Nobody was waiting for Clare Clark’s Savage Lands when I initially borrowed it from the library, having requested it weeks ahead when the Orange Prize longlist had been announced. So I was really surprised when it came time to renew it and I found that it had a hold queue, which meant that I had to return it myself.

It’s only fair, really, because I wasn’t a good reader for it. If I’d actually progressed with every attempt I’d made to read the first  pages, I probably would have been 50 pages into the novel, but, as it was, I’d never made it past page six and just kept turning the same early pages in hopes of something catching hold. I’ll try again another time and, hopefully, someone else is now happily reading along in it instead.

Meantime, I will substitute bookchat of an older Orange Prize contender for today. And I was thrilled to happen upon Gina Ochsner’s The Russian Dreambook of Color and Flight on the New Books shelf in the library. Its title leapt out of the 2009 longlist, but it’s only recently been published in North America, so it’s also my final read for the Twenty-Ten Challenge “New in 2010” category.

I’m not the ideal reader for The Russian Dreambook of Color and Flight though, or else the combination of an extraordinarily riveting mystery and a incontrovertibly charming novel from Coffee House Press on either side of it stole a bit of its colour. (Or maybe I was just sour about the publisher’s need to spell that ‘color’ on the cover, but maintain the English spelling of ‘colour’ in the text.)

Nonetheless, although I did not adore it (which I thought I might based on the playful title and cover illustration), there are things I admire about it and I can see where the right reader would fall in love with it.

On her website, Gina Ochsner is particularly passionate about Milorad Pavic’s novel Dictionary of the Khazars, and she also recommends The Fish Can Sing by Halldor Laxness, Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller, and more vehemently, “my favourite book of all time is Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude. If you’ve not yet read it, you must stop reading everything else and – right now, as in this very moment – run out and find a copy”. Interview

These suggestions make me question whether I am Ochsner’s perfect reader because I do think that many writers tend to write the kinds of books that they love to read. Well, I loved the idea and presentation of Pavic’s novel, but I never really warmed to it; Laxness’ work I haven’t felt compelled to explore (do you think I should?); and Hrabal’s work I don’t know, but with such a resounding recommendation I couldn’t help but make a note of this one. Nonetheless, the one book she does mention that I absolutely adore and admire is Calvino’s.

When I think of The Russian Dreambook of Color and Flight and If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, I do find some shared qualities, beyond their wordy and intriguing titles: the playfulness, the deep appreciation of irony, the influence of and importance placed on artistry, and a focus on the interconnections between people and happenings in their lives.

It’s been years since I read IOAWNAT, but I can imagine a bit like this appearing in its pages: “The colour of a shrug. An echo bouncing from corner to corner inside a very large church. The texture of a shadow in early May. The things people remember and will never forget for as long as they live.” (354)

Ochsner’s use of language is interesting and I do share her interest in people and memory and the importance of the past (remembered, subconscious, forgotten, denied). I love that the following image was one of the major inspirations for TRDOC&F when one of her many people-watching expeditions, throughout her travels in Russia (researching the novel thanks to a National Endowment for the Arts), took her to the Arctic-Antarctic Museum.

“Once my ticket had been stamped, the two women, both quite elderly, set about dusting the taxidermied animals in all the exhibits. One animal held their complete attention: a threadbare boreal wolf. With great care and obvious pride the eldest of the women climbed—very nimbly – on a step ladder and combed the wolf’s coat of hair. It’s an image I couldn’t shake and I knew after watching her that somehow she or someone like her would become part of a story. I had to wonder in a country as large as Russia, how many women were there like her working in a museum, some quite fine and others not so fine?” Interview

And what I did find truly remarkable about this novel, evident in small details like those in this real-life scene and also in more sweeping statements, was the way that it brought its setting to life. I’m not sure that I’ve read a novel set in relatively recent times in Russia (think: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turganev, Elana Dykewomon’s Beyond the Pale) and the experiences of Gina Ochsner’s characters do paint social, economic, political, and psychological realities in the context of everyday lives, in an unforgettable way. I’m inclined to share the long list of quotations that I pulled on this subject but I realize that individually they don’t have the same power; in combination they are very evocative, and definitely a worthwhile reading experience.

The novel’s narrators include a middle-aged translator, who works at a newspaper and lives with her son (who also narrates portions of the novel) and his girlfriend, a widow who operates the Little Necessary outside of the apartment building and the ghost of her husband who haunts her and other residents, and a young woman who works in the museum; their stories intertwine and brush against the lives of other characters who don’t play a direct role in narration, and Gina Ochsner’s work has left me with the sense of an expanded reader’s palette.

My OP 2010 reading stats: 12 bookchatted here, 2 still to cover for sure, 2 that might arrive in time,
1 those duedate I completely disrespected and so it ended up returned unread, 3 definitely out-of-reach.
The winner will be announced on June 9th: anyone placing bets yet?