Sunday, August 30, 2015

Munching on Abgaryan’s Three Apples

Narine Abgaryan’s С неба упали три яблока (Three Apples Fell from the Sky) was a perfect summer surprise: Abgaryan’s literary agency sent me the book, which quickly won me over with gentle humor, sadness and happiness surrounding births and deaths, and a remote setting in Maran, a village of (mostly!) elderly people in the Armenian mountains. Three Apples is both magical—with mentions of dreams and even a bolded reference to Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude—and a bit gritty, thanks to accounts of day-to-day and historical hardships. Beyond all that, any book where characters live right over an abyss gets my attention.

Three Apples begins as Sevoyants Anatolia (we go last name first here) settles in to die a little after noon on a Friday; she’s bleeding heavily. Though Anatolia is so prepared to die that she’s readied clothes, she soon agrees to marry Vasily, a widower and blacksmith who brings her a new scythe, proposes marriage, and quickly moves in. This is all unexpected for Anatolia, a childless widow and former librarian who shelved books by color and loves French and Russian literature, with the notable exception of Tolstoy, whose Anna Karenina thoroughly disgusted her.

Abgaryan tells of the village’s residents through stories of famine—one little boy foresees deaths and the village later receives supplies, including a white peacock that ends up living right at that abyss—and of the plagues of flocks of rats, mice, and flies. The peacock, the dreams, the humor of yeast (much dissed in Maran after having being received from the outside world) thrown into the outhouse (never, ever throw yeast away like that!), and the magical happening that comes toward the end of the book are all wonderful in multiple senses of that word, both for comic relief and because, well, life is magical… but the everyday side of life’s magic, something that sounds pretty cheesy when described in those terms, works simply and beautifully in the book, and appealed to me even more.

I loved, for example, Anatolia and Vasily’s quiet lunch with their neighbors, where there’s little talk beyond asking for salt and clinking of cutlery: “Анатолия впервые ощутила жизнь не как данность, а как дар.” (“For the first time, Anatolia sensed/appreciated life not as a given but as a gift.”) And I loved that a young visitor (an in-law) to the family that lives by the abyss feels “размеренность бытия” (literally a measuredness of existence, a slow sort of rhythm or regularity to things) that comes to her from the nearby forest and the people. Passages like these sum up the book’s charm, particularly when life is busy for the reader: the measured routine of life in Maran, where, hmm, there doesn’t seem to be any Internet, and the quiet company of friends are what hold people together.

On the last page of the novel, there’s a mention of circles of life that resemble ripples from rain drops, where “…every event is a reflection of what came before…” I ripped that from the middle of very, very long sentence that ends with three apples waiting to be dropped to earth from the heavens, as is traditional at the end of Armenian fairytales: “одно тому, кто видел, другое тому, кто рассказал, а третье тому, кто слушал и верил в добро”—“one for the person who saw, another for the person who told the story, and the third for the person who listened and believed in what is good.” It’s a fitting end to a book with so much that is good—both universal and specific to Maran—that’s worth believing in.

Disclosures: The usual. Thank you to Banke, Goumen & Smirnova Literary Agency for the book! I’ve heard a lot about Abgaryan’s “Manyuna” books for young adults and was glad to be introduced to her writing through Apples.

Up Next: Guzel’ Iakhina’s Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes, which I also enjoyed tremendously. Zuleikha is the first of the Big Book finalists that I’ll write about; I’ll also write a summary post about three Big Book finalists I just can’t bring myself to finish (!). And then another of Abgaryan’s books, People Who Are Always With Me, which is also very good, and a fifth Big Book finalist, Boris Ekimov’s Autumn in Zadon’e.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

A Lazy Summer Post: Elena Minkina-Taycher’s The Rebinder Effect

I didn’t expect to take such a long break from blogging during (and even after) my last month of translating Vadim Levental’s Masha Regina (previous post), which I turned in at the end of July to Oneworld Publications. Masha Regina, though, wormed its/her way even further into my head than I’d expected (a very good thing), brain fatigue set in (not such a good thing), and one evening a bat even settled, albeit very temporarily, in a flower pot on top of the office module of Lizok’s Bookshelf (not a good thing at all). Sometimes taking naps, feeding cats (not always as easy as it sounds), pulling weeds, and staring into space is about all I can handle during my time off. I did keep reading—slower than usual—but feel like a happier person now that I’m back to my usual pace. And back to blogging. At least until I finish the next book, Eugene Vodolazkin’s Solovyov and Larionov, which is due, also to Oneworld, at the end of February 2016.

When I was reading Elena Minkina-Taycher’s Эффект Ребиндера (The Rebinder Effect) earlier this summer, I often found myself describing the reading as “pleasant”: the book reads smoothly and easily, which is just the thing for busy times, and it left me with a peculiarly homier, fuzzier, and vaguer impression than most books. Rebinder is a novel told in episodic chapters, each of which is titled by a line from Pushkin’s poetry. Minkina-Taycher’s literary agency is not, of course, wrong in using the term “family saga” to describe the book, though it covers multiple, intertwining families whose members include a doctor, a musician, scientists, well-to-do people, a boy from an orphanage, and people with ties to far-away France. (The agency’s description also nicely summarizes the Rebinder Effect; a big thank you to them for taking care of that!) In some senses, The Rebinder Effect feels more like a saga of the entire human family than a saga of one family with a common name. I suppose that’s probably why it left me with that slightly fuzzy, vague sense.

I’ll ‘fess up: books with lots of characters often create problems for me because I have trouble keeping track of who’s who, but that mattered less than usual with Rebinder. I didn’t always remember each figure by name, even when I was reading, but everybody felt clear enough at the time, based on context. The book’s strong sense of family—in that sense of “humanity” or “mankind”—felt more important anyway, even as Minkina-Taycher’s characters were affected by historical events including dekulakization, the doctors’ plot, and the Chernobyl nuclear plant accident. Despite important historical events, it always felt that what mattered most were personal relationships and histories, and doing normal human things like dancing a crazed twist, discussing opinions of poets in the sixties, and taking camping trips. Characters love, characters live, characters die. And they’re resilient, as per the Effect.

I think Rebinder has its strongest effect in its first half, where the tones feel almost like sepia and the real-life past has had a chance to settle into history. (Or should that be vice versa?) In earlier chapters, characters love, live, and die as, for example, residents of communal living spaces, as classmates at school after one girl’s mother is targeted by the state, and as people caring for one another during difficult times. Those chapters felt more self-assured to me than some later chapters: it seemed as if the balance between historical events and characters shifted a little and Minkina-Taycher’s hand grew heavier. The Chernobyl chapter, for example, felt particularly contrived because a character happened to be nearby when the accident began; the outcome was obvious. Despite those misgivings, The Rebinder Effect is very decent mainstream fiction—something I don’t write to damn with faint praise—that makes for good, personable, low-key company thanks to Minkina-Taycher’s focus on characters primarily as people. People who need to be people.

Since there’s been previous discussion of electronic reading on the blog, I’ll also note that I read The Rebinder Effect on a new device. First off, my demands for a device on which to read. Since I seem to do best reading electronically when I have a PDF that shows a book’s layout, I wanted a reader with a screen large enough to display an entire PDF page. This creates the illusion (*sigh*) that I’m reading an old-fashioned book printed on paper. I wanted a reader with a matte screen. I wanted a reader that didn’t cost much. Okay, I wanted it to be very, very cheap. I wanted a reader that wouldn’t be cumbersome to hold or carry. I wanted a reader that wouldn’t advertise anything. My dream reader might well be the PocketBook InkPad, which gets fantastic reviews but is expensive and not readily available in the US. After a lot of Internet research and some spins around local stores with very limited options, imagine my surprise when I ended up with something that’s super-cheap and readily available, but gets not-so-great reviews: a Nextbook Ares 8 tablet from Walmart! So far, after more than two months of solid reading on the Ares 8, I’m very happy with it after slapping on a nonglare screen protector. The Ares 8 is the perfect size, pretty much the same as a typical book page, and it’s easy to hold, too. Equally important: I found a PDF app, also rather obscure, that works very well for my needs. Xodo SmartQ crops PDFs easily, turns pages nicely, and offers good annotation features. Not all PDF apps generate lists of annotations but XodoSmartQ’s lists are always accessible. (Foxit, my second-favorite PDF reader, only generates lists on demand, which is ridiculously cumbersome.) I don’t think I’d recommend the Ares 8 for much other than unusual uses like mine: it’s an easy-to-use Android device and seems sturdier than average, but Internet searches are pretty slow in either Chrome or Firefox. Finally, for the record, despite being happy with the Nextbook—and enjoying electronic reading more than I ever have—I’d still much, much rather read books on paper than electronic files.

Up next: Narine Abgaryan’s Three Apples Fell From the Sky and Guzel’ Iakhina’s Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes, both of which I enjoyed tremendously. Zuleikha is the first of the Big Book finalists that I’ll write about; Roman Senchin’s Flood Zone, which I’m reading now and seems only so-so after about 100 pages, will be the second.

Disclaimers: The usual. I received an electronic copy of The Rebinder Effect from Banke, Goumen & Smirnova Literary Agency. Thank you!

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Food Fetishists in (Post-)Perestroika Petersburg: Nosov’s Member of the Society

Sergei Nosov’s Член общества, или Голодное время (literally something like A Member of the Society, or a Hungry Time) begins with a loaded action: our faithful first-person narrator, Oleg Zhiltsov, sells his Collected Works of F.M. Dostoevsky (thirty volumes, thirty-three books) after reading the whole damn set in three days and three nights. Yes, he’d been taking speed-reading courses in (ahem!) the spring of 1991, and all that Dostoevsky was a final project of sorts, though Oleg says he would have lost his mind had he read more. After finishing, he sleeps. Then he drinks. And a month or so later he sells the books.

Selling the Dostoevsky may pay a creditor, but a failed sale at the bookstore also proves fateful for Oleg: the unsold book is a vegetarian cookbook, Я никого не ем (literally, I Don’t Eat Anyone), that a stranger on a trolleybus (the number eight) notices. Fascinated by a stamp on the title page, he asks to borrow it. It turns out the man, one Dolmat Fomich Lunocharov, from a booklover society, says he’s into sphragistics (also known as sigillography), which, in his terms, means he loves looking at stamps in the margins of books.

Clearly, things are building here thanks to a combination of, among other things, Dostoevsky, 1991 (the year of the GKChP and, later, the dissolution of the USSR), food in a time of shortages, books, meeting a strange stranger on public transportation, marginalia (both social and bookish), and a Petersburg setting. There are even mentions of Anatolii Sobchak, whom I once took for a (brief) walk around Freeport, Maine. Perhaps what’s most important, though, is that Nosov writes like he’s in his element because he is in his element: he says in this interview that he lived much of his life near Sennaya Square, a place that both Dostoevsky and his characters often passed through and that appears in A Member of the Society. In that same interview, Nosov also notes that Oleg’s problems begin when he sells his Dostoevsky, books Nosov refers to as Oleg’s “наследие/nasledie.” (The Oxford Russian dictionary offers “heritage” and “legacy,” and I might add that there are lots of related words, too, like наследство/nasledstvo, which is “inheritance.)

Oleg may have sold his nasledie during a transitional time but Nosov sure works all his personal and literary nasledia well, incorporating housing on Sennaya Square, thoughts of axe murder, writing careers, and lots of taboos, including one that sure seems to show that pretty much everything really is permitted. Along the way, there are lots more fun, often peculiar, details: lavish dinner parties though many foods are only available by ration coupons, Oleg’s food columns, with recipes, for a publication that doesn’t really seem to exist though it does pay, a politician named Skotorezov (roots: livestock and slaughter), mention of a horrible pool player named Sergei Nosov, a secret passageway, and Oleg saying that something within him has sounded polyphonic ever since he turned in his Dostoevsky.

Lists are about all my melted, confused, and aching head can muster on this ninety-plus-degree day! I could compile many, many more of them but I’ll just conclude by saying that I found A Member of the Society a thoroughly entertaining novel with a linear plot, blend of genres (love story, a bit of picaresque, and the mystery of odd characters), Dostoevsky, and, for my taste, an ideal blend of nineties sadness and humor, something I know all too well. I’m looking forward to giving Nosov’s Curly Brackets, winner of this year’s NatsBest, a try, too.

Up Next: More books: Eugene Vodolazkin’s Solovyov and Larionov, which I’ll start translating soon, Elena Minkina-Taycher’s The Rebinder Effect, an episodic novel about several families, and the first book in my Big Book Award finalist marathon, Guzel’ Iakhina’s wonderful debut novel Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

New York Trip Report, Part Two, Belated: BookExpo America

It’s funny how each of my BookExpo America trips has its own feel: this year’s BEA left me with the sense of a stronger-than-ever community of translators and publishers of translations. This wasn’t because China was the market focus country this year and had a ginormous amount of space on the exhibition floor but because of conversations with translators and publishers in and around BEA. As usual, BEA hosted a series of market focus panel discussions about the business of translation, but this year also included announcements of the winners of the Best Translated Book Award as well as a succession of panels organized by the PEN American Center Translation Committee. I came away from all that convinced that recent start-up publishers—Two Lines Press, New Vessel Press, and DeepVellum Press among them—as well as lots of more established small-to-medium publishers—such as Europa Editions, Soho Press, Other Press, and Open LetterBooks—are winning lots of awards, getting reviewed, and (the big thing!) publishing books that they can sell because they know who their readers are. I could double the publisher list without even having to consult Google or my BEA lists but will just add that there’s also a bunch of several London-based publishers of varying sizes and ages—And Other Stories, Pushkin Press, and OneworldPublications, for example—that make me think this isn’t just a U.S.-based phenomenon. On to events and books!

Of course it’s ancient history now, but just for the record and just in case you missed it, the 2015 Best Translated Book Award winners are, for prose, Can Xue’s The Last Lover, translated from the Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen and published by Yale University Press, and, for poetry, Rocío Cerón’s Diorama, translated from the Spanish by Anna Rosenwong and published by Phoneme Media. Phoneme, by the way, is another pretty new press, and Diorama is their first book of poetry. For more on BTBA 2015.

I loved the PEN Translation Committee’s panels because they were brief and packed with information and tips. “Reaching the Reader: Publicizing International Literature,” with Juliet Grames, associate publisher at Soho Press, and Allison Markin Powell, a translator from the Japanese, looked at issues like the role of the translator, social media versus bookstores (summary: bookstores have it all over Twitter, thinks Grames) (okay, the italics are mine!), online reviewers with good credibility (I noted The CompleteReview, Words Without Borders, and Three Percent), and Google authenticity. Meaning: the panelists looked at online and offline aspects of publicity. “Baiting the Hook: How to Catch an Editor’s Interest” was just as good: among other things, translator Ezra Fitz reminded us that it’s okay to spoil plots when sending book synopses to an editor (why do I always forget this?!) and Corinna Barsan, an editor at Grove Atlantic, said bigger is better when it comes to sample translations, synopses, and, generally, the informational package you send to publishers. Nothing in either panel was a surprise but all the presenters touched on subjects we (or at least I) often need reminders about. I was rather late to Retranslating the Great Works of Literature: How and Why? so didn’t hear all that Robert Weil of Liveright & Co. and translators Tess Lewis and Burton Pike had to say.

Publishers offered picks at two translation “buzz” panels, too: Coach House served up Louis Carmain’s Guano, translated by Rhonda Mullins; Gray Wolf Press listed A Woman Loved, by Andreï Makine and translated by Geoffrey Strachan (this book involves a filmmaker obsessed with Catherine the Great); and Coffee House Press offered The Story of My Teeth, by Valeria Luiselli and translated by Christina MacSweeney. A special thriller and crime buzz panel dished up Soho Press’s recommendation of Fuminori Nakamura’s The Gun, translated by Allison Markin Powell, and Heda Margolius Kovály’s Innocence, translated by Alex Zucker; plus Europa Editions’ Gang of Lovers, written by Massimo Carlotto and translated by Antony Shugaar, and I Will Have Vengeance, written by Maurizio de Giovanni and translated by Anne Milano Appel.

What else? It was great to see translator and writer friend Aviya Kushner, whose The Grammar of God will be out this fall. After working with and quoting from various English and Russian translations of the Bible for my translation of Eugene Vodolazkin’s Laurus, I’m especially looking forward to Aviya’s book because it’s about the Bible, translation, and belief. For now, I always love recommending Aviya’s essay, “Kafka and the Habits of Highly Effective People,” a truly wonderful piece of writing… There aren’t a lot of Russian-English translations to add to the 2015 translation list, though I had no idea (or simply forgot?) the Theatre Communications Group publishes translations: Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard will be out this year in a translation by Robert Nelson, Richard Pevear, and Larissa Volokhonsky; that same trio translated Nikolai Gogol’s The Inspector, released last year. As for books I picked up… I already read and enjoyed The Man Who Spoke Snakish, a novel by Andrus Kivirähk and translated from the Estonian by Christopher Moseley (Grove Atlantic), which features a stylized version of medieval Estonia, a contemporary-sounding first-person narrator from the forest, cultural clashes between meat-eating forest-dwellers and bread-eating villagers, interspecies marriage, and a charming but vicious adder named Ints. (Truth be told, I especially loved the adders in this book.) I just started Heda Margolius Kovály’s Innocence, in Alex Zucker’s translation (Soho Press), which combines Kovály’s love of American noir (she was a translator, too) with Czech realities. The very first books I picked up at BEA this time around were Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, translated by Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions), and Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation, translated by John Cullen (Other Press). Maybe Camus will come off the shelf for a reread, too.

One other note: next year’s BEA will be in Chicago and the market focus will be Poland. Hmm. I’ve never been to a BEA outside New York but Poland, hmm.

And one truly final note. I didn’t go to many events that were part of the BEA market focus program but a Chinese and American poetry reading at the Bowery Poetry Club—beautifully moderated by translator Eleanor Goodman and with readings from Lan Lan, Zhao Lihong, Edwin Frank, Canaan Morse, and Peter Gizzi—was a perfect way to have no regrets whatsoever about spending a couple hours in a dark room on a beautiful sunny Saturday afternoon. Bonus since I’m so clueless about translations from languages other than Russian: learning about Paper Republic, a fantastic site about Chinese literature in translation.

Disclaimers: A million for all the books—thank you to the publishers!—and contacts, plus the usual.

Up Next: A bunch of books: Eugene Vodolazkin’s Solovyov and Larionov, which I’ll start translating this summer, meaning ever sooner, Sergei Nosov’s Член общества, или Голодное время (something like Member of the Society or A Time of Hunger), the sad-but-funny story of a man’s life after selling all his Dostoevsky, and Elena Minkina-Taycher’s The Rebinder Effect, an episodic novel about several families. And then my Big Book Award finalist marathon, which I began with Guzel’ Iakhina’s Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes, which I’m enjoying very, very much and will be finishing this weekend…

Sunday, June 14, 2015

New York Trip Report, Part One, Belated: Oliver Ready Wins 2015 Read Russia Prize

So much for timely trip reports about award ceremonies! That doesn’t mean I’m not still thrilled to say, more than two weeks later, that Oliver Ready received the 2015 Read Russia Prize for his translation of Vladimir Sharov’s До и во время, which Dedalus Books published with the title Before and During. I accepted the award for Oliver and am very excited for all involved: for Oliver, for Sharov, whom I met through Oliver, and for Dedalus Books.

Recognizing Oliver felt doubly appropriate because his Crime and Punishment translation was shortlisted for this year’s award, too. Given my interest in contemporary Russian literature, I’m especially happy Oliver won for the Sharov book—the decision came, by the way, through unanimous vote—both because I hope it draws attention to present-day writers and because I read and admired (previous post) Oliver’s translation.

Read Russia commended classics, too, by giving a special jury award to two new translations of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: Rosamund Bartlett’s translation was published by Oxford University Press and Marian Schwartz’s by Yale University Press. The jury’s statements on both awards are online here. I should note that this Read Russia Prize was for Russian-to-English translations only.

The Read Russia evening also included a talk from Gary Saul Morson, the man who taught me War and Peace twice: he spoke on the topic of “Because Everyone Needs a Little Russian Literature.” I’d wondered, in a previous post (about the Read Russia shortlist), if Dr. Morson took the title from a Read Russia bumper sticker. He did. My notes about his talk, alas, are even more inadequate than usual, most likely due to a combination of plain old tiredness after three days at BEA and excitement for Oliver.

I am happy to report, though, that, among other things, Dr. Morson quoted from a book by his pseudonym Alicia Chudo, noted the sense of moral urgency that Russian literature conveys, and spoke of literary characters as possible people, a formulation I like very much. Best of all, he read aloud, from translations: when I was a student, undergrad and grad, I didn’t understand why he read aloud to us, but have come to realize in recent years how much his readings helped me learn to hear the shadings of literary voices.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Alex Cigale gave me a copy of the spring/summer 2015 issue of Atlanta Review: Alex edited the issue and it includes four or five or six dozen translations of Russian poems. Alex pulled together a fantastic roster of fifty poets (Shamshad Abdullaev to Ivan Zhdanov, if taken in the Roman alphabet’s A to Z) and several dozen translators, many of whom I know and have heard read from and/or speak about their work. I’ve only read a small sliver of the issue—every time I open the journal, I get happily stuck on Alyssa Dinega Gillespie’s lush translation of a Polina Barskova poem that starts with “Sweetness of the sweetest slumber/Sweet is sweet is sweet is dream” because I love what Alyssa does with rhythm and rhyme—but I can’t wait to read more, poet by poet, translator by translator. Alex reminded me that readers can get tastes of the poems (as well as background) from the Atlanta Review Facebook group, where posts often include lots of links. If you’re looking for very short notes, there’s also Twitter!

Disclaimers: The usual, including work for Read Russia. Thank you to Alex Cigale for Atlanta Review.

Up Next: Trip report, Part Two, BookExpo America book fair and event report. And two books: Eugene Vodolazkin’s Solovyov and Larionov, which I’ll start translating this summer, meaning soon, and Sergei Nosov’s Член общества, или Голодное время (something like Member of the Society or A Time of Hunger), the sad-but-funny story of a man’s life after selling all his Dostoevsky. And then: I’m currently reading Elena Minkina-Taycher’s The Rebinder Effect, which I’m enjoying very much. Rebinder didn’t catch me on several previous tries so I’m glad I kept trying because I’m finding it very, very readable. After that, I’ll be starting my Big Book Award finalist marathon, beginning with Guzel’ Iakhina’s Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes, which I’ve already started…