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PU-239 and Other Russian Fantasies Paperback – February 1, 2011

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Editorial Reviews Review

In his second book of short stories, Ken Kalfus takes on the speeding troika that is Russia in the 20th century. It's an astonishing act of literary ventriloquism, displaying a range of subjects and techniques that would be remarkable in any writer, and is that much more so in one working in a tradition not his own. There are not one but many Russias in Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies: the giddy utopianism of the early Soviet Union; the postwar Stalinist personality cult; the brief thaw of '60s liberalism; and, perhaps most affectingly, the post-Gorbachev state, in which infrastructure crumbles while workers go unpaid. The title story begins with an accident in a nuclear plant and ends in unwitting apocalypse, as a technician dying of radiation poisoning attempts to sell weapons-grade plutonium on the black market. The result is part tragedy, part Fargo-style farce, featuring hoodlums so dumb they think they're dealing in drugs: "'What did he call it?' ... 'Plutonium. From Bolivia, he said.'" In "Anzhelika, 13," a young girl is convinced she has caused Stalin's death, while "Salt" is a satiric fairy tale about supply and demand. "Budyonnovsk" finds Viktor Chernomyrdin negotiating not with Chechen hostage-takers but with an exhausted, embattled Russian Everyman, Vasya, who is "old enough to know what a real job is, but not old enough to have ever had one."

The short-story collection suits Kalfus; its eclecticism let him come at his subject from as many angles as he can dream up (and that's a lot). It's harder to sustain the same kind of imaginative momentum in a longer form, which makes the book's final novella an unexpected success. "Peredelkino" follows two writers through an intricate dance of literature, politics, jealousy, and desire, and then closes on a lovely and moving image. The narrator--discredited, disillusioned, his career finished--stands outside his own house "in the dark nowhere place from where authors always watch their readers." Inside is his wife, to whom he has been repeatedly and flagrantly unfaithful, oblivious to his presence but transfixed by his book:

I knew that shortly there would be many explanations to be made, however imperfectly, and then confessions and recriminations, protestations of grief and loss, and then at last hard, practical calculation. Before that, I wanted to absorb, place in words that I would always be able to summon, an image of her like that, the passionate reader.
In a sense, that's us he's looking at, absorbed in the book we've just finished. Kalfus is the kind of writer who can tip his hat to the reader--who can acknowledge our complicity--all without ever lifting us out of the world he's created. Most fiction speaks to either the heart or the head; his does both with ease. --Mary Park --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

These five short stories and one novella demonstrate Kalfus's sense of the absurd, and his marvelous knowledge of modern Russia. The jewel of this collection is its eponymous first story. Timofey, a nuclear engineer, absorbs a toxic amount of radiation in an accident at his workplace, an obsolete provincial nuclear weapons facility. Hoping to leave his family some money after his death, Timofey steals some plutonium and takes it to Moscow, planning to sell it on the black market. But Yeltsin-era Moscow perplexes him absolutely. He makes the mistake of trusting Shiv, a small-time hoodlum who knows no physics: the results are comic and awful at once. Other stories describe the long shadow of Stalinism. "Birobidzhan" is a fascinating version of the bizarre "homeland" for Jews that Stalin sanctioned and attempted to build within Russia. In "Anzhelika, 13," a girl gets her first period on the day Stalin dies. Terrified, she equates the national mourning, her brutish father's grief and her body's function. The novella, "Peredelkhino," begins with the narrator, Rem Petrovich Krilov, about to produce a servile review of a novel by Leonid Brezhnev. The narrative then flashes back to the '60s, just before the Prague Spring, when Krilov is a rising star of Moscow's official literary culture, with his own suburban dacha. After the defection of a beautiful writer whom he had innocently recommended to an editor, Krilov falls from grace; in the repressive post-1968 climate, he is tarred with her "crime." Kalfus shows a striking talent for transcultural understanding, and for depicting the very strange; fans of Paul Bowles, or of Kalfus's earlier collection, Thirst (to be released in paperback by Washington Square Press), won't want to miss these new tales. Agent, Michael Carlisle. Author tour. (Sept.) FYI: First serial rights to one of the stories, "Salt," have been sold to Bomb magazine.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 312 pages
  • Publisher: Milkweed Editions; Reprint edition (February 1, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1571310827
  • ISBN-13: 978-1571310828
  • Product Dimensions: 8.4 x 5.5 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,070,088 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Ken Kalfus is the author of two collections of short stories and three novels, including "A Disorder Peculiar to the Country," a finalist for the 2006 National Book Award. His collection, "Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies," was a finalist for the Pen/Faulkner Award in 2000, and the title story, "Pu-239," was the basis for the HBO movie of the same name. His other books include "Thirst," "The Commissariat of Enlightenment" and "Equilateral." Kalfus's third collection, "Coup de Foudre: A Novella and Stories," is being published in May 2015.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

16 of 18 people found the following review helpful By A Fan on June 20, 1999
Format: Hardcover
Whoever sent Ken Kalfus' wife to work in Moscow has done a great service to readers. Placed in such a strange environment, Kalfus has crafted a collection of short stories (and a novella)focusing on individuals who find their own dreams and desires at odds with the system, any system. The result is a rich and satisfying book of great skill, honesty and insight.
In the title story, a scientist contaminated by exposure to radioactivity enters the black market to provide security to his family. In "Orbit," a very human Yuri Gargarin spends an eventful night before his first spaceflight. The novella, "Peredelkino" explores the tension between creativity, love and politics. In each of these stories, and the others, the characters are finely drawn, the narration is deft and the impact made without contrivance or manipulation of the reader.
Kalfus' first book, "Thirst," was a wonderfully diverse collection of stories. "Pu-239" follows up, and even surpasses the promise of that book. "Pu-239" is a treasure.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Scott M. Craig on May 14, 2001
Format: Paperback
Kalfus' second collection of stories has a lot to commend it. The title story "PU-239" is the best of the book. Like all short story collections, some are very successful and some are complete misses. In general, I like the way he draws out characters and he is excellent at describing the movements that define a person. In some of the stories, I felt that he only had a cursory, historical knowledge of places and events and that made the story seems a little shallow. Overall, this is a worthwhile book to own and enjoy.
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Lonya VINE VOICE on January 10, 2002
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Pu-239 consists of a collection of six short stories followed by a novella. The short stories cover a broad range of topics and cross the vast geographic expanse (Moscow, Chechnya, an area like Chernobyl, and the former Soviet/Jewish Republic of Birobidzhan) that is the former USSR. Some of the stories work and read well. Pu-239 and Birobidzhan work particularly well. Others, Orbit and Anzhelika, 13 are acceptable. Salt and Budyonnovsk, are not particularly good. The Novella, Peredelkino, concludes the collection and is Kalfus' best piece of writing. Ironically, it also explains the pitfall that keeps this work from a higher rating. Much has been made in prior reviews and in the dust jacket of Kalfus' 4-year stay in the USSR/CIS. Some have argued that the stories reflect the broad but ultimately superficial range of Kalfus' knowledge of Russia. This is a valid criticism. However, the importance of that criticism depends upon whether you believe that a short story requires the same kind of depth one would look for in a novel. Further, it depends upon whether you view in-depth knowledge to be a pre-requisite for a good story. Peredelkino centers on a Soviet writer and member of the Writer's Union during the Brezhnev regime. The protagonist receives fierce criticism for a novel that focuses on life on a Soviet merchant vessel. The criticism centers on his lack of precise in-depth information about life on the ship. It shows, his critics argue, a lack of concern for Soviet realism. The writer complains that the facts were not essential. He writes fiction and the ship was merely a fiction delivery device. Kalfus, to a certain extent, faces the same criticism. Despite his 4-year stay, his stories do not seem to cut below the outer levels of reality of Soviet life.Read more ›
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Patrick Carroll VINE VOICE on February 28, 2000
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
There's an old Russian story about a serf who's granted a wish by a genie. "Kill my neighbour's cow" is the wish. This book expands on that thought process. There's everything, from modern gangster Russia, to the beginning of the Russian space program, to a failed writer surpassed by a lesser, defecting, talent, to a fairy tale involving salt and Russian dog-in-the-manger thinking. This is a great book.
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Format: Paperback
One of the best books of 2013 is Ken Kalfus' Equilateral: A Novel, an insightful, subtly humorous and wonderfully written novel in the vein of classic sci-fi. (If you haven't read it yet, why haven't you?) I'd never heard of Kalfus before reading it, so am now working my way backwards through his previous stuff...

Kalfus lived in Russia during the period 1994-1998, when his wife was appointed Moscow bureau chief of the Philadelphia Inquirer, allowing him to get to know the country and its people. The result is this collection of six short stories and a novella, all based in the Russia of the USSR era. Overall, he gives us a grey and grim depiction of life under the Soviet regime, but leavened with flashes of humour and a great deal of humanity. His writing has the same spare precision of Equilateral though, perhaps because of the subject matter, with less of the poeticism that was a feature of that book.

The title story, Pu-239, tells of the Soviet nuclear programme, shrouded in secrecy, with little regard for the safety of the workers. A stark tale of the dangers that lurk in an industry that is creaking and broken, Kalfus humanises his story by concentrating on one worker, his loyalty tested to breaking point when he is the victim of an accident in the plant.

Anzhelika shows the life of this 13-year-old living in the time of Stalin and dealing with the sudden return of her father who has been missing, no-one knows where, since the end of the war. We see how she has been indoctrinated to revere, almost worship, Stalin and the regime and how the most human of emotions are corrupted and denied.
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