Sunday, November 20, 2016

Big Book 2016 Finalists: A Summary

This year’s Big Book Award finalists (previous post with the list is here) fit neatly into three categories: three books I praise highly, three books I enjoyed well enough to finish, and five books I couldn’t finish. Five in the “did not finish” category might sound high, but it’s not unusual for me to finish only about half the books I start; one of the reasons I don’t write more posts about books is that I abandon so many without finishing. Big Book winners will be announced on December 6. Here’s a brief summary of my reading:

Those I praise highly. It probably comes as no surprise that Evgenii Vodolazkin’s Авиатор (The Aviator) was my favorite in the bunch (previous post) and is a big favorite for the year, too. The Aviator looks at the nature of time, life, and Soviet history from an angle that I particularly like… but won’t reveal. Translating The Aviator is a treat for the emotions it raises, its simple elegance, and the multiple settings Vodolazkin manages to create. Alexei Ivanov’s Ненастье (Nenast’e) is a treat of an entirely different sort (previous post, which discusses the title) and not just because I’m not translating it: this social novel about Afghan War veterans is suspenseful, dark, and painful, a well-plotted novel about all kinds of relationships. It’s very good and I’ve been pleased to see it garner so much praise among readers. I’m still reading away on Leonid Yuzefovich’s Зимняя дорога, (The Winter Road), one of the most enjoyable works of nonfiction I’ve read in a long time, with Civil War figures and wonderful details about people, places, and politics.

Those I enjoyed well enough to finish. Maria Galina’s Автохтоны (part one/part two) (Autochthons) still mystifies me more than a bit since I’m still not exactly sure what happens (previous post) but Galina’s dark-but-cozy combination of tasty meals, cultural history, and a small city setting on the edge of Europe—not to mention humor and the possibility of a character being a sylph—remain vivid in my memory. And I do want to reread it. Using the book light again. Sasha Filipenko’s Травля (Hounding) (previous post) also stuck with me, though for opposite reasons: there’s only darkness, nothing cozy, in this story of a journalist who’s being hounded for political reasons. And there are certainly no sylphs. I think I appreciated most the account of bitterness after the 1998 default. Ludmila Ulitskaya’s Лестница Якова (Yakov’s Ladder or Jacob’s Ladder, though I’ll use Ulitskaya’s agent’s title with “Yakov”) (previous) is a family saga that’s told in story-like episodes and includes letters from Ulitskaya’s own family archives. This isn’t my favorite Ulitskaya novel but the familiarity of Ulitskaya’s style and settings made this rather long book read easily, though I often wanted the balance to tip more toward character development than history.

Those I just couldn’t finish. This is the section that gives me no joy whatsoever. Vladimir Dinets’s Песни драконов (Dragon Songs) wasn’t the fun surprise that Nature Girl here dared to hope for. My parents live in Florida—where there seem to be alligators everywhere—and I’ve been to crocodile country in Australia, so I thought I was off to a decent start but somehow I just couldn’t sink my teeth into things like descriptions of alligators “dancing,” and I just wasn’t interested in Dinets’s personal details. Alexander Ilichevsky’s Справа налево (From Right to Left) book of essays is a mishmash that, I’m sorry to say, didn’t grab me at all. Even sadder, though, I thought all the novels in this category lacked narrative drive, a coherent structure, and/or the sense of a good story. I gave Pyotr Aleshkovsky’s Крепость (The Citadel) 106 pages to show me where it was going and, to borrow from what I wrote on Goodreads, was sorry it couldn’t decide whether it wanted to be a serious social novel about an honest archaeologist or a melodrama with family hysterics. (The big sign I was done: I kept finding excuses to compare recipes in 660 Curries and think about what I needed to buy at the Indian grocery store…) Anna Matveeva’s Завидное чувство Веры Стениной (Vera Stenina’s Envy; the Russian title is closer to Vera Stenina’s Enviable Sense but that is, indeed, tough to sort...) was equally painful, though I read nearly 200 pages, hoping something might develop beyond a rather utilitarian tale of one woman’s envy (envy is visualized as a bat here) of her friend. I made it through less (about 50 pages) of Sergei Soloukh’s Рассказы о животных (Stories About Animals), the tale of a man who travels a lot for work. I can’t say I much enjoy reading about driving (perhaps because I don’t especially enjoy driving?) so Stories and I didn’t get off to a good start. Though I’d hoped for a compelling novel about what causes people to lose their humanness, particularly in times of social upheaval, alas, Stories was too muddled to tell me much.

Disclaimers: The usual. I received electronic texts of all these books from the Big Book, for which I serve on the Literary Academy, the award’s jury; I received a couple from the authors’ literary agents, too. Among other things: I’m currently translating The Aviator and have translated excerpts of some of Maria Galina’s other books.

Up Next: I think I’ll write more summary posts: travel, books read in Russian, and books read in English. And a full-length post on Boris Minaev’s Soft Fabric, volume one…


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