–> The Stalin Epigram by Robert Littell
Veteran espionage novelist Littell (Vicious Circle; The Company; etc.) trades cold war spies for interwar Russian poets in his wonderful new novel. In 1934, real-life poet Osip Mandelstam struggles to get published in the totalitarian state. A battered idealist who has witnessed his share of Stalin-orchestrated horrors, Mandelstam feels writers have an abiding responsibility to be truth tellers in this wasteland of lies. Much to the despair of his fellow poets, Osip writes an epigram likening Stalin to a ruthless killer, leading to Osip’s arrest, brutal interrogation and exile. The robust narrative employs an array of narrators, including Osip’s devoted wife, Nadezhda; his disloyal lover, actress Zinaida Zaitseva-Antonova; and Stalin’s personal bodyguard, Nikolai Vlasik. The most intriguing voice heard is that of Fikrit Shotman, a weightlifter turned circus strongman who shares a cell with Osip and whose journey from Moscow prison to Siberian gold mine perfectly captures the absurdity of life under tyranny. Littell is unflinching in his portrayal of Osip’s tragic arc, bringing a troubled era of Russian history to rich, magnificent life.
–> Step By Step by Lawrence Block
The prolific crime novelist (Hit and Run, 2008, etc.) writes about his adventures as a racewalker. The author’s focus at first seems puzzling. Block chooses not to tell the story of his writing life-a project he began but abandoned after weeks of feverish writing-or his personal life (“if you wanted to know something about me, well, too bad”). Instead, the memoir focuses almost entirely on his distance walking. Generally these walks are competitive-marathons and 24-hour walks in which the globetrotting Block consistently ignores both the scenery (he leaves his glasses at home) and the other runners and concentrates on beating his shortest time and longest distance. When he’s not entering formal events-from which he took a hiatus for more than 20 years-he and his wife are driving across America in search of all the towns named Buffalo or traversing Spain on foot. Block occasionally goes off on amusing tangents. He writes briefly on the question of why even nonobservant Jews like himself don’t eat pork, the nature of his interfaith (make that interagnostic) marriage and his preference for trees over Porta-Potties. On the whole, though, this is an account of the author’s entering event after event, wondering why he keeps walking despite blisters and backaches. It’s telling that the only two books whose gestation he describes in any detail are his novel Random Walk (1988) and the present volume. Fans of Block’s fiction may be interested, but they should be prepared to skim the particulars of times and distances that the author assiduously records. A peripatetic but never pedestrian memoir.
–> The Night of The Gun by David Carr
In his fabulously entertaining The Kid Stays in the Picture, legendary Hollywood producer Robert Evans wrote: “There are three sides to every story: yours, mine, and the truth.” David Carr’s riveting debut memoir, The Night of the Gun, takes this theory to the extreme, as the New York Times reporter embarks on a three-year fact-finding mission to revisit his harrowing past as a drug addict and discovers that the search for answers can reveal many versions of the truth. Carr acknowledges that you can’t write a my-life-as-an-addict story without the recent memoir scandals of James Frey and others weighing you down, but he regains the reader’s trust by relying on his reporting skills to conduct dozens of often uncomfortable interviews with old party buddies, cops, and ex-girlfriends and follow an endless paper trail of legal and medical records, mug shots, and rejection letters. The kaleidoscopic narrative follows Carr through failed relationships and botched jobs, in and out of rehab and all manner of unsavory places in between, with cameos from the likes of Tom Arnold, Jayson Blair, and Barbara Bush. Admittedly, it’s hard to love David Carr–sometimes you barely like the guy. How can you feel sympathy for a man who was smoking crack with his pregnant girlfriend when her water broke? But plenty of dark humor rushes through the book, and knowing that this troubled man will make it–will survive addiction, fight cancer, raise his twin girls–makes you want to stick around for the full 400-page journey.