Even readers previously unconcerned with the questions and technicalities of translation will tell you that Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky are incomparable translators of Russian into English. A diverse collection of short stories by Leo Tolstoy is the latest volume to benefit from the couple’s treatment. The Death Of Ivan Ilyich And Other Stories (Knopf, $28.95) is a beautiful hardcover edition of the Russian master’s short works. It draws from both the beginning and the end of Tolstoy’s ambivalent and divided writing career. The collection of eleven stories includes his autobiographical work, “Prisoner of the Caucasus,” and his return to the mountain setting of Chechnya and Dagestan for his final work, a cynical and anti-imperialist novella based on a real-life hero of holy war, “Hadji Murat.”
The Lacuna (HarperCollins, $26.99) is an engrossing historical fiction, told as the journals of Harrison Shepherd, a fictional author who reflects on the crowds, caprices, and injustices of 20th-century North America. This is the first novel in nine years by Barbara Kingsolver, and it boasts her courageous—but always literary—concern for injustice and cultural difference. Born into a confused heritage—his father absent, his mother Mexican—Harrison’s experience encapsulates that of both countries: through his eyes we witness the Bonus Army riots, the murals of Diego Rivera, Trotsky’s assassination, World War II metal drives, and the McCarthy trials. Lively renderings of Frida Kahlo, Trotsky, and even Richard Nixon combine with documentary support from Times articles (authentic and fabricated) and a heartbreaking concern for the fate of truth in the infancy of the media age to create the rare sort of novel that is both totally absorbing in its fiction and yet profoundly engages the reader with the world of fact beyond its pages.
Leonard Downie, Jr., the former executive editor of the Washington Post, read at P&P from his new Washington thriller, The Rules of the Game, his first venture into the world of fiction. I had many dog-eared pages to ask Len Downie about. The most obvious question was whether his female vice-president, who becomes president, was modeled after Sarah Palin. No, the character was conceived some five years ago, but Downie humorously brushed aside a suggestion that his predictions for the future were remarkably accurate. A customer asked whether the main character, a female investigative reporter who receives constant 4 a.m. phone calls from an anonymous source, was modeled on anyone, and Downie revealed that actually it was he who had been frequently awakened in the early hours of the morning, and warned about terrible consequences if the Post continued its coverage, when the Post was investigating Oliver North's role in Iran-Contra! Aside from these juicy tidbits about the rearrangement of the real world into fiction, Downie's The Rules of the Game is a great page-turner with an attendant higher purpose: the ethical conundrums of politics and journalism as they are both played out in Washington.