2010: 12 days old, 5 books read
Yes, I’ve done a lot of reading already this decade, so much that I can’t hope to review these books properly. A short paragraph on each is to follow.
Thirst by Ken Kalfus
I’ve been very enthusiastic about Kalfus since reading his book of stories PU239 and Other Russian Fantasies last year. Thirst is his other book of stories, and they’re every bit as good. About half of these stories are short, say less than ten pages, and those shorter pieces are generally flippant in tone or extended joke pieces, but the longer works, most notably “The Joy and Melancholy Baseball Trivial Quiz”, “Rope Bridge” and “No Grace on the Road” are fabulous. I haven’t said anything illuminating here, only that I enjoyed reading this book very much and would highly recommend it.
The Commissariat of Enlightenment by Ken Kalfus
Kalfus’ debut novel is set in two distinct periods of Russian history, the first in 1910 surrounding the death of Leo Tolstoy, and the second in 1924 around the death of V.I. Lenin. For the most part, we are told the story from the viewpoint of a ‘new Soviet man’ called Gribshin who makes a friend of Stalin long before he’s the tyrant he’d later become. In the second part of the novel, Gribshin is calling himself Astapov after the town of Astapovo where Tolstoy died in 1910. While possibly not as alluring as his shorter work (I wonder whether I’d have given this the chance it deserved had I not read Kalfus’ shorter work previously), The Commissariat of Enlightenment proved to be a substanial and even educational read. But I still think Kalfus is a better short story writer.
A Matter of Death and Life by Andrey Kurkov
I hadn’t heard of Kurkov of all. He’s a Ukrainian writing in Russian whose works have been translated in recent years into English. A Matter of Death and Life is a slim but beguiling read about a man in Kiev who decides to hire his own hit man (i.e. to kill him) after a relationship turns sour. But things become complicated when the hit man bungles the murder and our protagonist decides he wants to live after all. Thing work out well in the end though. This was a great little book, and a lot of the enjoyment I got from it was in reading about post-Soviet Russia, which sounds like no laughing matter.
The Eye in the Door by Pat Barker
This is the sequel to Regeneration, which told the story of Seigfreid Sassoon and Wilfred Owen in a mental institution during World War 1. I enjoyed Regeneration, but The Eye in the Door floored me, and is certainly my favourite of the five books I’ve read so far in 2010. This time around Barker focuses on her fictional creation Billy Prior, a deeply traumatised man who has experienced the horrors of the war firsthand. He’s also bisexual in a society where such a thing is more than frowned upon, and a government snitch to boot. His job is to find deserters in the poorer parts of England, a job complicated by the fact that he personally knows several deserters. Oh, and did I mention that Prior suffers from ‘fugue states’ where he loses several hours of his life at a time? This is simply fascinating, gripping writing, and I can’t wait to read the final volume in the trilogy, The Ghost Road.
Things We Didn’t See Coming by Steven Amsterdam
I didn’t see this one coming–my sister brought it around for me to read and I finished it the same day, which isn’t too surprising given that it’s just 174 pages in length. What we have here is an apocalyptic piece or rather a series of several short pieces set in a future gone pear shaped indeed. At first it seemed to me that this would be a fairly routine dystopia, but I was wrong. What I enjoyed most about this was the way it continually surprised me; the book succeeded in unfolding in unexpected ways. You’ll have to read it for yourself to see what I mean.