The John Bills Book Club 21: October 2012

Posted on November 8, 2012


The Good Angel of Death – A Kurkov

I love Kurkov books. ‘Death and the Penguin’ is without doubt one of my all time favorite reads, withe dour, bleak humour of the Slavs shining through. ‘The Good Angel of Death’ is more of the same, chronicling the travels and travails of a Russian living in Kiev. Working as a night porter for a baby food factory, his life is completely changed when he finds a copy of ‘War and Peace’ in his new flat. It is a copy of ‘The Kobza Player’ that really changes everything however, or more to the point the philosophical annotations found in the margins. This leads to a chain of events starting with the excavation of an old nationalists grave, to a trek across the desert which brings much more than the main character could have imagined. It’s a very strange book at times, but this is par for the course with Kurkov. The characters throughout are fantastic as well. Another fine piece of work from my favorite Ukrainian.

Football Dynamo – Marc Bennetts

I love football, and I love Eastern Europe. Therefore, a book all about the strange world of Russian football? Yes please. I find books about football to be incredibly easy to read, and this was no exception. Whether it was the obsession with match fixing throughout the country, the supposed curse that plagues Dynamo Moscow to this day, the important place of Spartak in the hearts of the nation, the rags to almost riches story of FC Khimki or Kanchelskis on the Volga, this is a great read for anyone interested in modern Russia or football. It also made me miss Andrey Arshavin being fantastic.

Pyongyang – Guy Delisle

As recommended and lent to me by the venerable Richard Orr, this is a sort of graphic memoir of a Canadian animator who worked in the North Korean capital for a couple of months. As with all the books about the hermit kingdom, this one focuses on every day life and how different it is, but this book shines in that it isn’t overwhelmingly obsessed with misery and death. The main feeling you get from this book is that every day life in Pyongyang is, well, a bit boring. Like Podgorica. An Asian Podgorica. Okay, maybe a little harsh on Podgorica, but still. The incredible personality cult is there throughout, but this is a different look at the fascinating world of the DPRK.

To Travel Hopelessly – English Teacher X

The memoirs of an English teacher abroad in the mid to late 90s, this is a truly bizarre read. It’s almost like a backpacker version of ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ at times, only in real life and with a job in the day time. One of its best qualities is how matter of fact it is throughout. The teaching starts in Thailand, which is described as being almost a cesspool of drinks, drugs and terrible teaching. Chapters in Korea and New York fly by before the author returns to Thailand, and finishes up in the Czech Republic and a Russian town delightfully given the pseudonym ‘Desolationgrad’. The author seems to hate everywhere he teaches, but there is a sort of resigned comedy to the whole thing which is almost endearing. This is the most Bukowski thing I have ever read.

We Have Here the Homicide – Tim Richards

An in depth look at Poland through the eyes of a returning travel writer, this is a great book for anyone interested in visiting the country. It covers all of the major towns and cities throughout, and really reminded me how great a country Poland is. It also reminded me of just how tragic the history of Poland is, probably best shown in the fact that its national anthem is titled ‘Poland Has Not Yet Been Destroyed’. Yet. Whilst by no means being essential reading, this collection of blogs and essays will open your eyes to the real Poland, a land of glimmering old towns and rebellious gnomes.