Saturday, June 10, 2017

The 2017 Yasnaya Polyana Award Longlist

Two things stood out for me in jury members’ comments about this year’s Yasnaya Polyana Award longlist, which was announced a week or two ago. As someone who loves sorting through longlists, I particularly loved jury chair Vladimir Tolstoy’s remark that some readers look to shortlists for reading ideas but professional readers also pay attention to longlists. I wish more people did: I suspect there are lots of very good books that hit longlists for major prizes but never land on shortlists, let alone win prizes. (Hmm, that sounds like something interesting to look into...) I was also pleased that juror Pavel Basinsky noted how much he enjoys discovering new writers through literary juries. That’s half the fun of award lists—both long and short—for me, too.

There are 30 books on this year’s Yasnaya Polyana longlist so I won’t list them all, but here are a few:

One book I’ve already read and one that I’m reading:
  • Sukhbat Aflatuni’s Муравьиный царь (The Ant King) (previous post) was my favorite weird book last year so I’m rooting for it to make the YP shortlist. I didn’t enjoy Aflatuni’s Adoration of the Magi enough to finish but am looking forward to his first novel, Ташкентский роман (Tashkent Novel), which is now on my shelf, too, thanks to the Russian Prize.
  • Mikhail Gigolashvili’s Тайный год (The Secret/Mysterious Year), already a Big Book finalist and winner of the 2017 Russian Prize, is a colorful, funny, and peculiar novel about what happens when Ivan the Terrible runs away from his job. It’s so dense and demanding that I can only read a little at a time. I may be reading it all summer!

Several books already on the shelf that were longlisted for other prizes:
  • Pavel Krusanov’s Железный пар (Iron Steam) is about twin brothers.
  • Aleksandr Melikhov’s Свидание с Квазимодо (A Meeting [not sure what kind] with Quasimodo) is about a criminal psychologist.
  • Dmitrii Novikov’s Голомяное пламя (hmm, the first word is an adjectival form of “голомя,” a Pomor word that means open sea or distant sea… so maybe something like Flame Out at Sea or Flame Over the Open Sea…) has interested me for a long time since Novikov is from Petrozavodsk and writes about the Russian north.
  • Andrei Rubanov’s Патриот (The Patriot) isn’t on the shelf yet but will be soon since it’s a Big Book finalist; it was also a NatsBest finalist.
  • Aleksei Slapovskii’s Неизвестность (Uncertainty is what I’m suspecting…) is also a Big Book finalist and will soon be on the shelf.

There are other authors on the list that I’ve already read and enjoyed, not to mention several books that interest me after reading reviews, but—keeping Basinsky’s comment in mind—I’ll finish off with two books that sound interesting in some way or other and were written by authors I’d never heard of until now:
  • Olga Pokrovskaya’s Полцарства (Half the Kingdom, I guess?) sounds like it’s about regular people with regular problems and emotions… and it sounds positive since the word “светлая” is used to describe it so, who knows, I might even go out on a limb for “sunny”!
  • Ganna Shevchenko’s Шахтерская глубокая (Miners’ Deep [Mine], I guess… the title words are the name of a mine) is told (at least at the beginning, which is all I looked at) by a female accountant at the mine. The voice seems engaging and I love a good first-person narrative, so this looks especially promising.

Disclaimers: The usual and having translated two Yasnaya Polyana Award jury members and was a co-participant with Basinsky at events during Russian Literature Week 2017 festivities in New York last month.

Up Next: Futurism. Gigolashvili’s The [Pick Your Adjective] Year, though that might take a very long time. And probably something else that takes a slight bit less focus than the Gigolashvili book. I haven’t decided what…

Monday, June 5, 2017

Lizok’s Summer 2017 Reading Plan: Ten Big Book Award Finalists

The Big Book Award announced its shortlist last Monday, making this post yet another better-late-than-never production. (It’s deadline time again, what can I say?!) As far as commentary goes, there are a few books I was surprised and sorry missed the list, among them Vladimir Sorokin’s Manaraga (previous post), Anna Starobinets’s Посмотри на него (something like Look at Him, perhaps?), and Anna Kozlova’s F20, which just won the National Bestseller Award. As always, Klarisa Pul’son’s guess list and pre-announcement analysis (here) is informative and fun. Beyond that, for now—since I haven’t yet read any of the finalists, the Starobinets book, or the Kozlova book, or much of anything else from the longlist—I’ll just add that I’m very sorry and disappointed not to see any (any!) female authors on the list, particularly after Kozlova won the NatsBest (where 3/7 of the finalists were women, the other two being Figl’-Migl’ and Elena Dolgopyat, neither of whom made the Big Book longlist) over the weekend. 

In any case, here’s the list of ten finalists for 2017, in the (random?) order they’re listed on the Big Book site, with descriptions. Winners will be announced in early winter and I’ll be posting about my reading before then. There’s a preponderance of long books on the list: at least five are 700 pages or longer. I love a good (good!) long book so am hoping for the best. Although I don’t know much about the books on the list, I’ve already read books by six of these authors.

  • Mikhail Gigolashvili’s Тайный год (The Secret/Mysterious Year). I already started this book about the strange time when Ivan the Terrible left both the throne and Moscow for a while... the novel’s cover description mentions psychodrama with an element of phantasmagoria and that seems about right. Gigolashvili’s language is, as always, colorful and playful, this time with lots of medieval touches. This is a long (700+ pages) book with small print and it takes a fair bit of concentration so my guess is I’ll be reading it for a while yet. This book already won the 2017 Russian Prize.  
  • Aleksei Sal’nikov’s Петровы в гриппе и вокруг него(Severe tricky title alert! The Petrovs in Various States of the Flu might capture things; this is literally something like “The Petrovs in and around the flu” though I could be completely missing the point since I haven’t read the book.). A novel about a contemporary and allegedly unusual family (aren’t they all?) set in Yekaterinburg. Based on the online version, it’s safe to say that people do have the flu. I don’t like the flu but this one looks interesting.
  • Lev Danilkins Ленин. Пантократор солнечных пылинок (Lenin. Pantocrator of Dust Motes, I believe, since Lenin refers to dust motes in Aristotles De Anima). A biography of V.I. Lenin, Ulyanov. A heavyweight checking in at 784 pages. 
  • Andrei Rubanov’s Патриот (The Patriot). The Patriot, about businessman Sergei Znaev, already made the 2017 NatsBest shortlist. Rubanov’s literary agency, BGS, has a full description. (Only 512 pages!)
  • Aleksei Slapovsky’s Неизвестность (Uncertainty? I’m uncertain because I haven’t read the book, though this seems to fit descriptions…). A book covering 1917-2017—the cover says “роман века,” “novel of the/a century”—told through diaries, poetry, and other, well, stuff; Klarisa says “datafiction” is already a term for describing this genre… (Also 512 pages!)
  • Shamil Idiatullin’s Город Брежнев (Brezhnev City, at least sort of: Naberezhnye Chelny was called “Brezhnev” during 1982-1988). Childhood in the late Soviet period… I keep reading good things about this book and am looking forward to it very much. Another 700 pages or so…
  • Viktor Pelevin’s Лампа Мафусаила, или Крайняя битва чекистов с масонами (Methuselah’s Lamp, or The Last Battle of the Chekists and Masons). Could there have been a Big Book shortlist without a Pelevin book? I’m still waiting for a Pelevin novel to enjoy from start to finish, so who knows, maybe this is my year. In any case, another book covering multiple centuries; I’m betting the title sums it all up well. (A meager 416 pages!)
  • Sergei Samsonov’s Соколиный рубеж(The Falcon’s Line/Position? But perhaps not: thanks to a reader review on, it sounds like this refers to limits and extremes…). Another 700-page novel: this one’s about World War 2 air battles… This book—in manuscript form and under the pseudonym Gorshkovozov—won Samsonov a 2015 Debut Prize for full-length prose.  
  • Sergei Shargunov’s Катаев: «Погоня за вечной весной» (Kataev: “The Pursuit of Eternal Spring”). About author Valentin Kataev. (704 pages!)

Disclaimers: I’m a member of the Big Book Award’s jury, the Literary Academy.

Up Next: The Yasnaya Polyana Award longlist. Futurism, finally. I think…

Sunday, June 4, 2017

NatsBest goes to Kozlova for F20

Anna Kozlova won the 2017 National Bestseller award yesterday for her novel F20, about a teenager with schizophrenia. I wasn’t surprised that F20 won: Kozlova’s book collected the most points in the NatsBest’s first round of voting. That’s not to say the ceremony wasn’t suspenseful… F20 was tied 2-2 with Aleksandr Brener’s Жития убиенных художников (Life Stories [as in lives, in the context of “lives of saints”] of Killed Artists), leaving jury chair Konstantin Ernst as the tie breaker. He cast his vote for F20. Two other books received votes: Elena Dolgopyat’s Родина (Motherland) and Andrei Filimonov’s Головастик и святые (known in English as Manikin and the Saints).

If you’d like to watch, the award ceremony is archived on YouTube here

For more: A Fontanka article by Elena Kuznetsova.

Up Next: The Big Book shortlist, which I’ll be setting up to post tomorrow/Monday. The Yasnaya Polyana Award longlist. Then more books… including futurism.

Disclaimers: NatsBest secretary Vadim Levental is the author of Masha Regina, which I translated.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Instructions for Everything: Gadol’s Director. Instructions for Liberation

Alexandr Gadols Режиссёр: инструкция освобождения (Director. Instructions for Liberation; please note that this title and transliteration of the author’s name are on the book’s cover) turned out to be an interestingly pleasant surprise from start to finish. I was surprised when a colleague from the Institute of Translation whod been deputized as a book courier handed the book to me in New York earlier this month and even more surprised at the novel’s unexpected layers and twists, and how they affected me. Director is about prison life but that’s only part of the story. The book is also about how the narrator, who’s identified only by the nickname “Director” (though he has no films, shows, or plays to his name, only the real-life scenarios he cooks up...), attempts to stay out of prison; getting knifed can be a temporary help. It’s about metaphysical things, too. This is a book where an English-language translation of the Bible is smoked. In prison. In any case, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised at how much I enjoyed Director: Gadol won third place for the book in the 2016 Russian Prize competition.

There are so many angles I could take on Director—this may be one of my biggest surprises since I don’t often seem to end up enjoying books that feel so open to varying interpretations—that I think I’ll first pick up on a small point raised by critic Aleksandr Chantsev here, on Rara Avis, and move on from there. The title of Chantsev’s review, “Антропология тюрьмы, свободы и страны” (“The Anthropology of Prison, Freedom, and a Country”) sums up a lot about the book: I’m not sure which social science I’d choose to describe Director but anthropology is as good as any, with psychology and sociology viable candidates, too. My favorite motif in the book is film noir, which pops up fairly frequently and contributes to the anthropological portrait. Gadol is even quoted on the back of the book saying that when he was in prison he imagined himself as a film hero, something that made his life a little easier and kept him from losing his mind. Beyond that, Gadol, who has also worked as a director for Kiev TV stations, notes that he particularly enjoys American noir from the 1940s and 1950s. Director includes references to Crime and Punishment, which feels pretty noirish in its own early way and there are trips to a bar called Capone, which hosts a “Chicago in the Thirties” gangster party. Just for fun, I’ll add that there’s a mention of Dawn of the Dead, too.

Director’s prison scenes are interesting—looking at phenomena like pecking orders and how people can be good as individuals but jerks when together are only a couple of the social sciency aspects that attract—but my favorite layer of the book is Director’s time spent outside, when he’s waiting to learn his fate. After visiting a scammy and seemingly very young psychoanalyst (!) on a hill (the novel takes place in a city on seven hills, which could be Moscow, though I think it’s Kiev, and not just because Gadol is from Ukraine and Chantsev guesses Kiev, too… this just doesn’t feel like a Moscow book to me…), Director decides he wants to be a scammy psychoanalyst, too, so he rents himself an office, buys himself a diploma, and procures himself a gun, a Colt 45 like Dirty Harry’s. Of course.

There’s an absurd and noirish feel to all that that goes nicely with a passage I marked later on, where light comes through venetian blinds, creating lines on characters’ faces: Gadol even writes that this is like a shot from a noir film. (Personal experience strengthened this for me, too: I remembered analyzing light on criminals’ faces in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing during film class…) A bit later, at the Capone with the scammy and seemingly young psychoanalyst and some of his buddies, Director describes the sounds, smells, and people as being cinematic: things remind of black-and-white film noir and a conversation about the search for truth ensues, along with mentions of Casablanca, Citizen Kane, and The Godfather theme song, too.

With its brief chapters, jumping timelines, and multiple storylines, Director is the sort of book that’s particularly ripe for varying interpretations. I noted lots of existential moments (“a mini existential crisis” among them) but my dominant prism for reading became truth-and-noir, with that preference for non-prison scenes, though the prison scenes often echoed the outside and addressed the nature of truth. There seem to be gurus on hills everywhere in Director—there’s a fair bit of religion involved, not just the afore-mentioned Bible but also Buddhism—though not all are genuine (or are they?) and there’s hardly anyone in the novel who uses a name that’s printed on, say, a government-issued form of identification. (And what’s in a name, anyway?) There’s also talk of being behind bars that are formed by everyday things, like letters and words on the pages of books or stars in the sky. Meaning that prison is everywhere you turn. A cover blurb from Alexander Snegirev praises Gadol’s concentrated prose, which he says is almost poetry, and I have to agree. Gadol’s language, which often includes prison/criminal slang and sometimes involves long lists, creates situations and imagery that simultaneously feel abstract and vividly concrete. Reading the book was a sensory experience: climbing those hills nearly made me sweat, there was lots of second-hand smoke to inhale, and watching people who’re watching people on public transportation (in a scene that felt almost like flash fiction) made me feel like a voyeur, too.

A story almost long enough to consider a novella follows Director in the volume and “Живучий гад” (hmm, I’ll go literal and call it “A Tenacious Snake”…), which is very linear—this time I felt almost like I was watching a train wreck, right up close—is far easier to describe than Director. The story tells of Sasha, who begins a life of dubious entrepreneurship at the age of twelve by buying fishing lures and reselling them at a premium after gluing “foreign letters” on the packages. Sasha becomes the first black marketeer in his school, eventually moving on to (spoiler alert!) running a videosalon (these sites for makeshift, unauthorized movie showings were a real phenomenon), comfy pay toilets, synthesizing LSD, and, eventually (but of course!), a run for politics. The story made me laugh, too: Sasha’s lessons in life from American movies like Good Fellas and Used Cars (which, imagine that, is apparently helpful for teaching a kid how to buy a used car) are sometimes hilarious, though the anthropology of (sometimes petty) criminal behavior struck me most. “A Tenacious Snake” feels like a diabolical appendix to Director, what with its myriad mentions of movies plus lots of false and farcical identities—Sasha even enlists an adult to act as the nonexistent Georgian head of the videosalon—that make the combination of the story and the novel feel like a small volume of case studies of what goes wrong or (perhaps more accurately) what goes false in ways that make children want to become criminals. Unlike one of the characters in Director, I don’t think the theme music from The Godfather is to blame.

Disclaimers: I received a copy of Director from Русская премия (Russian Prize), thank you very, very much! I’ve long felt remiss in not following the Russian Prize—and, really, literature written in Russian by writers living outside Russia—more closely so am especially grateful for a reminder of the importance of the award and the authors it recognizes. There will be more to come! I also want to add that Director is from publisher Eksmo’s .RU imprint, which focuses on contemporary Russian-language books by authors living outside Russia.

Up Next: Award news: Big Book finalists, National Bestseller winner, and Yasnaya Polyana Award longlist. Then more books…

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Food for Thought: Sorokin’s Manaraga
Manaraga, in Russia's Komi Republic
I think the only way to write about Vladimir Sorokin’s latest novel, Manaraga is to imagine myself in the book for a minute. So: if, I, a woman, were somehow miraculously admitted into the exclusive ranks of book’n’grill chefs in some near-but-future century that I’m too lazy to calculate, what would be the most appropriate meal to grill using Manaraga (preferably a signed first edition) as a (burning, yes, burning) log?

My answer would be mixed grill. Preferably ordered by a book club whose members have finicky taste. And not to worry if they don’t read the book: there’s not much old-fashioned reading in Manaraga. What is important is what is to be grilled: I’d hope for a barely compatible combination of shrimp, sausage, and some kind of nicely marinated chicken pieces. The chicken would be skewered since lots of things get skewered in Manaraga. The chicken would be the meal’s highlight because so often marinade is where the real flavor is. Humor is the marinade in Manaraga, at least for me.

I’ll start with the chicken because I love marinated chicken (especially this simple and ridiculously versatile recipe) and I loved the humor in Manaraga, too. As is already obvious, half the fun of Manaraga is that it’s about books. About the sad fate of books in an age where electronic reading has taken hold and only money is printed. This is a time when book’n’grill chefs use illicitly procured books to grill food in private homes—this is known as reading—and fulfill clients’ specific requests. Sorokin doesn’t spare much of anyone, skewering everything from self-publishing to poor paper quality in the Yeltsin-era (oh, do I have evidence of this on the Bookshelf!) for an edition of Andrei Platonov’s Chevengur. Books used as logs fit with aspects of clients’ celebrations or lives, too, so a reading with M. Ageyev’s Novel [or “romance”] with Cocaine includes white powder and a reading for the cast of a Master and Margarita adaptation includes the novel plus, of course, jokes about manuscripts burning (or not). And there’s also the insight that Chekhov stories are ideal for cooking shrimp… I had many an audible laugh with Manaraga. Here’s another one: reading Bakhtin is a good moneymaker. Fortunately, Sorokin didn’t let me down on an obvious laugh: I’d wondered how far in I’d need to go for a mention of Fahrenheit 451: since it just had to be there, I don’t think I’m spoiling anything at all to say it’s about half-way through. It involves steak.

Part of why Sorokin’s humor works so well in Manaraga is that he creates a homey voice for his narrator, Geza, a 33-year-old man who travels the world to read Russian classics. I should add that he’s guided and protected by electronic “fleas” implanted in his head. Book’n’grill is an underground venture so it’s dangerous and the fleas—this is one of the futuristic aspects of the novel—assess safety and provide background information on what Geza sees. Woe be to anyone whose fleas are removed and becomes naked and helpless. (This is yet another reason I wouldn’t want a smart phone...)

Shrimp is risky grill food (even in this delicious rendition) because it can dry out so quickly, which means there are times when it feels like Sorokin’s using one too many of his familiar tropes. We get details of a man’s journeys and work, and that somehow reminds of The Blizzard and Day of the Oprichnik, even more so because holograms, a giant narco-goldfish, and mentions of past wars come into play. Many of those familiar details didn’t matter much to me because I was so taken by the book-related layer. Even so, the weakest element of Manaraga is related to those tropes: though most of the individual readings are fun enough to read, the slow-burn thread (skewer?) that Sorokin chooses to hold those episodes together—a threat to the book’n’grill chefs’ Kitchen conglomerate, caused by mass-produced molecular copies of one certain individual old copy of Nabokov’s Ada—and create the semblance of a novel feels more like a plot device to create the semblance of a novel than an organic development. This seemed more like a linkage and development problem than anything else: the conclusion (cue the action genre!) made perfect sense to me, though because of accounts of the individual readings that preceded it.

In the end, Manaraga feels rather like sausage: something in it might be a little artificial, clichéd, and/or guilt-inducing but—like this Maine-made kielbasa that’s so delicious that even I happily ate some cold one night—it’s very tasty fun and pretty filling, too, since there’s plenty of food for thought about the present and the future of books. Electronic or print? Bespoke or mass-produced? For the mind or the market? Are books like franchises? And what is reading, anyway? And how should it affect you? As with mixed grill, there’s something for just about anyone in Manaraga and—given the humor and my familiarity with Sorokin’s menu of literary ingredients—the book feels almost like comfort food. I wonder, of course, if that’s a good thing… and I ask myself if that’s because I’ve immersed myself further into Sorokin’s world or because his writing doesn’t have the edge it used to? Or both?

I won’t offer my answer to all those questions but I realize now that I forgot to add marinated mushroom burgers to my mixed grill menu: they’re light but nutritious and delicious, too.

Yes, I’m hungry.

Edit, three days later. I should add that my original post wasn’t clear enough about the nutritional aspects of Manaraga: comfort food or not, what sticks with me most about the novel is the broader sociocultural implication of Sorokin’s vision of literature, books, and, perhaps most frightening of all, the huge influence of fleas. Again, it’s Geza’s homey storytelling voice that underpins the novel’s success for me: Geza makes this world feel as if it’s (almost?) normal.
For more fun details (and some mild spoilers) about Manaraga, visit literary agent Galina Dursthoff’s site, here.

Up next: I hadn’t been planning to write about Manaraga so soon so the backlog grows! First up will be also a shortish novel by Aleksandr Gadol that won third place in last year’s Russian Prize competition. And lots of award news, too: the Big Book short list and NatsBest winner. Plus Afanasy Mamedov’s novella set in Baku that I mentioned in so many previous posts. And some futurist-related reading in English, including Charlotte Hobson’s The Vanishing Futurist and James Womack’s translations of Vladimir Mayakovsky in “Vladimir Mayakovsky” & Other Poems.

Photo credit: By ugraland [1] from Moscow, Russia - Flickr, CC BY 2.0,

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Yet More Award Info: Another Better-Late-Than-Never Post

Better-late-than-never posts seem to have become a bit of a habit here at the Bookshelf. Then again, this does seem to be award season: posts about the Big Book shortlist, Yasnaya Polyana longlist, and NatsBest winner will all be on the way relatively soon, too. In a more timely manner. I hope.

For now, though, a few bits of old news.

I’m often remiss in writing about the annual Pushkin House Book Prize since it covers only nonfiction, but this year’s shortlist includes a few titles that sound particularly interesting even to a fiction freak like me. One, Teffi’s Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea, is a translation by Robert Chandler, Elizabeth Chandler, Anne Marie Jackson, and Irina Steinberg, with an introduction by Edyth C. Haber. Another is Daniel Beer’s The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars, which I’ve been interested in since reading several enthusiastic reviews when it was released. (I suspect the title helps, too, since I thought Dostoevsky’s House of the Dead was so good…) And then there’s Simon Sebag Montefiore’s The Romanovs: 1613-1918, which sounds especially vivid. The other titles—Rosalind P. Blakesley’s The Russian Canvas, Anne Garrels’s Putin Country, and Simon Morrison’s Bolshoi Confidential—help create a nicely rounded shortlist. Pushkin House’s page with the shortlist includes links to helpful individual pages about each book so I’ll leave the details to them. The winner will be announced on June 7.

And then there’s the Russian Prize, the Русская Премия—for writers who live outside Russia and write in Russian—which was awarded in late April, just when I was so caught up in finishing a translation that I completely missed the news. Oops. Mikhail Gigolashvili won the long fiction award for his Тайный год (The Secret Year, I guess…), which should arrive at my doorstep any day now. Second and third prizes went to, respectively, Shirin Shafieva for Сальса и Веретено (Salsa and Vereteno) and Vladimir Lidskii for Сказки нашей крови. Метароман (hmm, maybe The Fairytales of/in Our Blood. A Metanovel, or even “tall tales,” depending on the book…). Short fiction awards went to Tatiana Dagovich, Leia Liubomirskaia, and the team of Andrei Zhvalevskii and Evgenia Pasternak, and poetry awards were made to Gennadii Rusakov, Sergei Solovyov, and Oleg Iuriev. All titles, along with countries of residence and brief descriptions, are available on the information-packed Год литературы site, here, or on the Russian Prize site, here.

Finally, two brief items on translations. I’m very excited that my translation of Vadim Levental’s Masha Regina, published by Oneworld, is a finalist for this year’s Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize, which will announce results on June 3. Contemporary Russian fiction was represented on the 2017 Best Translated Book Award prose shortlist, too, by Oblivion (Предел забвения in Russian), written by Sergei Lebedev, translated by Antonina Bouis, and published by New Vessel Press. Since this one’s all over, I’ll mention that the BTBA winner for prose was Lúcio Cardoso’s Chronicle of the Murdered House, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson and published by Open Letter Books. The poetry winner was Alejandra Pizarnik’s Extracting the Stone of Madness, translated from the Spanish by Yvette Siegert, and published by New Directions.

Disclaimers: The usual.

Up Next: There’s a bit of a backlog around here, particularly with more award posts coming… There’s also the Afanasy Mamedov novella set in Baku that I mentioned in previous posts. And some reading in English, including Charlotte Hobson’s The Vanishing Futurist, which was perfect reading for (and about) a hectic time; it pairs nicely with James Womack’s translations of Vladimir Mayakovsky in “Vladimir Mayakovsky” & Other Poems, which arrived not long ago. There’s also a shortish novel by Aleksandr Gadol that won third place in last year’s Russian Prize competition… I just finished it but it got under my skin enough that I may write about it first.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

The 2017 Big Book Longlist: Another Better-Late-Than-Never Production

I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again, more than once: I love literary award longlists. And I particularly love comparing literary awards longlists because it seems there are lots of good books that make longlists but not shortlists…

Anyway. This year’s Big Book longlist has 34 titles, of which two are in manuscript form, hence unpublished at the time they were submitted. (I always find this a bit mysterious…) As for methodology: I’ll first list eight books I’m already interested in then move on to a few titles by unfamiliar authors.

  • Andrei Volos’s Должник (The Debtor) is book three of a tetralogy. I’ve never read Volos, despite numerous recommendations over the years… Maybe the tetralogy is the place to start.
  • Mikhail Gigolashvili’s Тайный год (The Secret Year, though I suspect this is “secret” with a good dose of mysteriousness…) is set during the time of Ivan the Terrible.
  • Dmitri Danilov’s Сидеть и смотреть (Sit and Look/Watch), which I read part of—and enjoyed but wanted to read in print form—when it first came out in journal form is very Danilov. (Much of it was written on a phone.)
  • Shamil Idiatullin’s Город Брежнев (Brezhnev City, at least sort of: Naberezhnye Chelny was called “Brezhnev” during 1982-1988) is a brick of a book (700 pages) about the 1980s. Recommended highly by critic Galina Yuzefovich.
  • Anna Kozlova’s F20 is apparently a novel about a teenager with schizophrenia. F20 is already on the 2017 NatsBest shortlist; it won the most points in the first round.
  • Dmitry Novikov’s Голомяное пламя (hmm, the first word is an adjectival form of “голомя,” a Pomor word that means open sea or distant sea… so maybe something like Flame Out at Sea or Flame Over the Open Sea…), which I’ve seen recommended several times already this year, is a book I have a special interest in because Novikov is from Petrozavodsk and writes about the Russian north.
  • Vladimir Sorokin’s Манарага (Manaraga) apparently involves cooking food over fires of burning books. Yuzefovich recommended this title, too. Hmm, I didn’t know Manaraga’s a mountain…
  • Anna Starobinets’s Посмотри на него (Maybe Look at Him? I’m not sure…) is about motherhood and the loss of a child before birth.

Though there are plenty of books by authors I’ve already read—Yuri Buida, Viktor Pelevin, Andrei Rubanov (The Patriot is already a NatsBest shortlister), Dina Rubina, and Aleksei Slapovskii—I’ll pick books by three authors I’d never heard of:

  • Olga Breininger’s В Советском Союзе не было аддерола (There Was No Adderal in the Soviet Union) certainly has a memorable title. Breininger’s originally from Kazakhstan but lives in Boston. The novel starts off mentioning a conference of Slavists… the book was longlisted for the Debut Prize in 2015. Confession: I’ve liked academic conference novels since reading David Lodge during my grad school years. (I wonder if this is connected to the fact that I dropped out of grad school?)
  • Viktoria Lebedeva’s Без труб и барабанов (Without Trumpets and Drums) sounds like it’s a family history/saga, set from the middle of the twentieth century until the present.
  • Andrei Tavrov’s Клуб Элвиса Пресли (The Elvis Presley Club) does not seem to take place near Graceland. Darn. But it looks like there’s Sochi.

Disclaimers: The usual; I’m a member of the Big Book jury, also known as the Literary Academy. The shortlist will be along in late May.

Up next: The Afanasy Mamedov novella set in Baku that I mentioned in previous posts. And some reading in English, including Charlotte Hobson’s The Vanishing Futurist, which is perfect reading for (and about) a hectic time; it pairs nicely with James Womack’s translations of Vladimir Mayakovsky in “Vladimir Mayakovsky” & Other Poems, which arrived last week. I’ll be reading other translations in preparation a roundtable during Russian Literature Week in early May, hosted by Read Russia in New York.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

NatsBest Shortlist 2017: Lizok’s Better-Late-Than-Never Edition

The National Bestseller Award announced a seven-book shortlist on April 14—oh, the shame that I’m this late! This is a wonderful and rare case where I’m interested in nearly all the books on a shortlist. Here’s the list, including the number of points awarded by the “big” jury, plus links to jury members’ reviews, which are easier to find than ever on the new NatsBest site. They are a fantastic resource. NatsBest secretary Vadim Levental’s comments about the list are here. The winner will be announced on June 3.

  • Anna Kozlova’s F20 (10 points) is apparently a novel about a teenage girl with mental illness. Jury reviews are here.
  • Elena Dolgopyat’s Родина (Motherland) (9 points) is a collection of short stories by an author whose work I’ve enjoyed reading in the past. I haven’t read this collection yet—I don’t even own it—but have to admit that I’m already rooting for Dolgopyat because her past work has impressed me so much. Jury reviews are here.
  • Andrei Filimonov’s Головастик и святые (known in English as Manikin and the Saints) (7 points) is represented by the Elkost literary agency so I’ll leave the description to them; it’s here. Jury reviews are here.
  • Figl’-Migl’s Эта страна (This Country) (6 points) is a book I want to know nothing about: it’s enough for me to know that it concerns political prisoners from the early Soviet period. I’ve been waiting for it and F-M, whom I still haven’t read, won the NatsBest a few years ago. Despite mixed reviews—running the full gamut, something that I often take as a positive since it generally means the book gets under the reader’s skin—since the NatsBest longlist came out, I’m still very interested. Jury reviews are here.
  • Aleksandr Brener’s Жития убиенных художников (Life Stories [as in lives, in the context of “lives of saints”] of Killed Artists) (6 points) is, according to the publisher, Hylaea, a book composed of brief stories/chapters about Brener’s experiences in various places around the world, looking at people, meetings, attachments, impressions… Jury reviews are here.
  • Sergei Beliakov’s Тень Мазепы (Mazepa’s Shadow) (6 points) is nonfiction about Ukrainian history during the Gogol epoch. Jury reviews are here.
  • Andrei Rubanov’s Патриот (The Patriot) (6 points) sounds, based on the BGS literary agency’s description (here), like a very Rubanovian Rubanov novel. Rubanov’s very good at showing contemporary Russian life. Jury reviews are here.

Disclaimers: The usual plus I translated NatsBest secretary Vadim Levental’s novel Masha Regina.

Up Next: Big Book longlist post, also late! And then, hmm, the Afanasy Mamedov novella set in Baku that I mentioned in my last post. And some reading in English, including Charlotte Hobson’s The Vanishing Futurist, which is perfect reading for (and about since it’s set in Moscow around the time of the revolution) a hectic time; it pairs nicely with James Womack’s translations of Vladimir Mayakovsky in a book entitled “Vladimir Mayakovsky” & Other Poems, which arrived last week. I’ll be reading other translations to prepare for a roundtable during Russian Literature Week in early May, hosted by Read Russia in New York.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Favorite Russian Writers from A to Я: Х Marks the Spot

It’s been years, literally years, since I’ve written an alphabet post: I left off with the titanic letter T in July 2014. And then I struggled with the letter У/U, just as I had struggled with O earlier, because I simply didn’t have enough favorite authors to compile a post. I decided to skip a few letters after one of you asked me last week when there would be another alphabet post: since I’d already skipped O (and something else, too, I think…), I decided not to bother with У/U or Ф/F, either, at least for the time being. Hence we’ve arrived at Х, the letter often represented in English as Kh.

And what a productive letter Х/Kh is! My first Kh author to mention is Mikhail Kheraskov, an eighteenth-century writer I studied in grad school. It wasn’t Kheraskov’s Rossiad—a classic epic poem that was/is evidently in school curricula—that drew me, though, but his plays, which Wikipedia rightfully says have been “neglected by posterity.” Kheraskov’s Гонимыя (in the old orthography; I called it The Persecuted in English) was not only the reason I learned how to use a microfiche machine: it was also a good lesson about the literary transition from sentimentalism to classicism. And literary influences. Kheraskov contributed to my love of sentimentalism—The Persecuted’s title pages call it a “teary drama”—and it was his work that got me interested in analyzing literary genres. That’s more than enough to make him a favorite.

One of my favorite contemporary authors, Margarita Khemlin, who died a very young death in autumn 2015, is the first writer whose work I loved so much I had to translate it. I’ve enjoyed her long and short stories, and her novels, too, and am very happy I’ll be starting work on her Klotsvog (previous post), for the Russian Library at Columbia University Press, in June. I’ve always admired Margarita’s ability to write about the damage of World War 2 and Jewish heritage with humor, grit, and grace. And I can’t wait to create an English-language voice for Maya, the narrator (and title character) of Klotsvog, my favorite of Margarita’s novels. (Favorite that I’ve read at this writing, anyway: a new one was recently published posthumously.) I missed her terribly when I was in Moscow last fall and think about her constantly: her trust in me years ago means a lot to me as a person and as a translator. And I always loved her sense of humor as a person. (Her husband and sister both took to calling me Becky Thatcher, too.) Melanie Moore translated The Investigator (Дознаватель), which earned excellent reviews and was published by Glagoslav.

Khlebnikov's grave, Moscow, November 2012, my fuzzy photo
And then there are three that I always enjoy reading but don’t have such personal feelings for… There’s the wonderful Daniil Kharms, whom I took a liking to in the early 2000s after reading Старуха (The Old Woman): Kharms is always good for some absurdity: I bought a compact 1991 edition with prose, poetry, drama, letters, and art when I lived in Moscow and enjoy picking it up every now and then for a little weirdness. Kharms has grown on me over the years, like a cucumber. There’s lots of Kharms available in translation, including Matvei Yankelevich’s Today I Wrote Nothing, from Overlook Press (2009), and Alex Cigale’s Russian Absurd, from Northwestern University Press (2017). That “three” includes two poets: Vladimir Khodasevich and Velimir Khlebnikov, neither of whom I have read methodically or even broadly but both of whom I love reading when references or mentions pop up. I’ve always had a thing for futurism so enjoy Khlebnikov for that. And, of course, for his “Incantation by Laughter,” which is mentioned in this fun post (and my comments) about Khlebnikov on Wuthering Expectations. I’ve read less of Khodasevich but he keeps turning up, both at translator conferences (represented by his translators, of course!) and in quotations in fiction. Since I’m utterly inept at writing about poetry, I’ll leave this one to Wuthering Expectations, too, since there’s this post about Selected Poems, which contains Peter Daniels’s beautiful translations. Here’s a sample of Peter’s work, from’s “Poem of the Week” feature. Peter’s collection, by the way, was published by Angel Classics in the UK and Overlook in the US.

Х is an unusual letter for me because nearly all the Kh authors on my shelf are favorites. The only writer left unread is Boris Khazanov: I have a collection that a friend borrowed and enjoyed very much.

Up Next: An Afanasy Mamedov novella set in Baku. Kir Bulychev’s Поселок (known in English as Those Who Survive): I read very little science fiction (I’ve failed on nearly every attempt at reading the Strugatsky Brothers) but enjoy it when I find something that suits my taste. This Bulychev book feels like a perfect fit for a very frenetic time. I’ll also be doing some preparatory reading before participating in Russian Literature Week events in early May. And I’m still plugging away with Crime and Punishment, though may switch to Oliver Ready’s translation of the novel, which I enjoy reading much more than Dostoevsky’s original, which I’ve been rereading as a remedial measure and as a prelude to reading Robert Belknap’s Plots, which discusses C&P as well as King Lear

Disclaimers: The usual, including knowing the translators mentioned in this post.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Two Short Novels by Valery Zalotukha

One of the books I brought back from Moscow last September is a big, thick collection of short stories and not-very-long novels by Valery Zalotukha, whose gigundo novel Свечка (The Candle) was a Big Book Award runner-up among jury and reader’s choice voters in 2015. Zalotukha’s publisher gave me the collection and recommended I read the novella Мусульманин (The Muslim), which served as the basis for a 1995 film of the same name, directed by Vladimir Khotinenko. The movie won a special jury prize at the Montréal World Film Festival that year and won a (Russian) Nika Award for best screenplay in 1996. Zalotukha, who passed away in 2015, was a well-known screenwriter: he also wrote Makarov, which Khotinenko also directed, and which also won awards.

The Muslim is brief—around 80 pages—and written very clearly. It’s dated 1994 and feels almost like an early example of чернуха, that dark-dark-dark realism I’ve written about so many times; it is village-based. Zalotukha tells the story of Kolya, who has returned to his hometown from the war in Afghanistan, where he was MIA. Lots changed during those years: Kolya’s father committed suicide, his bully of a brother (Fedya) was released from prison, and Kolya himself has converted to Islam and uses the name Abdula.

You can read Dennis Grunes’s excellent detailed summary (with spoilers!) of the film version of The Muslim, which appears to be very close to the novella, so I won’t waste time outlining the plot, particularly since the simple use of the word чернуха above tells you that many things can and will go wrong after Kolya’s return. What made the novella particularly interesting for me was the 1990s atmosphere that Zalotukha creates: villagers sniff American dollars, collective farms are changing, one character speaks in advertising slogans, and there’s a mention of the ubiquitous Mexican soap opera The Rich Cry, Too, which sucked in millions of Russian viewers. There’s also a bit of a carnival feel when lots of dollars get loose…

At the core of the story are cultural differences and otherness. Kolya stands out from his family and townspeople not just because of his new name: he also refuses to take part in certain rituals, like drinking vodka at his father’s grave or accepting free, essentially stolen, feed grain. There’s a particularly sharp contrast between Kolya and Fedya because Kolya has a strong work ethic and Fedya, though initially loyal to his brother, is prone to heavy drinking and violence. The Muslim features another other, a mysterious visitor, an outsider who comes to town. Though The Muslim’s ending felt a bit more obvious—and perhaps more sudden—than I might have hoped for, the novella kept me thoroughly engaged, both because of my interest in the 1990s and because I always enjoy reading about cultural clashes that include figures like the all too typical Fedya.

Zalotukha’s Последний коммунист (The Last Communist), which is dated 1999 and was a Russian Booker Prize finalist in 2000, was less satisfying. The Last Communist is a family drama of sorts, too, and it also tells of a son’s return. This return feels less monumental: Ilya Pechenkin returns from school in Switzerland to his wealthy family in southern Russia. The 1990s are still in full force here, too, and it feels like Papa Pechenkin, who made his fortune in agriculture, owns the town. (I wonder if it’s a coincidence that his initials work out to VIP if they’re shown as first name, patronymic, surname?) It’s Ilya who wants to be the last communist and foment some sort of revolution, and Zalotukha works in plenty of family conflict—there are father-son relations, of course, as well as VIP’s extra-marital activity with a modest schoolteacher—as well as lots of reminders of the many sociopolitical and sociocultural aspects of generation gaps. Although Ilya makes friends with some peculiar characters who inspire Zalotukha to include martial arts poses at the market and a conversation about why people love McDonald’s (no swearing or barfing there, to which I would add clean and calm, pluses in the 1990s), it’s VIP, with his preference for movies over reality and his utter cluelessness about everything and everyone around him that caught me most.

I could stick lots of labels on The Last Communist—absurd, farcical, tragicomic, among them—and there are little gusts of classics blowing through the book, too, what with references to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (my reread, which is slow but steady, is paying off already!) and Ostrovksy’s How the Steel Was Tempered. Despite wonderfully absurd situations in The Last Communist that lend the novel a humor that feels peculiarly poignant—all the more so for having met people who were a bit like VIP—the plot was a bit too madcap and even confused at times for my taste, making me appreciate the clarity, brevity, and, yes, even the obviousness of The Muslim even more. I always admire stories and novels that are straightforward but difficult to put down, usually for reasons I can’t quite explain. What’s strangest about reading Zalotukha (this includes The Candle, too) is that I find myself wanting to read more even when his storytelling isn’t as sharp as it might be: I suspect that’s both because his writing is generally very energetic, which I appreciate, plus it almost always feels as if the Russia that fascinates Zalotukha is the same Russia that fascinates me.

Disclaimers: Thank you to publisher Vremya for my copy of this Zalotukha collection! It’s a huge book so there’s still plenty more to read. Including Makarov.

Up Next: A short novel set in Baku by Afanasy Mamedov.