Friday, January 23, 2015

To Russia We Go

Published in 1948, A Russian Journal, by John Steinbeck, is his account of spending just over a month traveling in Russia at the beginning of the Cold War.  Steinbeck traveled with war photographer Robert Capa.  As Steinbeck explains in the book, his goal was to write about the lives of every day Russians, not to take a political or ideological stance, and ultimately has a very good experience there and enjoys his time with the generous and friendly Russian people he and Capa meet along the way.  In doing so, he reports about the various Russian cities and towns he visits, the food he eats, people's clothes and customs, and his experiencing traveling in planes, jeeps, etc. throughout the country.  The book captures Steinbeck's signature ability to write clearly to the heart of the matter, with no shortage of humor as well.  While this wasn't my favorite Steinbeck, it is an interesting one.  Some of my favorite passages:

"At last the plane took off, and as it did, a man sitting next to me opened his suitcase, cut off half a pound of raw bacon which was melting in the heat, and sat chewing it, the grease running down his chin.  He was a nice man, with merry eyes, and he offered me a piece, but I didn't feel like it at that moment."

"It was equipped with blades that were scissors, blades that were files, awls, saws, can-openers, beer-openers, corkscrews, tools for removing stones from a horse's foot, a blade for eating and a blade for murder, a screw driver and a chisel.  You could mend a watch with it, or repair the Panama Canal.  It was the most wonderful pocketknife anyone has ever seen, and we had it nearly two months, and the only thing we ever did with it was to cut sausages. But it must be admitted that the knife cut sausages very well."

"Our driver was, as usual, wonderful, an ex-cavalry man, and he had, of all things, a jeep.  The jeep does not bring out the best in anyone, and in a cavalry man it brings out the cowboy....He drove like a mad man, he was afraid of no one.  Again and again, in traffic, outraged drivers forced him to the curb, and there would be an exchange of violent Georgian language, and our man would smile and drive off.  He won all engagements.  We loved him."

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