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God Lives in St. Petersburg: and Other Stories Hardcover – January 25, 2005

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. In this sharp, hip collection of stories, Bissell fictionalizes his experiences in Central Asia, which were first aired in his nonfiction debut Chasing the Sea. Bissell has a predilection for school-of-Eggers deadpan irony and pop culture references, but if his knowingness sometimes grates, his witticisms are rarely gratuitous; the conflation of American consumerism with the barrenness of the Central Asian landscape gives these stories a striking immediacy: "Afghan men tended to wear their scarves atop their heads in vaguely muffin-shaped bundles or around their necks with aviator flair.... This was called terrorist style..." "Death Defier" follows a pair of Western journalists as they flee a war-torn Afghan city only to end up in the care of a warlord who dispatches one of them in search of an unlikely folk remedy for the other's malaria. In "Aral," an American scientist investigating the destruction of the Aral Sea is kidnapped by a KGB operative bent on showing the world how pollution has crippled his children and his country. The stunning title story depicts a missionary stationed in Russia who loses his faith as he is overcome by sexual desire. The story's deeply disturbing conclusion is a reminder of the short distance between the help offered by outsiders and the harm they do. Bissell never flinches as he looks straight into the starved hearts of his characters. In these chilling stories of a region ravaged by war, exile and neglect, desperation drives men and women to do the otherwise unthinkable, and no one is quite forgiven for their transgressions.
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From Booklist

Bissell's collection of short stories set in Central Asia feature Americans emotionally and literally stranded in alien circumstances they struggle to comprehend. These six tales bring culture clashes and complexities to new levels as characters strive to survive in and make sense of seemingly senseless situations. Two journalists in Afghanistan fend off the inevitability of death while in the company of a notorious warlord. A missionary in St. Petersburg attempts to reconcile his homosexuality and infidelity with his faith. A young married couple is ill-equipped to deal with a marital crisis during a dangerous hike in Kazakhstan. The irresponsible son of an American ambassador on a collision course with fate risks his own life and costs his father his job. An environmental biologist is forced to rethink her theory on the diminishment of the Aral Sea. A returning Peace Corps volunteer finds he cannot pick up the pieces with his former girlfriend. Bound by common thematic elements of pathos and confusion, these stories shimmer with rare insight into an ever-mysterious foreign landscape. Margaret Flanagan
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon; First Edition edition (January 25, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375422641
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375422645
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.8 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,683,519 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

18 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Marshall Boswell on February 8, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Everyone who reads this exhilarating dervish of a book will first be struck by its courage and its timeliness, by how presciently and precisely it tells us what we need, but might not want, to know about the far reaching impact of American adventurism abroad. His characters blunder into Central America for a number of reasons, both selfish and altruistic, and yet in no instance does Bissell shy from tracing out the full and unexpected consequences of such meddling. Other reviewers have already praised the book on this account, and I suspect the string of Amazon reviews that will begin to accumulate here will continue to explore this aspect of the book. But this is also, first and foremost, a book of high literary achievement. Literature is not political commentary but rather a way of experiencing political existence within the charged and always unstable context of art. As such, each piece here is a wonder of accumulated detail, of complex characterization, of carefully designed form. Donk, the Michigan born photographer in "Death Defier," is both a way for Bissell to explore the complexity of our sojourn in Afghanistan as well as a fully fleshed character in his own right who, with gut wrenching memories of his dying father, confronts his own death with a level of terror and dignity that becomes universal paradoxically because of its particularity. Douglas and Jayne, the sophisticated and clueless New Yorkers who take an "Expensive Trip Nowhere" to Kazakhstan, transform in the course of their story from poster children for American naivete to a couple confronting their horrifying limitations, a recognition that is both psychic and political without ever being tendentious.Read more ›
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By G. Bestick VINE VOICE on January 12, 2006
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Tom Bissell is fond of sprinkling aphorisms throughout the stories in this fine collection, so let's lay one on him: Only a young man with his entire life stretched out before him could afford to be so pessimistic about life's possibilities.

Granted, he's writing about places it's easy to be pessimistic about, god-forsaken Central Asian Republics spawned by the collapse of the Soviet Empire, places that are a "combo of Soviet paranoia and Muslim xenophobia" as one character puts it. Five of the collection's six stories follow this pattern: take a (young) American; drop him or her into a central Asian country; stir; chronicle the resulting disaster.

The first story, Death Defier, is probably the best. A free-lance American photographer gets caught in a difficult situation in Afghanistan while trying to help a British reporter felled by a virulent strain of malaria. The story poses an interesting question: can you dive so deeply into the mechanics and aesthetics of war that you become immune to death-terror? Bissell grapples honorably with the complex sensibility of war correspondents, people who are voyeuristic and deeply engaged, often at the same time. Aral is about Amanda, an American biologist sent by the United Nations to study the shrinking Aral Sea (a hall of fame ecological screw-up). Amanda consistently misreads the intent of the people around her. She displays that combustible American mix of idealism, aggressiveness and ignorance of the local culture that's served us so well in Vietnam and Iraq.

Expensive Trips Nowhere and The Ambassador's Son are ugly American stories.
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13 of 16 people found the following review helpful By M. JEFFREY MCMAHON TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on February 28, 2005
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Bissell, who is very young (born in 1974)to be writing short stories with this kind of wisdom, worked as a Peace Corps volunteer near the Aral Sea and has used his experiences in South Central Asia and Eastern Europe, delving into the lives of journalists haunted by demons, searchers, spoiled rich brats, do-gooders, criminals, sociopaths, and a litany of misfits to produce a rare feat of fiction--literary short stories that have the feel of expose. He takes you into the heart of modern day Afghanistan, for example, in his story "Death Defier," where an American journalist, haunted by family demons, appears to be a courageous photographer of truth on one hand and a man with a death wish on the other. In "Aral," his story that more than the others ventures into exposition and polemic, a nihilistic KGB officer lectures an American biologist UN worker about the "fat souls" of Americans who, for all their platitudes, know nothing of real suffering before subjecting the woman to a little trial of her own. In "The Ambassador's Son" a rogue narrates his licentious exploits and the manner in which he corrupts a Christian missionary.

Amazingly, these stories can be peeled layer upon layer for their psychological depth while at the same time they percolate with the buzz of the chaos that we read about in the daily newspapers and blogs. A great achievement.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Jonathan Carr on June 20, 2007
Format: Hardcover
As I read, I was looking at the structural underpinnings of theses stories. I was interested in what happened to a story that was told in a foreign land. What role does place play in the exotic story? How does a writer balance the need to explain the exotic with the need tell a story? What stories can be told only in an exotic land and why?

And of course, there were no real answers. In some of the stories ("Aral," and to a lesser degree, "Death in Defier") place is integral to the telling of the story. The place is an import part of the plot and is treated as another character that acts within (or upon) the story. Place influences the lives of the characters and their decisions. The movement of the story depends on the place. It is difficult to imagine the story unfolding in any other location, just like it is difficult to imagine the same story with different characters. Change the place and you change the story.

Other stories ("The Ambassador's Son," "God Lives in St. Petersburg," "Expensive Trips Nowhere") are less dependent on place. The real action in the story involves the characters. Although the stories unfold in Central Asia, they could (perhaps) just as easily take place in Africa, Mexico, or rural Alabama. The stories are character driven.

It is also interesting to see how politics are woven into the stories. The characters in "Death in Defier" all hold different political views, and those views are drawn in contrast to the shared reality of life between Mazar and Kunduz.

I also noticed that although place can have some of the same characteristics in a story as character, they are not the same.
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