Sunday, February 9, 2014

Reading and Sochi: May the Games Begin!

A reader sent me a note last week asking for book recommendations to complement the Olympics: he specifically asked for thoughts on books translated into English, preferably about the Caucasus. Here are some thoughts, most of which are fiction… with a few other items thrown in for fun. I’m sure I’ve missed plenty so will look forward to comments with other ideas. Alas, the closest I’ve ever been to Sochi is Krasnodar, where I spent a couple days in the nineties. When my co-worker and I left the Krasnodar airport we were accosted by taxi drivers wanting to take us to Sochi. Very tempting, since we were going to a seminar on agriculture.

Classics in the Caucasus: My first thought for the list was Mikhail Lermontov’s Hero of Our Time, which I’ve loved each time I’ve read it (previous post) over the past 25 years or so. It’s wonderfully old but modern, plus the title is much played-upon in contemporary Russian fiction. Then there’s Lev Tolstoy, who wrote lots of fiction involving the Caucasus. One of the three books Andrew D. Kaufman mentions in an Olympics-related piece for NPR is Tolstoy’s short novel Hadji Murat, a good choice with a setting in Chechnya, though it’s never been a favorite of mine. For a Caucasian theme, I’m more partial to The Cossacks, though admit I’ve only read it once or twice, in translation, many years ago. For something shorter, there’s “Prisoner of the Caucasus,” which was adapted into a film in the 1990s, Sergei Bodrov’s Prisoner of the Mountains, with a change in temporal setting. I’ve enjoyed the story and the movie several times. Other classics include Alexander Pushkin’s poem “Prisoner of the Caucasus.” If prose is more your thing, there’s A Journey to Arzrum, which is often described as a “travel narrative.” If neither of those appeals, the stories in The Belkin Tales are all-time favorites (previous post). Everybody should read Pushkin!

Contemporary Fiction: My first thought among contemporary writers was Alisa Ganieva, who’s from Dagestan: her Salam, Dalgat! is a thoroughly enjoyable novella that won the Debut Prize for long prose (previous post). Salam, Dalgat! (translated by Nicholas Allen) appears in the Squaring the Circle anthology, which also includes two stories by Arslan Khasanov (tr. by Ben Hooson), a writer from Chechnya. Ganieva’s short story “Shaitans” is in the Read Russia! anthology (tr. Marian Schwartz), which also includes “Chechnya, to Chechnya,” a chapter from Sergei Shargunov’s A Book Without Photographs (previous post) (tr. John Narins) and “The Day When You Phone the Dead,” by German Sadulaev, (tr. Anna Gunin). Shargunov’s book is now available in English translation from Glagoslav (tr. Simon Patterson), though most of the book focuses on Moscow. Two books by Sadulaev are also available in translation: I Am a Chechen! (tr. Anna Gunin) and The Maya Pill (tr. Carol Apollonio), though the latter doesn’t sound like it’s about the Caucasus, at least not any real place. Last but not least: I’ve only read assorted stories by Fazil Iskander—most about a boy known as Chik—but I recommend him very highly (previous post). Lots of readers have recommended Iskander’s Sandro of Chegem stories; I have a big, thick fat book of them on the shelf, just waiting for a dreary day when nothing else feels right.

And then…: I can’t resist adding Valentin Kataev’s Time, Forward!, a socialist realist novel I read and enjoyed before I started the blog: even if the record to be broken is for concrete production rather than, say, skiing, this is, as the title indicates, a decent novel about speed. I read Time, Forward! in preparation for leading a workshop on Soviet-era fiction and wrote this in my notes: Most interesting here is the way that characters talk about concrete production like some people today talk about Johnny Depp: constantly and passionately. I didn’t love this book but I did find it oddly compelling. Recommended but not at high cost… Finally, this list wouldn’t be complete without a cookbook or two: Darra Goldstein’s The Georgian Feast has lots of good recipes, including chakhokhbili (chicken with herbs) and basturma (marinated grilled meats). If you want to cheat, I’ve found that adding a little khmeli suneli herb and spice mix will make just about any meat, even a hamburger, taste almost Georgian. (I buy it prepackaged from a local Russian store but there’s a recipe on Wikipedia, here.) And then there’s Please to the Table, by Anya von Bremzen and John Welchman: I’ve used so many recipes from this book that I couldn’t possibly list them all. Big favorites, though, include the Georgian pkhali sauce (served over fried eggplant), green beans with ground lamb, plov (albeit with adaptations), and croquettes Pozharsky.

Disclaimers: The usual.


  1. Thanks for this venture into geography-based posting. Did you also happen to see this?

    1. And thank you for your comment with the link, Alex! I'd been meaning to add it yesterday when I saw the article. Phoebe included some other good suggestions.