Sunday, November 29, 2015
Now that my Big Book Award ballot has been scanned and sent in for counting, it’s time for a Big Book Award blog post. Jury prize winners will be announced on December 10; I think reader voting results are usually announced a little earlier. A reminder: you can vote (or check current reader voting) online with either Bookmate, ReadRate, or ЛитРес.
There were nine Big Book finalists this year, and my ratings fall, all too easily, into three categories. This year’s finalists were so weak for my taste that I didn’t finish many: active avoidance of reading is a sure sign to move on. I should mention: Big Book sent me books in electronic form, which is how I did most of my reading. Please see my “2015 Big Book Award Finalists” post for links and Russian titles.
The Top Three. My favorite book of the nine is Guzel Yakhina’s Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes (previous post), a book that strikes me as “big” in lots of ways because Yakhina is so successful in writing a wonderfully readable (debut!) historical novel about a kulak woman who’s exiled. Zuleikha has already won the 2015 Prose of the Year and Yasnaya Polyana awards but, given this year’s Big Book field, I have to think she’ll win something at Big Book, too, even if it’s not a first prize. (She’s leading very handily in reader votes on all three sites.) My second-place book is Valerii Zalotukha’s The Candle. The Candle is so long—around 1,850 pages of small print in two volumes—that I haven’t yet finished it but have no qualms about that, in terms of voting. On the one hand, I’d have placed it a touch lower than Zuleikha anyway, due to occasional wordiness, particularly in the stream-of-consciousness passages. On the other hand, the first 500-600 pages were so enjoyable and interesting that the book could implode totally and I wouldn’t lower its rating: I’ve already read the equivalent of a typical medium-to-long novel! How could I go wrong with a novel set in Moscow in the nineties? With a main character who loves War and Peace? Beyond that, Zalotukha has a great sense of humor and really brings back the feel of the era. I bought a hard copy of The Candle last week and am looking forward to finishing it. It may take some time because there’s just so much book and it’s been especially fun to read it in chunks. It’s the rare book I don’t want to finish too fast. My third-place book is Anna Matveeva’s Nine from the Nineties, a short story collection that I thought was very decent… until I got to the final piece, a novella. Like Zalotukha, Matveeva examines the nineties, primarily in her native Urals, but I thought the book faltered when she brought one of her characters to Paris for the novella. That said, Matveeva does beautifully with topics like class differences, leaving Russia, crime, inflation (there’s even a gym bag/wallet), and school situations, and her characterizations are good, too. Her stories are tidy and I finished all but one, probably a personal record.
The Muddle in the Middle. The three middle books are a real mixed bunch. I finished, grudgingly, Boris Ekimov’s Autumn in Zadon’e: it’s relatively short and I have to give Ekimov credit, again grudgingly, for giving the book a measure of narrative drive. That said, I thought this short novel about a family of Cossack descent that goes back to its roots and wide open spaces by the Don River was most notable for remaking village prose in an odd way, featuring an annoyingly precocious child and overlaying patriotism with xenophobic tinges on the story. It felt uncomfortable in all the wrong ways. And then there’s Roman Senchin’s Flood Zone, another book about rural life, or, really, the death of rural life, since the book’s about a village that’s evacuated for a dam. I’ve liked several of Senchin’s books very much but Flood Zone felt horribly flat and predictable to me—bureaucrats against villagers, thin-walled apartments against wood-heated houses, etc.—all with the dam looming in the background. I read more than two-thirds of the book before I just couldn’t go on. Then comes Aleksei Varlamov’s The Imagined Wolf, which is set in the Silver Age but felt flat, too, though Varlamov’s writing is far denser than Senchin’s, resulting in an effect that a friend calls поток слов, which for my purposes, was more a flood (apologies to Senchin) of words than just a flow. I read and read and read (150 pages or more) but always came away wondering what I’d read, despite the fact that everything seemed to make sense to me. Even reading this one on paper didn’t help, which was disappointing because the metaphor of the imagined wolf and the fear that accompanies it sound so intriguing.
The Laggards. My favorite of the bottom three is Igor Virabov’s Andrei Voznesensky, which I enjoyed at times, though primarily for inserted documentary material (dialogue between Voznesensky and Khrushchev was a highlight) or passages more about Pasternak than Voznesensky. Certain things, like descriptions of Peredelkino, where I saw Voznesensky once or twice at annual events marking Pasternak’s death, made the book feel familiar, which probably helped, too, and Virabov does make the book lively. Sometimes so lively that it feels excessively, even embarrassingly, gossipy and kitschy, almost like a dishy 700-page blog post. I read, sometimes skimming, 250 crammed pages. I did learn from it and may scavenge for more interesting material. Next is Dina Rubina’s trilogy, Russian Canary: I read more than 200 pages of the first volume (a Russian friend called me a hero for that) before I succumbed to TMI syndrome—for excessive detail, floweriness, and Rubina’s attempt to shoehorn too many genres into one book—and had to set it aside. I don’t mean to sound snarky particularly since I have to admit I understand why Rubina’s chatty, friendly tone makes this family saga with pet canaries, Odessa, and adventure so popular with many readers. It just isn’t my book at all. Finally, we have Viktor Pelevin’s Love for Three Zuckerbrins, which did me in at about 50 pages. I’ve never been a Pelevin fan—though I’m still hoping to find something I can truly enjoy—but the best thing I can say for this one is that it forced me to take Pushkin off the shelf, for his “Пророк” (“The Prophet”). As usual with Pelevin, there’s something going on in the book about the nature of reality and I have electronic margin comments like “god as jokester” but, as I mentioned to another friend, reading Pelevin reminds me of late nights in college when everybody’s imbibed in too much of something: conversations about philosophy and are-we-real-or-are-we-imaging-this feel brilliant at the time but all you’re left with in the morning is a hangover and the sense that you talked about something really cool. Oh well!
Disclaimers. I’m a member of the Big Book jury, the Literary Academy, and received electronic versions of all the finalist books. Thank you to Big Book for the books and for inviting me to serve on the Literary Academy! I’ve translated excerpts of Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes for Elkost International Literary Agency.
Up Next. Russian Booker winners and Big Book winners. Sergei Nosov’s Curly Brackets, which was a decent travel companion but rather disappointing for a NatsBest winner. A trip report about the ALTA conference, which was tons of fun, as usual; a trip report about Read Russia’s Russian Literature Week, where, among other things, I’ll be speaking with Eugene Vodolazkin at a Bridge Series event at BookCourt in Brooklyn and moderating a Russian-language roundtable at the Brooklyn Public Library with Vodolazkin, Vladimir Sharov, and Dmitry Petrov. A full RLW schedule is online here. Please come if you’ll be in New York during the week of December 7!