The Sacred Book of the Werewolf
By Victor Pelevin, Viking, $25.95
Is there a better way to understand the contradictions of post-Soviet society than through the philosophical musings of a 2,000-year-old werefox hooker named A Hu-li (whose name translates roughly to “so fucking what?”)? If so, Pelevin—whom Time has called a “psychedelic Nabokov for the cyber age”—has already explored it in his body of fantastical satire. He’s a master of the telling dystopic detail (a platinum credit card with a Che Guevara hologram), and of a particularly Russian kind of world-weariness. And yet, as A falls in love with a gangster werewolf (they have sex with their tails while watching Wong Kar Wai films) and puzzles over Buddhist koans, the growing morass of mystical blather starts to grate. Not very Nabokovian—and not the ideal entry point for Pelevin’s work—but a wild, deep, and diverting read much of the way.
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By Per Petterson, Graywolf Press, $22
The novels of this Norwegian author spring from harsh landscapes and even harsher circumstances, yet they never wallow in despair. Always there is solace—in simple labor, healing solitude, or the often frozen physical world. Petterson’s award-winning Out Stealing Horses brought him American attention in 2007, prompting comparisons to the spare, cinematic realism of Cormac McCarthy. A more natural equivalent is Kent Haruf, who favors the same plainspoken lyricism. To Siberia, Petterson’s 1996 novel, again concerns the memories of a narrator who lived through the Nazi occupation of a rural Scandinavian town. This time it is a woman recalling her younger self—the tomboy whose reckless independence and abiding love for her older brother helped her survive hardship and a supremely repressed family (Ingmar Bergman times three). The girl’s name is spoken once; the focus of her life—and seemingly everyone’s—is her charismatic brother Jesper. It doesn’t matter. She is indelible.
By Alaa Al Aswany, Harper, $25.95
Al Aswany, a dentist and member of the opposition in Egypt, gained international acclaim with The Yacoubian Building, a swirl of a novel about the inhabitants of a downtown-Cairo apartment building. In the Middle East, the book’s succès de scandale was due in part to its candid exploration of sex and sexuality. Chicago, which plumbs the lives of several Egyptians and Americans—grad students, doctors, professors, government spooks—wrestling with thwarted desire and repression in post-9/11 Illinois, is not quite as satisfying as its predecessor, perhaps because it’s set in Chicago. But it has similar things going for it—chief among them Al Aswany’s knack for making the personal highly political.
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Sea of Poppies
by Amitav Ghosh, Farrar Straus and Giroux, $26
Ghosh gives the full panoramic treatment to a fascinating subject—the opium industry in 1830s India—and its colorful participants: peasants tending the poppy crop, feces-caked addicts, and sadomasochistic imperialist villains. He spices this with an ingenious, but risky, stylistic overlay: The characters speak in a rich omnilingual pidgin (“The baboos puffing at their hubble-bubbles and the sahibs lighting their Sumatra buncuses”) that occasionally verges on Finnegans Wake–style word salad—an object lesson in colonial culture shock. (An only partially helpful glossary “written” by one of Ghosh’s characters ends the book.) Potentially tedious, the conceit works in service of the novel’s epic, swashbuckling adventure plot: shocking coincidences, deathbed revelations, last-second rescues, and piracy. Sea of Poppies is the beginning of a trilogy; read it now not only as prep for the sequel, but to set yourself up to complain about the inevitable movie.
By J. M. G. Le Clézio, Verba Mundi, $24.95
As you might expect of a Nobel winner, this is a deeply, self-consciously literary work. The narrator is a boy whose enchanted French colonial life on a turn-of-the-twentieth-century sugar plantation in Mauritius is undone by a vicious hurricane and his father’s financial collapse. Thus begins an odyssey that leads him to search for an obscure treasure, fall in love with a mysterious native girl, and eventually fight in the killing fields of World War I. If you can tolerate the extended reverie about the beauty of the natural world (Le Clézio really has a thing for “the sea”), the story is absorbing and vivid, as when the boy watches rioting workers hurl an overseer into a blazing furnace.