Penguin and paranoia in post-Soviet Ukraine

Death and the Penguin is a game of chance played with a stacked deck – and against a card sharp no less, one who turns the tables on this writer of obelisks. Andrey Kurkov’s novel has the sullen resentment of living fairly in an unfair world, and it has a dark humor to combat that same resentment. It’s also one that might make the lonely feel a little less alone.

Kurkov, Death and the PenguinDeath and the Penguin · Andrey Kurkov · 1996
George Bird translation · Vintage, 2001 · 228 pages, Paperback

When you do know what’s what, it will mean there no longer is any real point to your work or to your continuing existence.

Viktor Zolotaryov writes obituaries of deputies, military officials, businessmen and others of VIP caliber in Ukrainian author Andrey Kurkov’s novel Death and the Penguin. But the obituaries have a predetermined publication date – that list of notables from which Viktor has been taking his assignments is also a hitman’s register. Continue reading

Interlude: end of Q1 (year 3!) at the Masthead!

April 15, 2019, marks the end of the Masthead’s first quarter to its third year celebrating the writer and his work through book reviews. Here’s a recap of the past three months:

Books reviewed: 5 (3 novels, 1 short story collection and 1 book of poetry)
Translated fiction: 2 (from 2 languages, Russian and German)
New-to-me authors: 5 (that’s every last one of ’em!)
Oldest book: Gogol’s collected fiction (1830-’42)
Newest book:  Zinovieff’s Putney (2018)
Longest book: Grass’ The Tin Drum and Gogol’s collected fiction (465 pages)
Shortest book: Daley-Ward’s Bone (160 pages)

As per usual, here’s a quick look at each book read and reviewed here since January 15:

Putney, Sofka Zinovieff
Though she took up the challenge of writing on a difficult topic – child sexual abuse and statutory rape – Zinovieff’s novel flatlines as forgettable and unemotional.

The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol
Nikolai Gogol had a puckish devil-may-care attitude to the world around him, and he wrote with a keen observer’s eye to provincial customs and city life alike. The short fiction compiled here is a perfect blend of magic and reality – enjoy the ride.

Bone, Yrsa Daley-Ward
Still fresh to the literary scene, Daley-Ward’s first poetry collection is highly autobiographical but still universal in its feeling. Broken bones, mended.

AnnihilationJeff VanderMeer
Annihilation is eco literature without an axe to grind, and VanderMeer’s first novel to his Southern Reach trilogy shows the man’s awe of the natural world, his grasp of human psychology and his ability to write fluidly.

The Tin Drum, Günter Grass
A German Crime and Punishment and allegory on top of allegory, Grass’ major opus of wartime Poland is difficult and entirely worth it.

Browse the Review Archive
2018 mini reviews:
Quarter 1
Quarter 2
Quarter 3
Quarter 4
2017 mini reviews:
Quarter 1
Quarter 2
Quarter 3
Quarter 4

 

Günter Grass, The Tin Drum

If a mid-century German Crime and Punishment exists, it’s this one by Günter Grass. The Tin Drum is a desperate mea culpa on the way to absolution.

grass-tin-drum-2.jpgThe Tin Drum · Günter Grass · 1959
Ralph Manheim translation · MJF Books/Fine Communications, 1987 · 465 pages, hardcover

The Tin Drum is the first novel in Grass’ Danzig trilogy, a loosely composed series that views the interwar and wartime era through the perspective of what was then the Free City of Danzig, now Gdansk, Poland.

The spirit of Grass’ most major work is secreted in his protagonist Oskar’s first readings, a dichotomy of Goethe and Rasputin. It’s a fractured spirit of rational romanticism and lurid mysticism that Hesse, perhaps, would have envied.

The Tin Drum is a lament from one who balked at the storm but couldn’t drum a din loud enough to stop it, and Grass’ novel is bent on understanding this psychology. But to get at those things he’s unwilling to tell us, his readers must care enough to pry into his mind. Continue reading

Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation

Jeff VanderMeer is an adept master of the weird that is also the purposed weird, and while his creatures evoke Lovecraft, his prose is closer to that of Graham Greene and his themes reflect a mind steeped in Einstein’s relativity.

AnnihilationAnnihilation · Jeff VanderMeer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014 · 195 pages, paperback

Annihilation is the first book of VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. It’s adventure meets biological sci fi meets grotesque horror. It’s a novel that leeches and presents its poisons and cruelties as art form. Continue reading

Laid bare: Yrsa Daley-Ward’s Bone

Daley-Ward, BoneBone · Yrsa Daley-Ward · 2013
Penguin, 2017 · 160 pages, paperback

As title for her work, Bone educes the sentiment of its verses. Yrsa Daley-Ward’s work in this collection betrays the varied hungers in desire; the haunting, depressed bite of bad loves gnawed through to nothing; and the hardness and “deal with it” attitude needed to accost life and, maybe, to make amends. Continue reading

Currently reading: Grass and VanderMeer

Reading two very different books…

currently reading Grass Vandermeer

The first, The Tin Drum by German writer Günter Grass, is a narrative march that thrums out a steady mea culpa for a nation caught up in ideology, temptation and grisly vision – and one torn apart time and time again. Part one of Grass’ Danzig Trilogy, it rips to shreds our understanding of interwar Germany and Hitler’s Putsch. It raises Poland, that first peon of ’39, to main battleground.

Oskar is Grass’ stunted protagonist whose two presumptive fathers (because of Mutti’s infidelity) go separate ways over the questions of Polish nationalism and German duty. His perspective is one of looking back, told from young Oskar’s eyes but with the nervy candor of an adult’s mental patient mind and the added help of a fabulist’s exaggeration. Grass is dropping little hints about his Oskar and why he is the way he is, and he’s leading me on by degrees.

At the other end of things, I’m nearly finished with Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, a biological sci fi that traipses across eco literature and the weird grotesque hand in hand with Lovecraft and Sartre. Think of it as a book that raises some fundamental questions while it offers an artist’s rendering, done in globbed and glossy oil paint, of the workings of ecology. It’s beautiful and maggoty, and I’ve not read anything like it before! It’s been growing on me like the never-ending script of its Crawler, a creature that is at the center of Annihilation and is either symbiotic with or parasitic on the mysterious Area X where the novel takes place. Getting curiouser and curiouser…

Happy reading!

– EMH

Nikolai Gogol, keen-sighted imp

With Gogol, strangeness is inevitable and the one constant is a vertigo that abruptly skews reality before allowing it to settle again – only it’s shifted an inch from where we thought we’d find it.

Gogol, Collected TalesThe Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol · Nikolai Gogol · 1830-‘42
Pevear and Volokhonsky translation · Vintage, 2009 · 465 pages, paperback

To read a Gogolian story is to read a story of layered perspective and one that fuses dreams with reality, metamorphosing into a singularly bewitched universe that exists side by side with our own. Continue reading

Putney: love in the time of #MeToo

Sofka Zinovieff’s most recent novel was meant to be a cross-section of a child’s first love, flayed and pinned back by the discerning scalpel of adulthood to show such a love for what it really is. But while Putney lands at the intersection of love and abuse, it then sits there idly, doing absolutely nothing.

zinovieff, putneyPutney · Sofka Zinovieff
Harper, 2018 · 384 pages, hardcover

The seventies were a decade of anything goes. Daphne, the girl at the forefront of Zinovieff’s novel, is the product of a Greek-English household too busy with the art world, with the national resistance in Greece and with a lover each for mama and papa to parent her in any meaningful way.

Unlike the Daphne of myth, who appealed to her father for protection against Apollo’s lust, this Daphne enjoys it willingly enough when she finds herself recipient of Ralph’s affections. This willingness is at the center of Putney as Zinovieff tries to define juvenile love alongside an adult’s reckless touch when consent cannot be real. Continue reading

Novelists are some smart folks

You know how people say that you don’t really understand complex somethings until you can parse those somethings down into things any dummy can grasp? That’s how I feel about a novelist who can put big ideas into a good story. Philosophy is one thing, but philosophy placed in a physical world, with no dialectics and no arguments but just so – and then given life through characters – is quite another.