October Publications

A Western European man living in Croatia becomes obsessed with an abandoned house in A House in Istria, Swedish novelist Richard Swartz's surreal, comic romp through Eastern Bloc history. Narrated by the unnamed man's long-suffering wife, the book follows the couple as they try to figure out who owns the house so that they can buy it. With his wife patiently translating, the man harasses everyone from their neighbor Dmitrij, who cultivates mushrooms, to local lawyer Franjo, to an Italian family in nearby Trieste. As the story unwinds, we learn that the house was occupied by Jews, then fascists, then communists, all of whom are now busy suing for the house. (New Directions, $23.95 224p ISBN 0-8112-1501-6; Oct. 25)

Disaffection and brutality permeate post-WWII Soviet life in Dmitry Bakin's short story collection, Reasons for Living. As it turns out, reasons for living are hard to come by in Bakin's impoverished Russian heartland, where an enraged soldier attacks a gentle fellow recruit who's taken to following him around, and an unnamed man spends all his time planning his defense and retreat from unnamed attackers ("the enemy"). Deliberately short on atmospheric description, Bakin's stark, moving stories zero in on their character's wrecked emotional lives. A chauffeur and former Soviet Army medic, Bakin first published this collection in Russia in 1993 and won the 1996 "Anti-Booker" Prize for Russian literature. (Granta, $14.95 paper 160p ISBN 1-86207-526-3; Oct. 17)

The biblical story of King David's famous concubine is reimagined in Avishag, by novelist and translator Yael Lotan (The Other I). Lotan's plot sticks close to the Bible's account: Avishag the Shunammite is a beautiful young girl brought to the palace to revive the listless, dying king. Though their relationship is never consummated, she becomes his loyal attendant, and then, after his death, a pawn in the succession battle between David's sons Solomon and Adoniyah. Full of palace intrigue, Lotan's story goes far in bringing out the inner life of this pivotal character over whom much blood was shed. (Toby Press, $19.95 228p ISBN 1-902881-55-9; Oct. 15)

A real-life Russian mathematician is the unlikely heroine of Joan Spicci's historical novel Beyond the Limit: The Dream of Sofya Kovalevskaya. Based closely on Kovalevskaya's actual experiences, the book follows the young woman through the 1860s and '70s as she fights to get a mathematics doctorate at a time when such an education was unheard of for women. The daughter of a prominent St. Petersburg family, Kovalevskaya arranges a marriage of convenience to a young former revolutionary so that she can escape her parents' hawk-eyed supervision; she unexpectedly finds herself falling in love with her husband, but is terrified that motherhood might interfere with her education. Spicci's engaging story is set against the whirl of St. Petersburg society and the political upheavals of the 1860s. (Forge, $25.95 448p ISBN 0-765-30233-0)