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The Zoo is a farcical romp through the last days of Stalin’s reign of terror in the Soviet Union. Yuri is a twelve year old boy who claims to have suffered some form of brain damage as a child, leaving him a functional idiot. He can see everything that goes on around him, he can learn facts, but he hasn’t the guile to understand people. Yuri takes everyone at face value, all the time. By a quirk of fate, he ends up meeting Stalin who likes having a confidant he can trust completely. So he immediately appoints Yuri to be his food taster, thereby necessitating Yuri’s witnessing of the last days of the Great Leader’s life. And this is not a glamorous end to a glorious life. Basically, Stalin is holed up in his dacha with this inner circle (Beria, Khrushchev, Bulganin and Malenkov), all of whom want to usurp the crown. These five do not like each other, they do not trust each other, but they end up spending all their time together watching films and playing drinking games. The plotting, aside from the crazy drunken antics, the stunt doubles follows Harrison E. Salisbury’s 1983 account of Stalin’s last days faithfully. It is a surprise – indeed a frustration – then that Christopher Wilson insists on using near approximations of the protagonists real names. Stalin (man of steel) becomes Iron-Man; Beria becomes Bruhah; Molotov especially irritatingly becomes Motolov, etc. It feels like it is cheapening what could otherwise have felt like a satire to take seriously. Because, underneath all the drunken japes, this is a pretty good study of the paranoia of a brutal regime waiting for its leader to die. As a kitchen cabinet, the regime has the power of life and death over anyone unfortunate enough to cross its path, but yet remains powerless to bring about any meaningful social or economic change. Stalin himself is portrayed as a tired, sick and unsatisfied man, troubled about the legacy he would leave. He was lonely and desperate for unguarded, non-judgemental company, yet he had created a world in which only an idiot boy could fulfil that function. If anything, Yuri’s role was that of the mediaeval court fool, speaking truth to a king by dressing it up as wit. In a neat story arc, we see Yuri come from ordinary society to mix with the elite; and then we see him return to ordinary society. It feels like completing a circle, albeit a rather sad circle because, as Khrushchev says to Yuri: “Poor child… You see it all. Yet you understand nothing”. But in a way Yuri inhabits a fool’s paradise. Right up to the end, as his world disintegrates around him, Yuri still remains optimistic.This really is a great read. Short, lively, humorous but thoughtful. Yuri’s narrative voice is fabulous and his perpetual innocence is captivating. Stalin’s inner circle is well drawn and Beria, in particular, is a standout character – vain, foppish, ambitious and sadistic. He is a well-rounded psychopath. Given the way history played out, it might have been interesting to dwell just a little more on the character of Khrushchev whom history has treated with affection – it would have been nice to explore his role in the purges, his role in the Ukraine and his personal relationship with Stalin a little more closely. But this is a minor complaint in a tight and entertaining novel. *****
The Ballad of Lee Cotton I'm struggling to know how to start my review of The Ballad of Lee Cotton. Lee is born in the Deep South in 1950 to a black mother and an (absent) white Icelandic father. He's blond and white skinned but brought up as a black child. He inherits some thought-reading abilities from his voodoo practicing grandmother, but these aren't enough to stop him being nearly killed by white supremacists. Temporary memory loss means that by the time he has recovered from his accident, he's being treated as a white man and his mental abilities bring him to the attention of the army when he gets drafted. An unfortunate accident leaves him mutilated in such a way that a friendly but wayward doctor decides that a sex change is the only solution - Lee becomes a white woman. Finally, a dermatological condition starts changing his skin tone and finally, Lee is black. This may all sound a complicated and contrived, but stick with it, this is one of my books of the year so far. Lee is portrayed as an unsophisticated 'mentally challenged' individual (although you wonder if this is just another persona he chooses to wear) and this allows him to tell his tale with unusual humour and insight. One of the few books to ever make me laugh out loud (and on many occasions!), this really is a special book and highly recommended. I'd be interested to see what other people think of this one. The ending becomes a bit 'magical realism' and this makes you reflect back on Lee and his life in a totally different way - lots for discussion if anyone would like to join me! katrina 8th September 2006 06:02 PM I'll look out for this, sounds interesting katrina 8th September 2006 06:05 PM check that, I've ordered it, only £1.50 + P&P on amazon so I'll be joining you for a discussion pretty soon Mungus 9th September 2006 11:08 AM Well done! I'm about to take my copy back to the library but the different perspective the ending gives you makes me wants to read it again straight away. katrina 23rd September 2006 02:39 PM I'm not sure what I thought of this book yet, I only finished it this morning and I still haven't decided if I liked it or not . For the majority of the book I was simply like- yeah its alright nothing exceptional, but the ending got me thinking. I gave it 3 stars as the majority of the book was average, but the ending was amazing. Going to have to think about it some more. Mungus 23rd September 2006 03:23 PM Sorry you didn't enjoy it more Katrina, one always feels so responsible after having recommended something... I seem to have found the main part of the book more appealing than you, perhaps it was Lee himself I liked more. Who can say. Sherman_McCoy 23rd September 2006 03:33 PM I thought it needed more detail... like this post really katrina 24th September 2006 12:35 PM I did like Lee, I do agree with S-Mc Coy it often lacked details about his feelings and somehow I couldn't connect with him or any of the other characters. Mungus, don't feel bad, I always think you should try new things, it was an ok read just not amazing.