From Russia with Lox

May 20, 2006 | ,

By Gary Shteyngart
Random House. 333 pages. $32.95.

Memoirs of a Muse
By Lara Vapnyar
Random House. 212 pages. $32.95.

The end of the Cold War may have been neither as sudden nor as gruesome as the end of the Second World War, but for the conflict’s losers, and particularly residents of the former Soviet Union, it was no picnic. Some found themselves stuck at home, disempowered by oligarchs and jeopardized by civil unrest, while others — many of them Jewish — optimistically hopped planes to places like Newark or Toronto, only to discover that mechanical engineering degrees and intimacy with Pushkin entitled them to nothing better in North America than driving a taxi. New novels by Gary Shteyngart and Lara Vapnyar, young writers born in the Soviet Union and now based in New York City, offer guided tours of the fleeting exuberance and enduring frustrations of such post-Soviet adventures. (more…)

Tearing Down Walls

September 17, 2005 | , , ,

A Wall of Light
By Edeet Ravel
Random House Canada. 256 pages. $36.95.

Imagine having to hold your breath every time you ride a bus or sit down at a restaurant, for fear of an explosion. Or being born in the same stinking refugee camp where your grandfather was born. If this were your life, who would expect you not to be angry, depressed or spiteful? How could you begin to live without fear and hate?

Such questions of trauma and recovery are at the heart of Edeet Ravel’s A Wall of Light, a thoughtful and heartfelt novelistic meditation on contemporary Israel’s past and present. (Click here for a PDF of this review.)

“The Toughest Kid in Hebrew School”

May 5, 2004 |

Natasha and Other Stories
By David Bezmozgis
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 147 pages. $18.

In its darkest years, the Soviet Union swallowed up some of the most promising writers of the 20th century. As readers, we’ll never know exactly how much was lost, but it’s natural to wonder. What if Isaac Babel, the Russian-Jewish master of the modern short story, hadn’t been executed by Stalin’s goons? What if he had escaped Russia to a somewhat friendlier environment — like, say, suburban Toronto in the 1980s?

David Bezmozgis’s Natasha and Other Stories reads like the product of that ridiculous hypothetical. (more…)