Tuesday, December 6, 2016

2016 Big Book Winners: Yuzefovich Takes Top Jury Prize

Winners of the 2016 Big Book Award were announced this evening in Moscow. The top jury prize went to Leonid Yuzefovich for his Winter Road, which already won this year’s National Bestseller award as well as a translation grant from the Russian Booker. Evgenii Vodolazkin won second prize for his Aviator (previous post) and Ludmila Ulitskaya took third place for her Yakov’s Ladder (previous post). My summary of all this year’s Big Book finalists is on the blog here. All three of these authors have won the top Big Book prize in the past and all three of these books were published by Elena Shubina’s imprint at AST.

Reader’s choice awards, which were announced last week, went to Ulitskaya’s Yakov’s Ladder, Maria Galina’s Autochthons (previous post), and Vodolazkin’s Aviator. The Big Book site notes that only four votes separated the Galina and Vodolazkin books.

An award for contributions to literature went to Boris Kupriyanov, who is, among other things, a co-founder of the Falanster bookstore in Moscow as well as a key figure for two Moscow book fairs/festivals.

Link(s) with commentary:
-Mikhail Edelshtein’s concise pre-ceremony plus/minus view of all the finalists, on Lenta.ru.
-Maya Kucherskaya's summary on Vedomosti. After mentioning that Aleksei Ivanov didn't win anything for his Nenast'e Kucherskaya suggests that a special prize could be given so that all deserving books win something. I'd expected that Ivanov's book would win something (my prediction was that he, not Ulitskaya, would be in the top three and I wasn't far off, Ivanov's point total was very, very close to Ulitskaya's) but special prizes like that would be impractical for an award like Big Book, where the jury is large and members have the option of voting remotely, making that sort of prize logistically difficult. Not to mention contentious! Beyond that, it seems to me that awarding three jury prizes and three reader's choice prizes is already very generous.
-Anna Narinskaya's commentary on Kommersant is far more interesting. I, too, wish books like Sergei Kuznetsov's and Dmitry Danilov's had been Big Book finalists this year: they're both on my shelf but even without having read them yet, I have a strong suspicion that they would have been far better choices than, for (safe) starters, the book about reptiles, which was very, very weak. I couldn't agree more with Narinskaya that books like Danilov's spice up Big Book shortlists: they help readers discover writers and there's a lot to be said for diluting the mainstream. This is a minor point (and I'm probably splitting hairs here) but I can't say that I fit her perception that members of the jury want to read books that reflect on and connect Russian history and the Russian present: my personal bias is just for books that are interesting/compelling and hold together structurally. This time around--and last year, too, with Guzel Yakhina's Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes--those happened to be books that involved Russian history. And of course I love Laurus and The Women of Lazarus. And lots of other novels that somehow blend history and the present. But I'm open to anything. Like Danilov's books, which are generally very much in the present... and which I always enjoy so much.
-Two pieces by people I know and thus particularly enjoy reading: Mikhail Vizel on the Год литературы site notes, among other things, that Yuzefovich said that Ivanov should have won. (He also notes that only two points separated the Ulitskaya and Ivanov books, almost nothing, given the totals.) Konstantin Milchin, for TASS, places particular focus on the lack of new names.
-Klarisa Pulson for Novaya Gazeta (here), who says the results were too predictable. Something I agree with... but a jury has to vote on a set list of books.

Disclaimers: The usual. I’m a member of the Big Book’s Literary Academy, its jury, and received all the books from the Big Book and, in some cases, the books’ literary agencies. I have translated books by Vodolazkin—I’m currently working on The Aviator—and excerpts from books by Galina.

Up next: Belated autumn travel report. Belated reading roundup. And books: Sukhbat Aflatuni’s The Ant King, which is very suspenseful and oddly absorbing.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Aleshkovsky and Yuzefovich Win Russian Booker Prize and Grant

Pyotr Aleshkovsky won the 2016 Russian Booker Prize today for his novel Крепость (The Citadel). Aleshkovsky has been a Booker finalist in the past—in 1994 for Жизнеописание Хорька (Skunk: A Life), in 1996 for Владимир Чигринцев (Vladimir Chigrintsev), and in 2006 for Рыба (Fish)—so I wasn’t surprised to see The Citadel win. The Citadel, which I began but did/could not finish, is also a finalist for the Big Book Award; Big Book Award winners will be announced next week.


Several of Aleshkovsky’s books have been translated into English: Arch Tait translated Skunk: A Life for Glas (the original title refers to a ferret), and Nina Shevchuk-Murray translated Fish: A History of One Migration and Stargorod: A Novel in Many Voices, which combines stories from Aleshkovsky’s Институт Сновидений and Старгород, for Russian Life Books. I wrote about Fish here, mentioning in that post that I’d enjoyed nature passages from Skunk (Ferret!) very much: some of Aleshkovsky’s winter scenes in that book have stuck with me longer than my more recent readings of Fish and The Citadel. Please note that Aleshkovsky’s first name is spelled “Peter” on all these translations.

In other news, Leonid Yuzefovich won the Booker’s grant award, for an English-language translation of his The Winter Road, a beautifully compiled and composed book about Civil War figures in the Russian Far East. The Winter Road also won this year’s National Bestseller Award and is on the Big Book shortlist, too; it was one of my top three books in the eleven-book list of finalists.

Edit: Links!
-The Booker has yet to post a story about the awards but TASS did: here.
-TASS also posted a piece by Konstantin Milchin (an acquaintance of mine) about the award, in which he discusses his dissatisfaction with the Booker jury's decision, which, in effect, says The Citadel is the best novel of the year--that's the Booker's stated goal, after all. The piece is here and, as so often happens, I agree with Kostya's points, which get at some of the reasons I didn't/couldn't finish the book. I was also interested to see that he mentioned, as I did in my post, the fact that Aleshkovsky was thrice a Booker finalist before The Citadel. (I have to think that fact and being able to point to the novel's positive hero were deciding factors for the jury.) The quotes that Kostya included seem to have inspired readers to dig up other awkward passages that, hmm (repurposing Kostya's words a bit), show a lack of compassion for the reader, see, for example, Meduza, here.
-I'll add more links when/if I find them!
-Here's another one, very favorable to Aleshkovsky's win, by Maya Kucherskaya: link.

Disclaimers: Russian Life Books sent me copies of Fish and Stargorod. I received electronic copies of The Citadel from both the Big Book and Aleshkovsky’s literary agency, and The Winter Road from the Big Book Award.

Up Next: Big Book winners; Sukhbat Aflatuni’s The Ant King, which is just plain weird but also suspenseful and mysteriously compelling; book roundup; and two books in Boris Minaev’s Soft Fabric trilogy, which were, combined, a Booker and Yasnaya Polyana finalist.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Big Book 2016 Finalists: A Summary

This year’s Big Book Award finalists (previous post with the list is here) fit neatly into three categories: three books I praise highly, three books I enjoyed well enough to finish, and five books I couldn’t finish. Five in the “did not finish” category might sound high, but it’s not unusual for me to finish only about half the books I start; one of the reasons I don’t write more posts about books is that I abandon so many without finishing. Big Book winners will be announced on December 6. Here’s a brief summary of my reading:

Those I praise highly. It probably comes as no surprise that Evgenii Vodolazkin’s Авиатор (The Aviator) was my favorite in the bunch (previous post) and is a big favorite for the year, too. The Aviator looks at the nature of time, life, and Soviet history from an angle that I particularly like… but won’t reveal. Translating The Aviator is a treat for the emotions it raises, its simple elegance, and the multiple settings Vodolazkin manages to create. Alexei Ivanov’s Ненастье (Nenast’e) is a treat of an entirely different sort (previous post, which discusses the title) and not just because I’m not translating it: this social novel about Afghan War veterans is suspenseful, dark, and painful, a well-plotted novel about all kinds of relationships. It’s very good and I’ve been pleased to see it garner so much praise among readers. I’m still reading away on Leonid Yuzefovich’s Зимняя дорога, (The Winter Road), one of the most enjoyable works of nonfiction I’ve read in a long time, with Civil War figures and wonderful details about people, places, and politics.

Those I enjoyed well enough to finish. Maria Galina’s Автохтоны (part one/part two) (Autochthons) still mystifies me more than a bit since I’m still not exactly sure what happens (previous post) but Galina’s dark-but-cozy combination of tasty meals, cultural history, and a small city setting on the edge of Europe—not to mention humor and the possibility of a character being a sylph—remain vivid in my memory. And I do want to reread it. Using the book light again. Sasha Filipenko’s Травля (Hounding) (previous post) also stuck with me, though for opposite reasons: there’s only darkness, nothing cozy, in this story of a journalist who’s being hounded for political reasons. And there are certainly no sylphs. I think I appreciated most the account of bitterness after the 1998 default. Ludmila Ulitskaya’s Лестница Якова (Yakov’s Ladder or Jacob’s Ladder, though I’ll use Ulitskaya’s agent’s title with “Yakov”) (previous) is a family saga that’s told in story-like episodes and includes letters from Ulitskaya’s own family archives. This isn’t my favorite Ulitskaya novel but the familiarity of Ulitskaya’s style and settings made this rather long book read easily, though I often wanted the balance to tip more toward character development than history.

Those I just couldn’t finish. This is the section that gives me no joy whatsoever. Vladimir Dinets’s Песни драконов (Dragon Songs) wasn’t the fun surprise that Nature Girl here dared to hope for. My parents live in Florida—where there seem to be alligators everywhere—and I’ve been to crocodile country in Australia, so I thought I was off to a decent start but somehow I just couldn’t sink my teeth into things like descriptions of alligators “dancing,” and I just wasn’t interested in Dinets’s personal details. Alexander Ilichevsky’s Справа налево (From Right to Left) book of essays is a mishmash that, I’m sorry to say, didn’t grab me at all. Even sadder, though, I thought all the novels in this category lacked narrative drive, a coherent structure, and/or the sense of a good story. I gave Pyotr Aleshkovsky’s Крепость (The Citadel) 106 pages to show me where it was going and, to borrow from what I wrote on Goodreads, was sorry it couldn’t decide whether it wanted to be a serious social novel about an honest archaeologist or a melodrama with family hysterics. (The big sign I was done: I kept finding excuses to compare recipes in 660 Curries and think about what I needed to buy at the Indian grocery store…) Anna Matveeva’s Завидное чувство Веры Стениной (Vera Stenina’s Envy; the Russian title is closer to Vera Stenina’s Enviable Sense but that is, indeed, tough to sort...) was equally painful, though I read nearly 200 pages, hoping something might develop beyond a rather utilitarian tale of one woman’s envy (envy is visualized as a bat here) of her friend. I made it through less (about 50 pages) of Sergei Soloukh’s Рассказы о животных (Stories About Animals), the tale of a man who travels a lot for work. I can’t say I much enjoy reading about driving (perhaps because I don’t especially enjoy driving?) so Stories and I didn’t get off to a good start. Though I’d hoped for a compelling novel about what causes people to lose their humanness, particularly in times of social upheaval, alas, Stories was too muddled to tell me much.

Disclaimers: The usual. I received electronic texts of all these books from the Big Book, for which I serve on the Literary Academy, the award’s jury; I received a couple from the authors’ literary agents, too. Among other things: I’m currently translating The Aviator and have translated excerpts of some of Maria Galina’s other books.

Up Next: I think I’ll write more summary posts: travel, books read in Russian, and books read in English. And a full-length post on Boris Minaev’s Soft Fabric, volume one…

Thursday, November 3, 2016

A Busy (Yester)Day for Russian Literary Awards: 2016 Yasnaya Polyana Winners & NOSE Finalists

I’m a day late posting about the Yasnaya Polyana Award’s 2016 winners and the NOSE Award’s 2016 shortlist—I got so caught up working on last year’s Yasnaya Polyana winner, Guzel Yakhina’s Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes, that I forgot to write my post!

Yasnaya Polyana first: there’s a Russian summary with juror commentary here and Alexandra Guzeva’s English-language Russia Beyond the Headlines article on Yasnaya Polyana is very complete, too. Best of all, it means I can stop agonizing over how to translate a problematic winning title and expand on summaries of the books I haven’t read, too. So! The two co-winners—this is the first time a Yasnaya Polyana award has been shared—of the “XXI Century” award are Narine Abgaryan’s С неба упали три яблока (Three Apples Fell from the Sky), a novel I liked very much when I read it last summer (previous post), and Aleksandr Grigorenko’s Потерял слепой дуду (A Blind Man Lost his Flute). As I’d expected, Three Apples won reader voting, too. It’s the Grigorenko title that I wasn’t quite sure how to translate when I wrote my post about the shortlist: beyond the possibility of word play, the word “дуду” is “duduk” in English (Wikipedia offers lots of information about it) but this word for a wooden, double-reeded wind instrument feels a bit obscure to me. In any case, I loved Grigorenko’s Mebet (previous post) so am looking forward to reading the novella, as well as his Ilget, which I bought in September.

The winner of the “Childhood, Adolescence, Youth” award is Marina Nefedova’s Лесник и его нимфа (The Woodsman and His Nymph; RBTH uses “forester”). I was very, very pleased that Vladimir Makanin won the “Modern Classic” prize for his 1984 novella Где сходилось небо с холмами (Where the Sky Meets the Hills): I’ve enjoyed several of Makanin’s early novels and stories (previous posts involving Makanin) and have long regarded him as a modern classic. Finally, Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness in My Mind, which Apollinaria Avrutina translated into Russian, won the “Foreign Literature” award. Guzeva’s RBTH article notes that A Strangeness has a Russian basis: “[Avrutina] said that the whole novel is based on the epigraph for the second part of A Hero of Our Time by Russian writer Mikhail Lermontov: ‘Asians... once let them feast and drink their fill of boza at a wedding or a funeral, and out will come their knives.’” How about that!

Moving right along, to the NOSE Award… Finalists were announced at the Krasnoyarsk Book Culture Fair after public debates. The winner will be chosen on January 24, 2017.

  • Eugene Vodolazkin’s Авиатор (The Aviator), which is already on the Big Book shortlist and which I’m already translating and loving all over again (previous post). I’m glad to see it made this list.
  • Kirill Kobrin’s Шерлок Холмс и рождение современности. Деньги, девушки, денди Викторианской Эпохи (Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of Modernity. Money, Young Women, and Dandies of the Victorian Epoch) is nonfiction that the title and this excerpt explain.
  • Sergei Kuznetsov’s Калейдоскоп (excerpt) (Kaleidoscope) involves dozens of characters and their stories, set in the twentieth century; one of my Goodreads friends noted sex and vampires. This one sounded interesting from the start but for some reason hearing it described—in a positive way, mind you—as “Pynchon lite” more than once in Moscow intrigues me all the more.
  • Vladimir Martynov’s Книга Перемен (The Book of Changes) is described as more of a palimpsest than a book and as a sort of hypertext for hyperreading that uses zapping and fortune telling practices from The Book of Changes. I was an I Ching fan as a teenager but well, hmm.
  • Aleksandra Petrova’s Аппендикс (excerpt) (The Appendix, in a metaphorical sense, it seems) is a novel about Rome. (A review)
  • Boris Lego’s Сумеречные рассказы (Dusky Stories) is a collection of nineteen Russian gothic stories; a cover blurb calls it the scariest book of the year…
  • Sergei Lebedev’s Люди августа (People of August, click through for synopsis and excerpt) is also on the 2016 Booker shortlist.

Disclaimers & Disclosures: The usual, plus translating that Vodolazkin book, having translated books by two YP jurors, the fact of support for my translation work from Prokhorov Foundation grants, having received the Abgaryan book from her literary agency and translating the very beginning of Three Apples.

Up Next: Trip reports (Moscow and Oakland), Oleg Zaionchkovsky’s Timosha’s Prose and Alexander Snegirev’s patient Faith/Vera, books I’ve been reading in English, plus other Big Book finalists, though the second half of the Big Book list brings me little joy and much left unfinished…

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The 2016 NOSE Award Longlist

Thank goodness for the NOSE Award longlist! I have to admit that a rainy Saturday and a windy, blustery Sunday weren’t very conducive to writing trip reports or book reports… but an award longlist (oops, almost a “lostlist”) feels like just the thing. And the NOSE Award—a program of the Prokhorov Foundation—is always a quirky matter (I still don’t quite understand the NOSE), whether we’re talking about a longlist, shortlist, or award final, and that makes NOSE all the more appealing today. Beyond that, there’s not much time to post the list: the shortlist is apparently on the express, scheduled for debate and arrival on November 2. So here’s the whole longlist, in the order presented on the Prokhorov Foundation site and with my completely inconsistent transliterations of names:

  • Yuri Buida’s Цейлон (Ceylon), which has already hit other longlists and which I’ve read (previous post).
  • Eugene Vodolazkin’s Авиатор (The Aviator), which is already on the Big Book shortlist and which I’m already translating and loving all over again (previous post).
  • Polina Zherebtsova’s Тонкая серебристая нить (Thin Silver Thread) is a collection of stories about civilian life in Grozny during the Chechen Wars. Brief extracts from Zherebtsova’s diary (NB: this is a different book!).
  • Kirill Kobrins Шерлок Холмс и рождение современности. Деньги, девушки, денди Викторианской Эпохи (Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of Modernity. Money, Young Women, and Dandies of the Victorian Epoch) is nonfiction that the title and this excerpt explain.
  • Sergei Kuznetsov’s Калейдоскоп (excerpt) (Kaleidoscope) involves dozens of characters and their stories, set in the twentieth century; one of my Goodreads friends noted sex and vampires. This one sounded interesting from the start but for some reason hearing it described—in a positive way, mind you—as “Pynchon lite” more than once in Moscow intrigues me all the more.
  • Vladimir Martynov’s Книга Перемен (The Book of Changes) is described as more of a palimpsest than a book and as a sort of hypertext for hyperreading that uses zapping and (appropriately enough, I suppose) fortune telling practices from that other The Book of Changes. I was an I Ching fan as a teenager and don’t want to sound dismissive but, hmm.
  • Aleksandra Petrova’s Аппендикс (excerpt) (The Appendix, in a metaphorical sense, it seems) is a novel about Rome. (A review)
  • Moshe Shanin’s Левоплоссковские. Правоплоссковские (The title refer to residents of the villages of Levoplosskaya and Pravoplosskaya) is a collection of stories written by a young writer—he was a Debut winner for short fiction in 2014—from Severodvinsk, which interests me from the start because of my many visits to Arkhangelsk.
  • Vladimir Voinovich’s Малиновый пеликан (excerpt) (The Raspberry Pelican, perhaps referring to the bird’s color, based on the cover…) is more Voinovich satire with absurdity.
  • Dmitrii Lipskerov’s О нем и о бабочках (expert from GQ) (Lipskerov reads from the book on YouTube) (About Him and About Butterflies/Moths/Bow Ties, I’m betting on the lepidoptera, based on a reader review and other factors…) seems to be about a man who loses, ahem, intimate anatomy. The GQ excerpt intro compares it to Gogol’s “The Nose,” one of my all-time favorites, and it’s obvious why, even just skimming the excerpt.
  • Igor Sakhnovsky’s Свобода по умолчанию (Freedom by Default) is apparently a novel about love, internal freedom, and political absurdity.
  • Vasilii Avchenko’s Кристалл в прозрачной оправе (Crystal in a Transparent Frame) carries the subtitle “lyrical lectures about water and stones,” and Avchenko is said to cover many aspects of life in Vladivostok, including fish(ing), as in this excerpt. Ocean lover that I am, I bought this one after it hit the 2016 NatsBest shortlist.
  • Aleksei Zikmund’s Карело-финский дневник (Karelian-Finnish Diary) is a bit of a mystery…
  • Oleg Zaionchkovsky’s Тимошина проза (Timosha’s Prose), which I read and don’t quite know how to describe… it’s a detached but close narrative about a young man. The novel lacks the, hmm, snap and pop (and crackle, too, I suppose) of Zaionchkovsky’s previous books.
  • Boris Lego’s Сумеречные рассказы (Dusky Stories) is a collection of nineteen Russian gothic stories; a cover blurb calls it the scariest book of the year…
  • Sergei Lebedev’s Люди августа (People of August, click through for synopsis and excerpt) is also on the 2016 Booker shortlist.
  • Andrei Sharys Дунай. Река империй (The Dunai. River of Empires, okay fine, The Danube…) has a lovely cover (I like old maps) and looks at history and the Danube over three millennia.
  • Ivan Shipnigov’s Нефть, метель и другие веселые боги (Oil, Blizzard, and Other Cheerful Gods) is a collection of stories in which, according to the publisher, oil is the most cheerful of the Gods or gods, I’m not sure which, particularly since the publisher also compares Shipnigov’s prose to the young Pelevin’s. Here’s a sample story from the collection.


Up Next: Trip reports (Moscow and Oakland), the afore-mentioned Zaionchkovsky book and Alexander Snegirev’s patient Faith/Vera, more award news, and other Big Book finalists, though this second half of the list brings me little joy and much left unfinished…

Disclaimers and disclosures. The usual, plus translating that Vodolazkin book and the fact of support for my translation work from Prokhorov Foundation grants.