Through his two scurrilous antiheroes, Aleshkovsky laughs at Russian society from the gutters of the Soviet underworld....

NIKOLAI NIKOLAEVICH AND CAMOUFLAGE

Rescued from the literary underground, these two historical novellas provide a coarse satirical insight into post–World War II Soviet dissatisfaction.

Aleshkovsky emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1979 as an infamous writer of imaginative dissident fiction. Translated into English here for the first time, Nikolai Nikolaevich (1970) and Camouflage (1977) each have a foulmouthed narrator who buttonholes the reader with bizarre stories about his adventures in Soviet society. These fascinating but dated novellas were first officially published in Russian in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1980. Prior to that they were distributed as samizdat, part of Russia’s literary underground. The careful footnotes to the narrators' allusions provide an introduction to Soviet pop culture of the 1950s and 1970s. Nikolai Nikolaevich is set in the years around Stalin’s 1953 death. The eponymous Everyman narrator gives up pickpocketing when he is offered a lucrative job masturbating for an official laboratory. Although Nikolaevich’s process is of interest to some on the scientific team, it’s his sperm that is the central concern of Kimza, the chief. Humor comes from the frequent absurd juxtaposition of serious and profane. For example, every morning the laboratory springs to life with Kimza’s bellow: “Attention! Orgasm!” The worlds of science, sex, two-bit criminality, and Communist bureaucracy intertwine and grotesquely collide. Camouflage is, if possible, an even darker novel. In the run up to the 1980 Moscow Olympics, our highly unreliable alcoholic narrator, Fedya Milashkin, portrays the decrepit appearance of Soviet society as a Cold War strategy. Designed to confuse passing CIA satellites, the camouflage brigade of millions distracts the spying Americans from the war preparations hidden belowground.

Through his two scurrilous antiheroes, Aleshkovsky laughs at Russian society from the gutters of the Soviet underworld. Though they read like potty-mouthed Kafka, these stories remain of primarily academic interest.

Pub Date: June 11, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-231-18966-8

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Columbia Univ.

Review Posted Online: March 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2019

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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Despite some distractions, there’s an irresistible charm to Owens’ first foray into nature-infused romantic fiction.

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WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING

A wild child’s isolated, dirt-poor upbringing in a Southern coastal wilderness fails to shield her from heartbreak or an accusation of murder.

“The Marsh Girl,” “swamp trash”—Catherine “Kya” Clark is a figure of mystery and prejudice in the remote North Carolina coastal community of Barkley Cove in the 1950s and '60s. Abandoned by a mother no longer able to endure her drunken husband’s beatings and then by her four siblings, Kya grows up in the careless, sometimes-savage company of her father, who eventually disappears, too. Alone, virtually or actually, from age 6, Kya learns both to be self-sufficient and to find solace and company in her fertile natural surroundings. Owens (Secrets of the Savanna, 2006, etc.), the accomplished co-author of several nonfiction books on wildlife, is at her best reflecting Kya’s fascination with the birds, insects, dappled light, and shifting tides of the marshes. The girl’s collections of shells and feathers, her communion with the gulls, her exploration of the wetlands are evoked in lyrical phrasing which only occasionally tips into excess. But as the child turns teenager and is befriended by local boy Tate Walker, who teaches her to read, the novel settles into a less magical, more predictable pattern. Interspersed with Kya’s coming-of-age is the 1969 murder investigation arising from the discovery of a man’s body in the marsh. The victim is Chase Andrews, “star quarterback and town hot shot,” who was once Kya’s lover. In the eyes of a pair of semicomic local police officers, Kya will eventually become the chief suspect and must stand trial. By now the novel’s weaknesses have become apparent: the monochromatic characterization (good boy Tate, bad boy Chase) and implausibilities (Kya evolves into a polymath—a published writer, artist, and poet), yet the closing twist is perhaps its most memorable oddity.

Despite some distractions, there’s an irresistible charm to Owens’ first foray into nature-infused romantic fiction.

Pub Date: Aug. 14, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-7352-1909-0

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: May 15, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2018

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