The seven stories told in Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis (HarperFlamingo Canada) merit much of the hullabaloo that the book has received in the international press: simple sentences, rigorous verbs and dialogue that makes you feel like you’re listening in on a helluva conversation in the lineup at the grocery store. The narrator, young Mark, son of Roman and Bella, tells the stories of this family of Russian Jews who have fled Latvia and are struggling to make a life in 1980s Toronto. Mark’s voice is plump with dark humour and raw solipsism, the kind of voice that sounds like people speak, in dense and succinct sentences. In “Tapka,” the story of the beloved pet dog belonging to family friends, Mark, who is six, and his friend Jana, seven, take Tapka for walks to the park after school, where they practise their Canadian argot (“shithead,” “mental case,” “gay lord”), and one of them says: “Don’t be a baby. Come, shithead, come dear one.” In “The New World,” Mark’s father, an aspiring massage therapist and former Soviet wrestling coach, pines for dignity and Mark’s mom spends the morning baking apple cake to take to their first dinner party at the home of well-to-do Jewish neighbours. The title story introduces Mark as the morbid and misunderstood sixteen-year-old who must play Canadian host to his Russian cousin, Natasha. Mark smokes a lot of pot. It took me a couple of reads to figure out that Natasha had been a porn star in the former Soviet Union. You can figure out the rest.