Rasskazy: New Fiction From a New Russia ed. by Mikhail Iossel and Jeff Parker

I’ve had a soft spot for Russia since I was a kid. As a child of the 1970s, I did most of my growing up in the Reagan 80s, and the only Russians I knew were more like cartoons than real people. I wasn’t yet quite sophisticated enough to know that “The Russian Nightmare” Nikita Koloff  was really a red-blooded American meat head and that I was in no real danger of being on the wrong end of a Russian Sickle. I wasn’t old enough to understand the degree to which Rocky IV was a propaganda film, but part of me always wanted to pull for Drago, even after an arena full of his own countrymen, won over by Rocky’s superhuman ability to take an ass beating and remain semi-conscious, began chanting the American’s name. Then there was Yakov Smirnoff, who made a career out of one joke about how bad things were in the USSR, like some kind of Russian Jeff Foxworthy. Taken altogether, the picture of Russia painted onto my young psyche was a land of steroid-fueled commie cyborgs and poor schleps standing in line for toilet paper, the Big Red Machine having failed them even when it came to wiping their own butts.

Add to all of this the constant threat of nuclear annihilation and the fear that Russian soldiers might, for some inexplicable reason, attack a school in the middle of nowhere, as they did in Red Dawn, and it’s easy to see why I was fascinated by and terrified of Mother Russian in roughly equal measure. Continue reading

(Revisiting) The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Through the Cracks is a review series focusing on the ones that got away. These are timeless classics that everyone has read—everyone, that is, except the reviewer, who is finally getting around to reading a book which somehow slipped through the cracks and trying to see if it’s really all it’s cracked up to be.

Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one of those books that most of us read in our teens. Most of us, that is, except me, who read the first few chapters in my ninth grade English class and then faked it. It wasn’t that I was a reluctant reader; though I spent a lot of my adolescent years playing Legend of Zelda, it’s likely that I blew off reading Huck Finn because I was too engrossed in some Star Trek novel or the steamy Neanderthal sex scenes in Jean M. Aul’s Clan of the Cave Bear. I recently read Huck Finn for real, and though I recalled more of the plot than I realized (a testament to my English teacher since I hadn’t actually, you know, read most of it) I was shocked at how much different it is from the novel I’d always figured it to be. What I’d taken for a boyish adventure down the Mississippi turned out to be more of a scathingly satirical trip into America’s Heart of Darkness, as funny and troubling as Conrad’s little trip down the Congo and into the human soul is horrific.
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Aaron’s Leap by Magdalena Platzova

Several years ago, before I became a father, I re-read Voltaire’s Candide. It had washed over me when I first read it years before as a much younger man, but this time I foua's leapnd it brilliant, a farcical tour through the history of human suffering that seemed to offer some solace despite its assurances that there was none. Of course, it’s easy to take an enlightened view of the inevitability of suffering and laugh off the darker pages of human history when you’re largely insulated from them. Though I remain convinced that Candide is deserving of its firmly entrenched canonical status, I’m not sure that I would have the same reaction to it now, just a few short years later, and a lot of that has to do with the little guy I’m typing this as quietly as possible to avoid waking. The responsibility of becoming a parent comes with a stiff side-dose of worry, night terrors about all the terrible things in the world that suddenly don’t seem so far away when you become the steward of a tiny, helpless human being. To use the parlance of our time, shit gets real. Fast. 

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Us Conductors by Sean Michaels

us condThe first song I ever loved was The Oak Ridge Boys’ “Y’all Come Back Saloon,” a huge county hit in the late seventies, when I was  barely out of diapers and just beginning to cut my musical teeth. Being three years old, I knew nothing of heartache or regret or jaded, raven-haired temptresses, but I sang along with every mysterious word of the Oaks’ Sunday-morning harmonies. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t relate to the lyrics; there was something about the sound of it, the way it shimmered and swayed, that beguiled me. I’ve had a couple of brushes with the things that make for good country songs since my preschool days, so now I can appreciate “Y’all Come Back Saloon” on another level. Still, whenever I hear it, or any tune with the familiar  sonic template of the 70s Nashville hit machine–bright, polished harmonies on a bed of lilting fiddle and steel-guitar–it triggers memories from my early childhood, a time when everything was golden and new.

Though his style of music is a far cry from the Oak Ridge Boys’, Leon Termen, the narrator of Sean Michaels’ new novel Us Conductors, could surely write a good country song. This is a character who knows a thing or two about heartache and regret, learned the hard way from a life of unrequited love, betrayal, regret, and even a little murder. For Dr. Termen, a scientist, musician, and the inventor of the theremin, memory and music are similarly entwined.  Living in New York city in the 1920s as an ambassador for his inventions and a reluctant spy, Dr. Termen’s life is saturated with music, from the chamber music he plays to packed houses on his theremin to the jazz and big-band sound to which New York swings. Much of this music is alien to him.  After hearing a jazz band in a basement club, the classically-trained Termen muses “My life’s first drum solo. The whole world seemed in the process of being rebuilt.”

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The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

1797442_10200858089929301_1372662167_nI’m a big fan of Goodreads.com, a sort of Facebook-for-book-nerds, not just because it satisfies my urge to organize virtual bookshelves and keep track of the books I read, but also because the user-generated reviews there offer more insight into what real readers think than the kinds of reviews you find in lit journals and the New York Times Book Review. The reviews at Goodreads are driven by the joy or ire the readers feel reading the books rather than by academic concerns and provide a glimpse into the collective unconscious of the reading public without pretense.

Though the panty-dropping five-star reviews of Shades of Grey are a notable exception, the one-star reviews written by readers who truly hated a book so much they couldn’t wait to vent about it are often more entertaining than the gushing reviews by smitten readers. These hate-filled diatribes often provide as much insight into the reader as they do into the book. When it comes to James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird, many of the most scathing reviews show us that some folks want their historical fiction a little more, well, historical. Or maybe they show us that some readers don’t really understand the concept of fiction at all, placing verisimilitude above all else. Either way, those who hated the book, a wildly irreverent and highly fictionalized account of  abolitionist John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, solely because it plays fast and loose with historical fact are missing the point.

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Mule: A Novel of Moving Weight by Tony D’Souza

mule

Though I’d never listened to audiobooks before, the perpetual boredom of my daily two-hour round trip commute recently drove me to give them a try. I listened to much of Tony D’Souza’s Mule: A Novel of Moving Weight, my very first audiobook, driving up and down I-95, cruising past the kinds of scenes D’Souza renders in razor-sharp, minimalist prose: troopers and K-9 cops lurking behind every stand of trees, cars with out-of-state tags pulled over every few miles, trunks popped open for search, the drivers more often than not black or at least much browner than me.

Unlike James, the narrator of Mule, I was not carrying pounds and pounds of the finest North Cali weed that money can buy. I was simply on my way back and forth between home and my workaday life, just another stiff on the highway in a hatchback. Still, as the story poured out of my speakers, it lent a sense of James’ desperation to my drive, as if the anxiety churning beneath our protagonist’s calm exterior was contagious. That is partially due to the precision with which D’Souza describes James’ nerve-wracking cross-country drives, but it also hit home with me because I’ve recently taken on a role that can be as harrowing as any drug run, even if it often lacks the same sense of immediate danger: fatherhood. Continue reading