Publication Date: Jan 07, 2014
List Price US $12.99
List Price US $15.95
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.
Excerpt from All Russians Love Birch Trees
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.
“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.”
—Ismet Prcic, author of Shards, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year
“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.”
—Leigh Stein, author of The Fallback Plan
“A thoughtful, melancholy study of loss.”
“[A] provocative first novel.”
“[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.”
“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…”
“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.”
“In All Russians Love Birch Trees, Grjasnowa…exposes not just the limitations of identity but also the violence it imposes.” –Public Books
“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.”
—Elmar Krekeler, Die Welt
“Olga Grjasnowa writes from the nerve center of her generation.”
—Ursula März, Die Zeit
“[T]he protagonist is…twenty-something, darkly funny, adrift. But then tragedy strikes and the novel takes a turn towards grief…Grjasnowa’s descriptions felt fresh.”
—Warby Parker, ‘The Blog’
“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.” —Minneapolis Star Tribunes
“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.” —Shelf Awareness
“Masha, an Azerbaijani-born student living in Germany, flees to Israel after her boyfriend’s death, in this provocative first novel.” –Oprah.com
“[A] fascinating tale in which the violent background supersedes the protagonist who takes readers as a person without a homeland from Azerbaijan to Germany to Israel… Timely with the immigration debate in America, readers will appreciate the harrowing journey.” – Genre Go Round Reviews
“This is a hard and harrowing tale about losing your sense of identity….[Olga Grjasnowa’s] strong voice makes Masha and the rest of cast come across as real multidimensional characters…tackling always tricky task of describing one’s life in a multicultural society and the resulting internal turmoil which comes from having your own cultural identity displaced. All Russians Love Birch Trees…is a stunning novel about loss—one which heralds the arrival of a remarkably gifted author.” —Upcoming4.Me
“Rendered in lively prose.” —The Free Lance-Star
“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.” —The Rumpus
“In All Russians Love Birch Trees, Grjasnowa…exposes not just the limitations of identity but also the violence it imposes.” —Public Books
1. Early in the novel, Masha finds a rabbit lying in the road outside Elias’s hospital (pages 20–21). How did you react to her decision to kill it? What does this scene reveal about the character of Masha? Given that she claims she is “not religious” (20), what do you think this act means to her?
2. As the novel progresses, the chronology of the story becomes more and more jumbled by Masha’s memories of violence and of her time with Elias. How is post-traumatic stress disorder depicted in Masha’s narrative? What are her triggers? Discuss the scenes in which Masha’s childhood refugee experience interrupts her life as an adult.
3. Compare different types of escape throughout the novel. How is Masha’s escape from Azerbaijan similar to her escape from Germany, or from uncomfortable situations in general? How are they different? Is one kind more morally righteous than another?
4. While Masha is fluent in five languages and comfortable in more, and is able to live in several countries, she does not seem to identify with any one place as a “home.” Why do Masha and her young friends feel no allegiance to any one nation? How does this borderlessness affect Masha’s identity? How does it affect the people around her?
5. How did you feel about Masha and Elias’s relationship before Elias’s death? Does this relationship change in Masha’s mind as the book progresses?
6. Masha seems to draw people to her even as she struggles more and more to connect with others and with her surroundings. How does her relationship with Ori and Tal shape her time in Tel Aviv? How do her interactions with strangers influence the way we view Masha?
7. Ismael is the last character we see enter Masha’s life. How does he differ from the other people she has met in Israel? Ismael reminds Masha of Elias, having “the same gestures as Elisha and a similar voice” (266). How do you understand the days she spends with Ismael? Does he offer moments of respite and clarity, or does he propel her flight and the novel’s ending?
8. Do you think Masha is a relatable character? Are readers supposed to identify with her? What idiosyncrasies of hers suggest otherwise? Consider issues such as ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, etc.
9. How are racial, ethnic, and religious relations characterized in this novel? Does Grjasnowa identify, reinforce, or challenge any particular stereotypes? What is unusual about Masha’s perspective on Jewish-Arab hostilities? How does her background and upbringing influence her position in this discourse?