21 May 2011

Two book club reads.

(Pre-book-talking-about ramble: I couldn't decide what adjective to use in this post title. I first thought "marvelous" or "awesome," and then I got sidetracked on how many of our laudatory superlatives come from religion, how we apply words designed for temporal revelations of God/god/gods to, you know, food we like, and then I got weirded out. So I thought "fantastic," and then I was like, huh, that's closer, but there's an unreality to it--which isn't that off for novels, I suppose, but there's another category of praise that's strange when you think about it. So: I think I want to go for is "lovely." Because I loved these books. Gosh and golly did I love 'em.)

Dead Souls, Nikolai Gogol: For WORD's Year o' Russians. I've read some Gogol before--SJC read "The Nose" for an all-college seminar (and I subsequently participated in an inebriated parody of dubious taste called "The Ponytail." My school was weird), and my mom picked up Village Evenings Near Dikanka and Mirgorod in prep for a trip to Ukraine several years ago. Both were top-notch--"The Nose," especially, that streak of ultra-modern that comes up sometimes to my surprise and joy in some nineteenth-and-previous-century writing (*cough* Tristram Shandy). Dead Souls, too, reads like it was written yesterday--though its picaresque humor and outsize-but-authentic characters might remind one of Dickens or Twain, the latter particularly in the Duke & King sections of Huck Finn. It's the rambling tale of Chichikov, charmer and con man extraordinaire, who's found a loophole in imperial Russian bureaucracy: every landowner was responsible for collecting taxes from the adult male serfs he owned (yup, slavery! Fun times!), but the number was determined by intermittent census, and there were always muzhiks who died before the next count. Chichikov wheedles or buys these "dead souls" from their owners, taking on the taxes--but also amassing collateral for a mortgage, making money without the bother of actually taking care of anyone. Along the way, he meets a gallery of satirical types--peculiarly Russian but still familiar: gambler Nozdryov, hoarder Plyushkin, ladies and gentlemen and pretenders to both. It's riotously funny, full of sly authorial interjections. So fun.

The Brief History of the Dead, Kevin Brockmeier: For Freebird's Post-Apocalyptic book club (which I didn't make, because I got lazy and tired on Thursday. But I have been keeping up on the readings since February). This novel is beautifully written, and elegiac in the truest sense of the word: an original take on the post-apocalyptic trope, as most of it takes place in an afterlife, a City where the dead go about workaday lives until the last living keeper of their memory dies. New arrivals tell the story of worsening global war and then a rapid pandemic...and then the City begins to empty out, as humanity dwindles away. Meanwhile, a researcher named Laura Byrd, stranded in the Antarctic, undertakes an unbearably arduous journey across the ice to what she hopes is salvation. It's a gorgeous, gorgeous tale of memory and grief, and the lives that surround our lives.

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