"Hotel Moscow" by Talia Carner

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Talia Carner, like her heroine Brooke Fielding, traveled to Moscow in the early days of that city’s emergence from decades of communism. She apparently went with the intention of training Russian entrepreneurial women in basic business practices, also as in Hotel Moscow. I hope like crazy she didn’t face all the same threats from Russian men, the Russian Parliament, and chauvinistic Russian attitudes as her heroine.

For these threats and grave dangers fill Hotel Moscow from beginning to end. Brooke is detained for no reason at Sheremetyevo airport when she first arrives; she is injured when Russian mafia thugs destroy a small clothing factory; and she suffers further injury in the artillery exchange when Parliament rises up against Boris Yeltsin.

These bruising episodes stand in for the systemic bias against women, and especially against Jewish women, in Russia as it struggled to shake off decades of government by paranoia. Ms. Carner does an exceptional job of bringing these prejudices clearly into focus - that’s one chief accomplishment of this book.

The author attempts an inward journey for her main character; she pulls this off with less success. She shows her heroine looking at herself unblinkingly, and finally comes to own and acknowledge past misjudgments and mistakes. Perhaps there was too much going on in Brooke’s life, as in our experience while reading of the confusing, threatening whirlwind of her visit. This inward dialog falls short - we want a deeper, less stereotypical Brooke.

Be warned though: women suffer rape and other tortures in this book. Ms. Carner has chosen not to spare us these details, and they serve her fiction - they are not gratuitous scenes at all. I admire her all-encompassing recitations of these evils.

Overall the book left me glad to be done. I tired of Brooke and her disjointed visit, honestly. Scenes that I thought would climax in some heart-pounding suspense just petered out. The result was uneven. I applaud the clarity and comprehensive storytelling the author employs to describe the range of abuse heaped on women by Russian men, but not the unreliable structure supporting it.

"Flash Fiction International"

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 Very Short Stories from Around the World

Edited by James Thomas, Robert Shapard, Christopher Merrill

Flash Fiction International contains 86 stories in 182 pages, an average of about 2¼ pages per story, and for me, that average feels a little high. This remarkable collection also has a section called “Flash Theory,” from which I will quote Lia Purpura:

Why are miniature things so compelling? …
The miniature is mysterious ….
Miniatures encourage attention ….
Miniatures are intimate ….
Time, in miniature form, like a gas compressed, gets hotter.”

These thoughts help describe the appeal of these extremely short, “sudden” pieces of fiction. They are invariably jolting: they condense character, emotion, confusion, wonder, and disappointment in a few short paragraphs, and as varied as the effects are, one can always say, “Oh! That took me in a strange direction.” As short as they are, it’s impossible to get a feel for where the next piece will pick you up and subsequently drop you off. It happens so fast and so frequently that one becomes more and more impressed, bemused … happy is the only word that’s accurate. I adore the moment of finishing a work of fiction, when all the thoughts provoked by it assemble and mix and reverberate with and against each other. The stories in this lively and lovely collection generate this aesthetic frisson over and over again. They’re very dependable that way; it’s an excess of joy and wonder.

Here’s a quote from Chen Yizhi from the same “Theory” section:

“The flame of complete combustion has a blue tinge. It is a beautiful color; it is a ferocious color. A piece of writing is powerful if its words are “completely combusted.”

This concept of gas heated, compressed, and combusted captures the character of these snippets perfectly. In a few short paragraphs, as I said, characters are introduced, they interact and conclusions, either open-ended, or final and abrupt, or simply ambiguous, are reached, and the point and the pace and the tone vary from page to page, literally. There are pieces here by Sherman Alexie, Naguib Mahfouz, Czesław Miłosz, Franz Kafka, Petronius, Shirani Rajapakse, Ron Carlson, and let’s see, 81 other authors who are unknown to me.

What a tonic! As much as I love and admire full-length fiction, these little marvels have had such a salutary effect on me. I highly recommend them for you, too. Take and enjoy. The doses might be small but they are always bracing!