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God Lives in St. Petersburg: and Other Stories Hardcover – January 25, 2005
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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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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
Top customer reviews
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. In an Author's Note, Bissell acknowledges his debt to Hemingway's The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber for Expensive Trips Nowhere, which is about courage or the lack thereof on the steppes of Kazakhstan. The Ambassador's Son is about what you'd get if you dropped the Jay McInerney of Bright Lights, Big City into the capital of Tashkent. It should be noted that Bissell writes well about sex, giving it neither more nor less significance than the situation he's describing merits. The final story, Animals in Our Lives, is the only one set in America. Franklin, a recently returned expat English teacher, and Elizabeth, a med student, spend an afternoon at the zoo and experience the moment when it comes clear they don't have a future with each other. It's a sensitive rendering of the kinds of pain your intellect can't protect you from.
The title story, which won a Pushcart Prize, is about Timothy, a missionary in Samarkand whose faith gets subverted by physical urges. Bissell gets the succumbing to temptation part just right, along with the heartbreaking juxtaposition of sex with hope that pervades the world's downtrodden places. What's missing is a visceral sense of the struggle to hold on to God. God may not live in St Petersburg, but Dostoievksi did, and the master understood that sin gains heft through the hubris of the sinner. Something enormous was at stake for Dostoievski's spiritual criminals; they pitched themselves willingly on to the pyre, inviting and accepting oblivion for their defiance. Timothy settles for the tiny oblivion of orgasm, then sits in a fug of post-coital remorse waiting for God to ring him up. He's simply not a big enough person to carry his part of the argument, so the story falls short of the tragic dimension it tries to achieve.
There's a lot to like about Bissell as a writer. He's willing to engage with far-off, difficult cultures, and willing to wrestle with big ideas like death and sin. He writes a prose that's both erudite and plainspoken, which is hard to do. He can be both trenchant and expansive in his observations, often in the same well-turned phrase. His efforts to describe the ways in which the personal and political infuse and alter one another takes him into territory mined so productively by Graham Greene. While each of the individual stories may not be perfectly realized, it feels like there's something at stake here, maybe something important.
He's an author work rooting for, and I'd definitely buy his next book.
For me, this was the first book in a long time that brought out the 'just a few more pages' type of mentality that keeps you reading until the wee hours of the morning (it's a short book though, so start it early in the day so you don't stay up too late!).
One of the greatest parts of this is how each story seems to speak to a different part of me.
I really enjoyed it. And with the used prices below a dollar, I think you'd be missing out not to pick it up.
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.