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Red Plenty Paperback – February 14, 2012
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"Honeysuckle Season" by Mary Ellen Taylor
From author Mary Ellen Taylor comes a story about profound loss, hard truths, and an overgrown greenhouse full of old secrets. | Learn more
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"At the end of the first chapter... I printed a nerdy but heartfelt word: 'Bravo'. I felt like giving the author a little bow, or maybe a one-man standing O." -- Dwight Garner, The New York Times
"An engrossing, and at times deeply moving historical drama." -- Max McGuinness, The Daily Beast
About the Author
- Item Weight : 1.24 pounds
- Paperback : 448 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1555976042
- ISBN-13 : 978-1555976040
- Dimensions : 5.62 x 1.27 x 8.27 inches
- Publisher : Graywolf Press; Original edition (February 14, 2012)
- Language: : English
- Best Sellers Rank: #149,177 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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This book is totally mind blowing ... It's unbelievable how a foreigner who doesn't even speak Russian could capture the spirit of that time with the littlest details and at the same time summarize the grandest historic forces shaping up the superpowers of the XX century.
The book shows what people of that time were thinking about, how they lived their daily lives, but it also goes very deep into exposing the fundamental conflicts of the non market economy.
I've read a lot about Soviet Union, both in Russian and English, and most of the Russian books have strong prejudgement and they are either showing socialism in a very positive or a very negative light. The English sources might be more or less objective, but their lack of understanding of the culture sometimes make them simply laughable.
Mr. Spufford managed to keep his point of view very objective and filled the book with the finest very authentic details.
So if you want to learn about life in Soviet Union in 1950s-1970s, understand how that Superpower was ruled and what socialism was about and why it ultimately lost the historic race - I can't think of any better single source.
Just one more note. This books is a peculiar mixture of some very accurately presented historic facts with some fiction and they are blended together so it might be not clear which is which. The author is not trying to distort your perception, it's actually opposite, by filling in some fictional details, he is giving you a better idea of what it was, just like some careful restoration can give you a better idea of what the artist intention was. However, you should be careful if you want to quote names or facts - not everything is real. To be fair, the author did a great job of providing references and clearly stating what is real and what is not.
Overall, it's an amazing amazing work! Taking my hat off...
It's almost like going on a time travel coach tour. The coach driver provides a background and narrative and then you get to step into a point in time and see what was happening. In that alone Spufford excelled.
I am disappointed in that for some reason the author or the publisher will not allow loaning of the Kindle version that I thought I bought.
Apparently I only own the right to read it and central control is not up to the purchaser. I hoped to loan it to a friend but that is not permitted for this book. How ironic.
Spufford is also capable of fine prose sentences. Some examples of prose I liked: “crowds welled up at metro signs” (from the subway); “feeling that he withdrew from her into some place much further off than the slightly rueful place you always go, when joined skins separate back into two cooling island selves”; thinking of fleeing her current situation, “letting Moscow dwindle to a departing view from the window of the long green train east, folding itself up, tucking itself back to nothing, like a paper sculpture being put away; just an idea that hadn’t worked out”; “he’s a man who can get out of his depth in a puddle” (I couldn’t help including this one).
It is an absorbing account of a fraught period in Russian history and how the lives of some very interesting and largely sympathetic people intersected during the Soviet period. I can't vouch for its accuracy--it includes copious notes, for those who care. The portrayal of the thoughts of Khrushchev was convincing to me; whether these were in fact his thoughts seems not a very interesting question in the context of a work of art as opposed to a history. Tolstoy, after all, did the same thing with Napoleon and Kutuzov.
Top reviews from other countries
Spanning just over a decade of Soviet life jumping between characters and events, the book is intricately designed drip feeding the reader a wealth of USSR information (all of which is referenced in depth at the end of the book with superb extra reading lists). What I enjoyed the most about Red Plenty however wasn't its masterful use of form, thrilling prose or 'unputdownable nature', it was how effortlessly Spufford makes us experience a feel for the highs and lows of these characters, and for that matter the Soviet dream in general.
Why Red Plenty? Because it describes an attempt to beat capitalism on its own terms and to make Soviet citizens the richest in the world. And for a time in the 1950's and early 60's it looked as though it was going to succeed. Certainly improvements in housing, nutrition, education and health surpassed any other country in the World at this time. Apparently the rise of Russia at this time was viewed like China's development is viewed today - with awe and trepidation.
An original method of referencing not so much facts but feelings or attitudes or speeches or occasions to published books or periodicals at the end of each chapter underlines the authenticity of the attitudes being expressed. For example one reference was to a description "she had added a green leather belt bought at the flea market". The reference at the end of the chapter goes on to describe in great detail the legal car boot sales allowed so long as you had made the item and were not reselling . It lays out details of Article 154 of the Criminal Code dealing with the intricacies of the Soviet rules governing personal property. And there are copious such references at the end of each chapter which you do not have to read but add authority to the book.
The depth into which a variety of subjects are investigated is impressive. For example how the economy was planned with a sophisticated discussion on linear programming and shadow pricing and the move from production targets to efficiency, or profit targets, in state manufacturing operations. Or how lung cancer develops at the cellular level and how the continuous exposure of the cells to chemicals leads to mutation and eventually the growth of tumours is described in fascinating detail.
Whilst tackling the big issues in Russia at the time with seriousness, the way in which the story is told, and Francis Spufford calls it a fairy story, makes for an immensely readable book.
The story is of Soviet Russia, and how, through the appliance of science, it will forge ahead of the capitalists. Only it didn't happen like that.
Spufford relates the story by vignettes, first showing how the system might work, and the optimism engendered, then the gradual lapse into economic arthritis that led to the collapse of the system.
Well worth your money and your time.
If you want to read an entertaining fictionalised account of what actual scientific techniques we might use to manage a planned economy (rather than this chaotic ecocidal free-for-all we call a free market) then you should pick this book up.