Elise Blackwell

Little, Brown: 134 pp., $16.95

It’s a stretch to call this exquisite little book by Elise Blackwell a novel. In fact, it’s barely a novella, even though there’s something about the momentum of it that makes it much more than a short story that has outgrown its bounds. And then there’s the way that Blackwell craftily weaves history and botany through this utterly devourable narrative; it reminds us of those delicious genre crossings -- equally full of fancy and fact, plot and digression -- that the wonderful Italian writer Aldo Buzzi has elevated to a new literary art form. Yet if it feels, in the end, as if “Hunger” is but the germ of an idea that could have benefited from patience, full sun and plenty of water, then this isn’t such a bad thing: “Hunger,” like any great book, raises as many questions as it answers, and, after all, it’s about seeds, those chewy little signifiers of potentiality and, for Blackwell’s mildly sinister hero, precious sustenance.


The seeds in question -- a huge collection of them, along with plant specimens from around the world -- are housed at the Research Institute of Plant Industry in Leningrad, Russia. It’s the terrible “hunger winter” of 1941, when the Nazis surround the city like a strangling vine, starving it to death. The citizenry offer up their beloved grand pianos for half a loaf of bread, pick the trees clean of bark and dine on their pets. And for the nameless researcher who narrates this desperate tale, survival becomes more important than science, as he begins to swipe fistfuls of rare seeds and grains: "[I]deals are nothing to the man who sits at an empty table.”

Blackwell’s story is inspired, in part, by what is known about the pioneering Soviet biologist Nikolai Vavilov, who headed the institute before being dragged off for his fealty to genetic principles. (He died in prison in 1942 or 1943, branded a reactionary by Stalinist toadies.) He figures throughout “Hunger” as “the great director,” besieged by a state ideology as lethal as the Nazi Junkers flying overhead. As for our all-too-human narrator, who chews samples of Louisiana pecan rice while remorsefully recounting his various marital infidelities, he survives to find himself looking back in old age from an apartment in New York. With its asides about the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and remembered research junkets to Nicaragua and Ethiopia, “Hunger” is a compact embarrassment of riches on a par with that encountered by our elderly Soviet expat in America: “I have, together in a single can, kinds of tropical fruit that are not even grown on the same continent,” he marvels, and we suddenly do too. This man is too fond of the astounding to be truly evil, and “Hunger,” like that secretly amazing can of fruit cocktail, turns out to be, despite all the deaths and betrayals, a multicolored treat.


The Buzzing

Jim Knipfel

Vintage: 264 pp., $12 paper

Is the ghost of Elvis stealing your diet secrets? Has Bat Boy been making screaming flyovers above your garage? Or was that just another of those black helicopters? As everybody knows, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that the CIA, Mafia, Freemasons, extraterrestrials and jackbooted thugs from the Clinton administration aren’t out to get you. Or so it suddenly seems to Roscoe Baragon, the New York Sentinel’s reporter on all things wacko, from inexplicable abductions to freak weather patterns. He’s the bedraggled Grub Street hero of this easygoing sendup of tabloid conspiracies from New York Press columnist Jim Knipfel.

Baragon is one of those misfit eternal adolescents who loves to sip pints in East Village dive bars and discourse on the timeless magic of “Godzilla vs. Mothra.” He also happens to have a gimlet eye for the strange, the foreboding and the outright rubbish. But after a radioactive cadaver turns up at the morgue, after the Pacific Rim is rocked by earthquakes, after a NASA mission mysteriously splashes down off the coast of Chile and after one of his key informants vanishes, it seems that Baragon might have a Pulitzer-caliber story on his hands -- or a serious case of losing it. Knipfel craftily leaves the loose ends dangling, inviting us to feel for the paranoids and their oddball needs: "[A]ll the conspiracies were evil and horrible and terrifying, yes but where would they be without them?”