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.