing – some honey-tongued editor is sure to call me up and make me an offer I can’t refuse. So in some ways this book is simply the result of an under-developed ability to say no.’

Collected and published in the UK for the first time, here are essays and journalism from the brilliant novelist and poet. Ranging from book reviews of John Updike and Toni Morrison to an appreciation of Dashiell Hammet; an account of a journey in Afghanistan that sowed the seeds of The Handmaid’s Tale; passionate ecological writings; funny stories of ‘my most embarrassing moments’; obituaries of some of her great friends and fellow writers: Angela Carter, Mordecai Richler, Carol Shields. This is an insightful, thoughtful and revealing record of the life and times and writings of Margaret Atwood from 1970 to the present.

1/5 Travels Back: Margaret Atwood recalls dramas in reading her work to audiences. Why does ‘national identity’ intrigue her? Read by Liza Ross.

2/5 The Grunge Look: Coming to Britain in the 60s was a quest for culture, but Margaret got caught up in fashion and chat-up moments at museums.

3/5 Introduction to She: Margaret praises an old pot-boiler of a book with an infamous heroine and asks why it gripped her.

4/5 Victory Gardens: In days of yore, the test of a good cook was whether she could utilise every leftover morsel.

5/5 Mortification; Edinburgh Festival: Two short essays look at some author mishaps and Scotland’s fair city through the decades.

4* The Handmaid’s Tale
3* The Blind Assassin
TR Wilderness Tips
3* Good Bones
CR Curious Pursuits: Occasional Writing 1970-2005

3* Oryx and Crake (MaddAddam Trilogy, #1)
3* The Year of the Flood (MaddAddam Trilogy, #2)
TR MaddAddam (MaddAddam Trilogy, #3)

Gooseberries by Anton Chekhov, Constance Garnett (Translation)

bookshelves: shortstory-shortstories-novellas, published-1898, autumn-2014, filthy-lucre, gardening

Recommended to ☯Bettie☯ by: Laura
Read from November 27 to 28, 2014

From The House with the Mezzanine and other Stories. Librivox recording; listen here (31 mins 51 secs) or read here

Opening: From early morning the sky had been overcast with clouds; the day was still, cool, and wearisome, as usual on grey, dull days when the clouds hang low over the fields and it looks like rain, which never comes. Ivan Ivanich, the veterinary surgeon, and Bourkin, the schoolmaster, were tired of walking and the fields seemed endless to them. Far ahead they could just see the windmills of the village of Mirousky, to the right stretched away to disappear behind the village a line of hills, and they knew that it was the bank of the river; meadows, green willows, farmhouses; and from one of the hills there could be seen a field as endless, telegraph-posts, and the train, looking from a distance like a crawling caterpillar, and in clear weather even the town. In the calm weather when all Nature seemed gentle and melancholy, Ivan Ivanich and Bourkin were filled with love for the fields and thought how grand and beautiful the country was.

Dreams of the allotment life, and money too, of course!

3* The Cossack
5* Selected Stories
5* The Cherry Orchard
3* The Seagull
4* The Complete Short Novels
4* Uncle Vanya
3* The Three Sisters
4* Five Plays
4* The Lady With the Little Dog and Other Stories
4* Short Stories
5* Ivanov
2* The Black Monk
4* About Love and Other Stories
4* Five Great Short Stories
TR The Witch and Other Stories
3* Swan Song
3* Platonov
5* Rothschild’s Fiddle
3* Gooseberries

Blowing Up Russia: Terror from Within by Alexander Litvinenko, Yuri Felshtinsky, Geoffrey Andrews (Translator)

Description: Blowing Up Russia contains the allegations of ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko against his former spymasters in Moscow which led to his being murdered in London in November 2006. In the book he and historian Yuri Felshtinsky detail how since 1999 the Russian secret service has been hatching a plot to return to the terror that was the hallmark of the KGB. Vividly written and based on Litvinenko’s 20 years of insider knowledge of Russian spy campaigns, Blowing Up Russia describes how the successor of the KGB fabricated terrorist attacks and launched a war. Writing about Litvinenko, the surviving co-author recounts how the banning of the book in Russia led to three earlier deaths.

The strapline: Acts of terror, abductions, and contract killings organized by the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation

Translated from Russian by
Geoffrey Andrews and Co.

Opening: Chapter 1: The FSB foments war in Chechnya: No one but a total madman could have wished to drag Russia into any kind of war, let alone a war in the North Caucasus. As if Afghanistan had never happened. As if it weren’t clear in advance what course such a war would follow, or just what would be the outcome and the consequences of a war declared within the confines of a multinational state against a proud, vengeful, and warlike people. How could Russia possibly have become embroiled in one of its most shameful wars during the very period of its development which was most democratic in form and most liberal in spirit?

Dzhokhar Musayevich Dudaev

Chapter 2: The secret services run riot: It is worth noting the way in which the press office of the Russian government described the terrorist attack carried out on December 23: “Information has been received concerning the dispatch to Moscow [from Chechnya] of three experienced guerrilla fighters, including one woman, who have instructions to assume the leadership of groups of terrorists sent here previously.”

The Sting tips Yeltsin, democracy and liberalism into the abyss.

Chapter 3: Moscow detectives take on the FSB: Tskhai was made head of the Twelfth Section, which specialized in solving contract killings, and only ten months later, he was already the deputy chief of MUR (Moscow Criminal Investigation Department). He had previously worked in the Central Criminal Investigation Department (GUUR) of the Russian Ministry of the Interior.

Wiki sourced: In 2007 investigator Mikhail Trepashkin said that, according to his FSB sources, “everyone who was involved in the publication of the book Blowing up Russia will be killed”, and that three FSB agents have made a trip to Boston to prepare the assassination of Felshtinsky. After death of exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who sponsored the book, Felshinsky suggested that Berezovsky was killed.

Boris Berezovsky

Chapter 4: Nikolai Platonovich Patrushev (a biographical note): Whereas during the first Chechen war of 1994-1996, the state security forces had simply been attempting to forestall Russia’s development towards a liberal-democratic society, the political goals of the second Chechen war were far more serious: to provoke Russia into war with Chechnya, and to exploit the ensuing commotion to seize power in Russia
at the forthcoming presidential elections in 2000. The “honor” of provoking a war with Chechnya fell to the new director of the FSB, Colonel-General Patrushev.

Patrushev Nikolay Platonovich

Chapter 5: The FSB fiasco in Ryazan:
“When someone commits a crime, it’s very important to catch them while the trail is still hot. Nikolai Patrushev—about the events in Ryazan. Itogi, 5 October 1999

In September 1999, monstrous acts of terrorism were perpetrated in Buinaksk, Moscow, and Volgodonsk. We shall begin with the terrorist attack which could have been the most terrible of them all, if it had not been foiled. On September 22, something unexpected happened: in Ryazan, FSB operatives were spotted planting sugar sacks containing hexogene in the bedroom community of Dashkovo-Pesochnya.

Chapter 6: The FSB resorts to mass terror: Buinaksk, Moscow,
Volgodonsk: The perpetrators of the terrorist attacks in Buinaksk, Moscow, and Volgodonsk were never found, and we can only guess at who was behind the attacks by analogy with the events in Ryazan. In these three towns, the Ryazan-style “exercises” were carried through to their intended conclusion, and the lives of several hundred people were abruptly cut short or totally ruined.

Chapter 7: The FSB against the people: So far the terrorists had not been identified, or rather they had been identified as not being Chechens. The failed bombing attempt in Ryazan prompted the public to think that the FSB might be behind the bombings. For the “party of war” this was just one more indication that a full-scale war in Chechnya had to be started as soon as possible. The date of September 24 was no coincidence, for if the bombing in Ryazan had succeeded, Putin and the heads of all the military and law enforcement ministries were scheduled to make hard-line speeches in response.

Chapter 8: The FSB sets up free-lance special operations groups: Free-lance conspiratorial military operations groups consisting of former and current members of special armed forces units and the structures of law enforcement began to be set up in Russia in the 1980s.

Chapter 9: The FSB organizes contract killings: From 1993, Lazovsky’s brigade included the Uzbek Quartet. All four of the group were Russians who had been born in Uzbekistan. They were also former special operations
group officers who, according to the head of the 10th Section of the Moscow RUOP, Vitaly Serdiukov, were supremely skilled in using all forms of firearms and could improvise powerful bombs from items that happened to be at hand. These four criminals specialized in contract killings.

Chapter 10: The secret services and abductions: Every time we hear about beheadings, we are reminded of the abduction and brutal execution of hostages in Chechnya. Everybody knows that most of the abductions are
carried out by Chechen bandits in the hope of extorting ransom. Just how difficult a job it is to get hostages freed can be seen from the well-known case of the abduction of Magomet Keligov.

Chapter 11:The FSB: reform or dissolution?: For the sake of objectivity, we should point out that attempts to reform the FSB from within have been made by isolated individuals in the system, but they have not been successful. On the contrary, efforts made by individual FSB officers to maintain the honor of the ranks of the special agencies and the crushing defeat suffered by heroic individuals in this war have only served to demonstrate, yet, again, that reform of the FSB is impossible, and this agency of the state must be abolished.

Take a moment to consider all the innocents that had their lives cut short when the Party of War decided to make one of their own the absolute leader. It makes me so sad and I feel dirty knowing the methods employed, however I also now know, utterly and completely, that that man and his cronies are pure evil. No picture of him in Church or wrapping a shawl around a woman will sway my conviction that the world is sporting a megalomaniac equal to Stalin and Hitler.

Funnily enough, he is exactly where those above two were in 1935.

I am glad I have taken the trouble to read in depth everything I could lay my hands on to get a rounded picture as a considered opinion is always preferable to a knee-jerk.

To those agencies who have been alerted by my research items such as hexogene etc. (yep – read Snowden earlier this week so I know what I am talking about) I give you a granny wave and tell you not to worry.

27th November 2014:Russia puts ‘Putin’s banker’ Sergei Pugachev on Interpol wanted list.

My Life in Houses by Margaret Forster

bookshelves: autumn-2014, published-2014, nonfiction, autobiography-memoir, radio-4, abandoned, snoozefest, next

Recommended for: BBC Radio Listeners
Read from November 21 to 27, 2014

Description: Margaret Forster’s journey through the houses she’s lived in, from the sparkling new council house, built as part of a utopian vision by Carlisle City Council, to her beloved London house of today, via Oxford, Hampstead and the Lake District. Forster’s houses aren’t just bricks and mortar, but homes which have all meant something to her and which have all had a profound effect on her – from her writer’s ‘room of one’s own’, to the family hub and finally a sanctuary in times of illness. It is also a sideways look at the life of one of the greatest contemporary British novelists.

Born in Carlisle, Margaret Forster is the author of many successful and acclaimed novels, including Have the Men Had Enough?, Lady’s Maid, Diary of an Ordinary Woman, Is There Anything You Want?, Keeping the World Away, and Over, bestselling memoirs (Hidden Lives and Precious Lives) and biographies. She is married to writer and journalist Hunter Davies and lives in London and the Lake District.
Reader: Sian Thomas
Writer: Margaret Forster
Abridger: Sally Marmion
Producer: Justine Willett.

Episode 1/5: ‘I was born on May 25, 1938, in the front bedroom of a house in Orton Road, on the outer edges of Raffles, a council estate. I was a lucky girl.’

Episode 2/5 The studious young Forster makes it to Oxford, and a ‘room of one’s own’.

Episode 3/5

Episode 4/5

Episode 5/5


WL Daphne du Maurier
3* Georgy Girl
1* My Life in Houses

The Ghost of Stalin by Jean-Paul Sartre

Translated from the French by Martha H Fletcher

Opening: I have received many letters recently. Among the questions asked me are two recurring from very diverse pens to which I think it is useful to respond publicly.

These essays first appeared in December 1956/January 1957 in Les Temps Moderns and is in protest against the Soviet intervention in Hungary and the debacle in Egypt, namely the Suez crisis.

“The Government of USSR, if it is to be believed, intervened in Hungary to save the foundations of socialization there; it decide on this intervention the day when the magnitude of counterrevelutionary disturbances had made it inevitable.”

And the context: While a Marxist, Sartre attacked what he saw as abuses of freedom and human rights by the Soviet Union. He was one of the first French journalists to expose the existence of the labor camps, and vehemently opposed the invasion of Hungary, Russian anti-Semitism, and the execution of dissidents. (Wiki sourced)

I read this now to see if any light can be thrown on the present Ukraine situation. Ultimately, Hungary then and Ukraine now look very similar, yet I don’t feel Satre is the man to explain things to me. I shall find a better source. Next!

The Last Man in Russia: The Struggle to Save a Dying Nation

bookshelves: autumn-2014, journalism, nonfiction, published-2013, teh-demon-booze, period-piece, religion, newtome-author

Read from March 22 to November 27, 2014
Description: Russia is dying from within. Oligarchs and oil barons may still dominate international news coverage, but their prosperity masks a deep-rooted demographic tragedy. Faced with staggering population decline and near-certain economic collapse driven by toxic levels of alcohol abuse, Russia is also battling a deeper sickness: a spiritual one, born out of the country’s long totalitarian experiment.

In The Last Man in Russia, award-winning journalist Oliver Bullough uses the tale of a lone priest to give life to this national crisis. Father Dmitry Dudko, a dissident Orthodox Christian, was thrown into a Stalinist labor camp for writing poetry. Undaunted, on his release in the mid-1950s he began to preach to congregations across Russia with little concern for his own safety. At a time when the Soviet government denied its subjects the prospect of advancement, and turned friend against friend and brother against brother, Dudko urged his followers to cling to hope. He maintained a circle of sacred trust at the heart of one of history’s most deceitful systems. But as Bullough reveals, this courageous group of believers was eventually shattered by a terrible act of betrayal, one that exposes the full extent of the Communist tragedy. Still, Dudko’s dream endures. Although most Russians have forgotten the man himself, the embers of hope that survived the darkness are once more beginning to burn.

Leading readers from a churchyard in Moscow to the snow-blanketed ghost towns of rural Russia, and from the forgotten graves of Stalin’s victims to a rock festival in an old gulag camp, The Last Man in Russia is at once a travelogue, a sociological study, a biography, and a cri de coeur for a dying nation, one that, Bullough shows, might yet be saved.

Although this was only published in 2013 it already feels dated. Bullough arrived in Russia in 1999[*], the year which Putin became Prime Minister for the first time, and started his Dudko biography/journalistic observations at that point. Because of the biography aspect, we are looking back, for a good percentage of the book, into the last knockings of the Soviet years, with its KGB methods.

*Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin (Russian: Влади́мир Влади́мирович Пу́тин; IPA: [vɫɐˈdʲimʲɪr vɫɐˈdʲimʲɪrəvʲɪt͡ɕ ˈputʲɪn], born 7 October 1952) has been the President of Russia since 7 May 2012. Putin previously served as President from 2000 to 2008, and as Prime Minister of Russia from 1999 to 2000 and again from 2008 to 2012. During his last term as Prime Minister, he was also the Chairman of United Russia, the ruling party. wiki sourced

Fr. D Dudko

Drinking themselves to death: Russia’s alcoholism is a long-term consequence of collectivisation, the Gulag and the KGB.


Ukraine Diaries: Dispatches from Kiev review – an invaluable guide to the present crisis.

17 Aug 2014: Andrey Kurkov, the author of Death and the Penguin, is ideally placed to guide us through the Ukrainian revolution as it unfolds, writes Oliver Bullough


““Fast power became hasty power,” Nyberg said. “The possible loss of Ukraine was seen by Russia as an existential threat. It wasn’t really. But it challenged Moscow like nothing else. It was projected as a Nato-US-international conspiracy.” Read more

The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man by Luke Harding


What followed was the most spectacular intelligence breach ever, brought about by one extraordinary man. Edward Snowden was a 29-year-old computer genius working for the National Security Agency when he shocked the world by exposing the near-universal mass surveillance programs of the United States government. His whistleblowing has shaken the leaders of nations worldwide, and generated a passionate public debate on the dangers of global monitoring and the threat to individual privacy.

In a tour de force of investigative journalism that reads like a spy novel, award-winning Guardian reporter Luke Harding tells Snowden’s astonishing story — from the day he left his glamorous girlfriend in Honolulu carrying a hard drive full of secrets, to the weeks of his secret-spilling in Hong Kong, to his battle for asylum and his exile in Moscow. For the first time, Harding brings together the many sources and strands of the story —touching on everything from concerns about domestic spying to the complicity of the tech sector — while also placing us in the room with Edward Snowden himself. The result is a gripping insider narrative—and a necessary and timely account of what is at stake for all of us in the new digital age.

The journalese here is rather hard to take, however I learnt a lot and am now more paranoid than ever about internet use and our governments’ motives. It is a fine line between locating and dissipating terrorist threats, and snooping over Average Jo’s personal life.

I wonder why more people haven’t read this given that we are all internet users. The stats at the time of my reading:

3.92* · 698 ratings · 126 reviews

And given that anyone reading this will be monitored by the spooks, I shall give them:

On the day I listen to The Snowden Files, this was the breaking news: Malware spied on companies and governments in 10 countries since 2008: ‘Nation state’ most likely behind development of stealth malware Regin, say antivirus experts

Said me never.

PRISM see also the PRISM wiki page

Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? by Karen Dawisha

Description: Russian scholar Dawisha describes and exposes the origins of Putin’s kleptocratic regime. She presents extensive new evidence about the Putin circle’s use of public positions for personal gain even before Putin became president in 2000. She documents the establishment of Bank Rossiya, now sanctioned by the US; the rise of the Ozero cooperative, founded by Putin and others who are now subject to visa bans and asset freezes; the links between Putin, Petromed, and ‘Putin’s Palace’ near Sochi; and the role of security officials from Putin’s KGB days in Leningrad and Dresden, many of whom have maintained their contacts with Russian organized crime.

Putin’s Kleptocracy is the result of years of research into the KGB and the various Russian crime syndicates. Dawisha’s sources include Stasi archives; Russian insiders; investigative journalists in the US, Britain, Germany, Finland, France, and Italy; and Western officials who served in Moscow. Russian journalists wrote part of this story when the Russian media was still free. “Many of them died for this story, and their work has largely been scrubbed from the Internet, and even from Russian libraries,” Dawisha says. “But some of that work remains.”

This is the second version of Putin’s Russia I have encountered today, the other one was about Edward Snowden. Eight hours of skimming through this is enough to get the gist and I had encountered these themes of thuggery and theft in The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, which I preferred.

‘Putin’s Palace’

From the 3rd April 2014 Economist article entitled ‘A book too far’:
…But Mrs Dawisha’s publisher has got cold feet. She has just received this letter (posted in full below) from Cambridge University Press, saying that the legal risk of publishing the book is too great:

“given the controversial subject matter of the book, and its basic premise that Putin’s power is founded on his links to organised crime, we are not convinced that there is a way to rewrite the book that would give us the necessary comfort.”

Karen Dawisha

A wounded economy: it is closer to crisis than the West or Vladimir Putin realise

Dawisha Putin’s Kleptocracy Complete Bibliography

Vladimir Putin: I don’t want to rule Russia for life: President says he will step down by 2024, and accuses the west of trying to punish Russia for being strong and assertive.

The Road to Kandahar

Description: In 1879, the North West Frontier, India’s border with Afghanistan, provides the greatest opportunity for action and advancement for any officer in the British army. But it also guarantees the most risk. The Pathan warriors of the Afghan hills—notorious for their ferocity and cruelty—are a constant threat to the Queen’s men. But what worries the army most is the rumor that the tribes are planning an uprising. Captain Simon Fonthill is ready for a new challenge. Having cut his teeth in battle in the Zulu War, he accepts the hazardous mission of riding into the hills and passing vital intelligence back to camp. Accompanied only by his unconventional servant, “352” Jenkins, and an eccentric but fearless Sikh translator, Fonthill steels himself for what is surely the most dangerous posting of his career.

Aaaah, 352 Jenkins. It is possible to keep going with a series that averages 2.75*, I just place a lot of othere things between the episodes.

3* The Horns of the Buffalo
2.5* The Road to Kandahar

Crowned Heads by Thomas Tryon

Full Film Here

Description: Thomas Tryon brings to breathtaking life the Golden Age of Hollywood and the great golden people who became the crowned heads of this kingdom of stars

FEDORA: Her enigma unriddled–the greatest, the most exquisite, the longest-reigning Hollywood star of them all. Now she has made an incredible comeback, her glorious face strangely untouched by time….

LORNA: She zoomed from high school cheerleader to sex goddess. Now after many men, many jobs, and much trouble, she has come to a remote Mexican resort to find herself….

BOBBITT: He was a star at ten. Now he’s in his thirties and as winsome as ever. But today the Bobbitt movies are forgotten. And Bobbitt himself–does he exist at all?

WILLIE: For decades a worldwide symbol of elegance and wit. Now he is alone in his showplace Hollywood villa–his precious “Bee” dead–mourning the past. Then suddenly, viciously, with a knock on the door, the future breaks in…

The premise lost credulity when the obsession was revealed as Michael York. Who in their right mind… LOL

The story somewhat relates to the other hat title: Trilby by du Maurier. A female entrapped in both novels.

Totally enjoyable for what it was, and I loved the Henry Fonda cameo