The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
In a fantastical version of medieval Russia, Vasilisa “Vasya” Petrovna inherits her grandmother’s ability to see and commune with the household spirits and mystical creatures that live side by side with the people of her village. Free-spirited Vasya would rather run wild in the woods than perform her duties as a rich boyar’s daughter. When Vasya’s stepmother, Anna Ivanovna, comes to the household, things begin to change. Anna can also see the spirits, though she fears them and believes them to be demons. Making matters worse, the zealous, handsome Konstantin comes to serve as the village priest, and he encourages the villagers to turn from the old ways. The spirits weaken, and an unnaturally harsh winter brings death, hunger, and fear to the village. Aided by the fabled frost demon Morozko, Vasya must embrace her gift to save both her family and the village (and maybe the world) before it’s too late.
Katherine Arden’s debut is part historical fiction, part fantasy, and completely gorgeous. Lush prose and fully formed characters make for a compelling read, and Vasya is a worthy heroine. This is the first in a planned trilogy, and readers will be anxious for the next installment. Highly recommended for historical or literary fiction readers who don’t mind a dash of the fantastic. Fantasy readers who liked Uprooted by Naomi Novik will also enjoy this. This book would also be a great pick for teens.
Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing, by Anya von Bremzen
Anya von Bremzen describes life and food in 20th century Russia, the Soviet Union, and former Soviet republics. Born in Moscow in 1963, Anya and her mother Larisa moved to Philadelphia in 1974. By telling the stories of her grandparents and parents, Anya describes each decade of the 20th century, along with the food popular then. Her Jewish grandmother Liza was from Odessa on the Black Sea, her grandmother Alla was an orphan born in Turkestan and raised by a Bolshevik feminist in Uzbekistan. Her grandfather Naum was an intelligence officer, and her father Sergei helped preserve Lenin’s body through science. Through visits to family with her mother and later travels in the former republics with her boyfriend, Anya immerses the reader in the food and culture of each place and time. Trained as a pianist at Julliard, she became a James Beard award-winning food writer. We learn that standing in lines in Moscow could be a social event, as was the case when her parents met in a line for ballet tickets. The alternating availability and scarcity of various foods, such as bread and corn, could make anyone obsess over food, especially if forced to use a communal kitchen or eat caviar in kindergarten. While I don’t know if I’ll be trying any of the recipes at the end of the book, Anya’s memoir really kept my interest.