Children, old folks and the struggling in-betweens—Tolstaya sees into all their hearts. Remarkable.

WHITE WALLS

THE COLLECTED STORIES

Tolstaya demonstrates an impressive range in these 23 stories, most having first appeared in On the Golden Porch (1989) and Sleepwalker in a Fog (1992), together with some newer work.

That range encompasses political satire, flights of surrealism and realistic urban and domestic dramas, nearly all set in the Soviet era. The longest story, “Limpopo,” is outright political satire, a scattershot peppering of a rule-bound society run by individuals who think in categories and blinkered comrades who travel to Italy and find gloomy people under gray skies. The satirical and the surreal blend perfectly in “A Clean Sheet”; here, the profoundly depressed Ignatiev visits a hush-hush clinic for the removal of his “diseased organ,” and emerges a new man, brutally assertive. Such transformations elude most of Tolstaya’s characters. They suffer the indignities of life in communal apartments in Moscow or Leningrad, or live miserably on the outskirts, like the married couple in “The Fakir,” who worship at the shrine of a dilettante who has his own place in central Moscow (heaven!). Tolstaya’s favorite theme is an inexhaustible one: the passage of time, often accompanied by a potent regret for opportunities lost. Alexandra Ernestovna, 84, has survived three husbands, but it’s her abandonment of her passionate lover that still gnaws at her (“Sweet Shura”). Middle-aged Natasha had one chance at love, blew it, and became a dull teacher (“The Moon Came Out”). The governess Zhenechka, a trusting soul, is recalled after her death by a former pupil; teased by her charges, exploited by employers and relatives, Zherechka deserved far better; “Most Beloved” is a moving tribute to simple goodness, flecked by remorse. The best expression of this theme is the marvelous “Fire and Dust.” Newly married Rimma sees “enormous happiness” in her future as she contrasts her life with that of Pipka, a crazy disaster-prone bohemian, but somehow Rimma’s life crumbles into an empty marriage while Pipka lands on her feet.

Children, old folks and the struggling in-betweens—Tolstaya sees into all their hearts. Remarkable.

Pub Date: April 17, 2007

ISBN: 1-59017-197-7

Page Count: 416

Publisher: New York Review Books

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2007

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The book is pure fun, although slender. Another volume of Maud’s misdeeds would be most welcome.

AN ELDERLY LADY IS UP TO NO GOOD

Five connected stories about a murderous old Swedish lady.

Maud has a good thing going. At age 88, she’s lived in a large apartment rent-free for 70 years because of a clause in an old contract. Never married, she loves to travel alone and to be alone. In the first story, "An Elderly Lady Has Accommodation Problems," a rare event happens: Her doorbell rings. Jasmin Schimmerhof, a 40-year-old avant-garde artist who lives in the building, stops by to say hello. The daughter of celebrities, her past includes drugs, multiple divorces, and tragedy. Her current art project strives to “unmask the domineering tactics of the patriarchy,” meaning that her small apartment is filled with phalluses—some even hanging from the ceiling. She is delightfully overbearing as she constantly tries to weasel her way into Maud’s good graces. But Maud isn’t stupid or senile, and she knows Jasmin is up to something. Once Maud figures out what it is, her solution is drastic, funny, and final. Maud is a seasoned world traveler who once, at age 18, had been engaged to Lt. Gustaf Adelsiöö. He’d emphatically broken off their engagement on learning her family wasn’t rich. Now, in “An Elderly Lady on Her Travels,” she reads in the newspaper that he is a wealthy 90-year-old widower about to marry the 55-year-old Zazza, whom ex-teacher Maud knows as her long-ago student, a schemer and a failed soft-core porn actress. When Maud arranges to get near her at a spa and then overhears Zazza’s plans to take control of Gustaf’s estate, Maud devises an emphatic countermeasure. And then in “An Elderly Lady Seeks Peace at Christmastime,” she deals with “The Problem” in the apartment above her. Maud’s murders always have plausible motives, and she is a sympathetic character as long as one keeps a safe distance. Each story takes its sweet time to develop and concludes with a juicy dose of senior justice.

The book is pure fun, although slender. Another volume of Maud’s misdeeds would be most welcome.

Pub Date: Nov. 6, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-64129-011-1

Page Count: 184

Publisher: Soho

Review Posted Online: Aug. 21, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2018

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A mixed bag of stories: some tired but several capable of poetically piercing the heart.

THE HIDDEN GIRL AND OTHER STORIES

Science fiction author (The Wall of Storms, 2016) and translator (The Redemption of Time, Baoshu, 2019) Liu’s short stories explore the nature of identity, consciousness, and autonomy in hostile and chaotic worlds.

Liu deftly and compassionately draws connections between a genetically altered girl struggling to reconcile her human and alien sides and 20th-century Chinese young men who admire aspects of Western culture even as they confront its xenophobia (“Ghost Days”). A poor salvager on a distant planet learns to channel a revolutionary spirit through her alter ego of a rabbit (“Grey Rabbit, Crimson Mare, Coal Leopard”). In “Byzantine Empathy,” a passionate hacktivist attempts to upend charitable giving through blockchain and VR technology even as her college roommate, an executive at a major nonprofit, fights to co-opt the process, a struggle which asks the question of whether pure empathy is possible—or even desired—in our complex geopolitical structure. Much of the collection is taken up by a series of overlapping and somewhat repetitive stories about the singularity, in which human minds are scanned and uploaded to servers, establishing an immortal existence in virtuality, a concept which many previous SF authors have already explored exhaustively. (Liu also never explains how an Earth that is rapidly becoming depleted of vital resources somehow manages to indefinitely power servers capable of supporting 300 billion digital lives.) However, one of those stories exhibits undoubted poignance in its depiction of a father who stubbornly clings to a flesh-and-blood existence for himself and his loved ones in the rotting remains of human society years after most people have uploaded themselves (“Staying Behind”). There is also some charm in the title tale, a fantasy stand-alone concerning a young woman snatched from her home and trained as a supernaturally powered assassin who retains a stubborn desire to seek her own path in life.

A mixed bag of stories: some tired but several capable of poetically piercing the heart.

Pub Date: Feb. 25, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-982134-03-7

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Saga/Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Dec. 9, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2020

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