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

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

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

Sarah Perry, the Essex Serpent

Sarah Perry’s Essex Serpent is a bizarre tale. It’s bizarre not because of its serpentine mystery, but because it’s a good novel when everything about it would say otherwise.

Sarah Perry, the Essex SerpentThe Essex Serpent · Sarah Perry
Custom House, 2016 · 417 pages, hardcover

You couldn’t say that The Essex Serpent is historical fiction or mystery or thriller, nor does it have a Victorian pastiche or the effervescent pall of a fantasy about it. Or it does, but not quite. It’s a curious novel but one clearly meant for the present day, the present year, a sort of amalgamation of past place and present principle. It’s odd. Continue reading

How to make love stay?

Still Life with Woodpecker is a most postmodern postmodern fairytale.

Still Life with WoodpeckerStill Life with Woodpecker · Tom Robbins · 1980
No Exit Press, 2001 · 277 pages, paperback

For a man who can end a sentence with dildos and wax poetic about a good sucking off, it’s going to be a hard guess as to how he managed to end his story with individualism and true love. Tom Robbins takes an obvious pleasure in the process, delighting in a vocabulary that lends itself well to diarrhea of the mouth.

He’s also, incidentally, a fantastic storyteller. Continue reading

The Adolescent: Dostoevsky the dramatist

School-age grudges and backroom bargains line up the chips against ladies’ secrets and counterfeit fathers in The Adolescent, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s penultimate novel and one that built on his previous work with surprising maturity.

The AdolescentThe Adolescent · Fyodor Dostoevsky · 1875
Pevear and Volokhonsky translation · Vintage, 2004 · 608 pages, paperback

Vladimir Nabokov, in his Lectures on Russian Literature, said of Dostoevsky that the man “seems to have been chosen by the destiny of Russian letters to become Russia’s greatest playwright, but he took the wrong turning and wrote novels.” Though he was talking about The Brothers Karamazov, which Nabokov called a “straggling play,” the comment holds for The Adolescent, a gossipy soap opera done in high style. Continue reading

Oedipus Rex

We all know the basics: Oedipus offed his father and married his mother.

Three Theban PlaysThe Three Theban Plays: Antigone – Oedipus the King – Oedipus at Colonus
Sophocles · c. 441-406 BC
Robert Fagles translation · Penguin, 2008 · 430 pages, paperback

Oedipus the King, though, isn’t about the incestuous prophecy, but instead about Oedipus’ relentless pursuit – no matter the cost – of the truth, what he does with that truth and how he’s treated in spite of it all.

More than the story of ancient myth and its piecemeal modern echoes – thank you, Herr Freud – Sophocles gave us the measure of the man: integrity unmatched, good intentions to the last, a sense of justice that places no king above the law.

It’s a shame we only remember the sullied reputation. Continue reading