Review: The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

9781781090480I must admit to slight reservations before reading this book. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena was one of my favourite books of 2013, narrowly missing out on being my book of the year (I had to do a re-read of my top two to split them). What had me hesitant was that his follow up book was short stories. I am not completely adverse to short stories but they are not my favourite form of writing. I can also be quite cynical and I was a bit suspicious about following up a spectacular debut novel with a collection of short stories. Boy, was I wrong!!!!

Anthony Marra has written a worthy follow up to A Constellation of Vital Phenomena that will once again make you laugh, make you learn and break your heart. Through interconnected stories Marra takes us from Leningrad in 1937 through to St Petersburg in the modern day exploring life in the Soviet Union and modern day Russia. Full of dark humour Marra explores life under a totalitarian regime and the impact as that regime slowly disappears. He shows how people etch out their part in it and learn to survive, or not. At it’s heart it is a story about family and how no matter how hard others try and erase it, it is always there, enduring.

Each story told is self-contained and is writing of the highest order. There is no way to pick a favourite story, they all stand out. We begin with a Soviet censor in 1937 whose job it is to erase the pictures of those who have been denounced by Stalin’s purges. We then follow the granddaughter of a famous ballet dancer, who was denounced, erased by the censor and sent to an Arctic mining town. As the Soviet Union collapses, and capitalism comes to the new Russia, the ballet dancer’s granddaughter is given the opportunity to escape the exiled existence her family has been sentenced to, but at a cost. We meet a Russian soldier conscripted to Chechnya and later taken prisoner. We meet an art museum curator in Grozny trying to rebuild after two wars. And we meet a father and son in St Petersburg, each of whom are looking for answers for questions they can’t or won’t ask. Anthony Marra ties all these lives together in a beautiful and poignant way with writing that grabs you from the opening page all the way through to the ending, breaking your heart numerous times along the way.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena announced Anthony Marra as an exceptional talent to watch. His new book book confirms it. This is a writer you are not only going to hear a lot about right now but for many, many years to come.

Buy the book here…

Player Profile – Anthony Marra, author of A Constellation Of Vital Phenomena

Anthony_MarraAnthony Marra, author of A Constellation Of Vital Phenomena

Tell us about your latest creation:

My first novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, is set in Chechnya from 1994-2004. It follows a cast of ordinary civilians who attempt to transcend the wreckage of war as they search for, flee from, collide with, and find one another.

9781781090060Where are you from / where do you call home?:

I was born in Washington D.C., grew up there and in Maryland, went to college in Los Angeles and grad school in Iowa, and now live in Oakland.

When you were a kid, what did you want to become?  An author?:

What I was a kid I wanted to become a scientist of some sort. Paleontologist, marine biologist, molecular biologist, and astrophysicist were professions I aspired to from roughly ages 6-16. Unfortunately, you first have to pass calculus, which pretty much ended any ambitions for a future in the sciences.

When I was 16 or 17, I began writing short stories and quickly became hooked. That’s what I’ve been doing ever since.

What do you consider to be your best work? Why?:

Having only published one book, my choices are limited. But A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a novel that I’m proud of. For the years that I worked on it, the novel was the focal point of my life. It took me to a part of the world few foreigners have seen. Its characters constantly surprised me. I did my best to tell their stories.

Describe your writing environment to us – your writing room, desk, etc.; is it ordered or chaotic?:

I write at a desk in the corner of my bedroom. In order of size, it’s currently occupied by a cat, five books, an Oakland A’s hat, around a hundred pages of story drafts, a couple picture frame, a soap dish filled with loose change, various pens, and a few dozen post-it notes.

I tend to use post-it notes rather than a note book for jotting down ideas and my desk and walls are cluttered with them. The dimensional limitations of a single post-it note means I can’t write more than a sentence or two, so whatever idea I jot down remains mysterious until I sit down to the keyboard. Taking a glance at the post-it notes now, it looks like every one begins with “Maybe” and ends in a question mark. The fiction, hopefully, becomes the response.

When you’re not writing, who/what do you like to read?:

I’m always reading a novel and usually have a nonfiction book going as an audiobook. Right now I’m in the middle of The Tin Drum. Highlights of my summer reading so far have been A Heart So White by Javier Marias, Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, The Dream of the Celt by Mario Vargas Llosa, Cain by Jose Saramago, and Stoner by John Williams.

What was the defining book(s) of your childhood/schooling?:

Different books defined me differently at different ages, I suppose. When I was in elementary school, the Goosebumps, Redwall, Boxcar Children series, and the novels by John Bellairs, all introduced me to the transporting magic of fiction. When I was in high school, airport thrillers by Michael Crichton, John Grisham, and Tom Clancy were gateway books that led me to more literary fare.

If you were a literary character, who would you be?:

Hobbes from Calvin and Hobbes, who embodies the kind of serene  ontentedness most of us would probably like to have. Day-to-day, however, I usually feel more like Calvin.

Apart from books, what do you do in your spare time (surprise us!)?:

Chances are pretty good that I’ll be overly involved in the emotional lives of my girlfriend’s two cats. I’ve never particularly liked cats before, but ever since we moved in together two years ago, I’ve become a convert. What is your  favourite food and favourite drink?: Indian food and chocolate milkshakes. I’ve never found a restaurant that serves both. Somehow I carry on.

Who is your hero? Why?:

I don’t think I have a hero, or at least not in the sense of one person whose life I model my own on. I look up to various people for various things, most of whom are friends or family. Maybe your heroes are simply the people you love.

Crystal ball time – what is the biggest challenge for the future of books and reading?:

You know, I bet 15th-century cultural commentators were asking Gutenberg that same question. Maybe I’m naive, but people have been reading and telling stories since the dawn of history, it’s baked into our cultural DNA, and as addictive as Angry Birds can be, it will take more than smart phone technology to displace the role of literature.

That said, I think the decline of brick-and-mortar bookstores combined with shrinking book review space makes it increasingly difficult for non-blockbuster novels to find an audience.

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