The Master and Margarita

The Master and Margarita

Mikhail Bulgakov

“Really, I would pawn my soul to the devil to find out whether he is alive or dead.”

Wow. What can I say about this book . . . ?

I heard about this book through an article I stumbled across in which Daniel Radcliffe names The Master and Margarita as his favourite novel. He describes the story perfectly when he says, “it’s just the greatest explosion of imagination, craziness, satire, humor, and heart.”

I loved this novel. In all honesty it is a romp of insanity and hilarity; I would recommend it highly. The novel follows the devil (who is undercover as a magician), his talking cat and an assassin through 1930s Moscow. Throughout the story the trio bewilders everyone it comes across, causing hysteria and tragedy. Several sub-plots, including those of Pilontias Pilate (the fifth prefect of Judaea from AD 26–36, best known today for the trial and crucifixion of Jesus) and the Master (who is writing a book about Pilate and now lives in a mental hospital), finish out this one-of-a-kind story.

The edition of the novel that I read is an English translation from the original Russian text completed by Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O’Connor. I did some research about the various translations in existence before reading the novel, but I found this copy at a second-hand bookstore in Toronto and couldn’t pass up on the low price, so I read this version. Since I have not read any other editions I cannot comment too much on the specifics, but I can say that I did not find myself stumbling over translation oddities.

While I thoroughly enjoyed the adventures of the trio at the centre of the book and the individuals it comes across, this is definitely a novel I would like to read again. I did find that it took me a little while to get into the book, maybe because of the unique nature of the story; I have never read anything even remotely similar to this. I finished the novel feeling like there was so much that I had missed. There are countless references to Russian culture that I know Russian audiences would appreciate and understand a lot more than I did. The edition that I have is helpful in that it has a commentary section at the back of the volume, but there are not footnotes or anything in the text indicating that there is an accompanying note, so I didn’t even realize the section was there until I had finished the story. When I re-read this book I will try to use that commentary to help me with the more intricate details of the story.

Another point to touch on is the names in the novel. I had a really difficult time keeping track of which character was which. The story takes place in Moscow and, as such, the names are Russian and are unfamiliar to me. Because of this unfamiliarity, I had some trouble keeping the names straight and remembering the details attached to any one name when that character appeared again later in the novel. The names all seemed very similar to me, and it was a bit confusing.

These minor quibbles aside, this is a fantastic, philosophical, satiric, ironic novel that never fails to surprise and amuse its reader. A more casual reader will appreciate its wit and storytelling while a more invested reader will find endless subtext and complexity to enjoy. If you need something out-of-the-norm that will make you laugh out loud and scratch your head at the same time, take a trip to Moscow to meet this unforgettable cast of characters.

Story: 9/10

Writing: 7/10*

*This is a translation

Edge of Eternity

Edge of Eternity

Ken Follett

“George shrugged and said no more. Nowadays he avoided discussions with outsiders. They usually had easy answers: send all the Mexicans home, put Hells Angels in the army, castrate the queers. The greater their ignorance, the stronger their opinions.”

I have really enjoyed each of the Ken Follett novels I have read up until now, and this is no exception. Every once in a while I like to get immersed in a big story. In these books you can stay with the characters you get to know and love for an extended period of time.

Edge of Eternity is the final book in Ken Follett’s Century Trilogy. This novel takes on the seemingly impossible task of tying up about 3000 pages of stories that follow five families – American, German, Russian, English and Welsh – as they navigate through the tumultuous twentieth century. It does a good job.

The first installation, Fall of Giants, covers the period from 1911 through 1923, while the second, Winter of the Word, covers the years 1933 through 1949. This third and final installation spans the largest period of the three, from 1961 through 1989 (or 2008, if you count the epilogue). It covers the rocky Cold War era with incredible historical detail through the stories of characters of all ages and from all walks of life.

If you enjoy books with a large and potentially confusing cast of characters, this book is for you. I really like the way this novel gives us perspectives from various countries, generations, sexes and social statuses. That being said, it does become difficult at times to remember all of the characters and their connections to one another. The five families at the centre of this trilogy are connected more and more deeply (and become more entangled) as the trilogy progresses, and I often found myself trying to remember events involving the families 60 years earlier than the scene I was reading. While this was a welcome task for me, I understand that this kind of character web is not for everyone, so be warned.

In terms of the plot, this installation (like the first two) is very heavily focused on the politics of the era in which the story takes place. Each family is connected to politics in a major way, and this was sometimes tiresome for me. I would have liked to see more of the plot focused on the character relationships outside of the political world. That being said, life in this era (and any era) cannot be easily separated from what was happening in the world politically, so the political focus does provide some necessary context for the thoughts and decisions we see from the characters throughout the story.

In terms of historical detail, this novel is rich. Growing up in Canada, not much time in school was spent on American history, and the European history I studied just barely got into the beginnings of the Cold War era. As a result, I found myself learning a ton from this novel. While I had heard of the Cuban Missile Crisis, J.F. Kennedy’s assassination, the fall of the Berlin Wall and several other major historic moments, I knew little of their political and social details and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing them from various perspectives in this novel. I often found myself looking for more information about these issues and will no doubt continue to do so now that I have finished the trilogy.

After reading the first two books in this trilogy, opening to the first pages of Edge of Eternity felt a bit like going home. I have become heavily invested in the Dewar, Peshkov, Jakes, Leckwith, Williams, Murray, Franck and Dvorkin families (and the hyphenated results). I like the choice Follett made to follow the same families through the century to give some familiarity to an otherwise unstable world. While each book could probably stand on its own, so much of the subtle character detail and so many of the references to past times and generations would be lost if you chose to read one installation of the trilogy in isolation. When I finished this novel I found myself wondering what would happen in the next generations of these families and I was a bit gloomy when I realized there would not be a fourth book to show me these stories.

While I have read mixed reviews of this novel I really enjoyed this book. If you are looking for an accessible and enthralling account of the twentieth century told through interesting and interconnected characters, I would highly recommend giving the Century Trilogy a try. It is quite a commitment to take on books of this size and scope (all together you are looking at 2908 pages . . . yes, I did the math), but there is something for everyone in these stories and I am sure you will learn something while you read. The most profound takeaway from these novels for me was how similar the world today is to the world of yesterday. There were many instances in this book in which I found myself thinking I could see this on the news tonight and not blink an eye. We have been fighting each other, and loving each other, for the same reasons for hundreds of years. By telling these stories, Ken Follett’s Edge of Eternity is as relevant now as it ever will be.

Story: 8/10

Writing: 8/10

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

“I wonder how the book got to Guernsey? Perhaps there is a homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers.”

This is one of my all-time favourite books. I came across this novel several years ago when my mom read it and the cover caught my eye (yes, I do judge books by their covers). Since then, I am guessing I have read this book about five times and it never fails to make me smile. I cannot speak highly enough of this novel.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a series of letters written between the characters in the story just after the Second World War. Juliet is a London-based writer trying to find the passion for a topic that can hold her attention long enough to write a book. One day, she receives a letter from a stranger named Dawsey, a resident of the island of Guernsey, who came into possession of one of Juliet’s old books during the war. From this chance connection, Juliet is taken up with the story of the wartime occupation of Guernsey and the lives of its residents, particularly of the “Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society,” which arose from hilarious and terrifying wartime circumstances.

While I have seen mixed reviews of the style of this novel, I love the use of letters to tell this story. The letters in this collection come from every character we meet in the novel, giving us points of view otherwise impossible in a story like this. We get the innermost thoughts and feelings of these characters. We see their insecurities, their dreams, their successes and failures, their quirks. I fell in love with every single one of these individuals: Juliet, Sidney, Isola, Eben, Eli, Kit and Dawsey, even the more neurotic Miss Adelaide Addison, and the hilariously dark Lady Bella Taunton whose character reference for Juliet is, in my opinion, worth the price of admission.

Without giving away the wonderful stories and taking away from the enjoyment of reading this novel, I cannot say much more about its plot or the specifics of its characters. What I can say is, on those days you are searching your shelves for a quick, light-hearted read that can make you smile, can make you cry and can make you fall in love with books, look no farther than Guernsey.

Story: 10/10

Writing: 10/10