Monday, March 19, 2012

A Partial History of Lost Causes by Jennifer duBois

Title: A Partial History of Lost Causes
Author: Jennifer duBois

Genre: Fiction (Russia / 1980s / 2000s / Cambridge, MA / Chess / Politics / Incurable Diseases)
Publisher/Publication Date: The Dial Press (3/20/2012)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Loooooooooooooooooooooved!
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: Spanning the 1980s through 2008, the novel tells the dual stories of a Russian chess champion turned politician and American academic who assists him.
Reading Challenges: A-to-Z

Do I like the cover?: I do -- I believe it's the view of St. Petersburg, Russia from the Neva River, which is where much of the story is set. (Plus, part of it takes place in Cambridge at Harvard, so there's the Charles River, too, and I like the river-y image.)

I'm reminded of...: Valerie Laken, Scarlett Thomas

First line: When Aleksandr finally arrived in Leningrad, he was stunned by the great span of the Neva.

Did... I sort of get a bit glazed-eye-y at the chess talk?: YES. I don't play chess even though I wish I could, so all the rook to A5 or whatever made me a bit bored but the story was SO fabulous I didn't mind.

Am... I contemplating whether I can leave work early enough to make one of her readings?: YES. Sadly she's not hitting Boston!

Do... I love that the author will join book club discussions?: YES. I think it is so cool that authors do that, and yet again, it makes me yearn for a book club of my own!

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Buy, buy, and linger and cry and be moved and sigh.

Why did I get this book?: The cover, and the chess reference, and the Russian-y connection. I don't really recall but zomg am I grateful I did!

Review: Please forgive me while I have a brief spaz out.

THIS BOOK WAS SO GOOD WHY DID IT HAVE TO END?!

Ahem.

I'm going to be struggling a bit to provide a useful review (sorry), partially because this plot is so layered and interesting, and partially because it was so great I'm really just shaking the book emphatically at the screen as if that would convey its awesomeness.

Gary Shteyngart blurbs the book on the cover, saying among other things: "I wish I were her." To that I say: true story. I envy duBois' ability to take these seemingly different plot elements and themes -- chess, Russian politics, Huntington's Disease, terrorism, documentary film making, unrequited love -- and make them into one cohesive and coherent and captivating story.

First, I can't even summarize the plot well, so forgive me for doing it badly. Beginning in 1979, we follow Aleksandr Bezetov, a Russian chess champion, as he navigates the world of Communist and post-Communist Russia, and his eventual decision to embark on a seemingly doomed presidential campaign against Vladimir Putin. Having watched friends and enemies die and disappear, he's filled with a kind of pragmatic fatalism -- the same kind that fills American Irina Ellison. Thirty-ish, Irina has Huntington's, an incurable and debilitating disease that threatens to fully emerge any year, and on a whim, she decides to chase down the Russian chess champion that her father tried to correspond with decades ago. Once she finds Aleksandr, she becomes his copy editor, and joins his campaign, one that could be considered a lost cause.

The writing is great -- smart but readable, pretty but not overly descriptive -- and I just clicked with duBois' characters. The two leads aren't exactly heroes, nor are they anti-heroes; they're complicated and maddening people, compelling -- I followed them for 370ish pages without complaint and wanted, desperately, more. (It ended exactly where it needed to, though.) The last chapter killed me -- I'm kind of getting teary remembering! -- as it was so deliciously sad and bitter and sweet and pragmatic and hopeful. I reread it this morning on the train to linger with the feeling. Honestly, the whole book was like this -- moving without feeling trite, and coolly pessimistic without feeling unemotional -- and I clearly can't rave enough about it.

In the end, Jennifer duBois needs to be writing more novels, please. Immediately. And you need to read this one, stat.

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GIVEAWAY!

I'm thrilled to offer a copy of A Partial History of Lost Causes to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/CA readers, ends 4/6.

35 comments:

  1. I started this book recently for my spot on the tour; a little show initially for me, but it's starting to pick up so I'm reassured by your review! Very excited to continue reading it.

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    1. Yes -- I would say it started slow for me, too, but once I got to Irina's story I was hooked -- and then it was a love affair. I'm off to check out your review of Lisey's Story (and hoping you loved it like I did!). :)

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  2. I'm sold! The unusual (for me) setting and plot definitely have me intrigued.

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    1. Exactly -- it's modern-y Russia but not a Cold War thriller, so this was a novel locale for me, and I loved it.

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  3. Wow, talk about a raving review! I've added it to the wish-list, even though I just know it'll break my heart into smithereens...

    I'm also attracted to novels about chess, even though I can't play myself. Have you read The Flanders Panel by Arturo Perez-Reverte?

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    1. I have, and it was a guilty pleasure read -- super fun (despite the chess stuff going over my head!).

      The end of this book is so.sad.but.so.good!!

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  4. I love it when you gush!! Thank you SO much for being on the tour!

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    1. Lisa: Thank you for having me -- what a treat of a novel to read!!

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  5. Your enthusiasm bounces off of the page!! Seriously... I love how you sum everything up.

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    1. Ti, thank you -- I'm glad it isn't too obnoxious. Monday, plus book love equals a super, super gush-y me!

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  6. We watched a movie last night that centered on chess (French movie Queen to Play with Kevin Kline) and I thought it would be boring because of the chess but it wasn't at all, even though I know nothing about chess! Well the chess was kind of metaphoric and all, but still, it was totally central in the plot and yet it was a really good movie! And I love St. Petersburg, so I think I will have to fill out the form! :--)

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    1. Do it, do it, do it! ;)

      The chess is a metaphor here, too, problem-solving and challenges and the failing human brain -- and my not understanding it didn't at all impair my ability to love this book hardcore. I'll have to look for that movie!

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  7. I just can't tell from this review if you liked the book or not.... LOL, j/k. =)
    Sounds fantastic! I still have a couple other books you highly recommended on my MUST READ list so I'll have to add this. I remember learning chess in 3rd grade at school and knowing all these tricks.. I never thought about it again until I started playing "chess with friends" on my phone with my dad (I lose every.single.game) so I might actually be interested in that part too!

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    1. I know -- I'm like rave-a-book-girl these days, but such good stuff is coming out!

      You might enjoy this book especially as one of the passages is about when Irina recalls the day she beat her father at chess. Very poignant.

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    2. Love with that many l's? I'm totally hooked. This one sounds awesome.

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    3. It was uh-may-zing. With extra zing. Gah, I could so go for a reread right now!

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  8. Hm, I am intrigued :) Something, well just something seems right

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    1. Exactly -- everything comes together beautifully, and the writing is SO great. Guh -- I could reread this now if I had the time!

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  9. I love it when you're so enthusiastic about a book! This book sounds terrific and the main characters sound so interesting. The strange thing is a just read a great review of this book in Elle magazine by Kate Christensen then opened my email and there was your book review! I don't know how to play chess but I love the game!?! I's guess it probably has meaning to the book beyond just a game especially considering Irina's health and a flailing political campaign.

    I'll be adding this to my wishlist, with your name once again, of course!

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    1. Finishing a marvelous book is such a good/bittersweet feeling. And being the social pusher I am, I just can't help wanting to get it in everyone's hands. Certainly the game of chess was reflected as a greater theme in the novel, but unlike Cold War thrillers, where I think there's a chess strategy/spy strategy thing going on, this was much more about one's internal challenges. So many layers -- would make a fabulous book club book

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  10. There are some books that make me want to linger between the pages, and these are the books that I read slowly and savor. It sounds like this was one of those books. I am so glad that your love for this novel was so deeply reflected in your review, and that your experience was so wonderful. I need to read this one!

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  11. I have read a few books recently set in Russia and have loved them. This one sounds amazing, after reading your review I know I am going to have to read it soon!

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    1. Anne -- this has marvelous place-as-character -- modern day St. Petersburg, which is a place I rarely visit in fiction! Made me shivery -- even when it's been 70ish here in Boston!

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  12. I read the description for this one on Amazon awhile back and it didn't really pique my interest but your review makes me think I need to give it a go :)

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    1. The description certainly captures part of the story but I think the blurb feels too clinical -- this is a restrained-yet-emotional story. But not melodrama. Just delicious writing. Clearly, I can't rave enough!

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  13. Sounds like another good book, though I'm not sure I can deal with all that Chess talk.

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    1. It wasn't too bad, actually -- just a few passages where the characters played, and the author explained the significance of the moves.

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  14. Wow! one of those books that if you told me just the premise, I might not think it was for me... but your review makes it sound so appealing! So glad to learn of it! (also I really love that title).

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  15. I'm quite interested in a book that describes chess moves in detail yet remains readable. Chess has always fascinated me, but I've never been able to completely learn the game. Your review definitely piqued my interest more than the jacket copy alone!

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  16. I got this one through LibraryThing early reviewers and it has sadly been languishing on my shelf. Once my Orange reading is done, I will make time for it!

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  17. I really liked this book too, and I think I'm a fan of Stegner fellowship winners at Stanford now (see also Jessmyn Ward).

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  18. When I first heard of this book, I was put off by all the chess & politics stuff. But you make it sound amazing! I'll definitely have to check it out. Thanks for a marvelous review.

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  19. Review makes this sound like a book I cannot wait to read.

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  20. Um, ok, this is going to the top of my TBR list RIGHT NOW - it sounds amazing!!!

    I'm featuring your review on TLC's Facebook page. Thanks for being on the tour Audra.

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  21. Valerie Laken and Scarlett Thomas comparisons? I'm sold. Adding it to my TBR> Thanks!

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