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THE STALIN EPIGRAM

Firmly in the tradition of Orwell, Kafka and Koestler—and equally harrowing.

Littell (Vicious Circle, 2006, etc.) adapts the unhappy story of iconic Russian poet Osip Mandelstam to deliver another of his chilling portraits of bureaucracy gone mad.

It’s 1934, and Stalin’s secret police are on a tear in Moscow. No one, no matter how intrinsically law-abiding, is arrest-proof. That’s because it’s hard to abide by laws that can change in a blink and often as not turn out to be state secrets anyway. “Is there anything that’s not a state secret?” the poet Anna Akhmatova asks an agent of the dreaded Cheka. Most assuredly, comes the ready reply, “But what’s not a state secret is a state secret.” Plunged deep into this bureaucratic nightmare, the artistically brilliant, politically naïve Mandelstam at first tries to cope. But the fact that he’s now forbidden to publish torments him; it’s a hammer blow to the poet’s very reason for being. Against the advice—more accurately, the pleading—of his wife, friends and colleagues, he composes and publicly declaims an inflammatory, eventually infamous 16-line epigram that characterizes Stalin as a murderer, then describes the Soviet leader’s “cockroach whiskers” and fingers “fat as grubs.” Mandelstam might as well have requested a summons to Lubyanka Prison, of course, and in short order that’s where he finds himself residing. Not surprisingly, unrelenting assaults on the poet’s body and spirit break him. Convinced on a daily basis that a bullet to the back of his head must be his fate, Mandelstam somehow manages to escape actual execution, but the poet in him is less fortunate. In the meantime, Stalin’s dictum that everyone is guilty of something remains in force, packing the prisons while thinning the post-Revolution population.

Firmly in the tradition of Orwell, Kafka and Koestler—and equally harrowing.

Pub Date: May 12, 2009

ISBN: 978-1-4165-9864-0

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2009

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ABSOLUTE POWER

The mother of all presidential cover-ups is the centerpiece gimmick in this far-fetched thriller from first-novelist Baldacci, a Washington-based attorney. In the dead of night, while burgling an exurban Virginia mansion, career criminal Luther Whitney is forced to conceal himself in a walk-in closet when Christine Sullivan, the lady of the house, arrives in the bedroom he's ransacking with none other than Alan Richmond, President of the US. Through the one-way mirror, Luther watches the drunken couple engage in a bout of rough sex that gets out of hand, ending only when two Secret Service men respond to the Chief Executive's cries of distress and gun down the letter-opener-wielding Christy. Gloria Russell, Richmond's vaultingly ambitious chief of staff, orders the scene rigged to look like a break-in and departs with the still befuddled President, leaving Christy's corpse to be discovered at another time. Luther makes tracks as well, though not before being spotted on the run by agents from the bodyguard detail. Aware that he's shortened his life expectancy, Luther retains trusted friend Jack Graham, a former public defender, but doesn't tell him the whole story. When Luther's slain before he can be arraigned for Christy's murder, Jack concludes he's the designated fall guy in a major scandal. Meanwhile, little Gloria (together with two Secret Service shooters) hopes to erase all tracks that might lead to the White House. But the late Luther seems to have outsmarted her in advance with recurrent demands for hush money. The body count rises as Gloria's attack dogs and Jack search for the evidence cunning Luther's left to incriminate not only a venal Alan Richmond but his homicidal deputies. The not-with-a-bang-but-a-whimper climax provides an unsurprising answer to the question of whether a US president can get away with murder. For all its arresting premise, an overblown and tedious tale of capital sins. (Film rights to Castle Rock; Book-of-the-Month selection)

Pub Date: Jan. 18, 1996

ISBN: 0-446-51996-0

Page Count: 480

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 1995

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THE SECRET HISTORY

The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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