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An almost-too-real portrait of modern Russia

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'A Terrible Country' by Keith Gessen
'A Terrible Country' by Keith Gessen
Courtesy of publisher

Every week, The Thread checks in with booksellers around the country about their favorite books of the moment. This week, we spoke with Kate Jacobs from Little City Books in Hoboken, N.J.

Keith Gessen's portrayal of modern Russia in his new novel, "A Terrible Country," is so vivid, bookseller Kate Jacobs initially thought it felt a little too real.

"Being half-Russian, I'm always worried about Russia, and I'm always very defensive about people's poor impressions of it, because it's such a complicated and tragic place in so many ways," Jacobs said.

"But then, thinking about it, I really lived with the book and the story."

The novel follows a man who emigrated to America from Russia when he was young. He grows up as an American, becomes a Russian studies major, and when the book opens, he's looking for work.

"He can't get a job, he's a depressed academic," Jacobs said. Then, he gets a call.

His brother, who stayed behind in Russia, is a "wheeler-dealer oligarch." Come back to Russia and take care of grandma, his brother tells him, I have to leave the country for a while.

Summoned back to Moscow, the man moves in with his grandmother.

"The grandmother is the most wonderful character. She's a very elderly and frail Jewish lady who was very much part of the political resistance in her time, she is ironically living in an apartment near Stalin's prisons. She's fading, but she's brilliant at word games and she has very strong feelings about what's going on in Russia."

As he settles in with his grandmother, he also pursues a new life: "He meets a girl, he gets involved disastrously with some politics ... It's just this utterly real, modern description of what it is like to be there at this time.

"It's very harsh and it's full of violence and incongruities, but it's also truly full of the Russian spirit. There's the warmth and character of what Russian people are like, so it's very moving."

Also, "it's a beautiful portrait of the relationship between the man and his grandmother, if you've ever cared for an elderly person."

Ultimately, Jacobs said, she came around about whether to recommend the novel. "I think it's actually a really humane view, and a very realistic view [of Russia]."

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