Cultural exchanges established by a Soviet-British agreement in and administered by the British Council — of which I was a beneficiary as a postgraduate student in — supplemented the smaller-scale visits organised earlier on under the auspices of the National Union of Students, while a new if cautious mutual encouragement of international tourism brought foreigners to the Soviet Union and, in limited numbers and under strict controls, Soviet tourists to the West. The journal Foreign Literature , which introduced European and American writers in translation to Soviet readers, was eagerly sought after like all journals people actually wanted to read, it was a scarce commodity.
The August Moscow Youth Festival, which brought 34, foreigners to Moscow for two weeks in August , was the moment when yearning towards the West was transmuted into ecstatic contact, a watershed in the lives of a generation.
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Controls on foreigners, normally strict, were largely lifted: no checks of bags at the border, no currency declarations to fill in, not even normal visas, since anyone chosen as a delegate by the relevant committee of the international youth movement simply collected a card guaranteeing entry from their local Soviet consulate. Delegates could wander freely to far-flung festival venues in Moscow including some, like Khimki on the northern outskirts of Moscow, that had been off-limits to foreigners before and were again for decades afterwards.
It was a total shock to a population used to drab and sombre colours. The first encounters between Muscovites and foreigners were rapturous, despite thirty thousand Komsomol activists lining the streets to keep order. There was a hangover afterwards, with the KGB compensating for having been sidelined during the festival by setting up surveillance on locals who had established questionably close ties with the foreigners.
That was still going strong when I arrived as a student a decade later, by which time purple trucks had long disappeared from the streets and the festival remained only a dreamlike memory. But the impulse to connect with Western culture and be part of world civilisation survived, sometimes restricted by the government but often encouraged.
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Yves Montand gave wildly successful concerts in Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev. The Pushkin Museum began to get its Impressionist paintings out of storage, and big exhibitions from both Soviet and French collections followed. The mids also brought something harder to digest than the Impressionists: Picasso, whose work his own selection was exhibited in Moscow and Leningrad in and provoked passionate controversy. Some embraced his work as representing a quintessential break with the Stalinist past; others saw it as ugly and perverse.
Heated debates took place in student dormitories, editorial offices, even city squares, and the queues to get into the exhibition were huge. It was an act of imaginative re-creation involving subjective input on the part of the translator. It was their task to make the film comprehensible — emotionally as well as literally — to Soviet viewers, and sometimes heroic measures were called for.
Soviet dubbing directors aimed to make their versions better than the originals — psychologically deeper and emotionally more transparent. While the number of Soviet tourists going to the West remained comparatively small, it was growing, and many Soviet writers were among the tourists. He passed away suddenly last week. DEPP It's a big loss to letters in this country.
And also "They were Her Property" by Stephanie Jones-Rogers, which is about actually white women slave owners, which is just a thing we just decided not to talk about as a country.
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And so it's a really sort of strong beautifully documented look into a lot of the background into like kind of what divides us often as feminists and a past we don't want to acknowledge. DEPP And then finally going completely opposite "Range" by David Epstein, which I think every bookseller in the country adores, because it explains why we like doing such a strange job.
But it really is about humans and our love of doing all sorts of different things and our desire to become good at all sorts of different things. And that it might not actually be a bad thing to -- as opposed to narrowing down and becoming obsessed with being the super best at this one thing. That we can actually become very great at all parts of our lives by nurturing this desire to go down these rabbit holes.
It's a wonderful memoir about really becoming a poet, finding a way of seeing and saying. And it starts off with a mysterious man, who turns up at her doorstep, takes her to South America, shows her what's going on in that part of the world and just opens her eyes. Full disclosure, she's a professor at Georgetown University, but that doesn't make the book any less wonderful.
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It's in the vain of Ta-Nehisi Coates, but it is equally tender and beautiful. It's very slim. You'll read it in the morning and you'll be thinking about it for a year. And there are others, but let me quickly go through -- Alexander Chee "How to Write an Autobiographical Novel" is hilarious and touching in turns, particularly when this Korean American writer moved to New York and starts working as a private waiter in some of the wealthiest houses in the city.
I love the natural world. These two are both the most wonderful writers, but also they are very, very different from each other. She's a miniaturist, you know. She really looks up close at the natural world, and Lopez does the big landscapes, you know, huge -- and "Horizon," of course, you know epitomizes that idea. And in this book, she writes the letter to her sexually abusive father that she always wished he had written, and never did. And she waited and waited, and then he died, and she kept waiting. And, finally, she said, well, I'm just going to write the apology he never gave me, and so this is the letter that she imagines him writing from beyond the grave.
And it's searing, and eventually, I think, healing. Hannah was just talking about the things we haven't talked enough about as a culture. And one of them that I'm just enjoying so much is "The League of Wives. You know, the government sort of told them not to talk about what was happening, not to share with -- by God, don't talk to a reporter.
The worst thing they could've done. And they were sort of in this uncomfortable and impossible position of wanting to protect their husbands and their safety, to the extent that they could, and also given very little support by the government. Some of them couldn't get their paychecks cashed. You know, it was just sort of -- as you look back at this very recent history of these women sort of, you know, who men in power didn't want to give a voice to, it's a really powerful sort of collection of their experiences.
It's a series of essays that she wrote about her sort of journey to a diagnosis of, ultimately, a schizoaffective disorder. I think we are talking more about mental health as a society, but we're comfortable with certain diagnoses, and very uncomfortable with others. And she really takes that on in a way that -- I think what will surprise most readers is how relatable it is. It's a very, very wonderful collection of essays from her. Countless ink has been spilled over the man, who did the murdering, but she really explores the lives of these women about whom very little is known.
And what stood out to me most about this, ultimately, was that it's sort of an account of what it was to be homeless and on the fringes of society at that era.
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And shockingly little has changed, which is sort of the thing that has stuck with me most about that. I read, I think, everything he's written, and it is such a terrible loss. Hannah, why do you think summer books are marketed to be light and relaxing, the beach reads that we often hear about? DEPP I think sometimes the people doing the marketing for the books may not be talking to readers, sometimes. It is really interesting, because it's not usually what people come into.
Now, people do say, I'm traveling, and I physically cannot carry, usually, every book, which, of course, has something to do with it, but I do think, you know, obviously it's summer. We associate it with summer break. That's how school, you know, has tended to work in this country for some time. DEPP And I think it just gets in you, and you just think, like, I just need a break, but that can mean very different things to very different people.
And that's where the kind of individuation of reading and books and taste comes in, as opposed to that. But, you know, we say whatever that break means to you, you do tend to approach it as a break. It is about non-readers.
It's about the person, who doesn't normally pick up books, and marketers are trying to get them to pick up one and make it easy on them. And I guess it's also about, you know, dropping it in the pool, in suntan oil, and, you know, several margaritas in, can you still hold onto the plot?
Ron, are there any books that counter that whole narrative? I mean, everyone I talk to, the only thing they really ask me is what should I read, because they just feel overwhelmed by the number of titles, as do I. I mean, we're getting books a day at the office. And, of course, ordinary people go into a bookstore, and they immediately, you know, are driven to the best seller list or, you know, some other book they've heard of.
But talk to your librarian, talk to your independent bookstore seller. These are people trained. Their lives depend on listening to you, and then finding the next book you will like and don't ignore that tremendous resource. He said, I second Ron's endorsement earlier of "Strangers and Cousins. All I can say is, wow, powerful and real. Leshaun Tweets: "The Broken Earth Trilogy" is a great series, and is a rare treat for sci-fi, with the protagonist and many of the characters being of color.
So, that's pretty cool. And this Tweet from Grace reminds me of that.
She says: making time for reading during the summer? I took a page out of my mom's book and have been waking up early in the morning to get some good reading before the day begins.