BOOK REVIEW: The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe

The Complete WorksThe Complete Works by Edgar Allan Poe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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There are quite a number of volumes entitled “the complete works of Edgar Allan Poe,” or something to that effect. It’s almost always inaccurate, but most include more than the casual Poe fan would enjoy reading. The book I read included Poe’s one novel (some include a partially written 2nd novel,) many of his essays, all of his short stories, and all of his poems (in that order.) Note: I’m not complaining that the book didn’t include every single piece that Poe published. That would include a large amount of literary criticism of writing that has long been forgotten (in most cases, for good reason.) It does include a biographical sketch of Poe’s life and a “History of Horror” essay by an unnamed individual as ancillary matter.

The ideal reader for such a work has an interest in Poe as a person or an interest in literary history (and, particularly, the history of stories of the weird, dark, or surreal.) That isn’t to say that there is no value in reading beyond Poe’s greatest hits (i.e. stories: “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Gold-Bug,”“The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” and “The Cask of Amontillado” and poems “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee.”) I found some treasures among the lesser known works (e.g. for story “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether,” for beautiful writing “Landor’s Cottage,” and for insight into Poe as a writer “How to Write a Blackwood Article.”) That said, such “complete” works include pieces that: a. have not aged well; b. are experiments that didn’t turn out spectacularly; or c. beat to death one of Poe’s obsessions (e.g. being buried alive.) This is particularly noticeable regarding his essays, which largely violate item “a.” If you just want to read the very best of Poe’s stories and poems, you can probably find a more selective volume. (Though I would recommend reading his novel.)

Poe only completed one novel, entitled “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.” It’s my contention that this book would be much more widely known and read if it had a title that was less wordy and more exciting. It’s the gripping tale of a young man who stows away on a ship that suffers a mutinous and ill-fated journey. It can be broken into two parts. The first part, which I found the most intense, covers the period from when the ship launches until it becomes unseaworthy after a storm. The second part takes place after the protagonist is rescued, and the rescue vessel eventually experiences its own dire fate involving crossing paths with indigenous people.

The essays are – as one might expect – the least engrossing part of the book, but there were only eight of them. There is an article on a chess machine hoax and other happenings that might have been quite well received in Poe’s time. There are also some pieces on philosophy and theory of literature that might be of interest to literary historians, but few others. There’s an essay on “Philosophy of Furniture” that I have a hard time imaging was of interest to any one in the past, or in the present, but I could be wrong.

Poe is most well-known for his short stories (even the poem “The Raven” tells a story,) so unsurprisingly this is the biggest section with about 67 stories. Besides his many spectacular macabre and strange tales, Poe is known as the inventor of detective fiction. Poe’s Dupin predates Sherlock Holmes by about a half a century, and the two sleuths are veritable twins – excepting the former is of Paris and the latter from London. It’s not only that Dupin has the whole, “from the flour dust on your cuff I can tell you were near the La Vie en Rose bakery last night at nine o’clock” thing going on, the two stories are told in a similar fashion (Dupin has his own less well-developed Watson to tell his tales and serve as a foil.)

The final section of the edition I read was Poe’s poetry. As was the norm at the time, the poems were rhymed and metered. (Whitman didn’t publish his first edition of “Leaves of Grass” until about six years after Poe died, so “free verse poetry” was still considered a nonsensical oxymoron.) Many of Poe’s poems are intermediate in length, though “Al Aaraaf” is fairly long and there are several that are sonnet length or thereabouts.

Apropos of his time, Poe’s writing can be wordy and needlessly complicated. You’ll find a lot of untranslated quotes that assume any reader will be fluent in French, Latin, and German. I enjoyed reading the “How to Write a Blackwood Article” in part because I learned that Poe’s pretentiousness wasn’t just his preference. In that article, he rails against some of the practices that he uses copiously because it was the only way to get his work published. I don’t necessarily buy that Poe was completely opposed to pretense (he wrote a “Philosophy of Furniture” for heaven’s sake.) He was no Mark Twain. But at least he recognized that greater simplicity was possible ideally, and he was by no means one of the more ponderous or plodding writers of his day.

If you decide to read the complete works, you might want to pay attention to the book’s organization. As I said, the version I read was organized: novel, essays, stories, and poems, and, within each category, alphabetically. I have no problem with the macro-organization (though I would have shunted essays to the back.) However, there are more useful ways to micro-organize than alphabetically (chronologically by publish date, for example.)

I have bizarrely eclectic tastes and interests, and Poe is one of my favorite authors, so I enjoyed this volume immensely and found it well worth reading (enough to read a “Philosophy of Furniture.”) If you just enjoy Poe as a storyteller and weaver of dark tales, you may want a more selective volume.

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BOOK REVIEW: Seven Samurai Swept Away in a River by Jung Young Moon

Seven Samurai Swept Away in a RiverSeven Samurai Swept Away in a River by Jung Young Moon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Full-disclosure: I enjoy writing that’s quirky and rambling as long as it jettisons pretension and brings in some whimsicality. This book by Jung Young Moon plays into that wheelhouse. If you’re expecting a novel with a story arc and character development, you may not like what you find. Personally, I wouldn’t call this a novel (though the author does,) but it’s one of those books that defies neat categorization. I’d call it creative nonfiction, and – more specifically – an “essay of essays,” which is to distinguish it from an essay collection. [Comparing it to fiction, it would be more like a novel-in-short stories than a collection of stories.] The author’s own words about how the book was composed are more insightful than my own, he called it, “… a mixture of stream of consciousness technique, the paralysis of consciousness technique, and the derangement of consciousness technique…” [As far as I know, the latter two are his own designations.]

Saying the book is rambling (and “pointless” in the best sense of that word) isn’t to suggest that the book lacks a theme. It’s a Korean’s take on things Texan after having spent a substantial amount of time there. But that Korean take on Texas is given an added twist into interesting territory by this particular Korean’s off-beat worldview. So, while many writer’s have considered the psychology, motives, and possible conspiratorial links of Jack Ruby (the assassin of JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald), Jung focuses on the issue of Ruby leaving his dogs in the car while he went to shoot Oswald. The author discusses the book as though it – like the sit-com “Seinfeld” – is about nothing, but I think it’s more about a chain of somethings turned on their heads and viewed through a fun-house mirror.

While the Seven Samurai are referenced in the title and are discussed at various points throughout the book, it’s more as a reminiscence than a throughline. That is, if one is expecting any great insight into Akira Kurosawa’s masterwork – either its story or as a film – that’s not how Jung uses the reference. He does talk in detail about cowboys and cowboy-ness. That may seem like a rough segue, but film fans may see a connection. Kurosawa’s film was famously the basis for the Western, “The Magnificent Seven.” I think there’s a connection in the broad appeal of machismo that both samurai cinema and Texas draw upon. [But maybe it was just some sweet alliteration for use in the title.]

I enjoyed this book immensely and would highly recommend it – except for readers who require order or who insist a book make a point. It’s humorous by way of strange lines of thinking and an alien outlook on a singular culture.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Gothamites by Eno Raud

The GothamitesThe Gothamites by Eno Raud
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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While the English translation of this children’s book just came out this summer, the original book (in Estonian) dates to 1962. I don’t point that out because it’s incomprehensibly dated, but because some readers may find the basis of the story to be misogynistic by today’s standards. There is a nation of people (the Gothamites) that is so known for their great wisdom and erudition that all of its men are hired abroad as counselors and advisers. The women find it untenable to have their men gone all the time, as well as finding their own nation is falling into shambles, and so they call all the men back home for a pow-wow. It’s decided that as long as their reputation for wisdom precedes them, the Gothamite men will always be called away to serve other nations, and so the only solution is to immediately give up their clever ways. Which they do.

The opening chapter lays out the backstory I discuss in the previous paragraph. Each chapter thereafter shows the Gothamites bumbling through a simple problem for which they are now unable to find solutions because they’ve given up being contemplative. It’s a bit like the movie “Idiocracy” but set in an ill-defined past instead of in the future, and geared toward children rather than adults. If it was meant as a jab at the Soviets for the bumbling ineptitude in which their system of governance resulted, it seems to have escaped the wrath of the USSR and – in fact – the author seems have done well for himself.

This is one of those children’s books, where I believe the age of the child matters greatly. Let’s consider just one of the stories from the book. Facing a salt shortage, the foolish Gothamites plant a field with little crystals of salt. When weeds begin to sprout, as will happen in a fallow field, the Gothamites are sure they are on the right track. There is an age at which this story is humorous and / or provides a teachable moment, but an older age at which the recipient of the story finds it boring and cringe-worthy. I think at the sweet-spot, the stories are funny and may offer ways to encourage judicious thinking. It’s certainly not laugh-out-loud funny for an adult reader, but it’s all about finding the right audience.

There are whimsical artworks throughout, depicting scenes from the various misadventures of the Gothamites. As far as how individuals are drawn, it reminded me of the old Popeye cartoons, but most of the plates show a chaotic scene with many silly things going on at once.

As l said, I think one has a limited window for an ideal readership, but within that window I think children will find the stories amusing and playful, and parents will find it to be wholesome humor. For that readership, I’d highly recommend this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: Dream Story by Arthur Schnitzler

Dream StoryDream Story by Arthur Schnitzler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Suffering one-two blows to his masculinity, the lead – a doctor named Fridolin – engages in a risky chain of events that culminates in sneaking into the orgiastic masquerade ball of a secret society. The major drivers of this behavior seem to be his wife’s admission of a fantasy she had about another man and Fridolin’s embarrassment over a subdued response upon being run into by another man on the sidewalk. The former is the more important event, but it amplifies the effect of the latter event, and together they result in Fridolin goading himself to do something dangerous. It also drives him to ignore warnings and show undue bravado, which results in his being discovered as an impostor at the masquerade event.

If this sounds familiar in broad brush-strokes (but not necessarily in details,) it’s because the 1999 Kubrick film, starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, “Eyes Wide Shut” is loosely-based on this story. The movie was set in modern-day New York, and the novella is set in Vienna contemporary to its composition (i.e. circa 1926.) The book was originally released in German under the title “Traumnovelle.“

I enjoyed this novella. There is excitement and tension throughout the work that varies from a bit of marital friction to life-and-death fear that the protagonist’s desire to redeem himself will get him killed. There’s also a fascinating instance in which Fridolin’s wife, Albertine, recounts a dream she had that has faint echoes of what actually happened to Fridolin in it. This leads the reader to wonder whether she knows more than she lets on, or whether her subconscious just made some lucky guesses based on their earlier interactions. The reader is shown the seedy side of early twentieth century Vienna. Certainly, what was going on there with regards to the fields of psychology and psychiatry play into the story.

If you’re looking for a short work of intrigue, I’d highly recommend this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: Surfacing by Margaret Atwood

SurfacingSurfacing by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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A young woman takes a double-date to her childhood home in rural Canada after her father goes missing. [OK, “double-date” sounds a bit trivial for the tone of the novel, but it’s the quickest way to say that she goes with her boyfriend, Joe, and a married couple, David and Anna.] At first all is well, and the four are enjoying time away from the city, living in a cabin on an island in beautiful lake country. In fact, the group decides to extend their stay, and — intriguingly — this decision isn’t advanced by the protagonist, who’s father remains missing, but one of the others who is enjoying the novelty of back-country living. During this extension, tensions rise within the group, both within each couple and between the couples.

In the third part of this three-part book, the protagonist descends into a feral madness. Her father’s disappearance, which the protagonist addresses with the stoicism of one accustomed to living in remote territory, is only one of several triggers. We discover that she was divorced, she’d been on the outs with her parents in relation to that marriage, and that her current relationship is falling apart because Joe wants to get serious but the protagonist wants to keep things casual – presumably because of the trauma of her last marriage.

As the novel progresses, we get little indications of what might have been responsible for her father’s disappearance, though the reader doesn’t have a good grasp on whether there is merit to the speculated motives, or whether they are just indication that the protagonist is beginning to lose a grip. We discover that there are parties interested in purchasing the property. Some vitriol is spoken over the fact that the prospective buyers are American, but we don’t know whether that reflects a reasonable curiosity about why foreigners would be interested in such a remote property or whether it’s the madness or whether it’s just a visceral dislike of Americans. It also seems like the protagonist may be on the trail of some sort of artifact and that her father may have left her clues about it. However, again, we don’t know whether this is all the crazed imagings of a person descending into madness.

This is a short, quiet novel, but it was nevertheless engrossing. A lot of the intrigue is packed into the very end of the novel, but as it’s a short novel that doesn’t mean that there’s and excessively long build. The protagonist’s madness offers nice opportunities for strategic ambiguity – i.e. the reader has some freedom to determine what is true and what is paranoia.

I read this as part of a personal project to read a piece of literature that offers insight into a country for every country that I’ve visited. I think it fits the bill nicely. The reader sees a little bit of what life in rural Canada is like. The reader also witnesses some of the conflict over language and nationalism as this takes place in predominantly French-speaking territory, and the protagonist has been living away long enough that her language marks her as an outsider — even though this is where she’s from. We also see how Canadians can feel an intense difference between themselves and people from the United States, even though much of the world sees Canadians as “the polite Americans.”

I’d highly recommend this book for fiction readers.

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BOOK REVIEW: Panchatantra [trans. / ed. by Arthur W. Ryder]

PanchatantraPanchatantra by Arthur W. Ryder
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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“Panchatantra” is “Aesop’s Fables” meets Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” but with an Indian flavor. [I realize that the Panchatantra is much older than “The Prince” (though not as old as Aesop’s Fables — at least not when comparing written editions) but I’d argue it’s still a useful tagline for general readers who aren’t particularly acquainted with Indian literature.] Like Aesop’s Fables, anthropomorphized animals make up the bulk of the cast in this set of stories within a story. Like “The Prince,” a lot of the the advice offers insight into how to lead (as opposed to just how to lead a moral life.) The topics addressed include: building sound alliances, avoiding deception, and making decisions regarding war and peace.

As the Sanskrit title — Panchatantra [“Five Treatises”] — suggests, this work is arranged into five books. Of the over eighty fables of the original, more than fifty are collected in this edition. [I suspect this was done to eliminate or consolidate stories that were essentially the same.] The first book is “The Loss of Friends” and it focuses on how alliances are broken up by enemies. The second is “The Winning of Friends” and it gives particular attention to alliance building. The third book is “On Crows and Owls,” and it’s about how to decide whether to go to war, choose peace, or seek some alternative. The penultimate book is “Loss of Gains” and it discusses ways in which people forfeit (or have stolen from them) what they have gained. The last book is “Ill-Considered Action,” and it advises against being hasty. The stories are skillfully written and translated, and they are thought-provoking. That said, they can be a tad hackneyed and simplistic as well. For example, a large number of these tales convey the same simple lesson that one should take advice from individuals who are wise and virtuous, and that lesson’s inverse (that one should ignore those who are foolish and / or immoral.)

I’d highly recommend giving the Panchatantra a read. It both conveys wisdom and offers good stories. It’s true that the stories can become a bit repetitive and also frequently have less than profound morals, but overall, it’s a smart and entertaining collection of fables.

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BOOK REVIEW: Book of Words by Abay Kunanbayev

Book of WordsBook of Words by Abay Kunanbayev
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Book of Words is a collection of 45 short essays by Abay Kunanbayev (1845 – 1904), one of Kazakhstan’s preeminent men of letters. Abay is known both as a poet and philosopher. This book includes more prose philosophy than poetry, though it does contain a few lines in verse.

I picked this book up while traveling in Kazakhstan. It should be noted that much of the book is a rant against the Kazakhs of Abay’s day. The book advocates for individuals to be both more scholarly, more virtuous, and more piously religious, and it skewers Kazakhs as simpletons who only care about the size and state of their livestock herds and the wealth that said herds can bring them. It’s eloquently written, but there’s not much more to it than that. With his Book of Words, Abay is trying to goad the Kazakh’s into being more virtuous and well-read. Judging from both the prominence of his name in Almaty (a huge statue, a major road, and one of the Metro stops named for him) and the success seen in Almaty, many Kazakhs probably took his words to heart.

There was a forward by someone named Nursultan Umbetov who is living, but far less famous (internationally, at least) than Kunanbayev. However, that front matter is the only ancillary matter for the edition I read. It does have explanatory footnotes where necessary to clarify something that wouldn’t make sense to non-Kazakhs.

If you want to gain insight into Kazakh culture, and how it’s changed since the 19th century, this book is worth reading. Much of the book may be viewed as trite truisms rather than earth-shattering wisdom, but it’s concise and well-articulated.

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BOOK REVIEW: Kulager by Ilias Jansugurov [Trans. Belinda Cooke]


Kulager by Ilias Jansugurov
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

This narrative poem was written by Ilias Jansugurov about the life of another poet, a man named Akan who lived from 1843 to 1913. More accurately, it’s about Akan’s horse, the eponymously named “Kulager.” The story revolves around a horse race that is takes place in Kazakhstan. An important, if unloved, man passed away, and as part of the wake there is a massive get together of people from far and wide, and it features a horse race.

Kulager is a crowd favorite, and in the cut-throat Kazakh steppe, that love seals the animal’s fate. The opening chapters acquaint us with setting, with Akan, and with Kulager, and then proceed into the story of the Akan’s arrival, the pre-race braggadocio that confronts him, and the race, itself. There is another favored horse who isn’t so beloved as Kulager but who has an owner willing to do anything to secure a victory. The tragedy that ensues is one in a long line that have confronted Akan.

It’s worth mentioning the tragedy of the author’s own life. Jansugurov was killed in 1938 in Stalin’s purges. He was considered too outspoken, and his criticisms were not so well veiled to keep him from drawing the ire of the state.

The book includes monochrome artwork and a glossary that comes in handy for those who aren’t acquainted with the Kazakh language. There are two forwards and a translator’s post-script, but it’s not the case (as is sometimes the case for poetry and thin volumes, more generally) that the ancillary matter exists to pad the book out to a publishable length. The ancillary matter is of reasonable length, contains useful information, and the bulk of the page count consists of the poem.

I found this book interesting and readable and would recommend it for those interested in life on the steppe. I picked “Kulager” up because I try to read indigenous literature from each country I visit, and this was the only Kazakh literature I could find translated to English. That said, it seems to be the first work to be put out by Kazakhstan’s National Bureau of Translations, and so – hopefully – there will be more to follow.

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BOOK REVIEW: Thirteen Steps Towards the Fare of Erika Klaus by Kazat Akmatov

Thirteen steps towards the fate of Erika KlausThirteen steps towards the fate of Erika Klaus by Kazat Akmatov
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book is set in Kyrgyzstan shortly after the breakup of the Soviet Union in a border region that has become the fiefdom of the head of the border patrol force, Colonel Bronza. This condition exists because Bronza had always reported to Moscow, which is no longer concerned with borders beyond those of Russia, and because the Kyrgyz government has been so busy getting its feet under it that it neglected its far reaches.

Into this fiefdom, comes a Norwegian volunteer, Erika Klaus, to teach English. Klaus’s naivete keeps her from grasping the dire nature of the situation and so her fate becomes worse and worse. She fails to realize that she isn’t in democratic and progressive Scandinavia anymore, but rather is in a place that is governed in part by the old Soviet KGB playbooks and in part by a man who is essentially a warlord. Even the reason she is in Kyrgyzstan shows her lack of sophistication. A childhood ailment resulting from lack of sun exposure (a not uncommon factor in Scandinavia) had a profound effect on her psyche and she chooses this location because she read that the locals were “sun-worshipers.” What she didn’t realize is that the reason they have so much affinity for the sun is that they live in a valley where they, at most, get two hours of non-shadow existence per day. But, worse, her naive ways keep her from playing the game that the locals are playing to get along. The story is supposedly based on a true story. However, I don’t know how much dramatic license Akmatov took with the narrative.

I picked up this book in Bishkek as part of my continuing effort to read a work indigenous literature from each country to which I travel – particularly a work that sheds some insight into the culture of that particular country. As I couldn’t find any translated books by Chingiz Aitmatov, I ended up with this book because – for some reason – a few books by this author, Kazat Akmatov, were all that were available in English translation. (This is a little surprising as Chingiz Aitmatov is a much more globally recognized Kyrgyz author.) All that being said, I think this was a good book for my purposes. The fact that it features a Westerner trying to get by in a rural region puts culture and history front and center. The reader learns both about life in Kyrgyz village household as well as how the locals got through this sad time as the protagonist is exposed to these lessons.

I should point out that this isn’t a happy tale. The story has a grim feel throughout, and gets progressively more so. It does have some happy moments in which we see how kind and hospitable the Kyrgyz people are, but they are sparse contrast to the tale of woe playing out. The story is particularly dark when one considers that some version of these events actually happened. That said, it’s a very readable book. The story is engaging and it’s hard to put down.

The book is factually confusing at times. In places it suggests this is the border with Afghanistan (which is relevant to the story because of the past history – i.e. the Soviet-Afghan War), but Tajikistan lies between Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan and the two post-Soviet countries gained independence within a few days of each other. In other places it reads like the border is with China (which Kyrgyzstan does border.)

The book has a few plates of black-and-white artwork to accentuate certain scenes.

If you’re looking for a book to offer you some insight into Kyrgyzstan, I’d recommend this book. It’s also an interesting, if sad, story for more general readership.

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BOOK REVIEW: Under the Frog by Tibor Fischer

Under the FrogUnder the Frog by Tibor Fischer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book’s strange title derives from an old Hungarian saying of “under a frog’s arse [and down a coal mine.]” That’s the position the protagonist, Gyuri Fischer, feels himself to be in during the course of the book, running from end of the Second World War through the Hungarian Uprising of 1956. Not many can see, let alone convey, the great absurdist comedy of life under a totalitarian regime, but Tibor Fischer manages to do so. Of course, no tale of life under a Communist regime is without a share of tragedy as well, and that plays out to make a gripping finale.

The book is a mostly chronological telling of the life story of a blue-collar worker who plays basketball well enough to be on the team of the factory he works for (and then, when he switches jobs, the railway.) Throughout the book, Gyuri wants nothing more than to leave Hungary behind. His lonely bachelor’s life and the grim nature of life in a Soviet satellite is too much to bear. One sees his fraying sanity as well as that of some of the other key characters. The sole bright-spot in Gyuri’s life is a love affair that plays out during the second half of the book.

I researched the events of the 1956 Uprising for my Master’s thesis, and Fischer’s book was quite accurate in the portion of the book that covers that time period. In places, I suspect the author favors exaggeration for comedic effect (such as in a hilarious segment that explains the origins of Budapest’s “White House” – a hideous piece of Stalinist architecture if ever there was one,) but he weaves real-world happenings into the stories of his book’s characters.

I’d highly recommend this book. If you’re interested in life under a Communist regime, but can’t take the grim and dreary way these stories are usually conveyed, you’ll find this book a refreshing change. (It’s not that the dreariness is absent, but the absurdity blunts the demoralization.) Alternatively, if you just like humor in your novels, this book will serve one well.

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