Despite the subtitle, Black Square is not just about Ukraine. It is about the shrapnel the explosive nineties left in Russian and Ukrainian society, from the free travel of drugs that accompanied free borders, to Ukrainians’ struggle with their Soviet inheritance every Victory Day. Through anecdotes from Ukrainian and Russian colleagues and her own travels, Pinkham paints a portrait of Ukraine from the early 2000s to 2015 that, though vivid, falters in its attempt to illustrate a multifaceted society. Though she tries to cover all classes and regions in Ukraine, too often does she fall back on experiences with overwhelmingly young, artistic hipster types from Kyiv and western Ukraine. Some parts, like her discussion of the Donbas, almost entirely lack in-depth firsthand testimonies, even though those would have bolstered already interesting arguments rare in Western media. I wanted to see more like her coverage of the 2013-14 Maidan protests: though she did not attend them, she drew on rich historical contexts and personal interviews to represent the complex dialogue surrounding Ukrainian identity. Pinkham’s work sheds vital light on post-Soviet daily life, but I hesitate to extend Black Square from highly recommended for Russia-Ukraine aficionados to required reading for all. – Tiffany Z. ’17
Picture a stock market: If you imagine yourself ringing up a broker and asking him to find a seller for, say, 10,000 shares of Google, you’re about ten years behind. Welcome to the world of e-trading, where you and your seller can theoretically exchange stocks electronically without needing to go through that pesky broker. But high-frequency traders—the people behind the mysterious flash crash of May 6, 2010—are out to squeeze the profit out of you both, and a small handful of talented, dedicated people want to change that. Flash Boys is an intricate yet accessible history of the contemporary stock market and a handy introduction to the tactics (and profit-mongering) of high-frequency trading. But it’s also the encouraging story of the rare few who, instead of putting their talents to squeezing every last penny out of unsuspecting investors, choose to set a moral example so that one day, we may stop thinking of the terms “fairness” and “Wall Street” as polar antonyms.
Russian-American writer Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, Pale Fire, consists of an eponymous poem written by a fictional American poet, John Shade, and the annotations to that poem, written by the enigmatic Zemblan professor, Charles Kinbote. Fear not, however, that this work will be didactic or esoteric: Kinbote takes advantage of the commentary section in which he is supposed to elucidate aspects of Shade’s poem (a quiet introspection on the poet’s life) to tell his own adventure story of an assassin’s tenacious pursuit of an overthrown king. His thrilling tale, placed in the middle of a placid text, jars at first. But as Kinbote’s story picks up pace–in stark contrast to the mellow, unhurried rhymes of Shade’s poem–little details in both narratives begin to click together, and in the book’s last pages the two narratives coalesce in a bizarrely thrilling rush. I heartily commend Nabokov not just for the technical feat of composing a 999-line poem and “discarded” drafts in a fictional writing style, but also for whisking us on a maddening journey that, hours later, made me think. I only suggest that readers have a dictionary open while reading this.
Something has to give in the life of young Theodore Decker, who, at the novel’s opening, has but one reliable companion: his mother, artistic and compassionate, reverent toward the Renaissance masters yet never condescending to her apartment’s two doormen. In one trick of Fate, this bulwark is ripped away, and Theodore finds a new anchor thrown into his arms: Carol Fabritius’ masterpiece painting, The Goldfinch. Throughout his turbulent life, from his troubled stay with sometime friend Andy Barbour, to thrilling (if alcohol-filled) teenage years alongside the passionate intellectual Boris Pavlikovsky, to evenings sealing sketchy deals on antique furniture in order to clear his associate’s debts, the painting remains the undercurrent of Theodore’s life. When the disparate storylines eventually converge, it is Fabritius’ Goldfinch that unifies them. Tartt’s artistic language enlivens the novel, from the smallest details of Sheraton furniture to the greatest messages about the art of life. She exposes the elusive art of living to one’s fullest and the beautifully bizarre twists that life reveals to those who explore it. While some critics might argue that this intricate work is nothing but a series of crude brushstrokes upon close inspection, The Goldfinch will no doubt strike a chord with anyone who appreciates the beauty and mystery of art.
The simplicity of the prose in Amélie Nothomb’s The Book of Proper Names may recall a children’s story, but in fact it belies the fairly bizarre nature of the novella. Lucette, a young mother, is extremely irritated by her husband’s predictions of their child being a perfectly ordinary person—so irritated that she feels the only way to disagree is to murder him. The rest of the novella is dedicated to the unusual yet somehow relatable life of Lucette’s daughter Plectrude, an equally unusual girl seemingly caught up in the threads of fate. Instead of attempting to defy her destiny, Plectrude ecstatically embraces hers—but is she really playing into the hands of Fate, or is she merely entertaining her own fantasies? The language of the novella is simple, but the complexity of thought and human emotion may make it a confusing read for many. However, Nothomb portrays her characters with startling accuracy and discusses many interesting ideas during the course of this book. For those who are willing to spend an hour or so on this piece, I certainly recommend The Book of Proper Names. Puzzling yet satisfying, it is definitely worth the short time it takes to finish it. – Tiffany Z. ‘17
Ivan Turgenev’s 234-page Fathers and Sons might bear no resemblance in physical size, scale of plot, or popularity to, say, Leo Tolstoy’s sprawling masterpiece War and Peace, but the quality of a classic must never be measured by length. The cozy lives of two university friends, unduly harsh nihilist Evgeny Bazarov and his companion Arkady Kirsanov, play out over the course of little more than a month. Yet in that short period of time, romances bloom, a friendship wilts, and the titled fathers (and mothers) worry incessantly about the titled sons, who meanwhile chase their ambitions to tragic ends. Unlike War and Peace, Fathers and Sons is a novel about daily life. Turgenev accurately captures it all—from hotly debated controversies of mid-19th-century Russia to the strains and strife of ordinary parent-child relationships—with fresh, easily understandable prose, a keen eye for detail, and sharp-witted dialogue through which characters additionally raise key questions that still bear relevance today. A novel that can be read for its lively plot, its memorable and realistic characters, or its thought-provoking ideas, Fathers and Sons lives up to its acclaim and makes a touching, joyful read for anybody. – Tiffany Z. ‘17
The second book in the Vampire Academy series by Richelle Mead, Frostbite continues Rose Hathaway’s adventures with her best friend, the Moroi princess Lissa Dragomir. Mead introduces many fresh new characters and revisits old ones in a different light. The constant threat of a mass encounter with the evil Strigoi heightens suspense, and in fact, the novel culminates in a dramatic, definitive battle that leaves readers curious for what will come next in the series. Although there is less action than in the first book, Mead tells the story with the usual wit and precision. What lacks in physical conflict is wholly made up with intriguing complications in relationships, especially a romantic one between Rose and her mentor Dimitri Belikov. The significance of the relationship between Rose and her mother, however, is less clear. Also, many less significant events receive unwarranted attention. Overall, Frostbite assumes the role of a bridge to further titles and simultaneously delivers the excitement and vivid storytelling of a centerpiece of the series. – Tiffany Z. ‘17
Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead is the first book in a series that explores the life of Rose Hathaway, the guardian and loyal friend of royal vampire princess Lissa Dragomir. Rose and Lissa are just returning from an escape from their school for vampires, St. Vladimir’s Academy. Upon arriving, however, they face not only trouble with the school clique but also potential boyfriend problems. The conflicts heighten when Rose falls in love with her mentor Dimitri Belikov and discovers dangerous secrets about Lissa’s powers. Finally, the friends are suddenly faced with imminent danger from the evil Strigoi. The plotline is intriguing; circumstances and events flow together seamlessly, and characters are depicted fairly realistically, though near the end loose plot ends are tied up very hastily. Some elements of the book are bland or predictable. However Vampire Academy is a thrilling friendship drama and romance combined with plenty of action, and this first installment promises an exciting series. – Tiffany Z. ‘17