I don't read much from Russia or the Eastern European nations because life is mostly grim enough. The only exception I make is for Chekov's short stories. Until Nick Hornby reviewed this in his column for Believer. And he pointed out, just for me, that the titular penguin is a real seabird from Antarctica not some sort of metaphorical penguin. Had to read it because Penguins.
My opinion of literature in Russian remains the same. This is grim; it is also joyless. There's some contentment, things aren't always horrible, but there's no pleasure, no happiness, nothing but emotional grey from autumn until spring, and even when the sun is shining and the birds are singing, no one is having fun. Viktor writes obituaries, and not in a warm, positive, life-affirming way, nor with any humor.
Also, the penguin isn't doing so well.
Nonetheless, it was bearable, if only for the sheer relief of "At least my life isn't like that." And the penguin, who sometimes comes and rests his head against Viktor's leg while Viktor works at the kitchen table, and Viktor pets him. There's no joy, but there is a penguin. And I can go forty years without reading any more fiction translated from Russian.
I would love to have a pet penguin though.
As you can imagine, I'm signed up to quite a few newsletters from various publishing houses and booksellers. A few weeks ago I got an email about newly published children's literature from Random House. I gave it a quick glance and one book in particular seemed to leap off of the screen at me. Penguin Problems is written by Jory John and illustrated by Lane Smith. The book is written in first person and the main character is a penguin with a lot of problems. He's cold, he doesn't like the snow, he looks like all the other penguins...you get the drift. I think my favorite thing about the book (and the reason I wanted to read it) are the illustrations. (Note: Lane Smith also illustrated The Stinky Cheese Man.) I felt like the space on each page was utilized and the minimal use of color really worked for the story. There are some chuckle-worthy moments in this book but I wouldn't go out on a limb and say it's a standout. It's not one that I'm itching to run out and add to my personal collection at any rate. However, if you get the chance to check it out of your local library then I suggest you do so. It's a quick, fun read that your little ones will probably enjoy. For me it was a 4/10.
photo source: Amazon.com