Everything is Normal by Sergey Grechishkin

Everything is NormalEverything is Normal: The Life and Times of a Soviet Kid

by Sergey Grechishkin

Kindle Edition, 336 pg.
Inkshares, 2018
Read: March 19 – 26, 2018

I would spend hours by the balcony window, watching smoke rise from the power station chimneys on the horizon and listening to the suburban trains chug by in the distance. Most of my memories of that time coalesce into a sense of timeless boredom. But after my first taste of bubble gum, something new began to mix with my malaise: jealousy of the kids in faraway countries who could chew such gum every day.

This is the kind of thing that you expect a memoir of growing up in the Soviet Union to be full of — a grim skyline, yearning for something unobtainable, a general malaise. But in Sergey Grechishkin’s book, you don’t get a lot of that — yes, it’s there, to be sure (how could it not be?), but there’s so much more.

Grechishkin writes with a vivacity, a thorough-going sense of humor, a spark of hope that you don’t expect — and are frequently surprised by. He doesn’t paint a rosy picture of the USSR in the 70s and 80s, but he paints a picture of a life with hope. The book focuses on his childhood — particularly school ages — we get a little before, we see him briefly in University, with a hint or two about what happens next. But primarily we’re looking at his time in school. This coincides with the time of Leonid Brezhnev (at least the tail end) through the early days of Mikhail Gorbachev, with all the changes those days entailed. It’s not an incredibly political book — but it’d be difficult to discuss life under these various leaders without mentioning them and the way each government was different from the previous.

A word about the humor — which is all over. We’re not talking Yakov Smirnoff, first off. Secondly we’re not talking about anything that makes light of the hardships, or denies them. But comments that can talk about the hardships in a way that is above to find the humor in the human condition or something else we can all relate to: like

So many Soviet friendships and even families have been formed while standing in lines.

Nothing major — just a quick smile as you read. At other times, he’ll deliver a hard truth about life in the USSR through a joke. Like here, when describing how they couldn’t process the appearance of Western athletes on TV during the 1980 Olympics criticizing their governments:

For those lucky Soviet citizens who were allowed to cross the border, any sort of misbehaving while abroad or giving the slightest hint at being unhappy with the Soviet workers’ paradise would mean no more trips anywhere except to camping locations in eastern Siberia.

You laugh, and then you realize that he’s talking about a harsh or sad reality while you’re laughing. I don’t know how many times I’d think about something being funny or actually be chuckling at something when I’d catch myself, because I realize what he’s actually getting at.

The jokes slow down as he ages and the narration becomes less universal and more particular to his life — looming chances of being sent to Afghanistan, and other harder realities of adulthood on the horizon. It’s still there, it’s just deployed less.

While narrating his life, Grechishkin is able to describe living conditions, schooling, medical care, shopping, food, friendships, family life, dating, Western movies, crime, the role of alcohol in society, political dissidents, and so much more. I enjoyed his discussing the experience of reading George Orwell (via photocopy) or listening to Western pop music — learning that LPs were “pressed at underground labs onto discarded plastic X-ray images.” You can do that? That sounds cool (and low-fidelity). Almost everything in the book seems just the way you’d expect it, if you stopped to think of it — but from Grechishkin’s life experience it seems more real.

This is one of those books that you want to keep talking and talking and talking about — but I can’t, nor should I. You need to read this for yourself. If only because Grechishkin can do a better job telling his story than I can. You really don’t think that this is the kind of book you can enjoy — but it is..

Did I have a happy childhood? Well, it was what it was. From a nutritional and a relationship standpoint, it wasn’t particularly great. But it also wasn’t awful or tragic. It was, when I look back on it now, normal.

Normal was a word that showed up more than once in my notes — despite everything around him, his childhood seemed normal (and its only now that I remember tat the word is in the title). I’m not saying that I’d trade places with him, his life was not easy — or that there weren’t kids in Leningrad who suffered more forms of deprivation or oppression (not to mention kids in less well-off areas in the USSR). But on the whole, he had a childhood thanks to a caring family, a good school, and good friends. Everything is Normal shows how against a bleak background, a normal life can be possible. It does so with heart, perspective, humor and a gift for story-telling. Exactly the kind of memoir that will stay with you long after you finish the book. Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I received this book from Inkshares in exchange for this post and my honest opinion.

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4 Stars

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Opening Lines: Everything is Normal by Sergey Grechishkin

We all know we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover (yet, publishing companies spend big bucks on cover design/art) (also, this has a great cover). But, the opening sentence(s)/paragraph(s) are fair game. So, when I stumble on a good opening (or remember one and pull it off the shelves), I’ll throw it up here. Dare you not to read the rest of the book.

from Everything is Normal: The Life and Times of a Soviet Kid by Sergey Grechishkin:

          

Anekdot

n.: the most popular form of Soviet humor, a short story or dialogue with a punch line, often politically subversive. “Being simultaneously independent from and parasitically attached to mass cultural production and authoritative discourse, the anekdot served as a template for an alternative, satirical, reflexive, collective voice-over narration of the Soviet century.”

Many of the anekdots under this book’s chapter headings were once punishable in the USSR by up to ten years of forced labor under article 58 of the criminal code (“ Anti-Soviet Propaganda”). This article was used freely to put critics of the Soviet government behind bars. Today, of course, things are very different in Russia. Now it’s article 282.

Maybe it’s just given the subject matter, I was expecting something dreary or earnest or incredibly serious — or all three, but man, I cracked up at that last sentence. I tell you, my friends, this book is going to have to work for less than 4 stars from me at this point.

My Favorite 2017 Non-Fiction Reads

Like every single year, I didn’t read as much Non-Fiction as I meant to — but I did read a decent amount. These are the best of the bunch.

(in alphabetical order by author)

Luck Favors the PreparedLuck Favors the Prepared

by Nathaniel Barber

My original post
Nathaniel Barber has a real gift at taking embarrassing (mortifying?), frustrating, and/or inexplicable episodes from his life and turning them into amusing tales. Some of the best descriptive passages I read this year — no matter the genre. I won’t promise you’ll like every story in this collection of short autobiographical pieces, but you’ll like most of ’em — and you will find something in the rest to appreciate. Fun, heartwarming, and disturbing — sometimes all at once.

4 Stars

How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at OddsHow to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds

by Alan Jacobs
My original post

As Carl Trueman asked Jacobs, how do you give this book to someone with that title? It’s a shame you can’t give it as a gift without implicitly insulting someone, because this needs to be given to everyone you know — especially everyone who spends any time online. Entertaining, convicting, convincing, challenging. This is as close to a must read as I came across last year (maybe in the last two).

4 Stars

Reacher Said NothingReacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of Make Me

by Andy Martin

You know how many times I’ve tried to write about this book? I read it back in January and am still enthused about it. Part literary criticism, part author biography, part fan letter — Martin follows Lee Child through the writing of Make Me, and delivers one of the most enjoyable reads from last year — easy. It’s like the one of your favorite DVDs with a fantastic set of commentaries and special features, but somehow better (for one thing, it’s not like Martin’s drowning out the best scenes with his blather). It reminds me of talking about Child/Reacher with a good friend (which I do pretty frequently) — but Martin’s more erudite than either of us. Just so much fun.

5 Stars

Henry: A Polish Swimmer's True Story of Friendship from Auschwitz to AmericaHenry: A Polish Swimmer’s True Story of Friendship from Auschwitz to America

by Katrina Shawver
My original post

Unlike the Jacobs book, I do know how to give this to people — and I have. The writing could be sharper — but the story? It’ll reshape the way you think about the Holocaust — not by lessening the horror, but by broadening your view. This story of survival is one that will stay with you.

4 Stars

Life and Death Behind the Brick and Razor: Code Red Diamond by Isaac Alexis, MD

Life and Death Behind the Brick and Razor: Code Red DiamondLife and Death Behind the Brick and Razor: Code Red Diamond

by Isaac Alexis, MD

Kindle Edition, 100 pg.
2017

Read: December 12, 2017

I wanted to use science to heal people and simultaneously teach them about how their bodies functioned and how to properly take care of their bodies. I also wanted to make a difference in the lives of people who traditionally did not have access to care to begin with. So I chose correctional medicine. It had its challenges but also opportunities to save many lives. In my opinion, it also had areas that seriously needed to be addressed.

Years after this decision, Dr. Alexis has turned to writing, using his experiences and point of view, to discuss some health tips and suggestions to help teens through some hot-button and pressing issues.

After a quick autobiographical chapter, the chapters revolve around the treatment of one particular patient, and then using that patient’s particular diagnosis (or lack thereof) and struggle as a launching point for health tips and/or discussion of some of the struggles that young people (or everyone) go through related to STDs, Drug Abuse, Gang Membership, etc.

There is so much energy, so much care, conviction, expertise behind this book that it’s a shame I can’t heartily endorse it. There’s a lot of heart here, and I admire that. But it’s just not that well written. Maybe it’d be more correct to say that it wasn’t that well-edited and re-written.

First of all, it needs a thorough editorial pass on basic grammar. But it needs some work on structure, too. Within the various chapters, things can seem to be randomly organized with a lack of transitions, or foundation for some of what he’s talking about. That page count of 100 pages should be 150 at a minimum — he really needs to flesh out everything just a bit. He’s got the material, he just needs to work with it a bit more so his readers can better understand both his experiences and perspective. The nature of the facility he works at — and its relation to other prisons and hospitals, is a good example — I think I have a decent idea how all that works out, but it takes using information from all parts of the book to come up with my guess; that shouldn’t be, I should’ve been given a one or two (or more) sentence description of that so I can appreciate his struggles to provide adequate care.

Now, what he doesn’t need to give us more of us medical jargon — often he’ll unleash a couple of paragraphs of almost non-stop medical terminology. This is not a bad thing, but I think he could help the non-informed reader a little bit more than he does with some of those streams of terminology. What I eventually decided is, the book reads like a transcript of someone telling stories about his life to a new friend, people just sitting around a table swapping stories. The hopping around, the unclear writing, and so on come across just the way people talk. If you think of it that way, the book is a lot easier to take.

If you can find some way (my suggestion or something else that works for you) to overlook/make your peace with Alexis’ style, you’ll probably enjoy this book. You can even appreciate the book without that — it’s just harder. Alexis writes from conviction and passion — with a healthy dose of morality. There’s a lot to be gained from this book. I liked Life and Death Behind the Brick and Razor, but it woulnd’t take much to make me like it sooo much more. He has important things to say, I just wish the book did a better job of providing the platform.

Disclaimer: I received this book in exchange for this post and my participation in this tour — I appreciate the opportunity, but my opinion remains my own.

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3 Stars

Interview with Dr. Isaac Alexis

This interview was provided to me as part of this tour, but given his busy schedule, this was all he had time for. I appreciate the time he was able to give to this — it does give you a pretty good feel for the book, too.

Can you describe your book in 20 words or less?
My book deals with the medical complications that can affect many people both inside and out of prison and also counsels our young people against STD, Drugs and gangs.
What do you hope your memoir/reference book will do for your readers?
I would hope my book would encourage young people to make positive choices avoiding STD’s, gangs, and drugs.
What was the hardest thing about writing this book? The easiest?
The hardest thing about writing my book was revealing my cousin who died of a drug overdose but I did it to show that all our choices in life have a consequence. The easiest thing about writing this book is knowing that as a Physician how can I possibly be silent when people can benefit from leading healthy lives.
What is the funniest (or strangest, or scariest) incident that has ever happened to you?
The funniest thing that happened to me was when my daughter was 6 months old she would crawl on the floor like up at me with those adorable little baby eyes and then when I was not looking she would proceed to bite my leg with all her might making me jump as high as Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls.
Can you share with us some of the people you admire the most?
People I admire most one of whom is a deity is 1) Jesus, 2) Mother-legendary work ethic, 3) Wife, 4) Children, 5) Dr. Benjamin Carson, 6) Dr. Keith Black, 7) Dr. Alexa Canady, and 8) Dr. Leonidis Berry.
Any future projects you would like to share with us?
There is another book that I’m in the process of writing.

BOOK SPOTLIGHT: Life and Death Behind the Brick and Razor: Code Red Diamond by Isaac Alexis, MD

Today we’re welcoming Dr. Isaac Alexis’ Life and Death Behind the Brick and Razor: Code Red Diamond. We’re starting things with this spotlight post (which includes a giveaway). In a little bit, we’ll have an interview with Dr. Alexis, and later, I’ll tell you what I thought of this book. But let’s start by learning a bit about it:

Book Details:

Book Title: Life and Death Behind the Brick and Razor: Code Red Diamond
Author: Isaac Alexis, MD
Category: Adult Non-Fiction, 100 pages
Genre: Education and Reference
Publisher: Independent
Release date: October 17, 2017
Content Rating: PG-13 for mature themes

Book Description:

A prison doctor offers insights into the system’s “Correctional Medicine”

Dr. Isaac Alexis’ newly-released book Life and Death Behind the Brick and Razor: Code Red Diamond tells of his varied experiences as a physician in correctional medical facilities while at the same time urges teenagers to make better decisions to avoid the perils of incarceration.

Dr. Isaac Alexis brings the fast-paced, high-pressure reality of correctional medicine to readers in his new book. He discusses health problems that inmates face during incarceration and offers detailed descriptions of medical complications that plague many people inside and outside of prison. He also speaks directly to young people about avoiding gangs and drug addiction, as well as respecting their bodies in order to preserve their physical and mental health and their freedom. Dr. Alexis’s personal experiences growing up in a tough New York neighborhood act as examples of how young people can overcome obstacles and achieve their goals.

The desire to help people who do not have access to quality health care drove Dr. Isaac Alexis to focus on correctional medicine. The author also shares how his faith empowers him to advocate for the best medical treatment for the population he works with.

A fascinating and important book, Life and Death Behind the Brick and Razor: Code Red Diamond is a book that should be read by anyone dealing with teenagers and young adults whether in the home, public or educational facilities.

To read more reviews, please visit Dr. Isaac Alexis’ page on iRead Book Tours.

Buy the Book:

 

 

 

Meet the Author:

Isaac Alexis, MD, completed an internship in trauma surgery at Cornell University at New York Hospital of Queens, and he cross-trained in family medicine and anesthesiology. Dr. Alexis served as medical director at the Department of Justice as well as director of infection control and chair of the quality improvement medical committee. He has several years of correctional medicine under his belt.Dr. Alexis’s book Life and Death behind the Brick and Razor-Code Red Diamond relays his experiences as a physician in correctional medical facilities while also challenging teenagers to make better decisions to avoid the perils of incarceration.

Connect with the author: Website

Enter the Giveaway!

Ends Dec 23

a Rafflecopter giveaway

 

Luck Favors the Prepared by Nathaniel Barber

Luck Favors the PreparedLuck Favors the Prepared

by Nathaniel Barber

Kindle Edition, 204 pg.
Take the Stairs Publishing, 2017

Read: July 22 – 24, 2017


If the title is true, Nathaniel Barber was/would have been one of the worst Boy Scouts in the world. You don’t have to read many of these non-fiction short stories to decide that luck and Barber are, at best, passing acquaintances. Which is probably good — they make for better reading that way (Barber, might disagree about the “good” there — it is his life).

These stories don’t detail his life, they give you glimpses into experiences that have stuck with him for one reason or another, and largely they resonated with me. For example, his first (disastrous) experience with being a landlord. His goals for it were pretty much what I’d envisioned the time or three I thought about trying it. How it turned out for him, is pretty much what I feared would happen to me. A lot of what happened to him as a band geek made me think of what it was like when I was one (thankfully, it was a little tamer for me). I’ve never had a coworker like Dale Kendrick, but I can name one or two individuals that easily could’ve been.

Not all of his stories are those the reader will be able to identify with — but there’s something in his telling of them that will allow you to see yourself in that situation, and feel the humanity.

There is one important difference between his life experiences and mine — or most readers’ — his are funny. Or at least the way he’s able to present them is (probably more the latter than the former). Not always in a laugh-out-loud way, sometimes it’ll just be a wry smile, or shake of the head. But Barber’s been able to mine the humor in most of these situations — frequently at his expense.

Each story has a different feel to it, so even though they’re all about the same central character, they’re individual stories. They don’t all flow chronologically — he jumps back and forth though his life, you won’t walk away with a “life story” or anything, you’ll just get a good understanding of various points in his life. It’s like sitting around a table with an old friend, “Did I ever tell you about the time . . . ”

Barber’s writing chops are evident throughout this, whether he’s going for economy of words:

Against the advice of my lawyer and stern warnings from my therapist, I accepted Elsbeth’s invitation to lunch.

or if he’s going for a visual that will stick with you:

Mr. Millson was a short, puggish man. He was skinny except for a cantaloupe gut he not only ignored but allowed to lend heft to his wagging swagger. He was short and compensated for this with a simmering, constant temper, always fired up and red-faced. Even when he was just trying to schmooze an extra scoop of Jell-O from the lunch lady. His lips were not lips, but the absence of lips. Sweaty flaps, really. Fleshy bits of face he pursed to a thin, kissy embouchure under a bulbous, alcoholic nose.

you get exactly the idea he was going for — this isn’t some sort of arty-ambiguity here, it’s a precise brushstroke. He wants you to feel what he felt, he wants you to see what he saw — and he wants you to at least grin about it. Sometimes he’s not that subtle; infrequently, he could be more skillful about it — but he’s hitting his targets, he’s evoking memories about embarrassments of our youth, empathy over similar struggles of young adulthood, or a slight feeling of dread knowing that’s exactly how you’d react in that situation. Thankfully, he generally wants that to be followed with a chuckle.

Creative, distinctive, amusing — this collection will leave you wanting to see more from Nathaniel Barber, while being very glad you have this.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion and participation in this book tour. I appreciated the book, but my opinions expressed are my own.

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4 Stars