Books: Palatable Pandemic, Familiar Face Returns

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“Our Country Friends” Makes Pandemic Palatable

“Our Country Friends”
Gary Shteyngart
Penguin Random House

For Gary Shteyngart, who wrote about the painful adult consequences of his botched circumcision in the Oct. 4 issue of The New Yorker, no issue seems to be off-the-table when it comes to writing topics.


Courtesy of Penguin Random House

Shteyngart’s new novel “Our Country Friends,” published on Nov. 2, is no exception, taking the hairy milieu of 2020 — the pandemic, the June Black Lives Matter protests and cancel culture, whose proximity to current times may make readers squirm — and turning it into a refreshing, hopeful, yet crushing, narrative.

Sasha Senderovsky, an aloof and past-prime professor and writer, is the landowner of a “bungalow colony,” in upstate New York, his dilapidated property dotted with felled branches after early-spring storms. 

At the onset of the pandemic, he’s joined by a flock of hand-picked guests, many of whom Senderovsky has known since high school: the CEO of a popular dating app site; an adjunct professor-turned-short-order cook with a chunk of lung missing thanks to a run-in with lung cancer; a former student who catches the eye of many of the “colonists”; a friendly rival whose worldliness and culinary aptitude are both charming and overrated; the unnamed Actor who is haughty and laughably self-serious.

While Senderovsky tries to escape with his guests, his anxiety continues to bubble as he manages financial woes, a house in disrepair and a growing paranoia of white supremacists learning of his Soviet Jewish identity, as well as the Korean, Gujarati and Turkish identities of his guests.

By the wayside falls his wife Masha, a psychiatrist whose patients include geriatric COVID-denying, Soviet Jewish conspiracists and, not formally, hers and Senderovsky’s 8-year-old Nat, née Natasha, who is herself grappling with who she is during the pandemic, with only her love of Korean boy band BTS seeming to remain static.

Sheyngart projects his own Ashkenazi sensibilities onto Senderovksy — both Sheyngart and his protagonist hail from Leningrad, both born in 1972. But while Shteyngart has enough pop culture savviness to pump the book chock-full of allusions, Senderovsky fails to connect with his fellow bungalow colonists with his head-scratching references to Russian literature.

Within the bungalow colony’s own isolated habitat, Senderovsky is his own island.

“Our Country Friends” is a nod to the collective disorientation felt by Americans at the start of that spring. Masha policed guests about maintaining distancing, masking and militantly wearing blue latex gloves. Guests sat coldly outside for dinners, chairs dragged the appropriate distance from
one another.

Shteyngart likes to whisper at his readers through cracks in the fourth wall, drawing our attention to an em-dash and why he’s decided to use it. He knows his writing hits a little too close to home and uses it as an excuse to usher in generous familiarity and intimacy
with us.

And it’s difficult to resist Shteyngart’s romantic, but realistic, portrayal of last year, especially when scenes from an isolated and bucolic upstate New York are replicated in Philadelphia and across the country.

Forests of “Black Lives Matter” and “Hate Has No Home Here” signs line up on one side of the streets in Senderovsky’s sprawling neighborhood, with “All Lives Matter” signs and black-and-white-and-blue-striped American flags lining the other. Mysterious black vans with xenophobic iconography disappear and reappear, their presence threatening the delicate homeostasis the colonists have worked hard to maintain.

A trip to the countryside to escape the virus was still not immune to its deep social impacts.  Nightly elaborate Mediterranean feasts and copious imbibing gave way to a host of salacious affairs, secrets, nightmares and sickness. 

Nat worries that she is a member of “Generation L” — the “L” is for “last” — as the climate crisis comes to a head, but the guests seem to sober as they realize they may all be of this generation, regardless of the 40-plus-year age gap among them.

Even the cultural elite must reckon with their decision to escape up the Hudson River while those in the city continue to die. They have guilt for leaving, guilt for living.

Shteyngart is ambitious in his novel. He takes such a distal locale and group of people and makes them feel so close to the reader.  But even more impressive is Shteyngart’s ability to tackle a national conversation that not only began in the not-so-distant-past, but that is also ongoing, and to do so with wit, tenderness and honesty.

After 19 months of shrugging off COVID-related media, dismissing it as trite, overdone or just plain painful to see, readers can now hopefully find solace in confronting the totally bizarre, still not-quite-normal, experience of enduring a global pandemic, if only in the pages of “Our Country Friends.”

[email protected]; 215-832-0741

Gabriel Allon Does Gabriel Allon-like Things

Courtesy of HarperCollins

“The Cellist”
Daniel Silva
HarperCollins

Israeli intelligence officer/art restorer Gabriel Allon is back —and anyone who’s ever read one of Daniel Silva’s books knows what that means.

Bad guys (often Arabs and, increasingly, Russians). Duplicity. Action sequences. Global intrigue. A generally satisfying conclusion.

In a sense, Silva offers us the fast food of the literature world: It’s reliable, satisfies a basic need and it doesn’t challenge you. It’s a formula that obviously works, considering that it’s Silva’s 10th straight offering to top The New York Times Bestseller List. Silva’s books appear like clockwork, a new novel dropping every year.

Nor is Silva any different from other successful authors who ply the same formula with spy or cop protagonists, such as Brad Thor (Scot Harvarth), Jonathan Kellerman (Alex Delaware), Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child (Aloysius Pendergast), Lee Child (Jack Reacher) and countless others.

Allon’s added appeal to Jewish readers, of course, is that he’s an Israeli.

This time around, we learn that our protagonist spent the first part of the pandemic traveling the world to buy black-market ventilators, protective clothing and testing materials for use in Israeli hospitals. Before long, though, he’s back to his usual secretive ways, even if frequent pandemic references are made.

Allon learns of the murder in London of Russian exile billionaire, Viktor Orlov, who once saved his life. British intelligence believes an investigative reporter from an anti-Kremlin newspaper is the culprit, but Allon is skeptical — with good cause.

As the story unwinds, Allon travels the world to uncover the truth, eventually landing in Geneva and facing off against the Haydn Group, whose goal is to divide the United States (it’s not divided enough today?), leaving Russia atop the global food chain.

In his acknowledgments, Silva notes that he began writing “The Cellist” in the late summer of 2020 — well before the Jan. 6 insurrection — but “resolved to include the near death of American democracy in my story of Russia’s relentless war on the West. I jettisoned my existing ending and rewrote much of my manuscript in a span of six weeks.”

It’s a good thing he did because the ending is gripping. As Mark Twain famously said, “Truth is stranger than fiction,” and, these days, it’s often hard to believe some of the news events taking place.

In summary, if you’ve liked reading about Gabriel Allon in the past, chances are you’ll like doing so now.

[email protected]; 215-832-0797

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