Sunday, January 17, 2021

Fun With Genres

I think I’ve mentioned many times that I love literary genres, from eighteenth-century Russian sentimentalism to socialist realism to all sorts of detective and science fiction/fantasy/weird novels. That’s not an exhaustive list; I’m open to any century, old or new. It’s not the labelling I’m enamored with: I love recognizing familiar patterns as I read and I love watching authors play with (perceived) genre norms in their books. I’m sure that’s why I sped through Boris Akunin’s first seven or eight Fandorin novels and why Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn is such a favorite. As are Karamzin’s “Poor Liza” and Pushkin’s Belkin Tales, too. How the Steel Was Tempered and Cement weren’t required socialist realism reading in college but I devoured them anyway. I could list dozens more books but will say instead that I started early, reading lots of science fiction and fantasy chapter books as a kid, and revisiting Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time over and over.

I never stopped reading detective novels or books with varying degrees of fantasy and/or science fiction elements – they’re wonderfully endemic in contemporary literature – but I’ve found myself gravitating to them more than usual during the pandemic. Genres particularly draw me because of their adherence (sometimes loose, sometimes close) to certain strictures, things like pacing standards, typical plot twists, and stock characters. Many of Vladimir Propp’s fairy tale elements apply to contemporary novels, too, and I see genres and archetypes as close, friendly cousins. As I mentioned above, I especially like reading books that blend and twist genre norms: these days, the combination of pattern recognition and unexpected mashups of familiar storylines, characters, and tropes feels more satisfying than ever. I’d even been planning a sort of genrefest for myself: the idea came when I ordered a small heap of socialist realism and fantasy novels. Then the books got set aside when some manuscripts and books for review floated in.

One of the first manuscripts was Eugene Vodolazkin’s Оправдание Острова (which I’ve seen called The History of Island), a fantastic (on all counts) blend of medieval chronicle and what, hm, I might call fantasy, given that certain characters live a very long time. Island tells historical and personal stories of strife, isolation (perfect for a pandemic!), and development. There are two timelines. One follows the chronicle and details centuries of Island history, the other is a more anecdotal and (ha) cinematic account from two centuries-old characters. I’ve long thought of Vodolazkin’s novels, which present spiralized time and wrinkled history, as a personal Vodolazkin genre: I’ve called his Solovyov and Larionov, Laurus, and The Aviator a triptych but have now officially expanded that to a quadriptych, thanks to Island. Island is delicate and detailed so not my ideal book to blog about after electronic reading. Although it’s easy to remember the basics, Island is the sort of book that inspires dozens of notes, exclamation marks (talking animals!), and smiling marginalia on paper I can flip through, to recall and revisit favorite spots. I do see an upside in this: I want/plan to reread Island in print so I can examine the novel’s multiple layers and themes before writing more about it.

Marina and Sergey Dyachenko’s Vita Nostra was in my genrefest pile of printed books, a good thing since I read it in lengthy binges. It’s a page-turner. I’ve seen Vita Nostra described as “urban fantasy” and that does sound about right. Beyond fantasy and the supernatural, though, there’s also a nice coming-of-age story as Sashka Samokhina finds her true powers at the Institute of Special Technologies, a school where (warning: slight spoilers ahead!) student development includes (literal) metamorphoses. And time can go into repeat mode. (Another slight spoiler: at one point, Sashka relives December 16 for many days in a row. Reading that section of the book on the very same date felt a bit creepy.) There was lots more to keep me binging with Vita Nostra: Sashka is a strong young heroine, there’s mental training and discipline, the alternate world/universe is vivid, and there are language-related revelations toward the end that made me want to go right back to the beginning of the novel and read it again. I read Vita Nostra in Russian, but it’s also available in Julia Meitov Hersey’s translation from HarperCollins.

For better or worse, I didn’t go back to reread Vita Nostra. I switched to a retro detective novel instead. Valeria Verbinina’s Театральная площадь (Theater Square), the second in Verbinina’s series starring detective Ivan Opalin, was also in my genre shipment. I didn’t find Theater Square as absorbing as its predecessor, Moscow Time (previous post), but I’m a sucker for Stalin-era settings and the didactic layer of Verbinina’s novels fascinates me. Sometimes it almost feels as if she makes sure to mention things like Stalin portraits hanging in offices and accusations of Trotskyite activity to remind readers (particularly young readers who haven’t heard stories first-hand from relatives?) about Soviet-era history. And communal apartments. Theater Square isn’t just history + detective, though. It also involves the Bolshoy Ballet, making it a ballet novel as well. Both Theater Square and Yulia Yakovleva’s Каннибалы – literally Cannibals but a.k.a. The Dazzlings, a contemporary novel about strange happenings at the Bolshoy (that I didn’t finish) – include strong reminders about the interconnection of politics and theater, too, as well as the building’s looping labyrinths. Among other things, Theater Square includes a cameo with Stalin and there are romantic and even somewhat gothic subplots. Bonus: Krasnaya Moskva (Red Moscow) perfume is mentioned again, earning the novel a tag! On a personal note, I loved the description of the upper tier of Bolshoy seats, where I sat (how strange fate can be!) not long after a murder investigation in my Moscow dorm.

Sometimes I wonder if it’s odd that I’ve focused so much on genres in recent months. But it makes complete sense. Thinking about genres doesn’t just order my reading a bit more than usual, it also helps me make sense of my thoughts and feelings about what’s happening in the world. When there’s instability, I tend to seek resolutions, something detective novels often supply. When there are real-life oddities that I simply can’t fathom, it helps to read about (other) strange physical and psychic places: weird fiction has already saved the day many times! And when I’m looking for something more philosophical about history and the passage of time, novels like Vodolazkin’s – which are so much a part of my thinking anyway, after translating three – feel reassuring and even consoling, particularly given that they include elements of fantasy and mysticism. Perhaps the greatest reassurance and consolation I receive from books – from every book I read, whether I finish or not – is the gift of opportunities to keep thinking about literary strictures, structures, characters, and messages, all of which help me both escape and find perspective on current events that keep proving (cliché alert!) that truth really can be far stranger than fiction.

Up Next: I’m reading away but not quite sure what comes next! (Alienation seems to be a strong theme, though…) A post about NOSE Award winners must be in the cards soon, too.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual. Eugene Vodolazkin sent me an electronic copy of Island. Translator Julia Meitov Hersey is an online friend whom I hope to meet (we don’t even live far apart!) once this mess is finally over.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Happy New Year! 2020’s Translations Before the Calendar Flips to 2021

Smaller fireworks this year
This December doesn’t feel like the time to compile a cheerful list of favorite books I read this year (though there were a few), happy international travel notes (since there was no travel other than a wonderful pre-lockdown trip up the road to Bowdoin College), or professional achievements (as happy as I am about them). Rather than focus on what’s purely personal, I decided to post the 2020 translation list today: I like this list as a final post for the year since it inventories the collective efforts of authors, translators, and publishers. And even if we’re not happy with certain aspects of it – I’m sure we’ll all find shortcomings – it shows, consolingly, that books are being translated and published. May people read them as well.

And so, on to the annual caveats that go with the annual lists. If I counted correctly (that’s not a given), this list contains 48 books, down from last year’s (as of this writing) total of 54 books. Four dozen is pretty not bad given this year’s postponements, not to mention the fact that this is only the first count. (Last year’s first count was 49 and there wasn’t even a pandemic!) Totals almost always increase over time and there are a few sites I’ll be checking again; as I complained mentioned last year, site designs and search functions don’t always make it easy to hunt down translations. Like last year, I’m listing only new (meaning: no reissued) translations available in print editions and have linked to publisher sites. I include books of all genres, for all ages, though self-published books are listed on a separate post. I always welcome new comments with listings. If you’d like me to add a book to this year’s list, please write a comment to this post.

In terms of analysis, hmmm. There are certainly classics: Pushkin has four volumes and Turgenev has two. Griboedov and Radishchev are back. It’s very disappointing, though, that only nine books (again, if I counted correctly) were written by women, though those nine books are relatively varied. There’s not a lot of contemporary fiction, either, though I’m pleased to see Mebet (previous post) and a decent assortment of other recent books. That “not a lot” is just statement of fact since, as they say, грех жаловаться (literally, it would be a sin to complain) given the varied (other than the men/women question!) authors, translators, genres, and times represented here. Honestly, anything good – like the simple fact of four dozen new translations from the Russian – feels like a big, generous gift this year and there truly are some nice titles on this list.

I’ll finish, as usual, with a summary of caveats and admin notes related. Some will be repetitive. This list is just a start; I’m always happy to add titles I’ve missed. I may have missed a lot. Please add a comment or e-mail me with changes/errors or additions; my address is on the sidebar. NB: I now list only new translations. I’ll place a link to this post on the sidebar of the blog for easy reference. I’m taking names and titles for 2021 now, so please start sending them in. Finally, don’t forget the Self-Published Translation post: If you have a book to add, please add it in a comment on that page and I’ll be happy to approve it.

I send best wishes for 2021 to everyone! Here’s hoping for lots more good books to read! Happy New Year! C Новым Годом


Here’s the list:

Abgaryan, Narine: Three Apples Fell From the Sky, translated by Lisa Hayden; Oneworld Publications, 2020.

Afanasyev, Alexander: Tales from Russian Folklore, translated by Stephen Pimenoff; Alma Classics, October 2020.

Boratynsky, Evgeny: Evgeny Boratynsky and the Russian Golden Age: Unstudied Words That Wove and Wavered, translated by Anatoly Liberman; Anthem Press, 2020.

(Brianchaninov), Ignatius: Harbor for Our Hope: On Acquiring Peace Amidst Suffering, translated by Elena Borowski; Holy Trinity Publications, 2020. A talk with translator Elena Borowski.

Dobrenko, Evgeny: Late Stalinism: The Aesthetics of Politics, translated by Jesse M. Savage; Yale University Press, August 2020.

Draitser, Emil: Farewell, Mama Odessa; Northwestern University Press, January 2020. (Author Draitser says this is an “expanded English-language edition” of a 2012 book, На Кудыкину Гору: Одесский Роман.)

Dubinskaya, Tatiana L.: In the Trenches: A Russian Woman Soldier’s Story of World War I, edited by Lawrence M. Kaplan with translation by Julia Lemberskiy; Potomac Books, 2020. This sounds very interesting!

Dyachenko, Sergey and Marina: Daughter from the Dark, translated by Julia Meitov Hersey; HarperCollins, February 2020.

Gogol, Nikolai: The Nose and Other Stories, translated by Suzanne Fusso; Columbia University Press/Russian Library, September 2020.

Goncharov, Ivan: Malinovka Heights, translated by Stephen Pearl; Alma, 2020. (This novel has usually been called The Precipice.)

Griboedov, Alexander: Woe from Wit, translated by Betsy Hulick; Columbia University Press/Russian Library, April 2020. I’ve heard lots of very happy comments about this new translation and have been meaning for months to read it!

Grigorenko, Alexander: Mebet, translated by Christopher Culver; Glagoslav, October 2020.

Grin, Alexander. Fandango and Other Stories, translated by Bryan Karetnyk; Columbia University Press/Russian Library, January 2020.

Grinëv, Andrei Val’terovich: Russian Colonization of Alaska: Baranov’s Era, 1799–1818, translated by Richard L. Bland; University of Nebraska Press, 2020.

Kolonitskii, Boris: Comrade Kerensky, translated by Arch Tait; Polity, November 2020.

Krzhizhanovsky, Sigizmund: Unwitting Street, translated by Joanne Turnbull; New York Review Books, August, 2020. Short stories.

Kulishenko, Natalia: An English Queen and Stalingrad, translated by Christopher Culver; Glagoslav, March 2020.

Kurkov, Andrey: Grey Bees, MacLehose Press; translated by Boris Dralyuk, November 2020

Leskov, Nikolai: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, translated by Donald Rayfield, Robert Chandler, and William Edgerton; New York Review Books, October 2020.

Lotman, Yuri: Culture and Communication: Signs in Flux. An Anthology of Major and Lesser-Known Works, edited by Andreas Schönle and translated by Benjamin Paloff; Academic Studies Press, 2020.

Nikonov, Vyacheslav: The Code of Civilization, translated by Huw Davies; Glagoslav, December 2020.

Piotrovsky, Mikhail: The State Hermitage Museum, translated by Paul Williams; Scala, February 2020.

Prigov, Dmitri: Soviet Texts, translated by Simon Schuchat with Ainsley Morse; Ugly Duckling Presse, February 2020.

Prilepin, Zakhar: The Monastery; Glagoslav, translated by Nicholas Kotar, July 2020.

Pushkin, Alexander: Feast During the Plague, translated by Matvei Yankelevich; Ugly Duckling Presse, April 2020.

Pushkin, Alexander: Selected Poetry, translated by Antony Wood; Penguin, 2020. Winner of both this year’s Read Russia Prizes (global and anglophone)! I have tremendous respect for Antony Wood’s Pushkin translations.

Pushkin, Alexander: Lyrics (volumes 2 and 3), translated by a team led by Robert Clarke; Alma Books, 2020. (Volume 1 appears to have been published in 2018; volume 4 comes out next year.)

Radishchev, Alexander: Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow, translated by Andrew Kahn and Irina Reyfman; Columbia University Press/Russian Library, November 2020. I want to do a real, methodical reading of this Journey after very much enjoying the introduction and random readings of passages when I pick up the book.

Rubinstein, Lev: Page 29, translated by Philip Metres and Tatiana Tulchinsky; Ugly Duckling Presse, September 2020.

Rymbu, Galina: Life in Space, translated by Joan Brooks, with introduction by Eugene Ostashevsky; Ugly Duckling Presse, November 2020.

Rytkheu, Yuri: When the Whales Leave; Milkweed Press, translated by Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse, 2019.

Semenova, Natalya: Morozov: The Story of a Family and a Lost Collection; Yale University Press, translated by Arch Tait, October 2020.

Sen-Senkov, Andrei: Moscow as an Upturned Umbrella; Smokestack Books, 2020. A bilingual edition; no translator is credited.

Shalamov, Varlam: Sketches of the Criminal World, translated by Donald Rayfield; New York Review Books, January 2020.

Semenova, Natalya: Morozov The Story of a Family and a Lost Collection, translated by Arch Tait; Yale University Press, October 2020.

Simonov, Konstantin: Wait for Me, translated by Mike Munford; Smokestack Books, 2020. Bilingual edition.

Skidan, Aleksandr: Golem Soveticus: Prigov as Brecht and Warhol in One Persona, translated by Kevin M.F. Platt; Ugly Duckling Presse, May 2020.

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr: Between Two Millstones, Book 2: Exile in America, 1978-1994, translated by Clare Kitson and Melanie Moore; Notre Dame Press, 2020.

Starobinets, Anna: Look at Him, translated by Katherine E. Young; Three String Books, 2020. I read this book in 2018 and found it very powerful (previous post).

Strugatsky Brothers: The Inhabited Island, translated by Andrew Bromfield; Chicago Review Press, February 2020.

Turgenev, Ivan: A Sportsman’s Notebook, translated by Charles and Natasha Hepburn with introduction by Daniyal Mueenuddin; HarperCollins, January 2020.

Turgenev, Ivan: Love and Youth, translated by Nicolas Pasternak Slater; Pushkin Press, October 2020.

Tvardovsky, Alexander Trifonovich: Vasili Tyorkin: A Book about a Soldier, translated by James Womack; Smokestack Books, 2020. Bilingual edition.

Various: Other Shepherds, poems written by Nina Kossman and Marina Tsvetaeva, whom Kossman translates; Poets & Traitors Press, summer 2020.

Various: F Letter: New Russian Feminist Poetry, ed. Galina Rymbu, Eugene Ostashevsky, and Ainsley Morse, and a team of translators (click through for names!); isolarii, 2020. As featured on!

Various: Accursed Poets: Dissident Poetry from Soviet Russia 1960-80, edited and translated by Anatoly Kudryavitsky; Smokestack Books, 2020.

Various: Russia Is Burning: Poems of the Great Patriotic War, edited by Maria Bloshteyn; Smokestack Books, 2020. Many of the poems in this bilingual edition are apparently translated by Bloshteyn.

Zamyatin, Yevgeny: We, translated by Bela Shayevich; Canongate, November 2020.

Bonus 1! The Read Russia site has a special page for Russian Library books, including those on this list, with links and texts.

Bonus 2! How Russia Learned to Write: Literature and the Imperial Table of Ranks, by Irina Reyfman, University of Wisconsin Press. This sounds interesting, particularly after so enjoying Reyfman’s work (with Andrew Kahn) on the Radishchev book listed above.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual. I work on projects for Read Russia; I’ve translated one book for Columbia University Press/Russian Library and am currently working on a second. I know many of the translators and publishers on this list.

Up Next: A combo post about recent reading and genres, beginning with medieval chronicles and moving along to detective novels and science fiction/fantasy.

Image credit: Fireworks in Bratislava, New Year 2005, from Ondrejk, via Wikipedia.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Curiouser and Curiouser: The 2020 Big Book Award Winners

Well. Yes. So. Here we are. The Big Book Award announced winners this past ThBlursday. It’s easy enough to list the awardees. But what to say beyond that is beyond me.

The jury’s first prize went to Alexander Ilichevsky for Чертеж Ньютона (Newton’s Sketch). Timur Kibirov took second prize for his Генерал и его семья (The General and His Family). And Shamil Idiatullin won the bronze for Бывшая Ленина (Former Lenin Street, if I’m to keep it simple). The reader’s choice awards went to (first place through third) Mikhail Elizarov for Earth, Dina Rubina for Napoleon’s Caravan/Convoy, and Alexei Makushinsky for Предместья мысли. Философическая прогулка (The Outskirts of Thought. A Philosophical Stroll, something like that, perhaps?).

What to say? First, of course it’s supremely disappointing, yet again, that there weren’t many books written by women on the shortlist and that only one of six awards went to a woman. Then again, my second point is that this year’s shortlist was not the “lucky thirteen list” I’d hoped for when I wrote my post about the 2020 Big Book finalists back in June! The short version: not many of the books made positive impressions on me. Has the pandemic affected my reading this year? Of course it has. This year’s list, though, felt like a historical Big Book low, in terms of readability and literary quality. My top two books were Ksenia Buksha’s Churov and Churbanov (previous post), which I thoroughly enjoyed, and Elizarov’s Earth (previous post), which is a thought-provoking, carnivalistic novel about death. I appreciated Ch and Ch even more after some of the other books on the list for the simple reason that Buksha knows how to create a world. And knows when to stop writing. Elizarov is different in that he has not stopped writing – Earth is only book one of some sort of multi-tome something or other – but even though some scenes run too long, Elizarov certainly creates a world and certainly drew me in, made me curious, and made me want to keep reading. As I wrote before, the book has purpose.

Alas, I can’t say those things about many of the other books on this year’s long Big Book shortlist, though I’ll continue attempting to revisit a couple. I’m still hoping to find a way to break into Sofia Sinitskaya’s world and I thank Vasily Avchenko and Alexei Korovashko for Олег Куваев: повесть о нерегламентированном человеке (Oleg Kuvaev: Story of an Unregulated Person), my introduction to Kuvaev, whose Territory is now on the shelf. So Sinitskaya and Avchenko/Korovashko are two other pluses for this year.

In general, though, this year’s Big Book results left me sad, particularly since I’ve run across lots of social media evidence that other members of the Literary Academy, as well as non-jury observers, have similar feelings. I’ve seen the Ilichevsky win referred to with words including “catastrophe” and “scandalous,” though I’m not convinced it’s a debacle on the level of the 2010 Booker’s choice that popularized the word “афедрон” (RIP Russian Booker!). I’m usually the person who doesn’t fuss when my favorite books don’t win awards – for better or worse, juries and award administrators can do whatever the hell they want with jury awards – but I just can’t get this year’s ceremony, which I watched live on YouTube, out of my head.

It’s not just the eerie ambient music and Pushkin/quarantine graphic that looped during the start delay and, later, the tabulation delay. It’s not just that the tabulation delay was caused by (déjà vu!) a recount. Or that the votes were so very painfully close. (View the final tally here!) Or that Irina Barmetova, speaking about jurors’ ballots, said scores were lower this year, something she attributed to jurors taking greater care with their reading. Or that I did the exact opposite, still grading hard but using the full range of one to ten, awarding more high scores than usual given the large number of books on the list, the very obvious and very subjective differences in enjoyment and literary quality that I perceived and wanted to recognize, and the fact that ballot instructions specifically ask jurors not to give the same score too many times. Based on social media evidence, my guess is that I’m not the only juror who wasn’t thrilled with this year’s list.

I can say I felt grateful, almost relieved, when I clicked a link on a post from Natalya Lomykina, a Facebook Friend I’ve never met in real life. She wrote this piece for Russian Forbes. What she writes here doesn’t just tell me I’m far, far from alone in my surprise/shock/disbelieF about the results. Natalya’s article also addresses the literary quality of Earth, the shortcomings of the Ilichevsky book (which she calls многословный, wordy/verbose; I agree), Ilichevsky’s speech, and the possibility that Ilichevsky’s win says more about mathematics than literature. The math question is another reason I gave higher points to my favorite books this year: I’m one of dozens of jurors and wanted to give my top books all the help they could get. If you don’t read Russian but are interested in the Big Book and/or Russian contemporary literature in general, do run Natalya’s article through Google Translate: I tested and it generates a surprisingly readable English-language translation. Some of Natalya’s other Facebook Friends commented that it was brave of her to write the piece.

On some level, I’d love to keep things simple and say I don’t know why I can’t let this go. But I know exactly why I can’t let it go. It’s because I care about Russian contemporary fiction. I particularly care about books (of any genres and written in any languages) that are written well, that read well, and that keep all kinds of readers reading. And Big Book is, according to many Russian colleagues, the one Russian literary award that tends to raise awareness and sales for current Russian literature. Yes, I’m an outsider and no, Russian isn’t my first language, but I read enough contemporary Russian fiction to say that this year’s shortlist simply doesn’t feel representative of the creative range of current literary fiction that even I can observe, from a distance, acquiring books without the possibility of visiting a Russian bookshop and flipping through printed pages. (Caveat: I have a harder time assessing nonfiction.)

Since most awards (the National Bestseller is an obvious exception) don’t release nomination lists, it’s hard to say what award committees start with when they form longlists. I do know, though, that there are at least two books on this year’s Big Book longlist – Inga Kuznetsova’s weird, utopian Intervals (previous post) and Alexander Stesin’s New York Rounds, which I read (present tense) bits of some nights and appreciate for its concise characterizations and generous doses of humanity – that I’ve enjoyed far more than many, even most, of the 2020 shortlisters. Kuznetsova and Stesin surprised me in positive ways. They made me think but they didn’t constantly force me to slog through paragraphs, even pages, of superfluous material that could/should have been edited. They balance content and formal devices, too, but what’s particularly interesting is that these two books feel utterly, utterly personal but also utterly, utterly universal and (repeating a key word!) human as they appeal to readers’ emotions and sense of wonder. As I’ve been writing, I’ve realized that if I had to choose one phrase to express what went wrong for me when attempting this year’s finalists, it’s that the majority of this year’s finalists failed to generate a sense of wonder (there’s my phrase!) because they felt too predictable, wooden, and/or contrived to touch me emotionally and/or intellectually. That’s what I want from literature. Creative use of form and content to generate wonder, emotional reactions, and thought. Your wonder may not be quite the same as mine but there are many books, such as Kibirov’s, where I can recognize successful elements and understand (or at least imagine) someone else’s wonder even if I don’t share it.

Well, that was cathartic! I think I feel like I can let this go now, particularly since I realize that I’m right back where I started: reading as broad a range of books as possible, many of them written by women, to find books with enough heart, soul, structure, and smarts to keep me reading.

Up Next: Evgeny Vodolazkin’s latest novel, about residents of an island, did not disappoint. I’m now reading Guzel Yakhina’s new historical novel, Special Train to Samarkand, which will apparently be published next year. Plus Marina and Sergey Dyachenko’s mysterious Vita Nostra. I’m enjoying both! I’ll also be posting soon about this year’s list of new translations.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual. And acquaintance/involvement with certain books and/or authors mentioned in this post, including Earth.