Monday, December 31, 2007

Happy 2008! -- С новым годом!

If the Russian belief “as you greet the new year, so you will live it” proves true, I look forward to my 2008 reading after a so-so 2007. I met 2007 reading Vasilii Aksenov’s uneven Московская сага (Generations of Winter) trilogy, leading to a year of uneven, mostly post-Soviet, reading. I’m finishing a very satisfying Dovlatov kick as I see in 2008, so hope that’s a positive omen for next year’s reading!

Favorites for the year. Vladimir Makanin's short novels Лаз (Escape Hatch) and Долог наш путь (The Long Road Ahead). Sure they’re a little dreary, but they’re so good I bought them as a Christmas gift for my brother. (Previous entry)

Favorite post-Soviet book not by Makanin. Petr Aleshkovskii’s (Peter Aleskhovsky) Жизнеописание хорька (Skunk: A Life). I have no idea why the translator or publisher felt compelled to change the title character from ferret to skunk, but you have been warned! Aleshkovsii’s conglomeration of genres – notably life of saint with mysticism, crime, road novel, adventure, coming of age, fable – doesn’t always mesh, but there are lots of high points. My favorite episodes are set in the wilderness, where Ferret (instinctively, of course) fits with nature better than with people in his native town. Less a novel than a fictional biography. (Translation excerpt)

Biggest overall surprise. Somehow, I made only one dip back to the 19th century during 2007: Dostoevsky’s Insulted and Injured, which I was moved to read when I saw that a Moscow theater had adapted it into a musical.

Most unexpected reading. Arkadii Gaidar’s “Судьба барабанщика” (“The Fate of the Drummer”). I read about this story and its significance in a film journal and pulled it off my shelf… I’m not sure if this novella is available in English translation, but it’s an intriguing and entertaining combination of a “Home Alone”-type young adult adventure story with the author’s personal confessions. Gaidar is best known as a writer of children’s stories, but memories of his excessive actions during the Civil War always haunted him. Former Russian prime minister Yegor Gaidar is Arkadii Gaidar’s grandson.

Best unexpected book loan. Four volumes of Sergei Dovlatov. It’s been odd spending the holidays with Dovlatov’s dark humor, beginning with Компромисс (The Compromise) and moving on to Иностранка (A Foreign Woman). A Foreign Woman, a novel about the émigré community in New York, disappointed a little after Compromise, though I’m glad I read it. I think Dovlatov works best with linked stories: in Чемодан (The Suitcase) he tells of clothing he packed to bring to America, remembering how he acquired each item in the USSR. Previous entry on The Compromise.

Best book-length nonfiction. Orlando Figes’s The Whisperers by default since I rarely read book-length nonfiction. I’m reading a bit at a time, filling in the gaps of my knowledge of Stalin-era history. The book sometimes feels overfilled by stories from individual families – there are many – but the stories are also the book’s strength. Fortunately, Figes places these accounts in context, sometimes gently reminding the reader who’s who. The book has enough background to be an introduction to the era for general readers but plenty of details to satisfy people like me, whose knowledge of the time is quite good but not very methodical. I’m especially interested in the story of writer Konstantin Simonov, whose life Figes describes in detail. My biggest complaint about The Whisperers is pretty minor: the book is so physically heavy that it’s difficult to read!

2008 reading. Beyond finishing The Whisperers, I’ve already got a shelf full of books I can’t wait to read in 2008, including my Russian Reading Challenge books, Aleksandr Kuprin’s Duel, and a trilogy by Aleksei Tolstoi.

I wish everyone a very happy new year’s holiday and plenty of quiet time to read lots of good books in 2008! С новым годом!

Books on Amazon:

Makanin's Escape Hatch & the Long Road Ahead: Two Novellas

Aleshkovsky's Skunk A Life(Glas 15)

Figes's The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia


  1. I have Generations of Winter on my list for the Russian Reading Challenge after finally finding a copy in English (it'd been on my wishlist for years). Despite your not so raving words, I'm still looking forward to it.

    Another book I will read for the RRC is The Whisperers. I'm looking forward to that as well, in part for the same reason you like it: my knowledge of the Stalin-era is definitely more than average, but I'm interested in the personal stories.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Myrthe!

    "The Whisperers" seems to get better and better... perhaps because many of the families become familiar. It has really helped me to put a lot of stories -- fictional and from real people -- into context.

    As for "Generations of Winter," I think it could have been very good had Aksenov dispensed with some of the postmodern devices and created more full characters. On the plus side, he weaves in a ton of political and cultural history, which is what kept me reading the whole trilogy.

    I'll be interested to hear what you think of these books!

    Happy reading,