Category Archives: Books

‘The Red Corner’ wins novel award

My novel manuscript, The Red Corner, recently won the Hackney Literary Award, a $5,000 prize for an unpublished novel. Below is an excerpt that ran in The Great Lakes ReviewIt is set at a party at the lakeside mansion of a Russian mobster in suburban Chicago. (Also check out the opening chapters, an earlier version of which originally ran in Narrative magazine, here.)


By Russell Working


The day of Garik’s party, a warm front blew in, and Darya Vanderkloot’s sore throat disappeared. It was eighty-six along Lake Michigan, and most of staff of the Cherry Orchard Russian Deli & Productery worked in their shirt sleeves as they loaded the van with cases of wine, plastic bins of food, and coolers of salad, lox, deviled eggs, frozen pelmeni, cakes, sirloin. Like the others, Darya, wore her catering uniform: a white shirt, black bow tie, and baggy pants with a hound’s-tooth check pattern, but she kept an eye on Alexei. He cut a debonair figure, like a young celebrity chief, until he shrugged on a hoodie, despite the warm weather, and shouldered his backpack, transforming himself into a freebooter on a boarding raid. Everyone worked briskly, cheerful about the change in routine, but Alexei’s scowl kept the others at bay. He brushed right past Darya without hearing her hello.

“Hey, you!” she said.

He looked perplexed. “Oh, hi.”

“You all right?”

“Never better,” he said, then went back inside for another load.

They were catering a party for a new customer named Igor “Garik” Voskresensky, who had just shown up in the Cherry Orchard a few weeks ago. Eleven years ago, in Vladivostok, he had assassinated Alexei’s father, who was running for governor. Alexei had witnessed the murder as a child, and he immediately recognized the hit man. But now he was eighteen, and the disguise of adulthood held, while Garik had no idea who he was. Alexei and Darya had not been close, but he had chosen to confide in her for some reason. The boy was a loner, an amateur boxer and astronomy buff, and maybe he had no one else to talk to. Continue reading


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Women, books, Dr. Tom Dooley, and quality IKEA furnishings

Kid ponders "Before I Sleep: The Last Days of Dr. Tom Dooley" at IKEA furniture store.

Kid ponders “Before I Sleep: The Last Days of Dr. Tom Dooley” at IKEA quality furniture store.

Yesterday we celebrated International Women’s Day by visiting a Swedish store that sells furniture you can crumble into kitty litter in your hands, with a cafe famous for its horse meatballs (or horsemeat balls?) served with lingonberry jam.

Why? Did we go to IKEA, you mean? If the furniture’s so cheap? Because Nonna wanted to, that’s why. And they do sell other stuff. So we got her International Women’s Day present there. Plus, the 99-cent breakfast was free, which means we drove 48 miles round-trip to get $2.97 cents’ worth of food. But there was horse sausage, so it was worth it.

Pictured, the kid drops into narcoleptic state with prop: a copy of Before I Sleep: The Last Days of Dr. Tom Dooley, by James Monahan. It was stuck in a stack of books supporting the base of an IKEA lamp, because it’s cool and stylish and Nordic to place lamps, salt shakers, TVs, gerbil cages, diaper pails, and so forth on books. I was shooting pics of our kid to tweet, as we were suckers for a contest that offered a coupon for a thousand dollars’ worth of furniture you can beat into sawdust against any household surface, pet, or family member.

Tom Dooley. Physician working among Vietnamese and Laotian refugees in the 1950s. Humanitarian. Saint? Spook? Or not? Lord knows. Not the same guy who was supposed to hang down his head and die, but dying young, anyway. He succumbed to cancer in 1961 at 34 years old.

I can feel guilty about anything, so I chose to feel guilty for joining Crümbleables of Stockholm in disrespecting both books and a great humanitarian with my photo-mockery. Tom Dooley would have absolved me, though. I was sure of it. Had a sense of humor. Paused while vaccinating children long enough the crack up over jokes involving the final days of once-famous people.

So instead I felt a little sorry for Dooley biographer James Monahan, even more forgotten than his subject, the book that he wept over, as he wrote it, now sitting on a plank of IKEA shelving that doubles as a hot breakfast cereal (crumble in your hands; add milk, salt, horse grease, and brown sugar; boil), all in order to appeal to the aesthetics of Norsemen who like roasting themselves pink in banyas and whose most famous export is a vodka whose name is a synonym for arbitrary, autocratic, tsarist, despotic, dictatorial, monocratic, tyrannical, arrant, blank, blooming (chiefly British), bodacious, categorical, complete, consummate, cotton-picking, etc., per Merriam-Webster. Absolut, I mean. Is this the eventual fate of all books in the end? To sit on an IKEA surface that might be crushed to talcum powder under their weight? Then again, Monahan’s Dooley book is probably read more often at quality Swedish furniture stores than mine are in the libraries. That made me feel better.

Also, Nonna got two things made of iron. Which you can bend, if you’re Superman, but doesn’t crumble.

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“It comes from God”: the trial of Joseph Brodsky

brodskyThere’s a fascinating read up at The New England Review: Frida Abramovna Vigdorova’s transcript of the 1964 trial of Joseph Brodsky, translated by Michael R. Katz. It ends with the judge pronouncing this sentence on the future Nobel laureate: “Brodsky will be sent to remote locations for a period of five years of forced labor.” And the guards, passing the defense counsel, sneer, “So? You lost the case, comrade lawyer!”

I found this particularly telling as an example of the clash between the state and the individual writer:

JUDGE: How long did you work at the factory?

BRODSKY: A year.

JUDGE: As what?

BRODSKY: A milling-machine operator.

JUDGE: And, in general, what is your specific occupation?

BRODSKY: Poet. Poet-translator.

JUDGE: And who said you’re a poet? Who ranked you among poets

BRODSKY: No one. (Unsolicited) Who ranked me as a member of the human race?

JUDGE: Did you study for this?

BRODSKY: Study for what?

JUDGE: To become a poet. Did you attend some university where people are trained … where they’re taught…

BRODSKY: I didn’t think it was a matter of education.

JUDGE: How, then?

BRODSKY: I think that … (perplexed) it comes from God…

JUDGE: Do you have any petitions for the court?

BRODSKY: I’d like to know why I was arrested.

JUDGE: That’s a question, not a petition.

BRODSKY: Then I have no petitions.

Read the whole thing.

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I have wanted a complete Oxford English Dictionary since I was 17 and I lived in Sydney with the Bishops, who had one that they regularly consulted. Now I finally own one, the same compact edition with four pages reproduced on every leaf.
For years I did without an OED, what with the moves abroad, my status as an impoverished small-town reporter, or my lazy reliance on American Heritage. Then ten years ago, after we returned to the States from Cyprus, I found out you could get free access online with an Oak Park Public Library card, so I never bothered to buy my own OED.

Last year, the library canceled its online subscription to the dictionary, citing budget constraints. This happened even as they remodeled the ground floor and added a lounge that is so unused, they had to place a Ping-Pong table in there to lure people in. (Maybe they should distribute free blankets for nappers and hobos.) When I complained, they told me the subscription was too expensive and hardly anybody used it.

Why, I use it every day, I said.

We value your opinion, they said.

Filled with righteous indignation, I FOIed the remodeling budget and the OED metrics. Turns out they were right: They got fewer than 30 look-ups a month. And the cost (I’ve lost their lawyer’s email) was pretty high for a service whose customer base amounted to: me. So much for my plan to write a stinging letter to the editor of the local weekly. (“Sirs: On behalf of aggrieved writers everywhere, I wish to register my indignation at the priorities of our public library.”)

But now, thanks to an Amazon gift card from our older kid, I have my own OED, complete with case and the little drawer containing the squarish magnifying glass.

The word “working,” by the way, only dates to the 1300s. “Work” first appeared in 971. Not that that’s really relevant; I inherited Working from German immigrants, the Werkingers, who were apparently confused about how best to blend in when they arrived in Pennsylvania.

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Filed under Books, Editing, Fiction, Writing

Mandelstam and the Olympics

Statue of poet Osip Mandelstam in Vladivostok, where he died in a Gulag camp.

Statue of poet Osip Mandelstam in Vladivostok, where he died in a Gulag camp.

It was surprising to see, along with the prerevolutionary classic authors whose pictures were displayed in the ceremony at Sochi last night, photos of Mandelstam, Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Brodsky, Bulgakov, Pasternak, and Solzhenitsyn. It would have been nice if the organizers had thrown in Shalamov and Yevgenia Ginzburg, but still, it was the only acknowledgement I saw in either the opening or closing shows of Stalin’s victims. I found myself wishing Mandelstam’s wife, Nadezhda, could have been transported forward in time for just three minutes to see that.

In her second memoir, Hope Abandoned, Nadezhda wrote of all those who died in the camps across the Soviet Union, “The mass graves into which the bodies with tags on their legs were thrown are inaccessible. One day, perhaps, they will dig up all the bones and burn them, or throw them into the ocean.” But she was wrong. The bones were never dug up, not in Vladivostok, anyway, where Mandelstam died and was probably dumped in a mass grave.

After his arrest in 1938, Nadezhda wrote him a letter, just in case he was released only to find her arrested (as happened to many couples). She stated:

Like two blind puppies we were, nuzzling each other and feeling so good together. And how fevered your poor head was, and how madly we frittered away the days of our life. What joy it was, and how we always knew what joy it was. …

In my last dream I was buying food for you in a filthy hotel restaurant. The people with me were total strangers. When I had bought it, I realized I did not know where to take it, because I did not know where you are.

When I woke up, I said to Shura [Osip’s brother]: ‘Osya is dead.’ I do not know whether your are still alive, but from the time of that dream, I have lost track of you. I do not know where you are. Will you hear me? Do you know how much I love you? I could speak only to you, only to you. You are with me always, and I who was such a wild and angry one and never learned to weep simple tears—now I weep and weep and weep.

It’s me: Nadya. Where are you?

When I initially posted the above thoughts on Facebook, Rob Coalson, an editor in RFE/RL’s Central Newsroom in Prague, responded, “I think you can go further, though. Practically all the writers from Pushkin to Solzhenitsyn were at one time censored or persecuted by the Russian government. It was a pageant to censorship, arrest, exile, imprisonment, murder. Shameful for the state to be celebrating them without acknowledging it.” He adds excommunication as another punishment (Tolstoy).

He has a point. And while every back-page biography in a Dostoevsky novel refers to his arrest, you have to read Notes from the House of the Dead to get a sense of how harrowing his prison experience was, particularly his description of the flogging of prisoners–a thousand strokes, two thousand, often to death. (Chekhov, by the way, also wrote about a flogging he witnessed on Sakhalin.)

Still, the ceremony’s highlighting of writers, however hypocritical, was at least a contrast to the celebration of Stalinism in the opening. All those people running around in red tights reminded me of devils. I wonder what Bulgakov would have made of it.

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