A few of the twentieth century Russian history books that I’ve read have touched on a detachment of Czech soldiers who were stranded in Russia after World War I. The Bolshevik Revolution soon followed and the soldiers remained stranded, thousands of miles from home. The soldiers who numbered as many as 40,000 and were stretched out along the length of the Trans-Siberian were, according to John Keegan in his history of World War I under the sway of an anti-Bolshevik officer and were “both in a position and soon in a mood to deny the use of the railway to anyone else.” In his novel, The People’s Act of Love, James Meek drops into to the town of Yazyk amongst a stranded group of these Czech soldiers. In a book of many protagonists, the point of view of Lieutenant Mutz, one of those Czech soldiers, is the most reliable. Mutz, who mostly wants to return home after years in Siberia is surrounded by a collection of eccentrics. Anna Petrovna, the woman who Mutz would like to escape with, is restive and noncommittal. Mutz’s boss Matula is a vicious young man drunk on the power he wields over the small backwater that his soldiers occupy. Yazyk is also home to mystical sect of castrati who lurk through the town like ghosts. But the catalyst for much the book’s action is Samarin, an escaped prisoner who claims he is being chased by a cannibal. Meek ably handles these characters and many others as he crafts a story that feels both otherworldly and historically accurate. The novel was longlisted for the Booker and is engagingly dense and action-filled – worthwhile for any reader but a must for anyone interested in Russian literature or history. Meek himself is not Russian. He’s British, formerly a journalist, the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent for many years.
I added several books to the reading queue today. In New York last weekend I found a half price paperback copy of Jon Lee Anderson’s Guerrillas: Journeys in the Insurgent World. As you may know, Anderson is a stellar war reporter for the New Yorker. His writing combines thrill and adventure and danger with an unmatched depth of knowledge on the conflicts he covers. Guerrillas collects his reporting on “the mujahedin of Afghanistan, the FMLN of El Salvador, the Karen of Burma, the Polisario of Western Sahara, and a group of young Palestinians fighting against Israel in the Gaza Strip.” A few weeks earlier, at Myopic Books, an unbelievably well-stocked used bookstore in Wicker Park, I picked up a couple of late 20th century classics, Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow and Winter’s Tale (on Emre’s recommendation) by Mark Helprin. I was also lucky enough to receive in the mail from my publisher friends: The Men Who Stare at Goats by Jon Ronson (I’m a big Ronson fan), Rick Moody’s upcoming novel The Diviners, and the Booker longlister The People’s Act of Love by James Meek, which I’m a quarter of the way through. Recently, I finished the five LBC nominees for the fall, and in the meantime, with the additions of the books listed above, the queue has ballooned to it’s largest size yet, 48 titles – so much to read, so little time.
As many other book bloggers have noted, the illustrious Man Booker Prize longlist was announced today:The Harmony Silk Factory by Tash AwThe Sea by John BanvilleArthur & George by Julian BarnesA Long Long Way by Sebastian BarrySlow Man by JM CoetzeeIn the Fold by Rachel CuskNever Let Me Go by Kazuo IshiguroAll For Love by Dan JacobsonA Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina LewyckaBeyond Black by Hilary MantelSaturday by Ian McEwanThe People’s Act of Love by James MeekShalimar the Clown by Salman RushdieThe Accidental by Ali SmithOn Beauty by Zadie SmithThis Thing of Darkness by Harry ThompsonThis is the Country by William WallWith four previous winners in the running, the longlist is being hailed as one of the best ever, and it looks like the story this year will be if any of the newcomers can surpass the bigger names. My early pick is the Ishiguro, but we’ll see who the degenerate gamblers favor.As an aside, can I just say that the longlist/shortlist thing that the Brits do is the best way to run a literary prize. The longlist provides plenty of fodder for discussion as well as some insight into the judges’ thinking. The controversy that surrounded last years National Book Award finalists would have been much dampened if that short list had been preceded by a longlist.See also: For complete Booker longlist coverage, visit the Literary Saloon.