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The absurd, hilarious classic you shouldn't skip

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'The Master & Margarita' by Mikhail Bulgakov
"The Master and Margarita" by Mikhail Bulgakov
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 to Brandy O'Briant from Page 1 Books in Evanston, Ill.

Brandy O'Briant didn't choose to read this classic in college — she was assigned it.

"I took a class called Absurdity in Literature," she said. "It wasn't a class I was comfortable taking, or wanted to take. I really cared much more about 19th century heroines, but this is something I was required to take."

"We read a lot of interesting stuff. We read 'Gravity's Rainbow' and 'The Crying of Lot 49' and things that in hindsight I'm really glad I have read and experienced. But the one book that stuck with me, that I re-read regularly is 'The Master and Margarita.'"

"The basic premise is that the devil shows up in [Stalinist-era] Moscow, and he's a very well-dressed, dapper gentleman, who comes with this really motley crew of characters," O'Briant said. "The main thing I like about this book is that it's hilarious."

"There's a lot of sharp satire and commentary about the intellectual elite in Russia ... The first part of the book is set in modern Moscow, and the second part of the book is set in ancient Jerusalem, around the story of Pontius Pilate."

There's a writer, who has been sentenced to an asylum for his book about Pilate; and there's the writer's lover, Margarita, who attends a ball at the invitation of the devil.

"I know all of those sounds incredibly crazy and complicated, but it isn't when you're reading it. Part of it you're laughing so hard at how absurd the book is but also how right-on it is about the time in which it was written."

"You think about the idea of the devil coming to Russia during the Soviet Union, and you think: OK, could you hit me over the head any harder with symbolism? But he doesn't play it like that; it's not heavy handed at all. You leave the book with the feeling of, well, I think the line in the book is: If you can't cry, you might as well laugh."

O'Briant recommended this book while working in her brand-new bookstore, Page 1 Books, which just opened in Evanston, Ill. — the same place where she first read "The Master and Margarita." 

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