book club - other books

Depeche Mode

“The Ukrainian version of Trainspotting, bluntly nihilistic and unexpectedly hilarious.

In 1993, tragic turbulence takes over Ukraine in the post-communist spin-off. As if in somnambulism, Soviet war veterans and upstart businessmen listen to an American preacher of whose type there were plenty at the time in the post-Soviet territory. In Kharkiv, the young communist head quarters are now an advertising agency, and a youth radio station creates a feature on the Irish folk band Depeche Mode and the role of the harmonica in the struggle against capitalist oppression. And so the Western songs make their way into ordinary Ukrainian homes of ordinary people.

In the middle of this craze, three friends—an anti-Semitic Jew Dog Pavlov, an unfortunate entrepreneur Vasia the Communist and the narrator Zhadan, nineteen years of age and unemployed—seek to find their old pal Sasha Carburator to tell him that his step-father shot himself dead. Characters confront elements of their reality, and, tainted with traumatic survival fever, embark on a sad, dramatic and a bit grotesque adventure.”

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Execution by Hunger

News of the death by starvation of millions of Ukrainians by Stalin was actively suppressed & denied for decades. It was only in the late 1980s that the world truly became aware of this atrocity & it wasn’t until 2006 when it was defined as a deliberate act of genocide. Soon after, a survivor broke his silence to provide the chilling details in this well-written & well-reviewed book which reads like a novel.

“Seven million people in the ‘breadbasket of Europe’ were deliberately starved to death at Stalin's command. This story has been suppressed for half a century. Now, a survivor speaks.

In 1929, in an effort to destroy the well-to-do peasant farmers, Joseph Stalin ordered the ‘collectivization’ of all Ukrainian farms. In the ensuing years, a brutal Soviet campaign of confiscations, terrorizing, and murder spread throughout Ukrainian villages. What food remained after the seizures was insufficient to support the population. In the resulting famine, as many as seven million Ukrainians starved to death.

This poignant eyewitness account of the Ukrainian famine by one of the survivors relates the young Miron Dolot's day-to-day confrontation with despair and death—his helplessness as friends and family were arrested and abused—and his gradual realization, as he matured, of the absolute control the Soviets had over his life and the lives of his people. But it is also the story of personal dignity in the face of horror and humiliation. And it is an indictment of a chapter in the Soviet past that is still not acknowledged by Russian leaders.”

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Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex

Through stream-of-consciousness writing, this literary work is an “inspired exposition of one woman’s fight to catch her bearings and land on her feet, after life has thrown her a particularly nasty curve ball. At the heart of the story is a failed relationship, and here the author’s unflinching courage in dissecting the how-and-why is gripping. The larger story that envelops the love affair is, of course, the story of Ukraine itself, so unexpectedly liberated with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, coming to grips with its suppressed history and martyrology searching for its identity together with the heroine.

Called ‘the most influential Ukrainian book for the 15 years of independence,’ Field Work in Ukrainian Sex by Oksana Zabuzhko is the tale of one woman’s personal revolt provoked by a top literary scandal of the decade. The author, a noted Ukrainian poet and novelist, explains: ‘When you turn 30, you inevitably start reconsidering what you have been taught in your formative years—that is, if you really seek for your own voice as a writer. In my case, my personal identity crisis had coincided with the one experienced by my country after the advent of independence. The result turned explosive: Field Work in Ukrainian Sex.”

(A special thank you to book club member, Shivalaxmi Arumugham for the suggestion.)

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Hardly Ever Otherwise

“Everything eventually reaches its appointed place in time and space. Maria Matios’s dramatic family saga, Hardly Ever Otherwise, narrates the story of several western Ukrainian families during the last decades of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and expands upon the idea that ‘it isn’t time that is important, but the human condition in time.’

From the first page, Matios engages her reader with an impeccable style, which she employs to create a rich tapestry of cause and effect, at times depicting a logic that is both bitter and enigmatic. But nothing is ever fully revealed—it is only in the final pages of the novel that the events in the beginning are understood as a necessary part of a larger whole, and the section entitled ‘Seasickness’ presents a compelling argument for why events almost always have to follow a particular course.

In Matios’s multi-tiered plot, the grand passions of ordinary people are illuminated under the caliginous light of an ethereal mysticism, and digressions on love, envy, transgression, and atonement are woven into the story. The reader is submerged into a rich world populated by a grand cast of characters and ideas, which Matios animates with her prolific imagination and subtle wisdom.

Each character in this outstanding drama has an irrefutable alibi, a unique truth, and a private conflict with honor and duty. Her characters do not always act in accordance with logic and written-law, as the laws of honor clash with the laws of the heart. And this is why it is hardly ever otherwise.”

(A special thank you to book club member, Leslie Tchaikovsky for the suggestion.)

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Mesopotamia

“A unique work of fiction from the troubled streets of Ukraine, giving invaluable testimony to the new history unfolding in the nation’s post-independence years

This captivating book is Serhiy Zhadan’s ode to Kharkiv, the traditionally Russian-speaking city in Eastern Ukraine where he makes his home. A leader among Ukrainian post-independence authors, Zhadan employs both prose and poetry to address the disillusionment, complications, and complexities that have marked Ukrainian life in the decades following the Soviet Union’s collapse. His novel provides an extraordinary depiction of the lives of working-class Ukrainians struggling against an implacable fate: the road forward seems blocked at every turn by demagogic forces and remnants of the Russian past. Zhadan’s nine interconnected stories and accompanying poems are set in a city both representative and unusual, and his characters are simultaneously familiar and strange. Following a kind of magical-realist logic, his stories expose the grit and burden of stalled lives, the universal desire for intimacy, and a wistful realization of the off-kilter and even perverse nature of love.”

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Dark Echoes of the Past

“The first novel by multiple-award-winning Chilean author Ramón Díaz Eterovic to be translated into English—a landmark event for fans of crime fiction.

Private investigator Heredia spends his days reading detective novels; commiserating with his cat, Simenon; and peering out over the Mapocho River from his Santiago apartment. The city he loves may be changing, but Heredia can’t stop chasing the ghosts of the past. This time, they’ve come to him…

Virginia Reyes’s brother, an ex–political prisoner of dictator Augusto Pinochet, was killed in an apparent robbery. Yet nothing of value was taken. The police have declared the case closed, but Virginia suspects that things aren’t quite as they appear and turns to Heredia for help. Heredia couldn’t agree more—but he can’t shake the feeling that there’s something Virginia’s not telling him.

Heredia knows this is not a simple crime. His investigation proves it. Drawn back into a world where murderers nest, secrets are to kill and die for, and Pinochet’s legacy still casts a long, dark, and very threatening shadow, it’s all Heredia can do to crawl out of it alive.”

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The Days of the Rainbow

“Nico, the son of a noted Chilean philosophy professor, witnesses his father’s arrest while he is teaching a class. Bettini, the father of Nico’s best friend, is a leftist advertising executive who has been blacklisted and is out of work after having been imprisoned and tortured by Pinochet’s police. This doesn’t stop the ministry of the interior from asking Bettini, who is the best in the business, to come up with a plan for the upcoming referendum designed to say ‘yes’ to Pinochet’s next term. But just hours after he has been approached by the right, the head of the opposition makes him the exact same offer.

What is Bettini going to do? Put his life on the line or sacrifice his political convictions? Finally he goes with the left. The next hurdle is finding a slogan that would be approved by the 16 factions that comprise the opposition and who never agree on anything. Whiskey after whiskey, an idea finally emerges.

This is a vivacious tale that examines how advertising and politics come together during the Pinochet regime. But this is also a coming-of-age story where we see through Nico’s experience what it means to grow up in a country where nothing is allowed and almost any move can feel like an earnest act of resistance.”

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My Tender Matador

“As Chile descends into chaos, two disparate souls begin ‘an odd-couple romance, in the tradition of Kiss of the Spider Woman or The Crying Game’ -Kirkus Reviews
 
It is the spring of 1986, and Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet is losing his grip on power. In one of Santiago’s many poor neighborhoods, a man known as the Queen of the Corner embroiders linens for the wealthy. A hopeless and lonely romantic, he listens to boleros to drown out the gunshots.
 
Then he meets Carlos, a young, handsome man who befriends the aging homosexual and uses his house to store mysterious boxes and hold clandestine meetings. And as the relationship between these two very different men blossoms, they find themselves caught in a revolution that could doom them both.
 
By turns funny and profoundly moving, Pedro Lemebel’s lyrical prose offers an intimate window into the mind of Pinochet himself as the world of Carlos and the Queen prepares to collide with the dictator’s own in ‘a wonderful snapshot of this period of Chile’s history . . . A touching tale of love and danger’.” 

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Ways of Going Home

“Alejandro Zambra's Ways of Going Home begins with an earthquake, seen through the eyes of an unnamed nine-year-old boy who lives in an undistinguished middleclass housing development in a suburb of Santiago, Chile. When the neighbors camp out overnight, the protagonist gets his first glimpse of Claudia, an older girl who asks him to spy on her uncle Raúl.

In the second section, the protagonist is the writer of the story begun in the first section. His father is a man of few words who claims to be apolitical but who quietly sympathized—to what degree, the author isn't sure—with the Pinochet regime. His reflections on the progress of the novel and on his own life—which is strikingly similar to the life of his novel's protagonist—expose the raw suture of fiction and reality.

Ways of Going Home switches between author and character, past and present, reflecting with melancholy and rage on the history of a nation and on a generation born too late—the generation which, as the author-narrator puts it, learned to read and write while their parents became accomplices or victims. It is the most personal novel to date from Zambra, the most important Chilean author since Roberto Bolaño.”

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The Book of Chameleons

Winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2007

"A subtle beguiling story of shifting identities." - Kirkus

“Félix Ventura trades in an unusual commodity; he is a dealer in memories, clandestinely selling new pasts to people whose futures are secure and who lack only a good lineage to complete their lives. In this completely original murder mystery, where people are not who they seem and the briefest of connections leads to the forging of entirely new histories, a bookish albino, a beautiful woman, a mysterious foreigner, and a witty talking lizard come together to discover the truth of their lives. Set in Angola, Agualusa's tale darts from tormented past to dream-filled present with a lightness that belies the savage history of a country in which many have something to forget—and to hide. 

A brilliant American debut by one of the most lauded writers in the Portuguese-speaking world, this is a beautifully written and always surprising tale of race, truth, and the transformative power of creativity.”

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Good Morning Comrades

This slim novel was written by “one of the most important writers in the history of African literature” who has received numerous awards including the José Saramago Prize, & Grinzane Prize in addition to his inclusion as one of only 39 African writers in Africa39 as well as a the Guardian’s “Top Five African Writers”.

"Good Morning Comrades is a charming novel, subtle in its examination of the political difficulties of a small, poorly known African nation. Well recommended." -Damian Kelleher

“Luanda, Angola, 1990. Ndalu is a normal twelve-year old boy in an extraordinary time and place. Like his friends, he enjoys laughing at his teachers, avoiding homework and telling tall tales. But Ndalu's teachers are Cuban, his homework assignments include writing essays on the role of the workers and peasants, and the tall tales he and his friends tell are about a criminal gang called Empty Crate which specializes in attacking schools. Ndalu is mystified by the family servant, Comrade Antonio, who thinks that Angola worked better when it was a colony of Portugal, and by his Aunt Dada, who lives in Portugal and doesn't know what a ration card is. In a charming voice that is completely original, Good Morning Comrades tells the story of a group of friends who create a perfect childhood in a revolutionary socialist country fighting a bitter war. But the world is changing around these children, and like all childhood's Ndalu's cannot last. An internationally acclaimed novel, already published in half a dozen countries, Good Morning Comrades is an unforgettable work of fiction.”

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Granma Nineteen and the Soviet's Secret

Shortlisted for the São Paulo Prize for Literature - Best Book of the Year & longlisted for the Best Translated Book Awards

Written by “one of the most important writers in the history of African literature” who has received numerous awards including the José Saramago Prize, & Grinzane Prize in addition to his inclusion as one of only 39 African writers in Africa39 as well as a the Guardian’s “Top Five African Writers” list.

“Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret is one of those rare charming novels full of spirit, humor and the craziness of politics, and power’s effect on its victims. It’s not often that a gem like this can be delivered through the voice of a young boy in such a whimsical way.” - Best Translated Book Awards

”By the beaches of Luanda, the Soviets are building a grand mausoleum in honour of the Comrade President. Granmas are whispering: houses, they say, will be dexploded, and everyone will have to leave. With the help of his friends Charlita and Pi (whom everyone calls 3.14), and with assistance from Dr. Rafael KnockKnock, the Comrade Gas Jockey, the amorous Gudafterov, crazy Sea Foam, and a ghost, our young hero must decide exactly how much trouble he’s willing to face to keep his Granma safe in Bishop’s Beach.

Energetic and colourful, impish and playful, Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret is a charming coming-of-age story from the next rising star in African literature.”

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Transparent City

A Vanity Fair “Hot Type” book, A Globe and Mail best book of 2018, a Lit Hub favorite book of the year, a World Literature Today notable translation, & winner of the José Saramago Prize

“Darkly pretty...peppered with poetry...These disparate stories are woven into a beautiful narrative that touches on government corruption, the privatization of water, the dangers of extracting oil for wealth, and the bastardization of religion for profit.. The novel reads like a love song to a tortured, desperately messed-up city that is undergoing remarkable transformations." - Publishers Weekly

“In a crumbling apartment block in the Angolan city of Luanda, families work, laugh, scheme, and get by. In the middle of it all is the melancholic Odonato, nostalgic for the country of his youth and searching for his lost son. As his hope drains away and as the city outside his doors changes beyond all recognition, Odonato’s flesh becomes transparent and his body increasingly weightless. A captivating blend of magical realism, scathing political satire, tender comedy, and literary experimentation, Transparent City offers a gripping and joyful portrait of urban Africa quite unlike any before yet published in English, and places Ondjaki, indisputably, among the continent’s most accomplished writers.”

(A special thank you to book club member, Carol Weldon for the suggestion.)

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Day of the Oprichnik

“One of The Telegraph's Best Fiction Books 2011

Moscow, 2028. A cold, snowy morning.

Andrei Danilovich Komiaga is fast asleep. A scream, a moan, and a death rattle slowly pull him out of his drunken stupor—but wait, that's just his ring tone. And so begins another day in the life of an oprichnik, one of the czar's most trusted courtiers—and one of the country's most feared men.

Welcome to the new New Russia, where futuristic technology and the draconian codes of Ivan the Terrible are in perfect synergy. Corporal punishment is back, as is a divine monarch, but these days everyone gets information from high-tech news bubbles, and the elite get high on hallucinogenic, genetically modified fish.

Over the course of one day, Andrei Komiaga will bear witness to—and participate in—brutal executions; extravagant parties; meetings with ballerinas, soothsayers, and even the czarina. He will rape and pillage, and he will be moved to tears by the sweetly sung songs of his homeland. He will consume an arsenal of drugs and denounce threats to his great nation's morals. And he will fall in love—perhaps even with a number of his colleagues.

Vladimir Sorokin, the man described by Keith Gessen (in The New York Review of Books) as "[the] only real prose writer, and resident genius" of late-Soviet fiction, has imagined a near future both too disturbing to contemplate and too realistic to dismiss. But like all of his best work, Sorokin's new novel explodes with invention and dark humor. A startling, relentless portrait of a troubled and troubling empire, Day of the Oprichnik is at once a richly imagined vision of the future and a razor-sharp diagnosis of a country in crisis.”

(A special thank you to book club member, Andi McCraine for the suggestion.)

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Hard to be a God

“An enjoyable, exciting, and gratifying novel.”  —New York Times

“A thoroughly good book . . . robust, imaginative, satisfying.”  - Ursula K. Le Guin

“Don Rumata has been sent from Earth to the medieval kingdom of Arkanar with instructions to observe and to save what he can. Masquerading as an arrogant nobleman, a dueler, and a brawler, he is never defeated, but yet he can never kill. With his doubt and compassion, and his deep love for a local girl named Kira, Rumata wants to save the kingdom from the machinations of Don Reba, the first minister to the king. But given his orders, what role can he play? This long overdue translation will reintroduce one of the most profound Soviet-era novels to an eager audience. ”

Note: This translation by Olena Bormashenko is the one we recommend. Other versions are English translations of a bad German translation.

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The House of the Dead

“In January 1850, Dostoyevsky was sent to a remote Siberian prison camp for his part in a political conspiracy. The four years he spent there, startlingly re-created in The House of the Dead, were the most agonizing of his life. In this fictionalized account, he recounts his soul-destroying incarceration through the cool, detached tones of his narrator, Aleksandr Petrovich Goryanchikov: the daily battle for survival, the wooden plank beds, the cabbage soup swimming with cockroaches, his strange ‘family’ of boastful, ugly, cruel convicts. Yet The House of the Dead is far more than a work of documentary realism: it is also a powerful novel of redemption, describing one man’s spiritual and moral death and the miracle of his gradual reawakening.”

Note: This Penguin Classics translation by David McDuff is the one we recommend. Other translations are often considered poor (e.g., where “the house of the dead” was translated as “the dead house”…how can a house be dead?) or overhyped translators who offer oddly, stilted writing as in the case of the co-translation by Richard Pevear/Larissa Volokhonskyan who write of an “alive dead house” instead of “a house of the living dead”). Only one note to be aware of with the Penguin Classic translation—read the introduction after reading the novel because it may contain some spoilers as most Penguin Classic intros do.

(A special thank you to book club member, Sheena M. for the suggestion.)

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We

“The inspiration for George Orwell’s 1984.

Yevgeny Zamyatin's We is set in an urban glass city called OneState, regulated by spies and secret police. Citizens of the tyrannical OneState wear identical clothing and are distinguished only by the number assigned to them at birth. The story follows a man called D-503, who dangerously begins to veer from the 'norms' of society after meeting I-330, a woman who defies the rules. D-503 soon finds himself caught up in a secret plan to destroy OneState and liberate the city.

The failed utopia of We has been compared to the works of H.G. Wells, George Orwell, and Aldous Huxley. It was the first novel banned by the Soviets in 1921, and was finally published in its home country over a half-century later.”

Note: This translation by Mirra Ginsburg is the one we recommend. A good second choice would be the translation from Clarence Brown. Other translations are considered poor or awkward.

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Harem

“This is a serious history, yet an immensely readable one—informative, gossipy, and grand fun.” - The NY Times

“A fascinating illustrated history of one of the strangest, and cruelest, cultural institutions ever devised. A worldwide best seller, translated into 25 languages.

’I was born in a konak (old house), which once was the harem of a pasha,’ writes Alev Lytle Croutier. ‘People around me often whispered things about harems; my own grandmother and her sister had been brought up in one.’

Drawing on a host of firsthand accounts and memoirs, as well as her own family history, Croutier explores life in the world’s harems, from the Middle Ages to the early 20th century, focusing on the fabled Seraglio of Topkapi Palace as a paradigm for them all. We enter the slave markets and the lavish boudoirs of the sultanas; we witness the daily routines of the odalisques, and of the eunuchs who guarded the harem. Here, too, we learn of the labyrinthine political scheming among the sultan’s wives, his favorites, and the valide sultana—the sultan’s mother—whose power could eclipse that of the sultan himself.

There were the harems of the sultans and the pashas, but there were also ‘middle-class’ harems, the households in which ordinary men and women lived out ordinary—albeit polygamous—lives. Croutier reveals their marital customs, child-rearing practices, and superstitions. Juxtaposing a rich array of illustrations—Western paintings, Turkish and Persian miniatures, family photographs, and even film stills—Croutier demystifies the Western erotic fantasy of ‘the world behind the veil.’”

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A Mind at Peace

“While lengthy, A Mind at Peace is a magnum opus, a Turkish Ulysses, and a lyrical homage to Istanbul. With an innate awareness of how dueling cultural mentalities can lead to the distress of divided selves, Tanpinar gauges this moment in history by masterfully portraying its register on the layered psyches of his Istanbulite characters.

Surviving the childhood trauma of his parents’ untimely deaths in the early skirmishes of World War I, Mümtaz is raised and mentored in Istanbul by his cousin Ihsan and his cosmopolitan family of intellectuals. Having lived through the tumultuous cultural revolutions following the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of the early Turkish Republic, each is challenged by the difficulties brought about by such rapid social change.

The promise of modernization and progress has given way to crippling anxiety rather than hope for the future. Fragmentation and destabilization seem the only certainties within the new World where they now find themselves. Mümtaz takes refuge in the fading past, immersing himself in literature and music, but when he falls in love with Nuran, a complex woman with demanding relatives, he is forced to confront the challenges of the World at large. Can their love save them from the turbulent times and protect them from disaster, or will inner obsessions, along with powerful social forces seemingly set against them, tear the couple apart?”

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The Red-haired Woman

“From a Nobel Prize winner, an intense political fable of fathers and sons and the desires that come between them.

On the outskirts of a town 30 miles from Istanbul, a well digger and his young apprentice—a boy fleeing the confines of his middle class home—are hired to find water on a barren plain. As they struggle in the heat, excavating without luck meter by meter, they develop a filial bond neither has known before. But when the boy catches the eye of a stunning red-haired woman who seems as fascinated by him as he is by her, the events that ensue change the young man’s life forever and haunt him for the next 30 years. A tale of family and romance, of youth and old age, of tradition and modernity, The Red-haired Woman is a beguiling political mystery from one of the great storytellers of our time.

It is both a realist text investigating a murder which took place 30 years ago near Istanbul - and a fictional inquiry into the literary foundations of civilizations, comparing two fundamental myths of the West and the East respectively: Sophocles's Oedipus Rex (a story of patricide) and Ferdowsi's tale of Rostam and Sohrab (a story of filicide).”

(A special thank you to book club member, Leslie Tchaikovsky for the suggestion.)

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