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Sex in Russia ~ Reviewed by Annie Vigna

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Sex in Russia by Kenneth RaduSex in Russia by Kenneth Radu

DC Books, Montreal, Quebec
ISBN 978-1-897190-65-4 (pbk.) 189pp

Reviewed by Annie Vigna

Sex in Russia contains fifteen stories in only 189 pages; yet, written with such generosity and genuine affection for his characters, Kenneth Radu’s collection seems larger, longer.  Perhaps it is because this gifted author begins each story with an ostensibly inconsequential episode and continues to the core of discontent, hopelessness, longing; then concludes with original forms of reformation and comprehension.

A fine example of Radu’s magic is found in the title story. The protagonist Delia is a sophisticated, well-preserved 60-year old Canadian woman cruising the Volga. She hopes for a delicious liaison with perhaps a young steward, but finds herself stuck with Frank, a seventy-ish gentleman who bears a “startling resemblance to Nicholas II”.

Acquiescing to his impetuous confessional, “Delia wrapped the shawl around her shoulders like an old Russian woman glimpsing fragments of the imperial night among branches in that St. Petersburg park, listening to Frank relate a long, complicated story of slaughter and survival”.

A Private Performance showcases Radu’s erudition from matters associated with paleontology to Russian composers, Greek mythology, philosophy, ancient history etcetera, etcetera.

Through both young Peter and his pseudo-Russian, pseudo-aristocratic mother, many of the themes explored by Samuel Johnson’s The Vanity of Human Wishes are also explored in Radu’s mesmerizing story.

Why else mention this work on the second page, while describing Peter as a little boy who “[read] The Vanity of Human Wishes at twelve”?  A careful reading of this text draws parallels to the fictional characters in A Private Performance.

image of Sex in Russia by Kenneth RaduBravo Kenneth Radu!

Sex in Russia further exhibits Radu’s sophistication, with the story In Jeopardy but now with a comedic tone, albeit transcended by a pressing life-and-death dilemma.  While the protagonist Oscar, from Winnipeg, “excercises [his] thumb, keeping it flexible and poised to push” with the correct answers to the questions posed by Alex Trebek on Jeopardy, he dare not let his mind stray to thoughts of his wife lying in a hospital bed.

Radu provides both typical questions and answers that resonate with readers familiar with the television game show Jeopardy.  And he flushes out the peripheral schtick associated with the program—the makeup of the host and the contestants, the competitors’ attitudes toward one another.

Radu’s generosity to the reader is found in Oscar’s stream of consiousness internalization between question and answer.

Of course, the answer is The Night of the Hunter, as Didi blurted out.  Why does that woman talk as if she’s giggling at the same time?  Robert Mitchum had Hate and Love tattooed on his knuckles.  Magnificent shot of Shelley Winter’s drowned body in the car at the bottom of the lake.  Unforgettable.  Look what Bette Davis ultimately does in Jezebel out of love for her man, a rather limp Henry Fonda, not up to her sexual demands at all, but there you have it—she wants him! He’s stricken by yellow jacket fever, but his Yankee wife just isn’t equal to the task at all.  Bette, pardon me, Jezebel sacrifices beauty and privilege to care for him on some god-forsaken island of lepers.  Maybe Humphrey Bogart’s right in Casablanca—the problems of little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.  Don’t you just love movie dialogue about good and evil and ultimate purpose?

And don’t we just love the parallels Radu draws from this text?

The Orangery is a story of obsession. Like a drug adict’s proverbial first high, Norman seeks the rush of death, a death he experienced momentarily. “Like the first bite into the cool sweet flesh of an orange on a hot day, how lovely to be dead”.

Sex in Russia is a collection of new and selected stories. The stories reviewed above are only a sampling of Radu’s genius, but a sampling that I hope will encourage readers to rush out to the nearest library or bookshop, and to read this collection in its entirety.

Kenneth Radu is the author of several books, including The Cost of Living, shorlisted for the Governor General’s Award, and A Private Performance, winner of the Quebec Writers’ Federation Award for best English-language fiction. His last novel  is The Purest of Human Pleasures.

Annie Vigna is a former bookstore owner. She lives in Calgary, Alberta.

Other reviews by Annie Vigna
Far to Go by Alison Pick
Key in Lock by Rona Altrows
Mennonites Don’t Dance by Darcie Friesen
Murder on the Bow by John Ballem 
Notes for Monday By Barb Howard
Ragged Company by Richard Wagamese
Red Dog Red Dog by Patrick Lane
Snowdrift by Lisa McGonigle

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Sex in Russia by Kenneth Radu

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