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Book Review: The Zoo by Christopher Wilson

I was browsing the shelves in Cardiff Waterstones after book group on Sunday afternoon when I came across Christopher Wilson’s The Zoo. Although I already had a book lined up for Z in the A to Z Challenge, this satire really appealed, so here we are.

Meet Yuri Zipit.

A boy who’s had a bang on the head in a collision with a Moscow milk truck.

He has a kind face, makes friends easily, and likes to help. People want to tell him their secrets.

Including the Great Leader himself, who takes a shine to Yuri when he employs him for his natural talents.

In his new job, Yuri will witness it all – betrayals, body doubles, buffoonery. Who knew that a man could be in five places at once? That someone could break your nose as a sign of friendship? That people could be disinvented . . .?

I rattled through Christopher Wilson’s The Zoo which sprints right out of the gate. Twelve-year-old Yuri is excitable, filled with facts and questions that tumble out of him, and I couldn’t help but be swept along in the slipstream of this, sometimes doubting if I could keep up with the pace.

It’s 1953 and Yuri lives with his father, a Professor of Veterinary Science, in the staff block at the Kapital Zoo. His father specialises in Cordate Neurology (the study of the brain in any animal with a backbone) and is attached to the Zoo. After two childhood accidents when he was six and a lightning strike, Yuri has been left brain damaged and also suffers from epilepsy. While he’s intelligent and can observe what’s going on around him, he’s not always adept at understanding the meaning behind what people say or do.

When he’s plunged into Stalin’s inner circle, things rapidly become yet more complicated. As he explains it, he doubts anyone would fully understand what was going on, even if they had a fully-functioning brain:

To grasp it all you would need to speak Georgian like a native, tell dirty jokes like a Mingrelian secret policeman, … , be able to drink two bottles of pepper vodka and still stay sober, be a consultant in Neurology, and a senior member of the Politburo, with a doctorate in assassinations.

I can understand why not everyone will be comfortable with Yuri as the book’s main character but I think he’s treated sympathetically by his creator and works well here. It’s not so much of a leap to accept that he might have found himself where he does, when it would have required a greater suspension of disbelief with another character. The fact that he takes things at face value also helps to keep things light.

Yuri invites confidences because his naivety sees him dismissed and means he’s not considered to pose a threat, gaining him access to conversations and rooms from which he’d otherwise have been barred. And it’s this unique perspective which allows Christopher Wilson to lampoon the excess and hypocrisy of Stalin and his inner circle with their lavish feasts and Western cinema, political manoeuvring and body doubles, while also giving the reader a taste of the more disturbing and brutal acts. Read more

Book Review: You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld

Curtis Sittenfeld’s You Think It, I’ll Say It is a collection of eleven short stories looking at our perception of not only others but ourselves as well, and just how often we get it wrong.

In ‘The World Has Many Butterflies’, a married woman flirts with a man she meets at parties by playing You think it, I’ll say it, putting into words the bitchy things she guesses he’s thinking about their fellow guests. But she is in for a shock when, in time, she finds out what was really in his mind.

The Nominee’ sees Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail, confessing her surprising true feelings about a woman journalist she has sparred with over the years. In ‘Gender Studies’, a visiting academic sleeps with her taxi driver, for what turns out to be all the wrong reasons. 

Although it has a different title to the overall collection, The World Has Many Butterflies is the title story and encapsulates what is happening in the stories Curtis Sittenfeld tells us here.

The main characters are playing a game, which we all play to a greater or lesser extent as we go through life, by trying to condense another human being down to a bitesize personality trait or psychological term, and have that define them or sum them up. It’s about how we try to read and evaluate, or judge and accept/dismiss (depending on how harmless or mean-spirited you think the game is) the people we meet throughout our lives, and how easily we’re able to fool ourselves when it comes to our own behaviour.

The stories follow a character’s rarely-voiced and privately-held internal thoughts and we often see what has changed since those misconceptions were first formed in their present-day, older selves, as in A Regular Couple and The Prairie Wife where the tables have turned. There are exceptions to this, such as in Off the Record, where an interview with a rising star goes disastrously but helps the journalist realise something more significant, and in the final story Do-Over, where two former school friends meet up for dinner and get the chance to air their thoughts on what happened back in the day. Read more

Croeso. Welcome to Nut Press.

This is the online home of Kathryn Eastman. I’m a rugby-loving, tea-drinking chocoholic book squirrel and writer, who lives on a hill, that wanted to be a mountain, in Wales.

The Nut Press is full of book reviews, chocolate, adventures with squirrels, and a lot of tea drinking among other things. Oh, and very occasionally, some writing gets done.

Check out the latest Blog Posts or read a Short Story.

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