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"Snow in May" by Kseniya Melnik

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Snow in May captures in its title the exotic nature of this engaging short story collection by new writer Kseniya Melnik. Ms. Melnik, having lived some of her life in Alaska, and now residing in El Paso, sets her stories in her native Magadan, a Russian city on the Sea of Okhotsk, the section of the Pacific Ocean that borders northeastern Russia. Many of these stories have the flavor of memoir, since they give insight into the deep chasm between Russian folk culture and modern American interest in money, fads, and oneself.

As often happens with recent story collections, one can categorize them by subject matter. Many of the stories here deal with Soviet era economics and politics, with its long queues for everything from shows to fruit to bus rides, and the omnipresent secret police with its network of informants. Other stories deal very frankly with the baffling and intimidating encounters when leaving Russia’s far east for America. These stories give the reader new understanding of these transitions and new reminders of Russian character – in these functions, these tales excel.

The collection’s opening piece, Love, Italian Style, or in Line for Bananas, a married Russian woman visiting Moscow on business must decide between a tempting proposition from a handsome Italian footballer and the rare opportunity get in line and buy bananas. This story is funny, endearing, balanced, and wise to the world. It’s set in 1975 which adds Soviet bloc weight to the bifurcating choice, but could really be set anywhere in any era. The gem of these stories is The Uncatchable Avengers, whose grade-school protagonist flubs several takes for TV, when trying to play a short Tchaikovsky piece for piano he knows well. He’s considered gifted, but can’t keep his focus, because he keeps thinking of the two-man gang he and his best friend had formed just the day before, the Uncatchable Avengers, based on a TV show. He dreams of finding clues to murders, and fighting gangs of thugs, and so he can’t play his simple piece. The drastic tactic his piano teacher finally employs to get him focused
leads to his flawless playing; a jubilant 9-year-old running outside afterward in the miraculous event of a May snowfall; and a highly gratified, smiling reader, smarting with the sweet sting delivered by effective, reverberant fiction.

Other stories record the divide between the East and West, between husband and wife, and between generations. Our author highlights characters faced with very human issues, and treats them with respect and compassion. This writer has gifts, and a unique background, and I anticipate liking whatever she produces in the future.

"Ruby" by Cynthia Bond

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Stuck between various versions of hell on earth, the eponymous Ruby of Cynthia Bond’s novel is victimized shockingly early in life by the adult men and women of her world, and driven mad. Ruby the novel overflows with evil voodoo spirits, and by Christian women who compete with each other in self-righteousness.

In a backwater colored township (the author’s description) in East Texas, a beleaguering series of vicious men and women subject Ruby to every depredation: she’s sold into prostitution incredibly young, taught to expect that rape and abuse are her just due. This perverts her into something with no sense of self, other than an automaton who divorces her emotions from her life. Small wonder. It’s also no surprise that Ruby develops a schizophrenic belief in ghost children – dozens, maybe hundreds of them, which apparently correspond to injuries and disappointments in her hellish life.

The author makes the ongoing point about ordinary men being potential rapists when caught under certain influences, and in one pivotal scene puts a crowd of them under a kind of possessive black-magic trance, but most of the men
who take advantage of and abuse Ruby are clear-eyed enough. Ms. Bond introduces Ephram, the only man in the world who wishes Ruby well, and the Christians and evil haints do battle for his and Ruby’s souls.

As an emblem and reminder of what horrid lives victimized women and boys lead, this book succeeds with a somewhat unartful repetition, with some scenes quite effective. As a study in human emotion and a traumatized person’s attempt to cope with a nightmare existence, this story feels arbitrary and forced together, with responses not fully warranted by events, even supernatural events.

Not recommended.