Sunday, July 5, 2020

Big Book 2: Buksha’s Heartfelt Churov and Churbanov

Ksenia Buksha’s Чуров и Чурбанов (Churov and Churbanov) is the first Russian book I’ve read and really, truly enjoyed on multiple levels during this whole bleak quarantine season. Churov and Churbanov captured me so much that I a) wanted to begin rereading as soon as I finished but b) don’t particularly feel like writing about it, lest I break the novel’s spell. I will tread lightly.

Churov and Churbanov is both comforting and disquieting, telling the story of two schoolmates who grow up in the 1990s and take (mostly) divergent paths in life. Churov becomes a cardiologist and a family man. Churbanov becomes, hm, a businessman. They live in St. Petersburg: the novel’s description refers to the “Petersburg atmosphere” and I must say that I cannot picture the book taking place anywhere else, perhaps because of certain slightly mystical, mysterious, and grotesque elements. Buksha works mentions of Santa Barbara, giant icicles, George Soros, and a grocery list with chicken hearts into her chapters. There is naturalism (the period’s crime) and there is empathy and love (family life).

She writes some beautiful scenes. In one, Churov videos his dog as they walk along railroad ties; he later shows the clip to juvenile patients to entice them to open their mouths at appointments. In another, after sustaining some injuries in a fight, Churbanov goes to the frozen Neva, sits on the snow, and drinks vodka and eats sausage as the sun sets and snow falls.

One of the elements that draws the book’s vignette-like chapters into a novel is the heart. There’s a bread factory (with a giant mixer!) that’s the heart of the city, there are those chicken hearts, and there’s a geography teacher who claims to remember students with her heart, though she confuses Churov and Churbanov. There is also the oddity that Churov and Churbanov, who are opposite in most respects, have synchronized hearts, a phenomenon that becomes a strange, almost utopian, fixation since it’s seen as having curative potential. Synchronization is banned because of instant simultaneous death of an entire synchronized group if one member dies.

The true miracle of Churov and Churbanov lies in Buksha’s telling. The pacing is perfect, she offers just the right level of detail, and the book has lots of heart and soul. As well as comfort and disquiet. The book’s formal success alone is refreshing but there’s something about the novel’s combination of light and dark – here I’m recalling scenes, like the bread factory’s constantly glowing windows and Churbanov’s sunset on the river as well as figurative, character- and plot-based light and dark – that appealed to both my head and my heart. It’s a very satisfying book.

Up next: Potpourri. Alexander Belyaev’s Professor Dowell’s Head, science fiction from 1925. The odder the better right about now.

Disclaimers and disclosures. The usual. This is the second of this year’s Big Book finalists that I’ve read in full; I received an electronic copy but read a previously purchased printed copy.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

The 2020 Yasnaya Polyana Longlist – So Many Books!

After skipping out last weekend in favor of intensive weeding and other yard work, I’d been looking forward to (finally!) writing this week about books I’ve read. But then the Yasnaya Polyana longlist materialized. Meaning the books-I’ve-read potpourri post will wait until next weekend.

There are 39 books on YP’s list so I’ll get right to things. First off, nine books – Buksha, Elizarov, Idiatullin, Ilichevsky, Kibirov, Makushinsky, Rubina, Sinitskaya, and Chizhov – overlap with the Big Book shortlist (previous post) and three – Astvatsaturov, Elizarov, Sinitskaya – overlap with the NatsBest shortlist (previous post). That’s not especially interesting. What’s probably more interesting is that fourteen of YP’s longlisted titles were written by women. Two of my authors, Vladislav Otroshenko and Evgeny Vodolazkin, are quoted saying this year’s list is particularly interesting and varied. I think “varied” struck me more here than “interesting,” since there are so many familiar titles and not many of the unfamiliar ones are novels. And not many of the unfamiliar novels appeal.

I’ll keep things easy and focus on a few books by unfamiliar authors. It’s been brain-meltingly hot lately. At least until the fog rolled in today, cooling things off so much I may be reaching for the cozy socks again. So let’s see what turns up among new-to-me authors…

  • Tatyana Novoselovas Живы будем - не умрем. По страницам жизни уральской крестьянки (roughly Well Be Alive, We Wont Die. Pages from the Life of a Urals Peasant Woman) is a memoir written by a woman born in 1943 and raised at a collective farm; her father died during the war. She worked as a physics teacher for about 40 years. It’s the kolkhoz that fascinates me.
  • Tatyana Pletneva’s Пункт третий (Point Number Three) is a novel set during 1979-1981 in Moscow, Leningrad, and a prison camp in the Urals. It looks like it involves dissidents and KGB officers.
  • Kanta Ibragimov’s Стигал (Stigal) is narrated by a Chechen man whose family was destroyed during the Chechen War.
  • Petr Vlasov and Olga Vlasova’s Московская стена (The Moscow Wall) sounds like a dystopian novel set in a time after a global crisis has destroyed the world we know. I do know of Petr Vlasov’s illustrated work (about cats at the Hermitage) but, well, that’s not a dystopia (I don’t think?), meaning Vlasov is unfamiliar in this dystopian guise.


Up Next: Ksenia Buksha’s Churov and Churbanov, which I thought was both very good and very interesting; that potpourri I’ve been meaning to write for so long…

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual. Not much this time around other than having translated work by prize judges and authors mentioned in this post.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Big Book Finalists for 2020: A Lucky Thirteen List for Lizok’s Summer Reading Plan

Well, this year’s Big Book shortlist came in an unusual way: the announcement was held on Zoom rather than at a GUM luncheon this time around so I dragged myself to my computer at seven in the morning to watch. Despite the early (for me) hour, it was fun to see some friends and experience (yet again!) the oddly voyeuristic feeling of observing people in their Zoom habitats.

Since there are thirteen finalists this year, I’ll get to the list without further ado, listing the shortlisters in the order they were named over Zoom. In a few cases, I’ll mention brief the authors’ brief answers to questions from Dmitry Bak, who served as the broadcast’s genial, smiling host.

  • Timur Kibirov’s Генерал и его семья (The General and His Family) is a long family saga written by a writer who’s probably best known as a poet. (For his part, Kibirov says he has not switched to prose and is working on a new book of poetry.) The novel is set in the late Soviet period. My colleague Jamie Olson has translated some of Kibirov’s poetry; you can find a few of his translations here.
  • Shamil Idiatullin’s Бывшая Ленина (Former Lenin [Street, though not only “street,” from what I gather]) is set in a provincial city with all sorts of problems and takes place, hm, last year.
  • Evgeny Chizhov’s Собиратель рая (Collector of Heaven or Collecting Heaven?), which I read in part and called “good-natured” in my longlist post, is a slow, meandering novel about a woman with dementia and her son, who loves flea markets. There’s some good humor and lots of atmosphere but I found the book disappointing, perhaps in part because I loved Chizhov’s The Translation (previous post) so much. I will, however, revisit Collector.
  • Alexander Ilichevsky made the list with Чертеж Ньютона (Newton’s Sketch), which apparently features three journeys and settings including Nevada, the Pamirs, and Jerusalem. The narrator mentions in the novel’s first sentence that he works with dark matter…
  • Pavel Selukov’s Добыть Тарковского ([Verbing, I think perhaps Procuring or somesuch] Tarkovsky) is a collection of short stories that are apparently set in Perm in the nineties and noughties. Thank you to Bak for asking Selukov which Tarkovsky the title refers to… though Selukov deflected the question. (Now that I have the book, I know the answer but won’t spoil anything for anyone…)
  • Grigori Arosev and Evgenii Kremchukov’s Деление на ноль (Division by Zero) apparently concerns a dystopia. Which feels right up my alley these days. [Guilty pleasure: I confess that I was almost pleased to see Kremchukov confess that he forgot what he wanted to say when it was his turn to speak. Zoom seems to have the exact same effect on me perhaps because I’m always watching people in their little boxes…]
  • Vasily Avchenko and Alexei Korovashko’s Олег Куваев: повесть о нерегламентированном человеке (Oleg Kuvaev: Story of an Unregulated Person) is a biography of Oleg Kuvaev, who has a cult following and is best known for a book called Territory. And, evidently, a life of adventure.
  • Sofia Sinitskaya will continue to haunt me with her titles! Her Сияние «Жеможаха» (The Glimmering [of the] Zhemozhakha, though I’m loving the idea of The “Zhemozhakha” Shining since the title’s other word is the same as the Russian title of a certain Stephen King book) is now on my summer book list. Sinitskaya said that word I can’t really translate (yet!) is a sort of symbol of the absurd. I’ll return to my notes and report back after revisiting her previous book involving Zhemozhakha and then reading this one where [OMG!] Zhemozhakha apparently drives a car! Maybe zhemozhakha can become a word in English.
  • Dina Rubina is back with another trilogy – Наполеонов обоз (Napoleon’s Caravan/Convoy or somesuch) – that looks like another family saga. When Bak asked Rubina why the story is so long, Rubina said [long story short here] she couldn’t leave anything unsaid.
  • Natalia Gromova made the list with an autobiographical novel, Насквозь (Through and Through, perhaps?).
  • Mikhail Elizarov’s Земля (Earth) is the only book I’ve already read in full (previous post).
  • Alexei Makushinskys Предместья мысли. Философическая прогулка (The Outskirts of Thought. A Philosophical Stroll, something like that, perhaps?) visits places where Nikolai Berdyaev and Jacques Maritain lived.
  • I’m currently reading Ksenia Buksha’s Чуров и Чурбанов (Churov and Churbanov), which I’d already bought in bound, printed form (hurray for old-fashioned books!), chronicles the lives of two classmates. It’s very readable and a bit light, though I feel like there may be some dark turns ahead.

I’ll leave it there for now, other than to note that – as in years past – I was disappointed not to see more books written by women on the list. I was especially surprised that Olga Pogodina-Kuzmina’s Uranium didn’t make the list. But, as last year, I’ll be sure to buy Uranium and some of the other longlisters by women writers, though that list of 39 books had only eight written by women, meaning there are not many there to choose from.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: I’m on the jury of the Big Book Award and have received electronic copies of all the finalists. I’ve met some of the writers on the list and translated an excerpt of Earth.

Up Next: The long-promised potpourri. Busksha’s Churov and Churbanov.