A couple of weeks ago I got taken on a little tour around the book benches that have been popping up around London by the very friendly ladies at The Society of Young Publishers. We were doing the ‘Riverside’ trail, kindly mapped out by The National Literacy Trust on the Books About Town website, and spotted some excellent representations of much-loved stories such as War Horse, Paddington Bear, Through the Looking Glass and the Discworld series. The benches are clearly doing the trick, as they are all being lovingly sat on and admired by all who pass by. There is also a trail around Greenwich, where I just so happen to work. There’s an unexpected (but totally appropriate) bench dedicated to Captain Scott’s diaries of the fateful Terra Nova expedition just outside the Sammy Ofer entrance to the Maritime Museum, only a short walk away from one dedicated to Darwin’s The Origin of the Species, sporting a beautiful tree with fossils planted amongst its roots. On the way up the hill to the Royal Observatory you will find the aptly placed bench representing H G Wells’ The Time Machine a few metres away from the Meridian Line, permanently sat on by eager international school kids in uniformly neon t-shirts, awaiting their turn in the Planetarium.
The benches are around for our adoring eyes until 15th September, as they will be auctioned off on 7th October to help fund the marvellous National Literacy Trust. This is a great project, especially as I think many of us were pretty terrified when reports were revealed last year showing adults in England were ranked 22nd out of 24 developed countries for literacy skills. Clearly more needs to be done to help young people crawl out of this hole in their education, and I think this is a brilliant movement to celebrate great British (mostly) literature, as well as the joys of reading. Go out and find the benches! Sit on them! While reading a book!
For more info about Books About Town click here.
For more info about Society of Young Publishers events click here.
Given everything that has been happening in Ukraine in recent months, I felt it was time to tackle the Ukrainian satire that had been sat on my bookshelf, silently waiting for me to be in the right mood. Roll on Andrey Kurkov’s Death and the Penguin, a humorous but bleak thriller set shortly after the end of Soviet control in Ukraine.
Viktor Zolotaryov is our protagonist, a budding writer struggling to find work, who also happens to be the owner of a rather gloomy king penguin named Mischa. Viktor manages to find work writing advance obituaries for a local Kiev newspaper, which appear to be going down incredibly well with the editor in chief, until Viktor notices something a little suspicious about them. It becomes clear to him that shortly after he delivers each obituary to his editor, the subject mysteriously dies. Viktor is set on a spiralling path of systematic murder, handed the responsibility for a job he doesn’t understand and never asked for. He flits from fully conscious paranoia to surreal despondency, at once fearing his situation and, you know, not really caring about it.
Kurkov’s storytelling is at times Kafkaesque, the role handed to his leading man being reminiscent of Josef K’s infamous trial, and expertly brings our perception of responsibility to the foreground. We are left wondering who is really to blame for the situation – Viktor is heavily involved in a series of murders, but remains blind to it for an unreasonable amount of time, as though he simply doesn’t want to know. Mischa the penguin acts as a brilliant reflection of Viktor’s reticent character, depressed and uncomfortable, a fish out of water (a penguin out of Antarctica). Mischa is the product of a faltering regime, an animal sold off by the local zoo that cannot afford to keep him, while Viktor is a product of the same regime: a writer struggling to survive during the recession created by a fledgling state, dragged involuntarily into the lucrative world of political corruption.
The Ukraine of the mid-nineties may seem a long way off after years of economic recovery and relative stability since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, but nearly two decades later we see the complex struggle for political unity reported in the news every day. I can’t claim to understand the situation entirely, and to be honest I found the Ukrainian political system baffling before Russia starting making a play for it again. Kurkov’s wit and brevity guide his smart narrative, and despite its gloom the story is gripping and entertaining. This tale of the crude political underworld and media governance of mid-nineties Ukraine seems to me to be just as relevant and unsettling now as it must have been 18 years ago, which is pretty sad when you think about it.
Death and the Penguin (published by Vintage, translated by George Bird) is available in all reputable bookshops for £8.99.