My favorite season in San Diego is winter – even in a wet El Nino year like we are having now. Bright, clear skies. Citrus trees full of juicy fruit. Sage in the canyons, mountains in the distance. A short drive to hikes in the snow. Orange and purple sunsets. Mostly empty beaches. Birds of paradise, bougainvillea, and coral trees. Warm days with cold evenings. San Diego often feels like a desert, but in the winter it is lush, green, and pretty much perfect.
All of this beauty I am surrounded by contrasts with the desolate, dirty landscape in Anthony Marra’s amazing collection of stories, “The Tsar of Love and Techno.” Some of the most powerful images in the stories include an artificial forest, a horribly polluted lake, smokestacks that serve as constant scenery, an inability to see the stars – ever, and the cold, cold, COLD weather of Siberia. The characters in the book are a reflection of their surroundings as they try to survive in a brutal environment.
A gentle landscape painting of a meadow with a rolling hillside serves as the center of convergence for this set of interlocking stories. The painting undergoes changes as the stories move among the characters, and, like all art, it means different things to different people. The stories drift from the 1930’s to the future as Russia experiences communism, Glasnot, and the Chechen Wars of the 1990’s.
All of the characters are struggling to get by when the decks are stacked against them. They struggle with guilt because often their survival depends on their ability to sacrifice other people and keep moving on after witnessing horrors. As one of the characters watches absurdity during an execution, he thinks, “It was the keyhole through which I first glimpsed life’s madness: The institutions we believe in will pervert us, our loved ones will fail us, and death is a falling piano.”
Marra writes, “What divine imagination could conjure something so imperfect as life?” As I read this, I kept wondering what kind of person could conjure up such perfect stories. Among the desolation in these stories, humor and beauty and our shared humanity infuse every page.
Along with Ferrante’s Neapolitan series, this book is my FAVORITE read of 2015. I loved the book so much that I went to the library an hour after I finished it to pick up his 2014 novel “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.” I can’t wait to start reading it this weekend. And if you need another reason to read “The Tsar of Love and Techno,” Ann Patchett picked it as her favorite book of 2015 (I also discovered that she is a veg in her latest blog post – another reason to love her!). And it is in the 2016 Tournament of Books! I’m calling it as the winner!
Other good things I’ve read or listened to lately include Ruth Reichl’s memoir/cookbook/twitter collection “My Kitchen Year:136 Recipes that Saved My Life” (so much better than her recent novel), Carola Dibbell’s “The Only Ones” (dark and odd), Robert Galbraith’s 3rd Cormoran Strike novel “Career of Evil” (addictive), Colum McCann’s short story collection “Thirteen Ways of Looking” (so good – plus it made me re-read Wallace Stevens poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at Blackbird ) and Margaret Atwood’s “The Heart Goes Last” (hilarious!).
Looks like good reading is coming up in 2016. Most excited about new Jonathan Safran Foer, Justin Cronin, and Don DeLillo.
And like so many others, I love David Bowie music and I’m so glad it remains even though he is gone. This is my favorite Bowie song – I always play it on the jukebox at the bar down the street from our house: