Review and Recipe
Dark and frosty landscapes seem to inspire more introspection and a deeper examination of the human spirit. Russian authors, in particular, have a long history of writing about the hard edges of reality with a heavy dose of melancholy. But the Russians also have a corner on whimsical writing and the unique ability to look a the world a little differently.
Reminiscent of Everything Is Illuminated, Death and the Penguin shows the absurdity of life in post-Soviet Kiev, where violence and poverty rule the city with an iron fist.
Viktor Zolotaryov is a would-be writer with one friend, his penguin Misha. Viktor rescued Misha from the local zoo when it could no longer feed its inmates and had a fire-sale to find them homes.
Viktor is musing about how to keep himself, and Misha, fed and housed when a unique opportunity presents itself. The chief of the city's newspaper needs an obituary writer, but not for the short just-the-facts versions. He is more interested in a literary and cautionary tale about each person, and Viktor is just the man for the job. Every newspaper keeps files on VIPs, with info ready at hand for any unfortunate incident that might require a tribute in the next edition. Those files are to be the background for Viktor's pre-death writings, which will be held until the time is nigh.
Viktor takes to the job like a penguin to water, offering up unique tributes that capture the heart and soul of each person, no matter how dark. But a funny thing happens in the dark of the deep winter. Viktor's honored VIPs find themselves in need of his obituaries almost before the sheets of paper leave his typewriter.
Meanwhile, Viktor's chilly home life with Misha begins to slightly thaw as he acquires a "family." Leaving his daughter with Viktor for safe keeping, a friend makes a quick getaway, and then dies. Viktor hires the niece of another friend as a nanny, and then that friend dies. Is the Mafia involved? They do seem to enjoy inviting Misha to be the "formal" guest at their funerals. Or perhaps the state security forces are involved? With a looming sense of doom, Viktor wonders if it's time for his own pre-written obit.
It seems he can't trust anyone, only Misha the penguin. They are both birds out of water, to corrupt a phrase, but together they might find a way to navigate the slippery fields they find themselves in. (2011 - Melville House)
Also Recommended: The sequel to this book is just out ― titled Penguin Lost.
Recipe: Fish Chowder
Like Misha the Penguin, I am particular about my fish. This is a fish chowder recipe that a relative gave me many years ago. It's perfect for the fall days ahead ― or even for a cold Russian night.
2 Tbsp. of olive oil
1 1/2 cups chopped onion
1 cup chopped celery
1 cup chopped carrots
2 cloves garlic, diced
2 pounds frozen haddock, in chunks
2 cups chopped potatoes
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. pepper
1/4 tsp. red pepper
3 cups water
2 1/2 cups milk
1/2 cup half and half
Heat oil in a large pot. Add onion, celery, and carrots. Saute until celery is softened. Add garlic and fry for 1 minute more. Add fish, potatoes, salt, peppers, and water. Simmer 30 to 35 minutes, or until vegetables and fish are tender. Remove from heat and add milk and half-and-half. Reheat to just boiling. Serve with crackers or bread. (Recipe from my archives)