Russia, secrets, and dazzling jewellery

Plus, a woman who can’t recognize faces; weird historical housemates; Ian Tyson’s memoirs; the man who invented the computer and a biography of Sarah Bernhardt
Russia, secrets, and dazzling jewellery
'Russian Winter': A former dancer at the Bolshoi Ballet decides to put her jewellery up for auction, less of necessity and more from spite | Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

Russia, secrets, and dazzling jewelleryRUSSIAN WINTER
Daphne Kalotay
In a sweeping debut novel, Kalotay throws back the curtain to reveal what really goes on at an auction house, and specifically, the skills required, in this instance, to cajole information out of a prized client offering up sumptuous and dazzling pieces from her life at the Bolshoi Ballet in its Stalin-era heyday. But Russian Winter is much more than mere behind-a-cultural-scene entertainment, well-rendered as that world is: it’s also a window into an older world of poetry, dance, betrayal, true and false love, thwarted ideals and secrets kept tighter than a sealed drum.

Nina Revskaya is the now-octogenarian client, ready to dispense with her jewellery less of necessity and more from spite, and her story emerges through evocative flashbacks to a Russia struggling to assert itself under post-Lenin Communist rule. Drew Brooks is the auction representative, free of a failed marriage that wreaked havoc on her self-confidence. Along with Nina’s and Drew’s stories, Kalotay brings in a third—that of a Russian-born literature professor with his own stake in the jewellery auction—adding even more tension to the narrative.

With auction notes of Revskaya’s jewels punctuating the past and present with sly wit, Russian Winter moves at a lively clip. Kalotay, a Canadian living in Boston, has brought to life hidden worlds with the verve of an expertly executed tour jeté.

Russia, secrets, and dazzling jewelleryYOU DON’T LOOK LIKE ANYONE I KNOW
Heather Sellers
Bad childhoods are often a prerequisite for a memoir, and Sellers’s certainly qualifies. Her mother nailed windows shut, enlisted Sellers in her early morning pursuits of suspicious vehicles, and became even more unpredictable after Sellers’s parents’ divorce. Her father drank gin like water, wore a bra and pantyhose under his clothes and called his girlfriends “livestock.” But what’s different about Sellers’s bad childhood is a condition that distanced her from the chaos going on around her. Sellers has prosopagnosia, or face blindness. She sees faces clearly, but has no ability to store any memory of them, and can’t reliably recognize the people in her life—not even herself in photographs. She relies on distinguishing characteristics to tell people apart—blue hair or a gangly walk—but this trick often fails her. All this leaves her, as she writes, “used to being blindsided.”

You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know begins with Sellers taking the man she would later marry to Orlando to meet her parents. Seen through Dave’s eyes, the drama that unfolds becomes tangible for her in a way it never had before. Sellers begins to wonder whether her mother might be mentally ill, and then wonders how it is she’d never considered the possibility before. She fears her inability to recognize people means she is crazy too. This worry is what eventually brings her to a diagnosis in her late 30s at the hands of Harvard scientists. As she awkwardly comes out about her condition to colleagues at the Michigan college where she teaches creative writing, she faces skepticism (“You think you have everything! You are making this up!”).

Sellers’s stoic acceptance of her circumstances makes her story both fascinating and heart-wrenching. She writes beautifully, with bits of poetry nestled comfortably into an honestly told tale of a long journey toward acceptance. For readers of her memoir, Sellers’s face may soon be one that stands out in a crowd.

Christiane Kohl
Some historical facts seem just too weird to be true. But in 1945 the American occupiers in Germany really did organize the Nuremberg war crimes trials in such a way as to bunk together prosecution and defence witnesses, Nazis and victims, in the same commandeered guest house. As much as that arrangement can only be described as an invitation to violent revenge, the Americans’ installation of Countess Ingeborg Kálnoky, a beautiful Hungarian refugee, as household manager seems to have kept the place civil.

The Nazis, naturally enough, are more historically prominent than their often random victims: among the former was Heinrich Hoffman, Hitler’s personal and shamelessly venal photographer (the Allies were very impressed with how his Führer-and-entourage photos put the lie to those accused who claimed to have never met the Nazi leader); and Rudolf Diels, a lady-killer who charmed Kálnoky. He was also the Gestapo’s founding leader, and for the Americans, a man who might have a lot to say about his boss, Hermann Göring. They argued among themselves about degrees of guilt and the virtue of following orders, but were united in their resentment over victors’ justice.

From the victims’ side came a stream of camp survivors whose names went unrecorded by the countess, who was both snobbish and disturbed by the physical condition and spiritual hopelessness of many. For one, she entered only the following in her journal: “The man had hardly any teeth left, and showed me the scars of dog bites on his legs.”

Kálnoky was busiest, not with clashes between perpetrators and victims (who kept to themselves), but with moderating disputes between the Germans, and overseeing the way they worked themselves into a tacit silence on contentious matters. The process, as Kohl convincingly argues in her fascinating account, amounted to a practice run for how West Germany would function for its first 20 years: by ignoring the past until Germans could face up to it.

Russia, secrets, and dazzling jewelleryTHE LONG TRAIL
Ian Tyson
Sixteen-year-old singing sensation Justin Bieber just released his autobiography. Hockey star Eric Lindros put out his memoirs at age 18, before he’d played a single game in the NHL. Canadian singing legend Ian Tyson will suffer no such embarrassment. Tyson has written the story of his life in the fullness of time and with the benefit of much hindsight. The result is a remarkably honest version of his 77 years—pride in many accomplishments mixed liberally with a wistful sadness.

Few Canadian songwriters have had such an impact across genres. Ian and Sylvia were pioneers of the folk revival movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s, and the married duo rubbed shoulders with the likes of Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary. When folk turned to rock, they kept pace with their country-rock band Great Speckled Bird. Eventually, however, Tyson found himself more interested in cattle and cutting horses than changing with the musical times. After retreating to a working ranch in Longview, Alta., he enjoyed a surprising second act as raconteur of the authentic Old West. His 1987 album Cowboyography proved the biggest seller of his career.

Yet Tyson admits this success has come at a cost. His dedication to the footloose life of a cowboy (and a wandering eye) seems to sour all his close relationships. “I spent most of my time on the farm. She preferred [Toronto’s tony] Rosedale,” he says of his divorce from Sylvia in 1975. When he moves to Arizona for part of the year to soak up western horse culture, his second marriage falls apart as well. And his bond with his children remains distant. “I’ve certainly had my share of failures,” he writes, “but life is a series of mistakes and corrections. The best you can do is honour the truth.”

Having closely examined his own full life, Tyson recognizes a need to pass the torch. The recipient is Alberta singer Corb Lund, himself a former rodeo rider. “He’s kind of like my successor,” writes Tyson. “It will be interesting to see just how big he gets.”

Russia, secrets, and dazzling jewelleryTHE MAN WHO INVENTED THE COMPUTER
Jane Smiley
The premise couldn’t be simpler: a Pulitzer-winning novelist applies her gift for storytelling to the life of an underappreciated innovator. But is the book’s title defensible?

John Vincent Atanasoff (1903-1995), an Iowa State University professor of physics, was the first person to build an electronic calculating device on digital principles. The Atanasoff-Berry Computer (1942) seems like a small miracle in retrospect, appearing suddenly in history in a basement at a cow college. (That isn’t a gratuitous insult. Atanasoff’s research was funded by the school’s agricultural experiment station.) But the ABC wasn’t a programmable general-purpose device; it was designed solely to solve systems of multiple linear equations.

Individual features of Atanasoff’s design were certainly essential to the development of the modern computer, and in 1973 a U.S. court annihilated corporate-owned “ENIAC patents” that failed to acknowledge Atanasoff’s prior art. Smiley turns the ENIAC case into first-rate courtroom drama. Atanasoff had no financial stake in the battle, but when his former graduate student Clifford Berry turned up dead in a hotel room in 1963, Atanasoff suspected foul play and went on a crusade to document their partnership. Judge Earl Larson’s passing remark identifying Atanasoff as the “inventor” of the computer would beget generations of controversy. Larson was certainly right to strike the patents, but nonetheless, the ABC, as built, was a “computer” only in the sense that a 14th-century astrolabe is.

Smiley knows that the all-purpose computer has many fathers. Though billed as a biography, Smiley’s book contrasts Atanasoff with contemporary computing innovators like Alan Turing, John von Neumann, and Konrad Zuse. (It’s a novelist’s choice: all of these men led more interesting lives than Atanasoff.) The stories knit to form a stylish, technically well-informed history of early computing, one that is particularly valuable for being founded on up-to-the-minute sources. Parts of this tale covering the Second World War and the Cold War are still emerging from the fog of official secrecy; others, like the circumstances of Berry’s death, may remain enigmatic forever.

Russia, secrets, and dazzling jewellerySARAH: THE LIFE OF SARAH BERNHARDT
Robert Gottlieb
“This is certainly a good story, so why ask whether it’s a true one?” The year is 1870, the Germans have laid siege to Paris, and the great French actress Sarah Bernhardt is flitting about in search of provisions for the wounded. She encounters a dashing hussar (who happens to be a former lover), and quickly secures his promise to send supplies. Then she notes how warm his fur coat looks. He hands it over, laughing and asking, “Will you allow me to keep my muffler?”

The tale, which comes from Bernhardt’s own memoirs, is one of many autobiographical accounts Robert Gottlieb suspects are less than true. And it makes sense that Bernhardt, best known for her melodramatic death scenes, would have been inclined to embellish (if not fabricate) her life story. But Gottlieb astutely suggests there were deeper-seated reasons behind Bernhardt’s affinity for make-believe—chief among them the fact that her mother, a Jewish courtesan, never loved her, and her father (whose identity is undetermined) was never around. Gottlieb muses that the tragic plays for which Bernhardt was most famous—Phèdre (by Jean Racine), for example, and La Dame aux Camélias (by Alexandre Dumas fils)—“provided her with opportunities to unleash her passion, her fury, her pathos upon the world . . . Perhaps this was the only way she could assuage the traumas of her childhood and youth.”

Gottlieb (former editor-in-chief at such publishing giants as Simon & Schuster and the New Yorker) respectfully recounts Bernhardt’s version of things while also digging out more objective reports—there are suggestions, for instance, that her early fame was largely based on offstage activities (she, too, did a turn as a courtesan). But Gottlieb is mostly kind to Bernhardt, revealing some of her lesser-known charms. Common sense, for one—at age 71, she bravely insisted on having her leg amputated, unwilling to stand the pain from an old knee injury. She also loved to laugh, was enormously generous and spoke out fiercely against anti-Semitism and other injustices. She was uniquely independent, choosing all her own roles for the better part of her 60-year career. And though most of them were tragic, the true story of Bernhardt’s life, as Gottlieb unearths it, is that she lived it fully, happily and completely on her own terms.