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

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

Year in review: best books of 2018

I’m doing this a little differently than last year. My 2018 reading year was one of five standouts, a handful of good reads and a string of books that, for of the most part, lolled about, neither good nor bad but certainly indifferent to taking a shot at greatness.

I had to do something to add a little year-end spice to the list because the same mentions for everything just isn’t all that fun, is it? I scrapped the 5-4-3-2-1 format of 2017 as well as my separate review of authors. Neither was going to work for the 2018 year-end recap.

Apart from the two disappointments of the year (obv), take each category below as a recommendation. Teaser? 2018 gave me a new all-time favorite novel.

So here goes: what was tops  in 2018?

Continue reading

For the love of books! 2018 year in review

With the sun packed away by half past 4, we’ve nearly paid back our debt and have only its interest left. Though I won’t really feel it ‘til mid-January, when the rays shine for a noticeably longer interval, I can hardly complain: winter, so far, has been kind – and it’s lefse time here in MN!

In just under a week we’ll begin to creep toward spring little by little, but with that renewal comes the year’s end and that means a review of the past 12 months.

What has been new here at the Masthead? For one, I’ve read a great many more first novels than I’d have expected of myself (and just added three more to my shelves this month). I chanced for a spy thriller that wasn’t and a Cain and Abel story whose conflict could hardly justify the outcome. But I also risked a fantasy that endeared itself to me at once and a novel of growing up that told his contemporaries that 24-year-old F. Scott Fitzgerald had promise.

There were books that have graced my shelves for years unread only to give me a good time this year: I found my receipt for the plays of Sophocles tucked neatly inside it; I had bought it August 29, 2015. The myth of Oedipus is more than Freud would have us believe. Others I brought home and started almost that same day, like Larraquy’s queer little Comemadre. That’s the beauty of a growing library and buying to my heart’s whims. I’ve amassed a collection whose books hold my interest in an ebb and flow tide. Unread books from three years ago don’t concern me; I’ll read them when the mood strikes and enjoy them all the better.

But, for the love of books, what else was new this year? I laughed through the pulp of Thank You for Smoking, and I felt too keenly the worry inside each of Tanizaki’s Makioka sisters.

I read a book I felt was missing in my younger years, but 1984 didn’t hit me like many will say it hit them. I found it overly didactic and made dull through the years by every amateur politico’s shouting over it.

And I read a bit of sci-fi, but while it was a good diversion, Dick’s electric sheep still felt like a bridging novel – but then, the book before it and the book after it were each so good that maybe I shrugged it off with undue haste. Or maybe I just don’t like sci-fi so much.

Regardless, it’s been a good 12 months, and by the time December is up there should be at least one – and likely two – more reviews before recapping the year in full and making my picks for what was tops in 2018. Come January, the Masthead will blow out the candles on its second year of book reviews with the wish for another year of good reading – just about the time that sunshine sparkles ‘til half past 5.

As always, happy reading.

– EMH