Growing up in the West during the 1960s, 1970s and into the 1980s, international relations were dominated by this thing called the Cold War. The war was between 'us' and 'them' - a whole different, entirely undesirable, backward, and frightening other world behind this other thing called the Iron Curtain. It probably never entered my empty teenage head that there were people just like us behind this Iron Curtain - Mums, Dads, children, teenagers, grandparents. They were, quite simply,  all communists - baddies, a serious threat to the democracies we pretty much took for granted. But after reading this memoir by a woman of a similar age to me, is it possible that  threat may well have been a lot of hot air? It seems they were all too damn hungry and spent too much time standing in queues to be a threat to anyone! 

Nevertheless, Anya von Bremzen's memoir is a book truly written from the heart - for her mother and grandmothers, her father, her grandfather, her fellow Soviets, the terrible waste, deaths, family tragedies all  resulting from the megalomania of a few. In their own way each of the leaders was mad. The chapter on Stalin is the most compelling and frightening to read, Khrushchev is positively boring in comparison, and the chapter on Gorbachev was a complete revelation. In the Western media, I remember him being portrayed in glowing terms - perestroika, glasnost and all that. But in the USSR it seems he was quite a different sort of fish.

And of course throughout the book there is the food. It is amazing how we so often associate food with how we feel, our overall well being and happiness with ourselves, our lives and how it lives on in our memories. Now a successful food writer in the US, Ms von Bremzen takes the traditional Russian food of her family and weaves the history of both her family and  Communist Russia from its beginnings in 1917 under Lenin to its dissolution in the early 1990s. She treats the whole 70 year odd years as an unmitigated disaster for virtually everyone. I really hope that writing this memoir was cathartic for her and for her mother who is still alive.

Anya was very fortunate that in 1974 when she was 10,  she and her mother fled to the US, leaving everything and everyone behind, knowing that they would never be able to return.  In her writing there is very little happiness or nostalgia for what she left, and although their first few years in Philadelphia were not easy, at least it was better than what they had come from. She would never have had the life she currently has if they had stayed.

The link above is an interview with the author talking about the book and her life. It is long, but well worth it. She makes for a great interview subject, and best of all, her mother is in the television audience. Beautiful to watch.



In June I read the fourth book in the 'Lunch With' series -"Lunch with a Soldier". The subject of this review is number three in the series; I also have number two! I noted in my review in June that at times I thought the writing was a little contrived, and that I couldn't really imagine four elderly gents in a cafe in suburban Australian actually having a conversation such as that recorded by the author. But, on the other hand, the author is damn fine story teller, which of course does forgive many a little niggle.

So how does this one, number three, compare? In a word, outstanding. Fantastic story telling, very believable and real characters, plenty of action, danger, fear, courage, hope, endurance, loyalty and above all love. Like the other novels in the series, the narration moves between the present - the weekly lunch dates of Milos, Neil, Ramon and Lucius; and the past, in this case Milos' story. As with number four book, there are a few twists and turns, which for me, seemed to make a great deal more sense than they did in Neil's story, the subject of number four book.

So, in this novel of nearly 600 pages, which by the way you will race through because you won't want to put it down, Milos narrates the story of Milos, his brother Tibor, and young friend Gabrielle who is loved by both Milos and Tibor but whose heart belongs to Tibor. It is 1941, and Hilter and his machine have their sights set on world domination including Hungary where these two Jewish families are about to have their worlds turned upside down.

This is a corker of a story, an absolute page turner.Brilliant for a holiday read, or a wet weekend. Better get myself started on number two.



Review copy of this book supplied by Penguin Group (NZ) Ltd, via Booksellers NZ

I had the most peculiar reaction to reading this memoir by the very highly regarded Lloyd Jones. For the first five years of my life I lived 1.7kms in one direction from where the author was living out his childhood, and for the next 15 years I lived 1.7kms in the other direction. Our paths never crossed, (he is a few years older), but everything he writes about the place of  Lower Hutt, and the sense of place is very strong in this book, had a startling ring of truth about it. From Stellin Street where I learnt to drive, to his days at the intermediate school, to the shop in the High St his school uniform was bought at, to his descriptions of Petone, the Hutt River bed, Eastbourne and the bays - I could see it all so clearly and in his retelling of his memory, he made me remember too. Just as wonderful was the quite amazing thought that just up the road a writer of such genius was slowly incubating! 

Every family has its secrets, its stories that change over the years to accommodate new narrators and mores of the time, its black sheep, and often full truths never come out because they are too painful, considered too shameful, or quite simply just too hard to deal with. Lloyd Jones' parents, Joyce and Lew, were both extensively scarred by the circumstances of their childhoods, carrying their burdens into their marriage and the parenting of their five children, of whom Lloyd was the youngest by some ten years.

Lloyd grows up in a household of silence, where he and his siblings know very little about their parents' early lives. All they really know is that there was a fair bit of sadness. There is a complete lack of family stories, no photos on the walls, what he calls 'wilful forgetting'. Because he has nothing to compare this with, he grows up thinking nothing much about this lack, and is puzzled only momentarily when he goes driving, from time to time, with his mother to a house that they sit outside of for a while and then drive away again. His siblings are adults long before he is, and so he lives alone in the house with his parents, about whom he knows very little. One Christmas his older sister produces the results of her own research into their parents, a myriad mix of birth, death and marriage certificates which doesn't really answer any questions and leads to a whole lot more.

The devastating Christchurch earthquake of February 2011, was the catalyst Lloyd Jones needed to kick start his search for where he came from and what made him. Throughout the book, Jones uses  Christchurch repairing itself and rebuilding its foundations as an analogy for him finding his own base and putting the pieces of his family puzzle into place. The narrative takes the reader from Christchurch to Lower Hutt, as far away as Wales, Wairarapa, the backblocks of North Canterbury, Wellington, backwards and forwards, to and fro, weaving and threading the story of a family through these places. 

It is very moving to read such a personal account of a family's story, or more to the point the stories of Joyce and Lew. This memoir reads more as a tribute to the parents, and Lloyd himself finally seems to find out from whom he has inherited aspects of his own self and the influences that have shaped him. This is writing written with love and longing, and all the more poignant for that. The story teller in the author comes shining through as he expands on the lives of the people he is writing about, as they react to the events taking place around them. There are some threads I just could not figure out the relevance of  - the boxing bout between Bob Fitzsimmons and Gentleman Jim Corbett springs to mind. But boxing was a big thing in the house he grew up in.  Maybe I was just too tired to fully comprehend the significance. Never mind, such a tiny criticism, it barely matters.

This is a book I will treasure, not just because of the eloquent writing, but because he has given honour and integrity to the lives of two people who were unable to really find it for themselves during their own lifetimes. Read or watch the interview in the link above - well worth the time taken.