Monday, May 14, 2018

Anna Starobinets’s Look at Him

Perhaps the easiest thing to write about Anna Starobinets’s Посмотри на него (Look at Him) is that it blends several genres. The cover says “100% .doc” and the book is, indeed nonfiction—albeit a combination of memoir, medical history, and journalism, so not thoroughly .doc, at least to my mind—but what makes the book so compelling and human is that Starobinets puts her fiction-writing background to good use, pacing her book to develop a story arc and suspense. I could only read a little bit at a time because a personal story about late-term abortion is so intensely emotional. Even so, I had a hard time putting the book down at night.

Starobinets begins Look at Him at a routine ultrasound exam, to check her baby’s progress. She learns that her baby is a boy but she also learns he may have polycystic kidney disease. The medical side of her baby’s story is so complex, from many angles, including genetics, prenatal testing, and possible outcomes, that I won’t elaborate on that much. What’s most crucial to the book’s narrative arc is that Starobinets decides to terminate her pregnancy because doctors advise her that if she carries her son to term he will have a minimal chance of surviving.

Starobinets has been called a Russian Stephen King but learning about the realities of her child’s condition (which involves waiting and learning about various potential outcomes) and medical procedures for late-term abortion (some of which she quotes from online forums) in Look at Him mean she doesn’t need to embellish the truth to develop the afore-mentioned suspense. There’s another layer to the book, though, that creates at least as much tension: how the Russian medical system treats her much of the time. Without asking her permission, one specialist brings in medical students to observe her transvaginal ultrasound. Finding her way through the medical system is demeaning. She receives little empathy from many practitioners, though there are exceptions. And forgetting to wear foot covers can be problematic; she storms a clinic bathroom when she’s told she can’t go in without them. Her husband isn’t allowed in a clinic for her appointment, though she needs his moral support. And then there are the stories and admonitions she reads online.

Starobinets ends up going to Berlin after a friend finds a clinic for her. Many aspects of her treatment, both medical and human, are different there. Her husband is welcome at the clinic (even to spend the night) and she’s told “There is no reason why you should be in pain.” One of her biggest fears now is seeing her child. (This is where the book’s title comes from.) Starobinets and her husband are told at the clinic that parents usually look at their children after they’ve been born this way, meaning already dead; many even spend a day with them. Some of the most affecting scenes in the book describe Starobinets and her husband seeing their son after his birth, receiving an envelope with a photo and hand- and footprints, and visiting their baby’s grave later, when they return to Berlin for Starobinets’s husband, Alexander Garros, to have treatment for esophageal cancer. (Part of what made Look at Him so emotional is that I knew Garros died in 2017.) Starobinets notes that many Russian marriages break up after late-term terminations of pregnancy and she suspects that’s largely because husbands aren’t allowed into clinics, hospitals, or births. Or to look at their babies after the procedure and truly be able to share their wives’ grief. Garros helps Starobinets after their return home, too, when she has panic attacks And he’s with her when she gave birth to a healthy son in Latvia a couple of years later.

There’s lots more to Look at Him—I haven’t even touched on the role of Starobinets’s and Garros’s daughter in the family’s story—including a hundred pages of appendices covering interviews with doctors and patients plus comparative statistics on terminations of pregnancies in Germany and Russia. After reading some appendices and skimming others, I can see that they make Look at Him a sort of memoir that offers substantial background for other families faced with tough decisions based on prenatal exams and/or with similar emotions after the loss of a child with a congenital condition. More than that, it’s a book about life and death, basic human dignity, and treatment under various medical systems. (Unfortunately, dignity isn’t guaranteed anywhere, something I’ve certainly seen both from working as a medical interpreter for several years and from being a consumer of health care in the U.S., where the system gives ample opportunities to see absurd bureaucracy, burdensome pricing despite insurance, and bedside manner that can be indifferent, opinionatedly pushy, or inept at basic things like blood draws.) There’s been controversy about Look at Him, which is a finalist for the 2018 National Bestseller Award, but I commend Starobinets, as both a mother and a writer, for being able to sort through her emotions and knowledge, discuss her decisions (which not every reader will agree with), and write a book that tells so many real-life stories about what happened both during and after her pregnancy. Yes, it’s a work that’s both journalistic and personal rather than poetic or lovely, and some might see it as TMI, but Look at Me feels honest, like a genuine attempt to offer information to other families, no matter what they may ultimately decide when faced with similar situations that offer no ideal resolutions.

Disclaimers: The usual.

Up next: I’m slowly wending my way through a heavy “write about” shelf: the lovely short story cycle I’ve mentioned earlier, Sergei Kuznetsov’s Teacher Dymov, Janet Fitch’s The Revolution of Marina M. (I’m already waiting for the sequel!), Sofia Khvoshchinskaya’s City Folk and Country Folk in Nora Seligman Favorov’s translation, and Vladimir Sharov’s The Rehearsals in Oliver Ready’s translation. And more…

Sunday, April 29, 2018

The 2018 Big Book Longlist

The Big Book Award named 41 books to its longlist last week. As usual, there are quite a few familiar titles (some that I’ve even read, in part or in full) as well as lots of authors I’d never heard of. And a typical mix of fiction and nonfiction. The Big Book shortlist will be announced by May 31.

Since I particularly enjoy longlists for discovering new names and found several promising-sounding debut novels, I’m leaving off a few of the books that I suspect have a high likelihood of hitting a shortlist this season, be it the Big Book’s or someone else’s. The same goes for a number of authors I’ve read before and enjoyed. (Alphabetically, that list would start with Basinsky, end with Shargunov, and cover roughly ten other names.) So, without further ado, here’s a slice of the longlist, in Russian alphabetical order for each section:

Books I’ve already read in part or in full:
  • Ksenia Buksha’s Рамка, which I called The Detector when I blogged about the book. For some reason, this book has grown on me in my memory. I think it’s the metronome at the end, which just keeps ticking…
  • Yana Vagner’s Кто не спрятался (The Accomplices), which I mentioned in the same post as The Detector and was sorry not to finish.
  • Sana Valiulina’s Не боюсь Синей Бороды (I’m Not Afraid of Bluebeard a.k.a. Children of Brezhnev) contains some lovely description and atmosphere but didn’t quite grab me. I liked the rhythm of the writing, though, so I set it aside to try again when I’m not quite as deadline-addled. (I hope that comes before 2020!)
  • Sergei Kuznetsov’s Учитель Дымов (Teacher Dymov), which I read and enjoyed ages ago and need to post about one of these weeks. I think I’d describe it as a low-key family saga.

Books I already especially want to read:
  • Marina Vishnevetskaya’s Вечная жизнь Лизы К. (The Eternal Life of Liza K.). How could I miss this one when the description of the title’s Liza compares her life to Natasha Rostova’s? Set about two centuries later, though, in 2012-2015.
  • Vladimir Danikhnov’s Тварь размером с колесо обозрения (A Creature/Wretch/Brute the Size of a Ferris Wheel) is apparently an autobiographical book about having cancer.
  • Sergei Nosov’s Построение квадрата на шестом уроке (Drafting a Square During Sixth Period? I think.) Essays/slices of life. I’ve been reading Nosov’s stories from his One and a Half Rabbits and enjoying the absurdity and humor. Now I want to know about the perils of spending the night at Akhmatova’s dacha.
  • Ludmilla Petrushevskayas Нас украли. История преступлений (Kidnapped. The History of Crimes). I loved Petrushevskaya’s The Time: Night years ago and have been looking forward to this one for some time. I don’t want to read the description at the link I inserted, though!
  • Olga Slavnikova’s Прыжок в длину (Long Jump) is about an athlete who loses his lower extremities in an accident.

A few debuts:
  • Yulia Gurina’s Мы же взрослые люди (But We’re Adults) sounds like a light, entertaining (but not stupid!) novel about a woman on maternity leave who’s feeling at odds with the world.
  • Konstantin Semyonov’s Звали его Эвил (His Name Was Ehvil) is a debut novel that’s apparently set in/near/around a Petersburg-area dacha and contains plenty of irony. For some reason, this one sounds particularly good to me.
  • Inna Shul’zhenko’s Вечность во временное пользование (Eternity for Temporary Use/Loan) is set in Paris.

Disclaimers: The usual. I’ve received printed copies of two of the books I’ve mentioned.

Up Next: A lot! Way too much, really, and the list keeps growing. I have a lot to write up. The lovely short story cycle I’ve mentioned earlier, Sergei Kuznetsov’s Teacher Dymov, Janet Fitch’s The Revolution of Marina M. (I’m already waiting for the sequel!), Sofia Khvoshchinskaya’s City Folk and Country Folk in Nora Seligman Favorov’s translation, and Vladimir Sharov’s The Rehearsals in Oliver Ready’s translation. And a couple more…

Sunday, April 15, 2018

The 2018 National Bestseller Award Shortlist

The National Bestseller Award announced its five-book shortlist last week, reviving an annual burning question: Who will wake up famous this year? If shortlist voting is any indication, it’ll be Aleksei Sal’nikov for his Petrovs novel, the one with the title I’m not quite sure how to translate… Not that The Petrovs are alone: as always, there are other titles that could be interpreted in various ways, depending on how the books turn. Based on NatsBest secretary Vadim Levental’s commentary about the shortlist, many of the shortlist candidate books provoked lively discussion about literature and life. (See below!) The NatsBest winner will be announced on May 26.

For now, here’s the shortlist:

  • Aleksei Sal’nikov’s Петровы в гриппе и вокруг него (I called it The Petrovs in Various States of the Flu when it won the literary critic panel’s NOS(E) award earlier this year.) (12 points). I was a little underwhelmed by The Petrovs when I read a big chunk of it as part of last year’s Big Book reading, but I want very much to try it again now that it’s out in book form—it didn’t feel like a novel to read electronically.
  • Vasilii Aksyonov’s Была бы дочь Анастасия (Perhaps If There Were a Daughter Anastasia? This title feels like it could go in various ways, too, depending…) (6 points). About nature in Siberia.
  • Maria Labych’s Сука (Bitch) (6 points). A novel about a woman fighting on the frontlines in Donbass.
  • Anna Starobinets’s Посмотри на него (Look at Him, maybe?) (6 points). About late-term abortion. This book is on the shelf.
  • Dmitrii Petrovskii’s Дорогая, я дома (I’m Home, Dear or Honey, I’m Home, depending on the tone.) (5 points). Hmm, a novel that takes place from the 1940s through the 2020s and is described as looking at the past, present, and future of European civilization.
Disclaimers: The usual. And I translated NatsBest secretary Vadim Levental’s Masha Regina.

Up Next: It’s Award Season (Phase I) and the Big Book longlist will be announced on April 24. Plus many books: the lovely short story cycle I’ve mentioned, Sergei Kuznetsov’s Teacher Dymov, Janet Fitch’s The Revolution of Marina M. (I’m already waiting for the sequel!), Sofia Khvoshchinskaya’s City Folk and Country Folk in Nora Seligman Favorov’s translation, and Vladimir Sharov’s The Rehearsals in Oliver Ready’s translation. And more to come... It’s a busy spring for translations, which is perfect as I continue wending my way through a lot of Tolstoy’s Peace and just a little of his War.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

2018 Read Russia Prize for English-Language Translations: Winner & Citations

Read Russia announced last week that Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, Anne Marie Jackson, and Irina Steinberg’s translation of Teffi’s autobiographical Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea won the 2018 Read Russia Prize for Russian-to-English translation. The book was published in the U.S. by New York Review Books and in the U.K. by Pushkin Press.

The Read Russia jury also made “special mentions” of two other books: Rapture, written by Iliazd (Ilia Zdanevich), translated by Thomas J. Kitson, and published by Columbia University Press’s Russian Library imprint; and Russian Émigré Short Stories from Bunin to Yankovsky, edited by Bryan Karetnyk, translated by Karetnyk, Maria Bloshteyn, Robert Chandler, Justin Doherty, Boris Dralyuk, Rose France, Dmitri Nabokov, Donald Rayfield, Irina Steinberg, and Anastasia Tolstoy, and published by Penguin Classics.

The full Read Russia shortlist is here.


Hearty congratulations to all involved!

Disclaimers and disclosures: The usual for various ties. I received copies of two of these books from their publishers.

Up next: Sergei Kuznetsov’s Teacher Dymov, a lovely short story cycle, some books in English (including translations as well as Janet Fitch’s long, suspenseful The Revolution of Marina M.), and more award news. I’m still rereading War and Peace, still focusing more on Peace than War, and still particularly enjoying various families’ antics.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

The Tin Foil Hat Crowd: Volos’s Shpakovsky’s Hat

Andrei Volos’s Шапка Шпаковского (Shpakovsky’s Hat) is an odd kind of book, a pleasant-but-serious-too jumble sort of satirical novel that doesn’t always hold together particularly very well for a stickler like me but that reads along nicely enough to finish. I read all 316 pages. The description on the back of the book promises a novel about a novelist, Innokenty Dogavtsev (pseudonym Semyon Sukhotrub), who decides to kill off the unkillable hero of his thriller series, but Shpakovsky’s Hat is more about the absurdities of modern life, both private and public.

Volos tosses so many plot threads and tropes into this brief book that I almost expected to find an essay about kitchen sinks somewhere in the middle. There’s the issue of Sukhotrub’s novel, there’s publisher humor, there are work relationships (one of which, with an Alisa—she’d be Alice in English, like the Wonderland girl—quickly becomes far more personal), there are guy-time outings, there’s a political element, there’s a detainment, there’s freedom, and there’s the question of the many-layered tin foil hats that Shpakovsky (one of the buddies) wears to keep out voices. I sympathize about the hat since heaven only knows there’s way too much background noise in life these days. Full disclosure: I confess to having worn foil hats more than once during my first youth, though only when hennaing my hair.

I could go on and on about bits of humor that I marked—a publisher with big game trophies who proclaims the uselessness of electronic reading devices, a film producer saying any book with a print run lower than 60,000 copies has no propaganda value, etc., etc.—or mention lots of other enjoyable or sad-but-funny bits, but I’m not sure there’s much point. Shpakovsky’s Hat is the sort of book that can be compared to soufflés, meaning that they may be tasty or even yummy, but they’re airy and thus not especially satiating even if there are Big Topics (the flavor of cheese? some bits of bacon? the threat of high cholesterol?) involved. Of course I enjoyed the publishing world chunks most, though hope nobody ever has to go through the contract indignities Dogavtsev-Sukhotrub does.

The most interesting aspect of Shpakovsky’s Hat is that it kept me reading, despite the meandering plot and despite being rather short on Shpakovsky himself, since I think he’s the most interesting character, someone who’s tuned in but wants to tune out. It’s voice—Dogavtsev’s voice—that keeps the book going. His first-person narrative is chatty and humorous, nattering on and on without getting too dull, and, of course, blending in a reference or two to Moscow to the End of the Line for good measure. (Beyond that, NatsBest juror Veronika Kungurtseva’s review notes lots of apparent references to Master and Margarita.) Digging through the book for more notes and details would be completely untrue to my reading, which was, second confession, fairly mindless, which probably means careless. I’d been warned going into Shpakovsky’s Hat that it wasn’t Volos’s best work, though someone who’s been recommending Volos to me for a long time said I’d enjoy it anyway. Yes, I did, even if it felt too loose. (For more, Kelderek’s observations on the book, on the Ozon.ru site, are very, very close to mine.) I have several other Volos books on the shelf so I’m sure there will be more to come.

Disclaimers: The usual.

Up next: Sergei Kuznetsov’s Teacher Dymov, a lovely short story cycle, more books in English, and upcoming award news. I’m still rereading War and Peace, though focusing more on Peace than War this time around (there’s enough chaos in present-day life that the chaos of war in the novel feels a little overwhelming) and still don’t intend to blog about the experience.