Saturday, June 2, 2018

2018’s Big Book Finalists: Eight Books Sized Up for Summer Reading

The Big Book Award announced its eight-book shortlist back on Wednesday and I still haven’t quite figured out what I think of it other than that I’m grateful not to see any megabiographies. On the one hand, I’m glad that there are two women on the list after last year’s list included zero. On the other hand, I’d have loved to have seen a few more unfamiliar names—and more women—on the list. On some happy third hand that I often wish I had, I thank the committee for naming a shortlist that’s close to genuinely short and is (blogger bonus!) composed of fairly translatable titles.

Here’s the list, in Russian alphabetical order by author surname:

Alexander Arkhangel’sky’s Бюро проверки (Verification Bureau or something of the sort) is set in 1980 Moscow (think: Olympics) and depicts how the main character is “tested” for stability (think: Cold War). Recommended by a friend. Easily beachable at 416 pages with a mass of 384 grams.

Dmitry Bykov’s Июнь (June) is set during 1939-1941 and brings together three characters and their stories (which apparently cover three genres) making the book sound relatively economical at 512 pages and 572 grams. Recommended by a different friend.

Alexei Vinokurov’s Люди черного дракона (People of the Black Dragon) is set along the Amur River (apparently known in Chinese as Black Dragon) around the time of the 1917 revolution. I’d never heard of Vinokurov so this is a mystery book for me. It’s also very nimble at 288 pages with a mass of 366 grams.

Yevgeny Grishkovets’s Театр отчаяния. Отчаянный театр (Theater of Despair. Desperate Theater, I guess) is labeled as a “memoiristic novel.” The book came out very recently and the descriptions are brief, though the book itself is anything but brief at 912 pages. And at 1320 grams (including packaging) it’s certainly not light reading.

Oleg Yermakov’s Радуга и Вереск (Rainbow and Heather, though is this literal?…) is big, too, at 736 pages (massing out at relatively compact 564 grams) and it sounds like it also blends multiple stories, one set in the seventeenth century, the other in 2015. Lots of friends have recommended Yermakov to me over the years so I’m eager to try this one.

Olga Slavnikova’s Прыжок в длину (Long Jump) concerns a young athlete who loses his lower extremities when he leaps to save a boy from being hit by a car. Though interesting for its portrayal of the long-term aftermath of the accident (the characters aren’t especially sympathetic and there’s a lot of social commentary), I felt bogged down by metaphors and similes around page 150 and put the book on hold. At 512 pages and 460 grams, though, it’s relatively manageable compared to some of these other finalists, plus I am pretty curious about what happens. Also recommended by friends.

Maria Stepanova’s Памяти памяти (I’ll call it In Memory of Memory, as this LARB interview does) is probably the book I’ve heard the most about, meaning that it also comes recommended, as a book about cultural history, family history, and, yes, memory. This sounds like such a thoughtful book that it feels thoroughly uncouth to give its bare statistics: 408 pages, 546 grams.

Andrei Filimonov’s Рецепты сотворения мира (Recipes for the Creation of the World) is so nicely summarized in Galina Yuzefovich’s review for Meduza, translated by Hilah Kohen, that I’ll leave the description to them. I will add, though, that the book’s cover says “От Парижа до Сибири через весь ХХ век” (“From Paris to Siberia, through the entire twentieth century”), putting me in awe of Filimonov for limiting himself to a very efficient 320 pages that mass in at 375 grams.

Yes, this polleny past week made me a little silly…

Disclaimers and Disclosures: Not much other than the usual and that the Slavnikova book was given to me by the organizers of the Russia stand at the Frankfurt Book Fair, thank you!

Up Next: More from the heavy “write about” shelf: a short story roundup, Sergei Kuznetsov’s Teacher Dymov, Janet Fitch’s The Revolution of Marina M. (I’m already waiting for the sequel!), and Vladimir Sharov’s The Rehearsals in Oliver Ready’s translation. And then there’s a Vladimir Makanin novella… and whatever I start tonight.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Salnikov and His Petrovs Win NatsBest

Aleksei Salnikov’s Петровы в гриппе и вокруг него won the National Bestseller Award today; I called the book The Petrovs in Various States of the Flu when it won the literary critic panel’s NOS(E) award earlier this year. The Petrovs took three NatsBest juror votes, Dmitrii Petrovsky’s Дорогая, я дома (I’m Home, Dear or maybe even Honey, I’m Home) got two, and Maria Labych’s Сука (Bitch) had one. You can watch the NatsBest ceremony on YouTube, here.

Although I reported feeling a bit underwhelmed when I read a large chunk of The Petrovs last year in electronic form, I’m very much looking forward to trying it again in print. I liked the tone and feel of the book, but it just didn’t seem right to read without paper. Among other things, I want very much to try to figure out how to hear the novel’s title.

Edits:
-Salnikov’s literary agency apparently hasn’t decided on a title yet, either.
-For more on the award and ceremony, see this article in Kommersant by Mikhail Trofimenkov.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual, for having translated NatsBest secretary Vadim Levental’s Masha Regina.

Up Next: More from the heavy “write about” shelf: 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!), and Vladimir Sharov’s The Rehearsals in Oliver Ready’s translation. Among others. Plus, in very short order, the Big Book Short list.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Literature in Translation: Khvoshchinskaya’s City Folk and Country Folk

Sofia Khvoshchinskaya’s Городские и деревенские, known in Nora Seligman Favorov’s pleasantly readable English translation as City Folk and Country Folk, is the sort of book that makes me just want to tell you to read the book because it’s a fun, smart nineteenth-century novel. I’m feeling especially minimalist about this post because the description and blurbs on the back of the Russian Library’s edition (check them out on Amazon) of Favorov’s translation cover the essence of the book so well that I’d love to just copy and paste them in here. I can certainly agree with the summarizer that City Folk and Country Folk truly is “a seemingly gentle yet devastating satire of Russia’s aristocratic and pseudo-intellectual elites in the 1860s.”

City Folk and Country Folk particularly struck me as an entertaining comedy of manners—and manors—by detailing the day-to-day trials and tribulations of Nastasya Ivanovna Chulkova, “a fifty-five-year-old widow and the mistress of fifty souls” who lives in a place called Snetki with her teenage daughter Olenka and two houseguests: a neighbor named Erast Sergeyevich Ovcharov, a writer and big traveler who’s rejected staying at his own estate thanks to his heightened appreciation of cleanliness; and Nastasya Ivanovna’s rather difficult second cousin, Anna Ilinishna Bobova. Although Ovcharov settles in the bathhouse, moving in with plenty of worldly goods, the novel could almost be called The Hazards of Houseguests.

And of course it could! Khvoshchinskaya piles on (in rational portions, of course) history, awkwardness, and wonderfully standard plot turns—there’s the recent emancipation of the serfs, Olenka’s marriageable age, talk of “little people” and class and places in society, Erast Sergeyich’s preferences for fresh whey and social commentary, Anna Ilinishna shutting herself in her room, and a pushy neighbor—to good effect, ensuring that both hilarity and insights will ensue. Exactly what I’d hope for from a comedy of manners and manors that contrasts urban and rural ways. I think what I enjoyed so much about City Folk and Country Folk is its brand of ordinariness, something Hilde Hoogenboom mentions in her very helpful introduction to the novel, albeit taking a more specific angle by describing Nastasya and Olenka as “unusual Russian heroines in that they are emphatically not extraordinary.” (Hoogenboom references Barbara Heldt’s Terrible Perfection: Women and Russian Literature…)

In some senses, the very circumstances of the phenomenon of the novel—that Khvoshchinskaya wrote the novel under the pseudonym Ivan Vesenyev and was one of three writing sisters—seem almost more remarkable than the novel itself. But then, well, the fictional women really do, as they say, kick butt in City Folk and Country Folk, something that lends them automatic “extraordinary” status, given their setting. Olenka makes decisions for herself and almost literally runs circles around the pathetic suitor the pushy neighbor’s trying to set her up with and, as Hoogenboom notes, Nastasya’s a far better estate manager than the hapless Erast. There’s also a scene Hoogenboom rightfully calls “extraordinary,” when Nastasya treats her serfs “humanely” during conflict, choosing reason. That felt so natural to Nastasya’s character that I nearly missed it in all its extraordinariness. This, I think, is exactly what fiction should do, particularly when the writer (and the translator, too, in this case) make the feat look easy. I love this sort of extraordinary ordinariness, both in Russian fiction and in English translation.

Nora Seligman Favorov translates all this extraordinary ordinariness very nicely, so the book reads smoothly, from its preserved and footnoted French phrases to its feel for country life. She’s right that the novel offers lots of opportunities for “both scholarly investigation and pure reading pleasure” and, based on the result of all her work (as well as hints in her acknowledgements), it’s clear that she went to great lengths to ensure the text reflects the meaning and spirit of the Russian rather than (this is especially admirable!) making the novel feel like an academic exercise. I certainly enjoyed reading City Folk and Country Folk for fun but I’d also love to take a closer look at Khvoshchinskaya’s other writings as well as the fictional Erast Sergeyich’s essays, to see the novel a little better within its broader historical context. And, of course, to gain a more nuanced feel for the book’s humor.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: I received a review copy of City Folk and Country Folk from the Russian Library imprint of Columbia University Press, thank you! I am also working on a translation for the Russian Library.

Up Next: More from the heavy “write about” shelf: 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!), and Vladimir Sharov’s The Rehearsals in Oliver Ready’s translation, among others. Plus, in very short order, the NatsBest winner and the Big Book Short list.

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…