I realize I was predisposed to like Wendell Steavenson's book. Sometimes when I'm reading, I remind myself of Will Farrell in Elf: "Santa!!! I *KNOW* him!!" I get so excited that someone else has shared my life experiences that I forget to look for anything else in the text. So, when Ms. Steavenson opened up her book with a description of her visit to the private Stalin shrine outside of Tbilisi, I was hooked.
The first time I was in the Soviet Union, going to school at LGU, we took a late summer tour to the Ukraine and Soviet Georgia. I hated Georgia for reasons that don't need to be described here, but it was also the place of the most unforgettable--and afterward indescribable--events of the entire summer. And most indescribable was our unscheduled visit to the house of one Temuri (Timor) Kunelauri. Mr. Kunelauri had turned his home into a monument to the life and career of Stalin. Actually, it wasn't just his home, it was his yard, as well. The yard was fenced, but the fence was covered so densely with vines you'd never know there was even a support system underneath. The vines also stretched overhead, turning the garden into something of an interior space--very Mediterranean. Mixed in with the vines was all the Stalin memorabilia you could ever hope to find--statues, photos, paintings... I'm about to break copyright law and post some photos below, because really, I can't describe it.
Stalinist Georgia really defies description, at least by me. I was there still during the Cold War--Stalin had fallen out of favor throughout the USSR, his monument removed from the Kremlin walls in Moscow, cities had changed their names back from Stalingrad, Stalin Village, etc. to still-Soviet-but-less-Stalinesque names. Then you find yourself in Stalin's homeland, and you forget what a sly little man he really was. It wasn't even that people were whispering about him admiringly behind their hands. It was more like, "Hey, that Dzhugashvili kid! Home town boy made good!"
Okay, I'm reading this, and thinking, so what? It's definitely one of those "you had to be there" kind of things. And that's probably why I'm liking Stories I Stole, because they do a better job of making you feel like you were there than I ever could. I also just like the concept of stealing stories, since that's what my anecdotes about my two summers in the Soviet Union still feel like. I take bits and pieces of the lives of the people still living there and turn them into narratives to entertain my friends. Some of my stories--like the one about getting treated (or not) for bronchitis--still bring people to an astounded halt. Others--like the one about hitchhiking back to our hotel in Tbilisi w/a police office--make no impression on anyone who has not dealt with Soviet law enforcement techniques. Wendell Steavenson could probably do a better job of telling both tales.