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The View from Stalin's Head [Kindle Edition]

Aaron Hamburger
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)

Print List Price: $12.95
Kindle Price: $9.99
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Sold by: Random House LLC

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Book Description

The ten stories in The View from Stalin’s Head unfold in the post–Cold War Prague of the 1990s—a magnet not only for artists and writers but also for American tourists and college grad deadbeats, a city with a glorious yet sometimes shameful history, its citizens both resentful of and nostalgic for their Communist past. Against this backdrop, Aaron Hamburger conjures an arresting array of characters: a self-appointed rabbi who runs a synagogue for non-Jews; an artist, once branded as a criminal by the Communist regime, who hires a teenage boy to boss him around; a fiery would-be socialist trying to rouse the oppressed masses while feeling the tug of her comfortable Stateside upbringing. European and American, Jewish and gentile, straight and gay, the people in these stories are forced to confront themselves when the ethnic, religious, political, and sexual labels they used to rely on prove surprisingly less stable than they’d imagined.

As Christopher Isherwood did in his Berlin Stories, Aaron Hamburger offers a humane and subtly etched portrait of a time and place, of people wrestling with questions of love, faith, and identity. The View from Stalin’s Head is a remarkable debut, and the beginning of a remarkable career.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Callow young Americans grapple uneasily with Judaism and homosexuality as they navigate a cruddy, crumbling post-Communist Prague in this debut collection. The 10 hit-or-miss stories capture a narrow spectrum of expatriate life, populated by characters uncomfortable in their own skins; this awkwardness is the focus of Hamburger's best efforts. In "A Man of the Country," the protagonist endures a yearlong semiflirtation with massive, handsome Jirka, growing ever more frustrated ("I'm more than an asexual sidekick or polite, helpful English teacher"), but never quite willing to take the initiative. In "Exile," the artist-pornographer protagonist infiltrates a tiny Jewish community led by a fierce, closeted lesbian and makes friends with an eccentric Czech student of theology. The theology student also appears in "Jerusalem," seduced by insecure American expatriate Rachel after they meet at an Israeli folk-dancing class. Rachel, obsessed by her weight and her nagging Jewish mother, is little more than a caricature; this is also true of Debra, the activist protagonist of "You Say You Want a Revolution" ("She didn't want a family, not the traditional kind. She didn't want diapers and graham crackers and apple juice"), and Sarah, a strident tourist visiting Prague in "This Ground You Are Standing On." Hamburger overshoots the mark with these attempts at satire, but his sketches of oddball Prague natives are sharp and affectionate and his evocation of Prague in the 1990s (cheap Vietnamese markets, tough beef and sour cabbage, expatriate cafes) is vivid and unexpected.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Recent novels, including Phillips' Prague (2002) and Beckman's The Winter Zoo (2002), have described the excesses and secret disappointments of American expatriates who flocked to Central and Eastern Europe after communism's fall. The stories in this debut collection, set in 1990s Prague, cover similar themes, but Hamburger's characters are Czech as well as North American, and he explores that tumultuous decade after the Velvet Revolution from both sides and in small, private scenes. In one story, a gay American is propositioned by his Czech friend, who says, "I want try it," making the man feel like "a new American breakfast cereal." In another, a young American activist feels pulled away from her idealistic, if failed, work toward her comfortable life in the States. Not all the stories are equally strong, but in language that's both understated and visceral, Hamburger skillfully distills those moments when his characters experience crucial identity shifts, not just in wild, foreign encounters but more often while eating, bathing, and tending to the animal needs of love and safety that link us all. Gillian Engberg
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Product Details

  • File Size: 299 KB
  • Print Length: 272 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0812970934
  • Publisher: Random House (March 9, 2004)
  • Sold by: Random House LLC
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B000FC1B1U
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,434,258 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Stories From Any View June 13, 2004
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
In his "Acknowledgments" to this his first collection of short stories, Aaron Hamburger thanks Christopher Isherwood for his inspiration. Just as Isherwood brought to life the Berlin of the 1930's in BERLIN STORIES, so does this writer make Prague in the 1990's a very real place. His characters are Czechs, American tourists and expatriates, Jew and Gentile, gay and straight. They teach English, They take side trips to Israel, they study in a desire to convert to Judaism, they make a living drawing pornographic illustrations. When in Prague, they visit churches and synagogues, concentration camps and sex clubs. These characters have blood flowing in their veins; they possess both breath and body odor. In "This Ground You Are Standing On," a Jewish woman, along with her husband, returning to Prague, the city her parents fled in 1939, rents a room from an elderly blonde woman she initially mistakes as Jewish who may have aided the Nazis but is not altogether unsympathetic, under this author's pen, however.
Mr. Hamburger's language is both precise and poetic. One character's thin wire-framed glasses had narrow lenses, "as if all she needed to see of the world could fit within those two rectangles." American tourists wear warm-up suits. Some of them are obtuse: "Trying to explain the hazards of privatization to bozos like Jake was like trying to drive a car stuck in neutral." A go-go dancer speaks bad English, "which was all right. . . because his body was a poem."
In addition to creating ten fascinating stories where something actually happens, Mr. Hamburger, whether he means to or not, has written a fine travel book. Reading this collection made me want to visit Prague. I also look forward to reading his novel we are told in "About The Author" is now in progress.
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What a delightful collection! June 10, 2004
By A Customer
Hamburger has created something of beauty here. There are no tricks, just the straightforward (and rarely accomplished) building of characters--distinct, human, often strange, yet always believable, characters. Hamburger has a gentle, Chekhovian approach to storytelling, and his saddest moments are tinged with humor. Reading this collection was a pleasure.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Prague! June 8, 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I just came back from Prague and then discovered this title. I am thoroughly enjoying the different tales of life in Prague.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Strangers in a Strange Land June 2, 2007
The ten stories in Hamburger's lovely debut collection focus primarily on Americans in Prague--a new lost generation on a quest for something they can't quite name in a world that makes even less sense to them than their own. Throughout, Prague is depicted as a city scarred by its recent communist past, as the collection's ominous title suggests. The title story, in fact, is perhaps the most disturbing, in which an elderly victim of the Soviet regime hires a young man to humiliate him in an S/M game that echoes his dangerous past. Elegantly structured and well-written, these are primarily character-driven stories, moving portraits of young people floundering through life. Hamburger effectively captures the uniqueness of each character--from an overweight American girl who imagines love out of desperation to a hardened lesbian who runs an unconventional synagogue--all their dreams and foibles alike resonating with real life. The book's unrelenting darkness gives rise to a question that I, having never been to Prague, can't answer: is there something about Prague itself that makes it a natural backdrop for these sad tales, or is it an unfortunate coincidence, a projection of hopelessness onto a city that has other sides unexplored in this book? I'm cautiously inspired to find out for myself.
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3 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Combines the bleakness & shadow w/ an eye for the absurd September 21, 2004
Reviewed by Colleen Hollister for Small Spiral Notebook

Mysterious and fascinating, Prague is the kind of place that would echo in the mind of anyone who traveled there, leaving them unable to fully forget. There is so much history, so much richness of culture, and so many different varieties of sadness. It is not surprising, then, that so many of the writers who make Prague their subject tinge their works with despair and darkness; it seems almost natural, tradition. Aaron Hamburger's book of short stories, The View from Stalin's Head, is no exception. Hamburger, however, goes a step further, combining bleakness and shadow with an eye for the unique and absurd, creating what is ultimately a sensitive and funny portrait of the city and its inhabitants.

Clearly drawn to Prague as place and subject, Hamburger infuses his stories with the feel of Prague itself, specifically in the post-Cold War 1990s. His details are finely drawn and evocative: the shades of black, white and concrete; the smell of smoke, beer and frying food; the pollution that is so omnipresent that it affects mood and personality, such as that of the main character in "A Man of the Country." The stories are thus firmly grounded in setting, the city fully captured.

Besides Prague, Hamburger's subjects are clear: the outsider, the foreigner, the alienated and lonely. His characters are tourists, expatriate teachers, a theology student throwing all his heart into his conversion to Judaism, and one teenage boy whose mother dresses him in frilly clothes. This is one flaw that makes the book verge on repetitive: many of his characters fit neatly under the heading of sexually confused Jewish expatriate, variations on a single type.
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More About the Author

Aaron Hamburger was awarded the Rome Prize by the American Academy of Arts and Letters for his short story collection THE VIEW FROM STALIN'S HEAD (Random House, 2004), also nominated for a Violet Quill Award. His next book, a novel titled FAITH FOR BEGINNERS (Random House, 2005), was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award. His writing has appeared in Poets and Writers, Tin House, Details, The Village Voice, The Forward, and Out. He has received fellowships from the Edward F. Albee Foundation and the Civitella Ranieri Foundation in Umbria, Italy, as well as a residency from Yaddo.


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