Books: Silver Lining IN SEARCH OF MELANCHOLY BABY

Midnight in Moscow, and Vassily Aksyonov, like many young Soviets in the 1950s, would find himself in some dark cellar listening to American jazz from pirated records cut on used X-ray plates. "Jazz on Bones," he and his friends called that marriage of music and medicine. "From the moment I heard a recording of Melancholy Baby . . ." he recalls, "I couldn't get enough of the revelation coming to me through the shadows of ribs and alveoli, namely, that 'every cloud must have a silver lining.' "

Aksyonov knew from clouds. His father, a Communist Party official, and his mother,...