Olga Slavnikova’s profound new novel 2017 evokes, with uncanny vividness, a Russia of the near-future in which a character reasonably wonders  “…how much about human beings is human?”  One hundred years after the Bolshevik revolution, the masses enslaved by electronic entertainment and cyber-wizadry now inhabit roles rather than lives.  Or so it seems to Krylov and his ex-wife, Tamara who deliver the novel’s darker existential pronouncements.  Readers, thankfully, are allowed a more thrilling view as they follow characters that, despite their shabbily futuristic environment, are as human as any found in Tolstoy or Chekhov.   

“For months he had lived with an incomprehensible hunger,” Slavnikova writes of the yearning Krylov, a gifted gem-cutter who begins an obsessive affair with a woman he meets on a railway platform as the gem-hunting expedition of shady Professor Anfilogov departs for the Riphean mountains.  Krylov is the professor’s most gifted protege, but who is this “Tanya”?  

As Krylov’s obsession intensifies, the novel simultaneously follows the Anfilogov expedition into a wilderness alive with myth and danger.  “In the light of the barbed stars the untrodden snow was like a televisions screen flickering on an empty channel,” Slavnikova writes, “the northern lights flickered in the sky like a flame from burning alcohol.” In the city, the moon shines overhead “like an elevator button” and when a 1917 anniversary parade turns bloody, federal helicopters swoop down “like sledgehammers with dragonfly wings….” Descriptions such as these, along with Slavnikova’s flawless portraits -- of a gigolo TV celebrity, for instance, or a fatalistic peasant -- transport the reader to an alien yet weirdly recognizable world, one that remains, for all Krylov’s doubts, only too human.

April 16: ""Blue pottery vases and bowls for flowers are most attractive, and certain blue books...will repeat and emphasize color."

Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch is the winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. James Parker calls this Dickensian coming-of-age novel "an enveloping…

Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
Poems That Make Grown Men Cry

And women too.  Luminaries from Colin Firth to Nick Cave and Jonathan Franzen chose the poems that bring them to tears, and the result is a stunning collection of poignant verse from writers like Auden, Whitman, Bishop, Larkin, Neruda and many others.  Warning: choking-up hazard.

The King of Pain

Trapped beneath his entertainment system, reality TV mastermind Rick Salter reflects on his life and tries to piece together the events of the previous evening. Seth Kaufman’s romp is an outrageous meditation on pain and entertainment in a deranged world in which the two are often interchangeable.

The Good Inn

Frank Black, frontman for the Pixies, has written a transgressive historical fiction with shades of Thomas Pynchon (focused as it is on the history of explosives and cinematic pornography), all set in a hallucinatory Edwardian Europe.