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All Russians Love Birch Trees
Cover of All Russians Love Birch Trees
All Russians Love Birch Trees
A Novel
Borrow Borrow

An award-winning debut novel about a quirky immigrant's journey through a multicultural, post-nationalist landscape

Set in Frankfurt, All Russians Love Birch Trees follows a young immigrant named Masha. Fluent in five languages and able to get by in several others, Masha lives with her boyfriend, Elias. Her best friends are Muslims struggling to obtain residence permits, and her parents rarely leave the house except to compare gas prices. Masha has nearly completed her studies to become an interpreter, when suddenly Elias is hospitalized after a serious soccer injury and dies, forcing her to question a past that has haunted her for years.

Olga Grjasnowa has a unique gift for seeing the funny side of even the most tragic situations. With cool irony, her debut novel tells the story of a headstrong young woman for whom the issue of origin and nationality is immaterial--her Jewish background has taught her she can survive anywhere. Yet Masha isn't equipped to deal with grief, and this all-too-normal shortcoming gives a particularly bittersweet quality to her adventures.

An award-winning debut novel about a quirky immigrant's journey through a multicultural, post-nationalist landscape

Set in Frankfurt, All Russians Love Birch Trees follows a young immigrant named Masha. Fluent in five languages and able to get by in several others, Masha lives with her boyfriend, Elias. Her best friends are Muslims struggling to obtain residence permits, and her parents rarely leave the house except to compare gas prices. Masha has nearly completed her studies to become an interpreter, when suddenly Elias is hospitalized after a serious soccer injury and dies, forcing her to question a past that has haunted her for years.

Olga Grjasnowa has a unique gift for seeing the funny side of even the most tragic situations. With cool irony, her debut novel tells the story of a headstrong young woman for whom the issue of origin and nationality is immaterial--her Jewish background has taught her she can survive anywhere. Yet Masha isn't equipped to deal with grief, and this all-too-normal shortcoming gives a particularly bittersweet quality to her adventures.

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Excerpts-
  • Chapter One Back in the day, when my mother was still young, gorgeous, and successful, and before she married my father on a whim, our living room had held a grand piano. Preparing for a performance, my mother would practice for days on end. Because of hygienic concerns and the general situation, I'd gone to kindergarten only for a few weeks. Instead, I'd stayed in the living room, sitting under the grand piano and listening to my mother play.
    Whenever I saw my parents now, I always assured them that I was fine. I talked about my stipends, summer academies, internships, and stays abroad. I told them about my plans: where I would work and how much I would earn. I told them about Sami and then about Elias, and my parents believed every single word because I played my role well. When we got around to the meat dish, lamb with steamed chestnuts, dried fruit and dolma (those vine leaves stuffed with rice, round lamb, finely minced onions, and nuts), my mother laughed. I told her hospital anecdotes that I made up as I went along.
    She finally left, leaving behind pomegranates, oranges, pears, bananas, stuffed puff pastry, and the last piece of chocolate cake. I turned on the TV. A rerun episode of Tatort flickered across the screen. In Hannover all signs pointed toward the detective soon spending a hot night with a Southern European. I cranked up the volume and went off to take a shower. I thoroughly scrubbed away dead skin cells and the faint smell of hospital. I tried to recall Elias's body without the screws and the long scar on his thigh. Then I imagined kissing a woman in the staircase, in the midst of banging doors, cooking smells, and screaming children, and how I would slip my hands between her thighs. I was back on the couch, putting cream on my legs before the murderer was caught. I had a suspicion and awaited the solution.
About the Author-
  • Olga Grjasnowa was born in 1984 in Baku, Azerbaijan, grew up in the Caucasus, and has spent extended periods in Poland, Russia, and israel. She moved to Germany at the age of twelve and is a graduate of the German institute for Literature/Creative Writing in Leipzig. In 2010 she was awarded the Dramatist Prize of the Wiener Wortstätten for her debut play, Mitfühlende Deutsche (Compassionate Germans). She is currently studying dance science at the Berlin Free University.

    Eva Bacon studied German and English Literature at the Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich and has worked as an international literary scout. This is her first translation of a novel. She lives in Brooklyn.

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    September 23, 2013
    The narrator of Grjasnowa’s debut novel, Masha Kogan, speaks multiple languages but she doesn’t feel at home anywhere. Not in Germany, where her Russian-Jewish family immigrated to while fleeing war in Azerbaijan in 1987. German policy may be to build up its tiny Jewish community, but in practice immigrants of all kinds (especially Masha’s friends from Muslim backgrounds) are viewed with distrust. Not in Israel, where she moves after getting a job there as a translator and is suspect—as a Jew who speaks Arabic but not Hebrew. Her computer, which has Arabic stickers on it, is destroyed by guards at the airport because it is viewed as a security risk. Masha discovers Israel to be a jangled, violent place whose residents are either in denial about the violence around them or have trauma-induced stress disorders. Grjasnowa, who was longlisted for the 2012 German Book Prize, reveals herself to be an expert chronicler of modern displacement and of the scars left by the wars that followed the Soviet Union’s breakup—wars that most in the West managed to overlook or forget. She’s less able, though, to make us care about Masha, who, for all her grieving, flirting, and arguing, is less interesting than her circumstances.

  • Kirkus

    October 1, 2013
    A young Azerbaijan-born Jew tries to escape those ethnic and racial modifiers, with limited success, in Grjasnowa's flinty debut. Masha, the narrator of this trim but forceful novel, was born in Baku and has vivid memories of the violent ethnic strife among Azeris, Armenians and Russians there in the early 1990s. As the novel opens, she's a young woman living in Frankfurt with Elias, a German Christian, and working as a translator (she's fluent in five languages). But when Elias dies from an infected leg injury, Masha is cast adrift. She reconnects with Muslim friends and decides to take a job in Tel Aviv, which exposes her to the entrenched Jewish and Palestinian factions there. "I didn't want a genocide to be the key to my personality," she says, but past injustice is a raw wound wherever she goes, with whomever she meets. After falling for a relatively carefree Israeli, Ori, she's increasingly attracted to his sister, Tal, who's a more vociferous activist on behalf of Palestinians; the two become symbols of the opposite poles that Masha strives to avoid. Grjasnowa has endowed Masha with a caustic sense of humor that doesn't shortchange the grief she's suffered as a child or after Elias' death, and her frustration with being boxed in by identity politics is palpable. Grjasnowa is also skilled (via Bacon's translation) at describing Israel's monuments, landscapes, checkpoints and bars in clear, simple strokes. The novel's chief flaw is that the people in Masha's orbit are sometimes underdrawn--we hardly know Elias' character, or Masha's depth of feeling for him, before he's cut down. Even so, the novel closes on a note that reveals the fullness of her childhood anguish, bringing the story to a downbeat but effective end. A thoughtful, melancholy study of loss.

    COPYRIGHT(2013) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    September 15, 2013

    We know about the immigrant experience from an American perspective, but Grjasnowa gives us a fresh, important understanding from the European perspective, showing how Christians, Muslims, and Jews, those ethnically German and those not, don't quite manage coexistence in contemporary Germany. Azerbaijan-born Grjasnowa was 12 when she moved there, so she speaks with authority, as does her heroine, Masha Kogan, who's fluent in five languages and works as an interpreter. Masha is from an ethnically Russian family that fled Azerbaijan for Frankfurt, and she's Jewish despite her given name (Masha being a diminutive of Maria). Among her closest friends are cointerpreter Cem, Frankfurt-born but of Turkish origin, and first lover Sami, originally from Beirut but now a German citizen. As Masha says, almost without irony, they're "perfectly integrated model foreigners." Then her life is upended by the death of her boyfriend, Elias, and as she copes with her grief, desperate not to forget, she rediscovers German disdain. Still, she's not at home in Israel when there on assignment; for her, true home seems to reside in her nexus of friends. VERDICT Grjasnowa tells her story effectively because she works through the personal, which results in a touching and thought-provoking debut novel that's already won awards.--Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal

    Copyright 2013 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Ismet Prcic, author of Shards, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year "All Russians Love Birch Trees by Olga Grjasnowa is an astounding debut novel, both political and personal, sexual and full of grief. It captures beautifully and viscerally what it's like to lose your home due to traumatic events, what it's like to be neither a tourist nor a native no matter where you go looking for what's missing in you. To paraphrase Yevtushenko's famous line – borders are scars on the face of the planet. This book proves it, and how."
  • Leigh Stein, author of The Fallback Plan "Olga Grjasnowa paints a searing portrait of young adulthood in this ambitious novel, as we follow her characters from Frankfurt to Jerusalem, from their haunted pasts and into their uncertain futures. Darkly funny and totally devastating, All Russians Love Birch Trees will haunt you."
  • Kirkus "A thoughtful, melancholy study of loss."
  • O Magazine "[A] provocative first novel."
  • Publishers Weekly "[Grjasnowa] reveals herself to be an expert chronicler of modern displacement and of the scars left by the wars that followed the Soviet Union's breakup."
  • Yahoo! Voices "An extremely compelling read... just because you have an unusual background, doesn't mean you know how to tell a good story, and this is something that Grjasnowa certainly knows how to do...Grjasnowa has strong voice, which she has applied to a very ambitious and seemingly personal subject, to give us an admirable debut novel...a truly gifted writer...[who] has a very bright future ahead of her..."
  • Library Journal "We know about the immigrant perspective from an American perspective, but Grjasnowa gives us a fresh, important understanding from the European perspective...Grjasnowa tells her story effectively because she works through the personal, which results in a touching and thought-provoking debut novel."
  • Shelf Awareness "Grjasnowa elegantly balances explanations and demonstrations so that Masha's world comes to feel almost familiar. All Russians Love Birch Trees is part of a new global literature that sees foreignness as a condition of familiarity, that understands alienation as a way of life."
  • Elmar Krekeler, Die Welt "Here the world comes to you, as it never has appeared to you in a novel. With power, with wit, with wisdom and clarity, with subtlety and grief."
  • Ursula März, Die Zeit "Olga Grjasnowa writes from the nerve center of her generation."
  • Minneapolis Star Tribune "Grjasnowa...imbues the narrative with a unique set of circumstances related to national and cultural identity...express[ing] the tumultuousness and indirect trajectories of youth against a world that's anything but fixed."
  • The Rumpus "Azerbaijan-born German novelist Olga Grjasnowa explores this terrain of displacement and loss with an unsparing vividness...All Russians Love Birch Trees was lauded by critics when it first appeared in Germany, winning its author the Klaus Michael Kuhn prize for a debut novel and a place on the long list for the Deutscher Buchpreis (the German equivalent of the Man Booker). The novel was also adapted for stage and performed at the Maxim Gorky Theater in Berlin. Grjasnowa deserves this acclaim not only for her fearless exploration of one of the most fractious issues in contemporary Germany, but also for her stellar literary gifts...All Russians Love Birch Trees is much more than a political tract. Masha is a beautifully compelling character, someone who has witnessed horrors, and faced difficulties that would have beaten down many other people, but who moves on with a relentless determination."
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