Book Club

Book Club In Session: Let's Talk 'Petropolis'

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@elizs starts us off.

UPDATED: Our interview with Anya Ulinich.

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It's that time again, time to share your thoughts and questions about our BPP Book Club selection. This month, it was Petropolis, by Anya Ulinich, a dark and funny first novel from a young writer born in the former Soviet Union and now living in the United States. (She's also a painter; that's one of her works above.)

What did you think of her protagonist, Sasha Goldberg? Any other immigrants out there relate to her experience? Want to ask Ulinich a question?

We'll be interviewing the author later this week. Lay it out there for us, and her, in the comments.

Bonus: BPP Book Club alerts

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One thing that I kept noticing in the novel is that Sasha lived very much in the moment. Even big steps like getting married, emigrating, and then abandoning the marriage were carried out with very little planning. Is this trait just a quirk of Sasha or does it express something about the culture she grew up in?

Sent by Dave Wiley | 9:52 AM | 7-9-2008

Sasha says to Jake at the end of the novel: "Don't you get it? Things get lost!"

That broad statement brought home for me the meaning of Sasha's journey. Feeling lost in Siberia, having lost her baby to her mother, Sasha sets off to find her lost father and, in the process, lose herself (Paradise Valley being "the perfect place to erase herself"). Once established in the US, and having returned to Asbestos 2, she finds she is terrified of losing her mother- her gateway home- which would be akin to truly losing herself.
Long ago, a friend warned me: once you leave home to live somewhere else, nowhere is home anymore. That is true for any emigrant, for whom loss is an essential part of the package.

I chuckle to think, as I write this, that here we have another novel about a black character written by a white author. Hmmm.

Sent by Kymm in Barcelona | 9:56 AM | 7-9-2008

@Kymm,

It is very interesting--and I had to admit I had not fully taken it in--that this novel is similar to Anansi Boys in that it's a white author writing a black (or biracial) protagonist.

In this modern world, where so many people live away from the places they grew up, characters who are part of some diaspora or other seem to be quite prevalent. Sasha, of course, is rootless many times over...completely severed from a Jewish identity, an African identity, a Soviet identity and a Russian identity.

Sent by Sarah Goodyear | 10:03 AM | 7-9-2008

There's a saying in my professional circles about leadership being the act of disappointing people at a rate they can handle. As I looked at the series of parents and children in this book, I could almost chart in my head who was disappointing whom and how quickly: Lubov openly rebelling against her mother and keeping Victor; Victor leaving when Sasha was away; Sasha slipping out of the country; Lika shouting back at Vitaly; the Tarakans and Jake barely interacting, as though they couldn't take more disappointment in one another. I don't know where I'm going with this idea, except that I appreciate the way Ulinich captures this complexity. So rarely is life as simple as either the parents or the children being the bad guys; instead, they inevitably let one another down, and hope that love and loyalty keep them knitted together anyway.

I enjoyed the book and the author's light touch with heavy topics and sometimes dire circumstances. The one passage that didn't ring true for me was Sasha by chance catching the TV report on Asbestos 2, with her old friend as the reporter, no less. I suppose it was important to have a reason for Sasha to steel her resolve to get what she needed from Victor and to provide for Lubov and Nadia in some way, but it felt forced in a story in which other coincidences seemed natural because of the web of Russian Jewish immigrants and their supporters.

Finally, I like that Sarah G has selected three first novels for the club so far. There's no reason to create limits for what gets chosen, but I like the idea of "discovering" more authors early in their careers through this opportunity.

Sent by Seth in Kansas | 11:49 AM | 7-9-2008

Dave -

I would venture to say that her "in the moment" attitude is her own trait - but it's also symbolic of the new generation growing up in Russia - they are in a world that changes day to day, and the stability and sort of inexorable future that their parents grew up with is no longer there. Her mother is a symbol of that past, and spends so much of the book attempting to raise Sasha with this predestined vision. Looking back at the book - I think I didn't realize how important their relationship was to me as a foundation for the story.

Sent by Nina | 12:35 PM | 7-9-2008

I felt sorry for the mother. She wanted everything for Sasha that Sasha eventually got, but Sasha got everything the hard way. What if Sasha had done it her mother's way? How would her life been different? How many persons did Sasha hurt doing things, "her way". The mother dies of cancer (and alcoholism?) alone in her abandoned library. She deserved better. No the mother wasn't perfect, but who in this story was?

Sent by Deana | 12:39 PM | 7-9-2008

@Dave
Sasha didn't actually get married. The engagement was the means to the end of getting a permit to live in the US, where she hoped to find her father.
It all seems hopelessly Freudian: her mother steals away her child so Sasha leaves them both behind to be reunited with her father... Nevertheless, when you're young, change is easy.
I found it much more disturbing that her mother not only wouldn't leave, but was determined to raise yet another child in that hell-hole.
In the same vein, @Sarah: cultural identity is some pretty heavy baggage, one that I find to not always be a good thing. I also share Sasha's fear that she won't understand her own child, who will grow up in a foreign culture, but I cheer her ambition to make her own place -and culture- among her father's American ex-wife, her Russian-American handicapped boyfriend and her own displaced daughter. I'm all for creating one's own traditions, especially in a world where cultural differences often lead to tragic consequences.

Sent by Kymm in Barcelona | 1:23 PM | 7-9-2008

@Kymm Your point is so well-taken. The identity that Sasha ends up making for herself is so much more powerfully hers than the ones she inherited.

Sent by Sarah Goodyear | 2:03 PM | 7-9-2008

I very much enjoyed this book. I couldn't put it down. I especially liked the relationship between Sasha and Jake. I am married to a disabled man and I rarely see realistic relationships between able bodied and disabled people.
I also can't get Sasha's relationship with her mother out of my head. It seems that her mother was almost ashamed of showing true affection towards Sasha. I don't understand what she was afriad of, but I guess that's why this book was so interesting and compelling to me; the characters were so complex that the reader never truely understand why some of them did things that they did. I wonder where the author came up whith these complex characters and relationships between them.

Sent by Julia from Denver | 2:06 PM | 7-9-2008

A couple of months before I read the book, I had discovered this website (http://pripyat.com/en/) about a town called Pripyat in Ukrain, which was basically built to house the people working at Chernobyl. Needless to say the city died when the disaster happened. The imagery of the city from the website was what I kept on visualizing when I read the book - although the memories I have from the Moscow neighborhood I grew up in definitely added life to it.

Sent by Nina | 2:12 PM | 7-9-2008

I was struck mostly by the depictions of parent-child relationships in this book. Probably because I am a fairly new mother myself (my son is 9 months old), I was especially affected by the physical terms that Sasha uses in describing her feelings towards her daughter, and how that relationship is contrasted to the relationship between Heidi and her son. I suppose I don't really have a question, but I would love to hear more discussion of this theme.

Sent by Stephanie | 4:35 PM | 7-9-2008

I liked this journey of Sasha finding herself. The characters in the book were very complex and believable. The narration was humorous and thoughtful. And the plot took some unexpected turns. I found myself telling my neighbor I was excited about whether or not Sasha would choose to return to Alexey during her visit to Moscow, or remain in America. It was a captivating read.

We seem to have the themes of the first novel, black identity/self-esteem (from a white author's viewpoint), and life as an emigrant all sewn up in one book. I wouldn't mind continuing in this vein.

A little aside: my cleaning lady is from the Ukraine and she left her son to be raised by his grandmother so that she could earn money in Germany to send back home. Ah, the little synchronicities in life.

Oh, and in case any of you haven't looked it up yet, Tarakan means cockroach.

My question to Anya is whether or not this book is autobiographical.

Sent by Rebecca in Berlin | 4:39 PM | 7-9-2008

P.S. I was trying to google a map of Asbestos 2 to see if it really does exist or if it is a figment of the author's imagination and found this great blog entry by a Russian graduate student who translated the poem Petropolis poem for her thesis:

http://maudnewton.com/blog/?p=7982

Sent by Rebecca in Berlin | 8:08 PM | 7-9-2008

I have been listening to the BPP since long before the birth of the Book Club and this was the first book I felt compelled to read along with everyone- I was very pleased with this choice. What drew me in was partially what Kymm and Seth's posted about the complexity and reoccurrence of loss and disappointment in Sasha's world. For example she couldn't understand why her father would leave her and feel such apathy toward her, yet she really wanted to abandon her dying mother when faced with the responsibility of raising Nadia. Ulinich's depiction of human complexity and subjectivism captivated me. While sometimes the events seemed a little too coincidental, Ulinich kept everything on a pretty relatable level.

I am very excited for the interview

Sent by Jillian in San Diego | 1:09 AM | 7-10-2008

I forgot my question: The way in which Goldberg's death is depicted is so graphic and disheartening- frozen to death, sitting in an abandoned library with a half consumed bottle of congac, hovering over a haunting poem that her estranged husband loved...what was the motive behind adding this to the epilogue? Why did she escape from the hospital and what was the reason for having her horrible photos sent out all over the papers finding their way to Sasha? I guess I am just bummed at how things ended over in Russia, I knew it wasn't going to end well, that mom was going to die, but I didn't know it would be so vivid/depressing. Sasha knew her mom was gone, Nadia was already living with her, so why this extra scene?

Sent by Jillian in San Diego | 1:25 AM | 7-10-2008

@Jillian-
Great question! I was wondering that myself. It seems like it didn't make sense with what happened in the rest of the book.

Sent by Julia from Denver | 11:21 AM | 7-10-2008

@Jillian,
Once again, the pitfalls of the ending...so often a place where readers have problems with the way a writer has handled something. I might ask Ulinich if she felt compelled to make something dramatic happen at the end, if she didn't want the book to sort of fade away, and that's why she chose this plot point.

Another question, related to something that came up when I was on the air yesterday with Pesca: What cultural similarities, if any, does the author see between Russia (or the USSR) and the USA?

Sent by Sarah Goodyear | 1:01 PM | 7-10-2008

@Jillian
I thought the death of Mrs. Goldberg was very poetic. Her life was the library. That is where she was in charge. That is where she was queen. She crawled from the hospital to this, her real home. And to become the frozen statue depicting the end of Asbestos 2 in magazines across the world is something that would have made Mrs. Goldberg proud. The poem depicts her love for her city/country and her connection to her husband. And alcohol is a part of every Russians life. It helped her get Sasha into art school. Sasha met Alexey when he lay drunk on his bed. Alcohol accompanies the extreme moments in life. When Sasha found the photo, she knew that her mother truly was dead and had not gone back into the apartment again. She had closure. I think, in fact, this was a better ending than in the first two books we read. I don't find it depressing, but rather dramatic, like a finale in an opera. It is not fitting for the end of an American life. But Mrs. Goldberg was NOT American.

Sent by Rebecca in Berlin | 7:18 PM | 7-10-2008

Like Deana I felt sorry for Mrs. Goldberg - she worked so hard and sacrificed so much to get Sasha the life she (the mom) thought Sasha should want. The novel brings home the truth that as parents, no matter how well meaning we are, no matter how much we are invested in our childrens' future,we don't really get a vote.

Sent by Jacqueline | 5:00 PM | 7-11-2008

I really enjoyed the book. It's a story about life; not all terrible, but not all rosy. I see my life in Sasha... growing up with a mom who worked all the time so that she can put food on the table and give me the best opportunities out there, not knowing my dad but always long to meet him and ask him why, being self-destructive even though I knew better, etc. I agree with Kymm about "being lost" theme. Being an emigrant myself, I can relate to her loneliness. You do the best you can and hope that one day you'll find someone who understands you, like how Sasha finds Jake. In a way you have to live for the moment because looking back would bring you tears and looking forward may bring you despair. In the meantime, you learn to become numb to the situations. The end saddens me very much. It makes me miss home. I take and remember certain parts, good or bad, to make it "home" for me.
I'm with Rebecca about Mrs. Goldberg's death being poetic. I think she's a brave woman and most likely a wise one as well. She sees that Sasha's future cannot end in Abestos 2, so she pushes and shoves Sasha into different opportunities. She hopes for Sasha what she can't be. (Don't all parents have the same sentiment?) She wants to be strong and she can't allow Sasha (and Nadia) to see her in any other way.
The story is complex... and real. Great selection!

Sent by Pang | 10:59 PM | 7-11-2008

I completely agree with Rebecca regarding the ending of the novel. I did not find it depressing. I thought it was fitting for Sasha's mother to die in the library rather than the hospital. Now that would have been depressing! I completely enjoyed the book--thank you for selecting this for the book club. I doubt I would have picked it up on my own. I like the fact that although Jake was physically disabled he was so much more with it mentally than the rest of his family! I would like to ask Ulinich if she believes racism is as prevalant in Russia as the U.S. Racism was a theme throughout the book--the fact that people who saw Sasha believed she was "black" until they spoke to her and the stereotypes fell away with her accent. Interesting and pertinent stuff!

Sent by Sherri Levek | 4:59 PM | 7-12-2008

@Rebecca I completely agree with you on your analysis, and perhaps that is exactly why Ulinich chose to add that to the epilogue. It was "very poetic"; I do not deny that it was a good ending(however I do not see any relevance to your end statement that it's a good way to end a Russian life, "NOT American," but that's okay). Things can be dramatic and still be viewed as depressing, as I feel this was, most dramatic endings are depressing. I had to read it twice, not just because it was moving, but because it seemed as though that specific scene was written in a completely different manner than the rest of the book- it caught me off guard I guess.

Sent by Jillian in San Diego | 8:19 PM | 7-12-2008

Didn't want the ummm... meta-issues of today's show to completely overshadow that the interview with Ulinich was charming. Interesting that what she first intended as a farce ended up so fleshed out and affecting.

Sent by Seth in Kansas | 9:44 PM | 7-14-2008

I really enjoyed this book and all the book club selections. I hate to see this show go off the air. Will you please give us another book club selection?

Sent by Heather | 3:39 PM | 7-15-2008