Sunday, June 24, 2018

The 2018 Yasnaya Polyana Award Longlist

The contemporary fiction longlist for this year’s Yasnaya Polyana Award contains 43 books, many of which have mercifully brief and translatable titles, something that’s always a plus for this reporter. Late-breaking: I discovered, just as I was finishing up this post, that Yasnaya Polyana posted an English-language translation of this entire list.

Since this year’s longlist truly is long and there’s plenty to mention, I’ll get right to it, listing, in Russian alphabetical order, some books I’ve read, several notable books, plus a few books by authors whose names are new to me (marked with asterisks). I can’t say there are any unfamiliar titles that jumped out and begged me to read them, though I can be a bit slow on the uptake with book descriptions, many of which are (annoyingly) cryptic at best. In any case, the shortlist will be announced in September.

  • Vasily Aksyonov’s Была бы дочь Анастасия (Perhaps If There Were a Daughter Anastasia? YP goes for If Only There Had Been a Daughter Anastasia) was a 2018 NatsBest finalist. About nature in Siberia.
  • Yana Vagner’s Кто не спрятался (Accomplices) is a hermetic murder mystery set in a European mountain house/hotel. The flashbacks did me in because they broke the novel’s tension, but I give Vagner credit for her cast of rather annoying film industry characters, their spouses, and their problems.
  • Sana Valiulina’s Не боюсь Синей Бороды (I’m Not Afraid of Bluebeard a.k.a. Children of Brezhnev) contains some lovely description and atmosphere but it didn’t quite grab me. I liked the rhythm of the writing, though, so I set it aside to try again later.
  • Marina Vishnevetskaya’s Вечная жизнь Лизы К. (literally The Eternal Life of Liza K.) also wasn’t quite my thing, with, among other things, its blend of love story, office plankton, political demonstrations, and (the final straw) an appearance by SpongeBob SquarePants. A friend enjoyed this one so I was especially disappointed not to.
  • Oleg Yermakov’s Радуга и Вереск (Rainbow and Heather, maybe? See Languagehat’s comments on a previous post) is a Big Book finalist that sounds like it combines multiple stories, one set in the seventeenth century, the other in 2015.
  • *Marina Kudimova’s Бустрофедон (Boustrophedon) makes me curious because of its title… I never knew “boustrophedon” was either a phenomenon or a word. Anyway, this looks like it’s about contemporary life.
  • Sergei Kuznetsov’s Учитель Дымов (Teacher Dymov) is a low-key family saga sort of novel that I read ages ago and enjoyed very much. I really will post about it soon!
  • *Marina Kulakova’s Столетник Марии и Анны (Maria and Anna’s Agave/Century Plant) is about three generations of women.
  • *Natalya Melyokhina’s Железные люди (People of Iron/Iron People) looks like a collection of short stories about a village after perestroika.
  • *Bolat Ospanov’s Мой прадед-найман (My Great-Grandfather the Naiman) sounds like a family history/saga novel wet in Mongolia.
  • Ludmila Petrushevskaya’s Нас украли. История преступлений. (Kidnapped. The History of Crimes) sounds packed with all sorts of contemporary material, too; I keep meaning to get this one because I enjoyed Petrushevskaya’s The Time: Night so much and she so rarely writes novels!
  • Aleksei Sal’nikov’s Петровы в гриппе и вокруг него (The Petrovs in Various States of the Flu) won this year’s NatsBest plus the literary critic panel’s NOS(E) Award. I found it a bit underwhelming, though want to try it again now that it’s out in print form.
  • Olga Slavnikova’s Прыжок в длину (Long Jump), another Big Book finalist, is about an athlete who loses his lower extremities in an accident. I read a large chunk of Long Jump and set it aside—the dense metaphors can get a bit exhausting—but definitely plan to finish.
  • Maria Stepanova’s Памяти памяти (In Memory of Memory, to borrow LARB’s title translation) is another Big Book finalist; this one’s about cultural history, family history, and (of course) memory.
  • Andrei Filimonov’s Рецепты сотворения мир (Recipes for the Creation of the World), also a Big Book finalist, is so nicely summarized in Galina Yuzefovich’s review for Meduza, translated by Hilah Kohen, that I’ll leave the description to them.
  • *Aleksei Shepelev’s Мир-село и его обитатели (The Village of Mir and Its Inhabitants) is apparently about modern-day peasants in the Tambov region. (Tangent: I can’t hear “Tambov” without thinking of this odd earworm of a song from my Moscow years… Warning: click at your own risk.)
  • Sasha Shchipin’s Бог с нами (God Is With Us) concerns the end of the world but wasn’t quite compelling enough to keep me reading, though it’s certainly very genial.
  • Lena Eltang’s Царь велел тебя повесить (The Tsar Ordered Your Hanging) sounds very good, not to mention complex, apparently focusing on a man who’s been imprisoned for a murder he didn’t commit; he writes letters home from jail.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: Not much other than the usual and that I have received several books on the list, in either print or electronic form, and have translated/am translating work by Eltang and Kuznetsov.

Up Next: From my constantly growing (and groaning) “write about” shelf: I think I’ll start with a short story roundup, move on to the Vladimir Makanin novella and a creepy long story by Yelizaveta Alexandrova-Zorina, then finish things off with full-length novels, those being Sergei Kuznetsov’s Teacher Dymov, Janet Fitch’s The Revolution of Marina M. (I’m already waiting for the sequel!), and Vladimir Sharov’s The Rehearsals in Oliver Ready’s translation.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

2018’s Big Book Finalists: Eight Books Sized Up for Summer Reading

The Big Book Award announced its eight-book shortlist back on Wednesday and I still haven’t quite figured out what I think of it other than that I’m grateful not to see any megabiographies. On the one hand, I’m glad that there are two women on the list after last year’s list included zero. On the other hand, I’d have loved to have seen a few more unfamiliar names—and more women—on the list. On some happy third hand that I often wish I had, I thank the committee for naming a shortlist that’s close to genuinely short and is (blogger bonus!) composed of fairly translatable titles.

Here’s the list, in Russian alphabetical order by author surname:

Alexander Arkhangel’sky’s Бюро проверки (Verification Bureau or something of the sort) is set in 1980 Moscow (think: Olympics) and depicts how the main character is “tested” for stability (think: Cold War). Recommended by a friend. Easily beachable at 416 pages with a mass of 384 grams.

Dmitry Bykov’s Июнь (June) is set during 1939-1941 and brings together three characters and their stories (which apparently cover three genres) making the book sound relatively economical at 512 pages and 572 grams. Recommended by a different friend.

Alexei Vinokurov’s Люди черного дракона (People of the Black Dragon) is set along the Amur River (apparently known in Chinese as Black Dragon) around the time of the 1917 revolution. I’d never heard of Vinokurov so this is a mystery book for me. It’s also very nimble at 288 pages with a mass of 366 grams.

Yevgeny Grishkovets’s Театр отчаяния. Отчаянный театр (Theater of Despair. Desperate Theater, I guess) is labeled as a “memoiristic novel.” The book came out very recently and the descriptions are brief, though the book itself is anything but brief at 912 pages. And at 1320 grams (including packaging) it’s certainly not light reading.

Oleg Yermakov’s Радуга и Вереск (Rainbow and Heather, though is this literal?…) is big, too, at 736 pages (massing out at relatively compact 564 grams) and it sounds like it also blends multiple stories, one set in the seventeenth century, the other in 2015. Lots of friends have recommended Yermakov to me over the years so I’m eager to try this one.

Olga Slavnikova’s Прыжок в длину (Long Jump) concerns a young athlete who loses his lower extremities when he leaps to save a boy from being hit by a car. Though interesting for its portrayal of the long-term aftermath of the accident (the characters aren’t especially sympathetic and there’s a lot of social commentary), I felt bogged down by metaphors and similes around page 150 and put the book on hold. At 512 pages and 460 grams, though, it’s relatively manageable compared to some of these other finalists, plus I am pretty curious about what happens. Also recommended by friends.

Maria Stepanova’s Памяти памяти (I’ll call it In Memory of Memory, as this LARB interview does) is probably the book I’ve heard the most about, meaning that it also comes recommended, as a book about cultural history, family history, and, yes, memory. This sounds like such a thoughtful book that it feels thoroughly uncouth to give its bare statistics: 408 pages, 546 grams.

Andrei Filimonov’s Рецепты сотворения мира (Recipes for the Creation of the World) is so nicely summarized in Galina Yuzefovich’s review for Meduza, translated by Hilah Kohen, that I’ll leave the description to them. I will add, though, that the book’s cover says “От Парижа до Сибири через весь ХХ век” (“From Paris to Siberia, through the entire twentieth century”), putting me in awe of Filimonov for limiting himself to a very efficient 320 pages that mass in at 375 grams.

Yes, this polleny past week made me a little silly…

Disclaimers and Disclosures: Not much other than the usual and that the Slavnikova book was given to me by the organizers of the Russia stand at the Frankfurt Book Fair, thank you!

Up Next: More from the heavy “write about” shelf: a short story roundup, Sergei Kuznetsov’s Teacher Dymov, Janet Fitch’s The Revolution of Marina M. (I’m already waiting for the sequel!), and Vladimir Sharov’s The Rehearsals in Oliver Ready’s translation. And then there’s a Vladimir Makanin novella… and whatever I start tonight.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Salnikov and His Petrovs Win NatsBest

Aleksei Salnikov’s Петровы в гриппе и вокруг него won the National Bestseller Award today; I called the book The Petrovs in Various States of the Flu when it won the literary critic panel’s NOS(E) award earlier this year. The Petrovs took three NatsBest juror votes, Dmitrii Petrovsky’s Дорогая, я дома (I’m Home, Dear or maybe even Honey, I’m Home) got two, and Maria Labych’s Сука (Bitch) had one. You can watch the NatsBest ceremony on YouTube, here.

Although I reported feeling a bit underwhelmed when I read a large chunk of The Petrovs last year in electronic form, I’m very much looking forward to trying it again in print. I liked the tone and feel of the book, but it just didn’t seem right to read without paper. Among other things, I want very much to try to figure out how to hear the novel’s title.

Edits:
-Salnikov’s literary agency apparently hasn’t decided on a title yet, either.
-For more on the award and ceremony, see this article in Kommersant by Mikhail Trofimenkov.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual, for having translated NatsBest secretary Vadim Levental’s Masha Regina.

Up Next: More from the heavy “write about” shelf: the lovely short story cycle I’ve mentioned, Sergei Kuznetsov’s Teacher Dymov, Janet Fitch’s The Revolution of Marina M. (I’m already waiting for the sequel!), and Vladimir Sharov’s The Rehearsals in Oliver Ready’s translation. Among others. Plus, in very short order, the Big Book Short list.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Literature in Translation: Khvoshchinskaya’s City Folk and Country Folk

Sofia Khvoshchinskaya’s Городские и деревенские, known in Nora Seligman Favorov’s pleasantly readable English translation as City Folk and Country Folk, is the sort of book that makes me just want to tell you to read the book because it’s a fun, smart nineteenth-century novel. I’m feeling especially minimalist about this post because the description and blurbs on the back of the Russian Library’s edition (check them out on Amazon) of Favorov’s translation cover the essence of the book so well that I’d love to just copy and paste them in here. I can certainly agree with the summarizer that City Folk and Country Folk truly is “a seemingly gentle yet devastating satire of Russia’s aristocratic and pseudo-intellectual elites in the 1860s.”

City Folk and Country Folk particularly struck me as an entertaining comedy of manners—and manors—by detailing the day-to-day trials and tribulations of Nastasya Ivanovna Chulkova, “a fifty-five-year-old widow and the mistress of fifty souls” who lives in a place called Snetki with her teenage daughter Olenka and two houseguests: a neighbor named Erast Sergeyevich Ovcharov, a writer and big traveler who’s rejected staying at his own estate thanks to his heightened appreciation of cleanliness; and Nastasya Ivanovna’s rather difficult second cousin, Anna Ilinishna Bobova. Although Ovcharov settles in the bathhouse, moving in with plenty of worldly goods, the novel could almost be called The Hazards of Houseguests.

And of course it could! Khvoshchinskaya piles on (in rational portions, of course) history, awkwardness, and wonderfully standard plot turns—there’s the recent emancipation of the serfs, Olenka’s marriageable age, talk of “little people” and class and places in society, Erast Sergeyich’s preferences for fresh whey and social commentary, Anna Ilinishna shutting herself in her room, and a pushy neighbor—to good effect, ensuring that both hilarity and insights will ensue. Exactly what I’d hope for from a comedy of manners and manors that contrasts urban and rural ways. I think what I enjoyed so much about City Folk and Country Folk is its brand of ordinariness, something Hilde Hoogenboom mentions in her very helpful introduction to the novel, albeit taking a more specific angle by describing Nastasya and Olenka as “unusual Russian heroines in that they are emphatically not extraordinary.” (Hoogenboom references Barbara Heldt’s Terrible Perfection: Women and Russian Literature…)

In some senses, the very circumstances of the phenomenon of the novel—that Khvoshchinskaya wrote the novel under the pseudonym Ivan Vesenyev and was one of three writing sisters—seem almost more remarkable than the novel itself. But then, well, the fictional women really do, as they say, kick butt in City Folk and Country Folk, something that lends them automatic “extraordinary” status, given their setting. Olenka makes decisions for herself and almost literally runs circles around the pathetic suitor the pushy neighbor’s trying to set her up with and, as Hoogenboom notes, Nastasya’s a far better estate manager than the hapless Erast. There’s also a scene Hoogenboom rightfully calls “extraordinary,” when Nastasya treats her serfs “humanely” during conflict, choosing reason. That felt so natural to Nastasya’s character that I nearly missed it in all its extraordinariness. This, I think, is exactly what fiction should do, particularly when the writer (and the translator, too, in this case) make the feat look easy. I love this sort of extraordinary ordinariness, both in Russian fiction and in English translation.

Nora Seligman Favorov translates all this extraordinary ordinariness very nicely, so the book reads smoothly, from its preserved and footnoted French phrases to its feel for country life. She’s right that the novel offers lots of opportunities for “both scholarly investigation and pure reading pleasure” and, based on the result of all her work (as well as hints in her acknowledgements), it’s clear that she went to great lengths to ensure the text reflects the meaning and spirit of the Russian rather than (this is especially admirable!) making the novel feel like an academic exercise. I certainly enjoyed reading City Folk and Country Folk for fun but I’d also love to take a closer look at Khvoshchinskaya’s other writings as well as the fictional Erast Sergeyich’s essays, to see the novel a little better within its broader historical context. And, of course, to gain a more nuanced feel for the book’s humor.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: I received a review copy of City Folk and Country Folk from the Russian Library imprint of Columbia University Press, thank you! I am also working on a translation for the Russian Library.

Up Next: More from the heavy “write about” shelf: the lovely short story cycle I’ve mentioned, Sergei Kuznetsov’s Teacher Dymov, Janet Fitch’s The Revolution of Marina M. (I’m already waiting for the sequel!), and Vladimir Sharov’s The Rehearsals in Oliver Ready’s translation, among others. Plus, in very short order, the NatsBest winner and the Big Book Short list.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Anna Starobinets’s Look at Him

Perhaps the easiest thing to write about Anna Starobinets’s Посмотри на него (Look at Him) is that it blends several genres. The cover says “100% .doc” and the book is, indeed nonfiction—albeit a combination of memoir, medical history, and journalism, so not thoroughly .doc, at least to my mind—but what makes the book so compelling and human is that Starobinets puts her fiction-writing background to good use, pacing her book to develop a story arc and suspense. I could only read a little bit at a time because a personal story about late-term abortion is so intensely emotional. Even so, I had a hard time putting the book down at night.

Starobinets begins Look at Him at a routine ultrasound exam, to check her baby’s progress. She learns that her baby is a boy but she also learns he may have polycystic kidney disease. The medical side of her baby’s story is so complex, from many angles, including genetics, prenatal testing, and possible outcomes, that I won’t elaborate on that much. What’s most crucial to the book’s narrative arc is that Starobinets decides to terminate her pregnancy because doctors advise her that if she carries her son to term he will have a minimal chance of surviving.

Starobinets has been called a Russian Stephen King but learning about the realities of her child’s condition (which involves waiting and learning about various potential outcomes) and medical procedures for late-term abortion (some of which she quotes from online forums) in Look at Him mean she doesn’t need to embellish the truth to develop the afore-mentioned suspense. There’s another layer to the book, though, that creates at least as much tension: how the Russian medical system treats her much of the time. Without asking her permission, one specialist brings in medical students to observe her transvaginal ultrasound. Finding her way through the medical system is demeaning. She receives little empathy from many practitioners, though there are exceptions. And forgetting to wear foot covers can be problematic; she storms a clinic bathroom when she’s told she can’t go in without them. Her husband isn’t allowed in a clinic for her appointment, though she needs his moral support. And then there are the stories and admonitions she reads online.

Starobinets ends up going to Berlin after a friend finds a clinic for her. Many aspects of her treatment, both medical and human, are different there. Her husband is welcome at the clinic (even to spend the night) and she’s told “There is no reason why you should be in pain.” One of her biggest fears now is seeing her child. (This is where the book’s title comes from.) Starobinets and her husband are told at the clinic that parents usually look at their children after they’ve been born this way, meaning already dead; many even spend a day with them. Some of the most affecting scenes in the book describe Starobinets and her husband seeing their son after his birth, receiving an envelope with a photo and hand- and footprints, and visiting their baby’s grave later, when they return to Berlin for Starobinets’s husband, Alexander Garros, to have treatment for esophageal cancer. (Part of what made Look at Him so emotional is that I knew Garros died in 2017.) Starobinets notes that many Russian marriages break up after late-term terminations of pregnancy and she suspects that’s largely because husbands aren’t allowed into clinics, hospitals, or births. Or to look at their babies after the procedure and truly be able to share their wives’ grief. Garros helps Starobinets after their return home, too, when she has panic attacks And he’s with her when she gave birth to a healthy son in Latvia a couple of years later.

There’s lots more to Look at Him—I haven’t even touched on the role of Starobinets’s and Garros’s daughter in the family’s story—including a hundred pages of appendices covering interviews with doctors and patients plus comparative statistics on terminations of pregnancies in Germany and Russia. After reading some appendices and skimming others, I can see that they make Look at Him a sort of memoir that offers substantial background for other families faced with tough decisions based on prenatal exams and/or with similar emotions after the loss of a child with a congenital condition. More than that, it’s a book about life and death, basic human dignity, and treatment under various medical systems. (Unfortunately, dignity isn’t guaranteed anywhere, something I’ve certainly seen both from working as a medical interpreter for several years and from being a consumer of health care in the U.S., where the system gives ample opportunities to see absurd bureaucracy, burdensome pricing despite insurance, and bedside manner that can be indifferent, opinionatedly pushy, or inept at basic things like blood draws.) There’s been controversy about Look at Him, which is a finalist for the 2018 National Bestseller Award, but I commend Starobinets, as both a mother and a writer, for being able to sort through her emotions and knowledge, discuss her decisions (which not every reader will agree with), and write a book that tells so many real-life stories about what happened both during and after her pregnancy. Yes, it’s a work that’s both journalistic and personal rather than poetic or lovely, and some might see it as TMI, but Look at Me feels honest, like a genuine attempt to offer information to other families, no matter what they may ultimately decide when faced with similar situations that offer no ideal resolutions.

Disclaimers: The usual.

Up next: I’m slowly wending my way through a heavy “write about” shelf: the lovely short story cycle I’ve mentioned earlier, Sergei Kuznetsov’s Teacher Dymov, Janet Fitch’s The Revolution of Marina M. (I’m already waiting for the sequel!), Sofia Khvoshchinskaya’s City Folk and Country Folk in Nora Seligman Favorov’s translation, and Vladimir Sharov’s The Rehearsals in Oliver Ready’s translation. And more…

Sunday, April 29, 2018

The 2018 Big Book Longlist

The Big Book Award named 41 books to its longlist last week. As usual, there are quite a few familiar titles (some that I’ve even read, in part or in full) as well as lots of authors I’d never heard of. And a typical mix of fiction and nonfiction. The Big Book shortlist will be announced by May 31.

Since I particularly enjoy longlists for discovering new names and found several promising-sounding debut novels, I’m leaving off a few of the books that I suspect have a high likelihood of hitting a shortlist this season, be it the Big Book’s or someone else’s. The same goes for a number of authors I’ve read before and enjoyed. (Alphabetically, that list would start with Basinsky, end with Shargunov, and cover roughly ten other names.) So, without further ado, here’s a slice of the longlist, in Russian alphabetical order for each section:

Books I’ve already read in part or in full:
  • Ksenia Buksha’s Рамка, which I called The Detector when I blogged about the book. For some reason, this book has grown on me in my memory. I think it’s the metronome at the end, which just keeps ticking…
  • Yana Vagner’s Кто не спрятался (The Accomplices), which I mentioned in the same post as The Detector and was sorry not to finish.
  • Sana Valiulina’s Не боюсь Синей Бороды (I’m Not Afraid of Bluebeard a.k.a. Children of Brezhnev) contains some lovely description and atmosphere but didn’t quite grab me. I liked the rhythm of the writing, though, so I set it aside to try again when I’m not quite as deadline-addled. (I hope that comes before 2020!)
  • Sergei Kuznetsov’s Учитель Дымов (Teacher Dymov), which I read and enjoyed ages ago and need to post about one of these weeks. I think I’d describe it as a low-key family saga.

Books I already especially want to read:
  • Marina Vishnevetskaya’s Вечная жизнь Лизы К. (The Eternal Life of Liza K.). How could I miss this one when the description of the title’s Liza compares her life to Natasha Rostova’s? Set about two centuries later, though, in 2012-2015.
  • Vladimir Danikhnov’s Тварь размером с колесо обозрения (A Creature/Wretch/Brute the Size of a Ferris Wheel) is apparently an autobiographical book about having cancer.
  • Sergei Nosov’s Построение квадрата на шестом уроке (Drafting a Square During Sixth Period? I think.) Essays/slices of life. I’ve been reading Nosov’s stories from his One and a Half Rabbits and enjoying the absurdity and humor. Now I want to know about the perils of spending the night at Akhmatova’s dacha.
  • Ludmilla Petrushevskayas Нас украли. История преступлений (Kidnapped. The History of Crimes). I loved Petrushevskaya’s The Time: Night years ago and have been looking forward to this one for some time. I don’t want to read the description at the link I inserted, though!
  • Olga Slavnikova’s Прыжок в длину (Long Jump) is about an athlete who loses his lower extremities in an accident.

A few debuts:
  • Yulia Gurina’s Мы же взрослые люди (But We’re Adults) sounds like a light, entertaining (but not stupid!) novel about a woman on maternity leave who’s feeling at odds with the world.
  • Konstantin Semyonov’s Звали его Эвил (His Name Was Ehvil) is a debut novel that’s apparently set in/near/around a Petersburg-area dacha and contains plenty of irony. For some reason, this one sounds particularly good to me.
  • Inna Shul’zhenko’s Вечность во временное пользование (Eternity for Temporary Use/Loan) is set in Paris.

Disclaimers: The usual. I’ve received printed copies of two of the books I’ve mentioned.

Up Next: A lot! Way too much, really, and the list keeps growing. I have a lot to write up. The lovely short story cycle I’ve mentioned earlier, Sergei Kuznetsov’s Teacher Dymov, Janet Fitch’s The Revolution of Marina M. (I’m already waiting for the sequel!), Sofia Khvoshchinskaya’s City Folk and Country Folk in Nora Seligman Favorov’s translation, and Vladimir Sharov’s The Rehearsals in Oliver Ready’s translation. And a couple more…

Sunday, April 15, 2018

The 2018 National Bestseller Award Shortlist

The National Bestseller Award announced its five-book shortlist last week, reviving an annual burning question: Who will wake up famous this year? If shortlist voting is any indication, it’ll be Aleksei Sal’nikov for his Petrovs novel, the one with the title I’m not quite sure how to translate… Not that The Petrovs are alone: as always, there are other titles that could be interpreted in various ways, depending on how the books turn. Based on NatsBest secretary Vadim Levental’s commentary about the shortlist, many of the shortlist candidate books provoked lively discussion about literature and life. (See below!) The NatsBest winner will be announced on May 26.

For now, here’s the shortlist:

  • Aleksei Sal’nikov’s Петровы в гриппе и вокруг него (I called it The Petrovs in Various States of the Flu when it won the literary critic panel’s NOS(E) award earlier this year.) (12 points). I was a little underwhelmed by The Petrovs when I read a big chunk of it as part of last year’s Big Book reading, but I want very much to try it again now that it’s out in book form—it didn’t feel like a novel to read electronically.
  • Vasilii Aksyonov’s Была бы дочь Анастасия (Perhaps If There Were a Daughter Anastasia? This title feels like it could go in various ways, too, depending…) (6 points). About nature in Siberia.
  • Maria Labych’s Сука (Bitch) (6 points). A novel about a woman fighting on the frontlines in Donbass.
  • Anna Starobinets’s Посмотри на него (Look at Him, maybe?) (6 points). About late-term abortion. This book is on the shelf.
  • Dmitrii Petrovskii’s Дорогая, я дома (I’m Home, Dear or Honey, I’m Home, depending on the tone.) (5 points). Hmm, a novel that takes place from the 1940s through the 2020s and is described as looking at the past, present, and future of European civilization.
Disclaimers: The usual. And I translated NatsBest secretary Vadim Levental’s Masha Regina.

Up Next: It’s Award Season (Phase I) and the Big Book longlist will be announced on April 24. Plus many books: the lovely short story cycle I’ve mentioned, Sergei Kuznetsov’s Teacher Dymov, Janet Fitch’s The Revolution of Marina M. (I’m already waiting for the sequel!), Sofia Khvoshchinskaya’s City Folk and Country Folk in Nora Seligman Favorov’s translation, and Vladimir Sharov’s The Rehearsals in Oliver Ready’s translation. And more to come... It’s a busy spring for translations, which is perfect as I continue wending my way through a lot of Tolstoy’s Peace and just a little of his War.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

2018 Read Russia Prize for English-Language Translations: Winner & Citations

Read Russia announced last week that Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, Anne Marie Jackson, and Irina Steinberg’s translation of Teffi’s autobiographical Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea won the 2018 Read Russia Prize for Russian-to-English translation. The book was published in the U.S. by New York Review Books and in the U.K. by Pushkin Press.

The Read Russia jury also made “special mentions” of two other books: Rapture, written by Iliazd (Ilia Zdanevich), translated by Thomas J. Kitson, and published by Columbia University Press’s Russian Library imprint; and Russian Émigré Short Stories from Bunin to Yankovsky, edited by Bryan Karetnyk, translated by Karetnyk, Maria Bloshteyn, Robert Chandler, Justin Doherty, Boris Dralyuk, Rose France, Dmitri Nabokov, Donald Rayfield, Irina Steinberg, and Anastasia Tolstoy, and published by Penguin Classics.

The full Read Russia shortlist is here.


Hearty congratulations to all involved!

Disclaimers and disclosures: The usual for various ties. I received copies of two of these books from their publishers.

Up next: Sergei Kuznetsov’s Teacher Dymov, a lovely short story cycle, some books in English (including translations as well as Janet Fitch’s long, suspenseful The Revolution of Marina M.), and more award news. I’m still rereading War and Peace, still focusing more on Peace than War, and still particularly enjoying various families’ antics.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

The Tin Foil Hat Crowd: Volos’s Shpakovsky’s Hat

Andrei Volos’s Шапка Шпаковского (Shpakovsky’s Hat) is an odd kind of book, a pleasant-but-serious-too jumble sort of satirical novel that doesn’t always hold together particularly very well for a stickler like me but that reads along nicely enough to finish. I read all 316 pages. The description on the back of the book promises a novel about a novelist, Innokenty Dogavtsev (pseudonym Semyon Sukhotrub), who decides to kill off the unkillable hero of his thriller series, but Shpakovsky’s Hat is more about the absurdities of modern life, both private and public.

Volos tosses so many plot threads and tropes into this brief book that I almost expected to find an essay about kitchen sinks somewhere in the middle. There’s the issue of Sukhotrub’s novel, there’s publisher humor, there are work relationships (one of which, with an Alisa—she’d be Alice in English, like the Wonderland girl—quickly becomes far more personal), there are guy-time outings, there’s a political element, there’s a detainment, there’s freedom, and there’s the question of the many-layered tin foil hats that Shpakovsky (one of the buddies) wears to keep out voices. I sympathize about the hat since heaven only knows there’s way too much background noise in life these days. Full disclosure: I confess to having worn foil hats more than once during my first youth, though only when hennaing my hair.

I could go on and on about bits of humor that I marked—a publisher with big game trophies who proclaims the uselessness of electronic reading devices, a film producer saying any book with a print run lower than 60,000 copies has no propaganda value, etc., etc.—or mention lots of other enjoyable or sad-but-funny bits, but I’m not sure there’s much point. Shpakovsky’s Hat is the sort of book that can be compared to soufflés, meaning that they may be tasty or even yummy, but they’re airy and thus not especially satiating even if there are Big Topics (the flavor of cheese? some bits of bacon? the threat of high cholesterol?) involved. Of course I enjoyed the publishing world chunks most, though hope nobody ever has to go through the contract indignities Dogavtsev-Sukhotrub does.

The most interesting aspect of Shpakovsky’s Hat is that it kept me reading, despite the meandering plot and despite being rather short on Shpakovsky himself, since I think he’s the most interesting character, someone who’s tuned in but wants to tune out. It’s voice—Dogavtsev’s voice—that keeps the book going. His first-person narrative is chatty and humorous, nattering on and on without getting too dull, and, of course, blending in a reference or two to Moscow to the End of the Line for good measure. (Beyond that, NatsBest juror Veronika Kungurtseva’s review notes lots of apparent references to Master and Margarita.) Digging through the book for more notes and details would be completely untrue to my reading, which was, second confession, fairly mindless, which probably means careless. I’d been warned going into Shpakovsky’s Hat that it wasn’t Volos’s best work, though someone who’s been recommending Volos to me for a long time said I’d enjoy it anyway. Yes, I did, even if it felt too loose. (For more, Kelderek’s observations on the book, on the Ozon.ru site, are very, very close to mine.) I have several other Volos books on the shelf so I’m sure there will be more to come.

Disclaimers: The usual.

Up next: Sergei Kuznetsov’s Teacher Dymov, a lovely short story cycle, more books in English, and upcoming award news. I’m still rereading War and Peace, though focusing more on Peace than War this time around (there’s enough chaos in present-day life that the chaos of war in the novel feels a little overwhelming) and still don’t intend to blog about the experience.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Strugatskys’ Doomed City: Not Quite My Kind of Dystopian Town

My best news about reading Град обреченный (available in English as Andrew Bromfield’s The Doomed City, Chicago Review Press), by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, is that I finished it, all 444.25 pages. After attempting at least four or five other Strugatsky books (some of which I nearly finished), this is the first Strugatsky novel I’ve gotten through in Russian. The less good news is that The Doomed City may be a page-turner but I still feel a touch underwhelmed. That said, I found The Doomed City fascinating in certain ways. For starters, a lot of people from various countries and times have been spirited away to a city in an otherworldly place where mysterious mentors occasionally visit. People all somehow even understand each other’s languages. The sun is shut off and turned on. Baboons mysteriously appear. And so on and so forth. The book is loaded with sociopolitical and sociocultural material, and there’s a clear sense of mock(ing) Sovietdom. Scariest: the political experiments feel relevant now, too. Perhaps best of all, the book is far edgier than any other Strugatsky books I’ve tried, without the corny humor (sorry, but I’ve never enjoyed the Brothers’ humor) but with obscenities as well as less of a cookie-cutter science fiction feel. Oddly, I may want to reread it, for details: there’s just far, far too much to sort out in just one reading, making one reading feel like a very rough draft.

The Doomed City focuses on the career(s) of Andrei Voronin, depicting his progression through various professions over the course of the book, beginning as a garbage collector and ending as a presidential advisor and operative. (Changes of profession are forced.) Andrei, who was an astronomer back on Earth, is a pretty unsympathetic character: not only is he a Stalinist but his political gig is under a president who served Nazi Germany; Andrei does a nasty turn to Izya Katzman, the nicest, most thoughtful person in the book, who also happened to work for Joint; and he tends to think of women (who, eek!, barely even appear in The Doomed City—perchance this is a reason it’s doomed?) using terms like “slut” and “whore.” Given that the presence of all these people in the City is an experiment—it’s actually an Experiment and “The Experiment is the Experiment” is repeated over and over again—I think part of the Strugatskys’ point here (put simplistically) is to offer a portrait of a thoroughly unsympathetic (that word again!) person who starts as an astronomer, a scientist who should have distant vision, but is blinded by stubbornness and proximity to power and comfort.

There’s a intriguing sense of camaraderie among these disparate characters from all over the world, particularly when they gather to eat, drink, and even dance. It’s even interesting to watch the progression of the parties along with Andrei’s career: the core of the guest list remains the same but things get fancier and more official. The happiest person in the book, though, seems to be Wang, who risks to remain a garbage collector. Wang knows what he wants and understands himself, something that eludes Andrei, who realizes his thought processes are inconstant and whose mentor tells him, “You’ve just had understanding hammered into you, and it makes you feel sick, you don’t understand what the hell you need it for, you don’t want to know about it…”

In the end, I found The Doomed City more interesting and fun to read—the novel’s suspenseful and the Strugatskys draw Andrei’s psychology and actions pretty clearly—than to reflect on. I admit that’s partly because there were a few bits I didn’t quite get. I’m glad, for example, that Marat Grinberg’s review for Los Angeles Review of Books decodes the novel’s ending, prefaced by, “What transpires is very cryptic; one needs to be a fan of David Lynch to unravel the mystery.” Despite being a Lynch fan who’s seen lots of his films, not to mention all of Twin Peaks at least twice, in Russian (voiced over, mind you!) and in English, I still, dense of head, needed Grinberg’s help. Grinberg sums up the relationship between Andrei and Izya, including how Izya helps Andrei handle understanding better. (Alas, in the novel there’s a meandering three-page paragraph involved.) I realize that I’m more to blame than the Strugatskys for needing remedial assistance from Grinberg—I was caught up in the suspense of the novel and read crucial passages too quickly—but a lot of important material, including that crucial meandering paragraph and Andrei’s speech to statues during an expedition, felt more contrived and tacked on than it could or should have. Of course this is something that bothers me in lots of books: inorganic philosophy. I’d much rather see philosophy through characters’ actions and reactions than through long speeches. A case in point is Wang’s refusal to dump his garbage handling work.

I found a different, far simpler, form of wisdom about the book when I looked up Dmitry Glukhovsky’s introduction to Andrew Bromfield’s translation, which is partially available on Google Books. Glukhovsky thinks the Strugatskys modeled the City on a place where they both lived: Leningrad, which has also been the site of many experiments and whose residents also refer to it as “the City.” Andrei is from Leningrad.

The Grinberg and Glukhovsky angles on The Doomed City feel equally apt to me. Perhaps what feels aptest right now, though, is that despite (no, likely because of) my annoyance with Andrei’s bigotry and his willingness to join Heiger’s unsavory regime, the book feels like an important warning about the ramifications of chaos and lack of knowledge, and the authoritarianism that perpetuates them. I hope Glukhovsky continues to be correct that “In the West there is simply no need for the kind of science fiction that we had: you already have enough space without it to discuss the fate and fortunes of your own countries and your own peoples.” Therein, I suspect, lies the strange pull of The Doomed City.

Disclaimers: The usual.

Up Next: Sergei Kuznetsov’s Teacher Dymov, Andrei Volos’s Shpakovsky’s Hat, a lovely short story cycle, more books in English, and upcoming award news. The backlog’s handy since I just started a fifth reading of War and Peace and don’t plan to blog about it this time around.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

A Jumbled Post on Two in English: Paul Goldberg’s The Château and Katja Petrowskaja’s Maybe Esther

I don’t receive a lot of English-language books that aren’t translations from the Russian but are somehow related to Russia, Russian, or the Former Soviet Union, so this February’s new releases brought two nice surprises: Paul Goldberg’s The Château and Katja Petrowskaja’s Maybe Esther, Shelley Frisch’s translation, from the German, of Petrowskaja’s Vielleicht Esther. Goldberg’s book is frenetic fiction, a satire, based on thoroughly up-to-the-minute reality (yikes) in the United States and Petrowskaja’s book is a metaphysical (I think I can say that) sort of memoir about family. The books have some threads in common: Jewish characters/relatives born in the Former USSR and the legacies of World War 2. Each book offers lots of other elements that I think should be of interest to readers of Russian language and literature so I’ll skew my descriptions sharply in those directions since both Goldberg and Petrowskaja have stuffed so much—to good effect—into their books.

Jason Sheehan’s review of The Château for NPR covers the ups and downs of the novel’s plot and structure so perfectly that I’ll just summarize by saying that in January 2017 Bill Katzenelenbogen, who’s been freshly fired from his science reporter job at The Washington Post, goes to investigate his college roommate’s mysterious death (a fall) in Florida, where Bill stays with his fraudster/poet father, Melsor Yakovlevich Katzenelenbogen, who’s running for the board of directors of his condo building, called, yes, Château Sedan Neuve. Much of the freneticness in The Château comes from Goldberg’s language: he captures Russian émigré language beautifully, so sliding glass doors become “slice doors,” 45’s name becomes “Donal’d Tramp,” and Melsor says to Bill, “Here. Translate. I will be long time. You have pen?” It’s pitch-perfect but not snarky.

There’s a fair bit of translation in the book, too: not only does Bill translate Melsor’s chastushki about the building, but Goldberg offers dialogue in transliterated Russian with English translation, often including slang and мат (obscenities). Here’s a sample paragraph: “’A chto eto za mudak? FBR?’ asks a woman in a black bathing suit. [Who is this fuckup? FBI?]” I couldn’t resist that particular paragraph since mudak is one of my favorite Russian vulgarities; there’s a nice summary of it later in the book, too, here. The word svoloch’ (more complex) gets more ink, including derivation (!) and utterances, gathered here. Lest you think I’m specializing in insults, perhaps I can interest you in a brief discussion of verbs of motion plus many lines of and references to real literature—Mandelstam and Vysotsky appear early on, and of course there are mentions of Gogol—meaning literature Melsor didn’t write. All in all, I’d recommend The Château to Russian-obsessed readers who also have a sense of humor about life in Florida (émigré life or otherwise) and are interested in reading about how politics gets out of hand even at the condo board level. There’s a reason the word “fascism” appears on the book’s flap. In these days of news overload, I give Goldberg extra credit for keeping me interested in the very political, very current Château, which also contains extraneous plot lines and thematic threads. Sheehan is right in calling the book “bonkers.” Then again, well, “bonkers” is a perfect fit for January 2017, meaning that Goldberg picked an appropriate level of crazy. He’s something of a specialist with bonkers: in many ways, the word also fits The Yid, which I wrote about last year (previous post).

It felt strange to follow Florida and The Château with Maybe Esther—which is subtitled “A Family Story”—and travel to Europe, where Petrowskaja is in search of her family’s history, including traces of her great-grandmother, whose name might have been Esther. Maybe Esther hit me especially well because so many elements reminded me of Margarita Khemlin’s Klotsvog, which I’d been translating. Two examples: on a micro level, there’s discussion of what clothes were and weren’t taken into evacuation during World War 2 and on a macro level, there’s a sense of a war that never leaves. The war never left Petrowskaja’s grandmother, just as it never left Khemlin, who, like Petrowskaja, wasn’t even born until after the war. Petrowskaja’s travel and book prove over and over that the war hasn’t leave her untouched, either, that it’s part of her history. As she’s on her way to visit Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp, she stands at a bus station waiting for bus 360 and the numeral feels appropriate because she says she’s moving in a circle. And then she sees fellow passengers with circular items: a toilet seat and life preservers. Petrowskaja makes every detail count in Maybe Esther.

Petrowskaja brings lots of humor and word play into the book and I marked a section on the Russian word organy (the organs, not just internal organs in the body but internal organs in the government, too, like the secret police) because I loved how the family discussed the organy (innards!) swallowing people up. With its blend of languages, I can only imagine how difficult Maybe Esther must have been to translate but Shelley Frisch’s translation reads beautifully and she handles Russian expressions (not just the organy) very adeptly. There’s also a fun passage with a ficus that includes lots of similar-sounding words, like fixated and fiction, and Shelley’s long sentences flow and flow, building momentum and rhythm, contrasting nicely with shorter sentences.

Dozens of small episodes and objects drew my attention: an incomplete recipe, the onset of blindness, the fuzziness of memory (of course), Petrowskaja’s great-uncle shooting a German embassy counselor in Moscow, the great-uncle’s trial, the grandfather who disappeared for decades, and the feeling of being Sisyphus. I could go on and on and on about numerous other little things so will just mention something that’s much bigger and more important because it encompasses thousands and thousands of reasons to read the book: Babi Yar and everyone who was lost and became a “maybe” like Esther. I don’t read a lot of nonfiction but I’m a sucker for narrative nonfiction where an author can tell stories, important stories, as Petrowskaja does, drawing me in and holding me from chapter to chapter with digressions, dreamily lofty observations, colorful figures, lives, historical settings, and language play, assisted here, of course by Shelley Frisch. Since I’ve only covered some favorite slivers of the lovely jumble that is Maybe Esther, here’s Linda Kinstler’s review for the Los Angeles Review of Books for more.

Disclaimers: The usual. I received review copies of both books. Thank you to HarperCollins for Maybe Esther and Picador for The Château. Special thanks to Picador for a finished copy, so I could check quotes. And read Goldberg’s acknowledgements; he’s a master of acknowledgements. I met Shelley Frisch at a translator conference.

Up Next: Sergei Kuznetsov’s Teacher Dymov, the Strugatsky Brothers’ Doomed City, Andrei Volos’s Shpakovsky’s Hat, a short story collection, and more books in English.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Riding Yakovleva’s Red Horse

I often seem to enjoy detective novels most for their portrayals of fears related to violent crime. I love the formal aspect, too, particularly when writers stretch the genre: What builds suspense and keeps the pages turning? Beyond that, I like thinking about how all those factors tend to differ in books from various countries. What might they indicate about cultures and societies?

In novels like Yulia Yakovleva’s Укрощение красного коня (Taming the Red Horse; you might want to click through for a plot summary), the fears go far beyond violent crime and, for me, anyway, the suspense comes far less from trying to figure out who dunnit than in wondering how detective Vasily Zaitsev will act when forced to face moral dilemmas. Zaitsev isn’t perfect but he does pretty well, ethically speaking, particularly given the decisions facing a resident of Leningrad in the early 1930s. I’ll confess that I don’t even remember who, exactly, ended up committing the crime. I focused primarily on Yakovleva’s geographical settings in Leningrad and Starocherkassk, not to mention the treacherous temporal setting when—this is mentioned early in the novel—most crimes were being labeled with “political.”

The basic crime here is that a lauded horse (Пряник, Gingerbread, sometimes a cookie, I love them) keels over at the race track and his rider ends up dead, too. Despite a distinct lack of interest at HQ, Zaitsev insists on investigating, leading him to a cavalry riding school, a vet school, and, eventually, Starocherkassk. The horse turns out to an Orlov and varying opinions among the novel’s horsey characters—is it better to purify the breed or bring in new blood?—seem to echo social issues of the time, particularly given the “red” in the novel’s title. Even with the horse details, in my reading, Zaitsev’s detective investigation feels like just a formal skeleton for a novel about a period when society is divided—the revolution wasn’t even a full generation ago—leading Zaitsev to wonder, for example, how a horse can differ in tsarist and Soviet times, and to notice differences in how former nobles and present peasants/workers comport themselves. Yakovleva somehow works this all into the story so it feels very natural: she’s chosen her temporal setting and formed her main characters wisely.

One of Zaitsev’s challenges is an assignment to travel to Starocherkassk with a woman named Zoya, whom he first meets when she comes to his office and throws up in his wastebasket. I figured out the cause long before Zaitsev does (he’s smart about crime but not biology!) and though he initially seems to have difficulty with Zoya’s feminist views (I noted down “Zaitsev not much for women’s lib”), he softens considerably over the course of the novel, particularly after realizing why she’s thrown up and seeing how she sacrifices so they’ll both have enough to eat during their time away. Zoya, by the way, brings Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don on the trip with her.

Dekulakization is the source of many of Zaitsev’s moral dilemmas. He gives food to starving children at a station stop during his train trip with Zoya and is later asked to participate in a security operation, as part of a “communist answer” to the “kulak bandits.” When Zaitsev is asked to participate in another unsavory bit of work later in the book, he again finds a way to refuse. The era’s catastrophic combination of repression, food shortages, dekulakization, and collectivization affect Zaitsev and Zoya in other ways, too. Zaitsev even wonders if they’re being lodged with a family that’s moved into a former kulak’s house.

If all that isn’t enough, the book oozes with atmosphere, something Yakovleva’s very good at creating. There are smelly bars, Zaitsev’s crowded communal apartment (a neighbor lends him luggage), and the unbearable heat in Starocherkassk. Sweat. Fairly early in the novel, I noted “a feeling of filth” when Zaitsev pats a stray dog then goes to rinse his hand in the Moika river, the same place people urinate. Not to worry: the water smells fresh anyway. I cringed anyway. There are nice little touches about Zaitsev, too: before leaving Starocherkassk for Leningrad, he makes sure to return tiffin boxes to a cafeteria worker so she won’t get in trouble.

I enjoyed Yakovleva’s first Zaitsev novel, Tinker, Tailor (previous post), but I think Red Horse is a much better book. Tinker, Tailor has some awkward plot lines (the love story, the imprisonment) and is saved by atmosphere, Leningrad, a serial killer’s quirky method, and Zaitsev himself. Red Horse isn’t perfect—it’s a bit long in places—but it moves along at a moderate pace, going into enough depth about Zaitsev’s psychological state and all the difficulties he faces at home (why does he suddenly have lots of servants he doesn’t need?) and work (will he be a goner because he’s acting according to his conscience?). Yakovleva layers all that very well, creating a sort of hybrid book: it’s ostensibly a detective novel but, as I mentioned above, I don’t even remember who dunnit because I was far more interested in Zaitsev, his identity, and his environment. That’s what kept me turning pages. Reviewer Kira Dolinina, writing for Kommersant, seems to have read the book similarly and I hope she’s right that Yakovleva doesn’t seem to have exhausted the detective genre yet. I, too, would love to read more about Zaitsev.

Up Next: Sergei Kuznetsov’s Teacher Dymov, two English-language titles, and the Strugatsky Brothers’ Doomed City, which will be the first of their books that I’ve been able to read in its entirety in Russian. (I’m not quite done but I already know I’ll have to finish!)

Disclaimers: The usual. I first heard about Yakovleva’s books from Banke, Goumen & Smirnova Literary Agency; BGS represents Yakovleva and quite a few of my authors, and I often collaborate with them.