Sunday, May 10, 2020

The 2020 Big Book Longlist

The Big Book Award announced its longlist, hm, oh, about a week or two or three ago. (It’s always Blursday now, right?) This year’s list didn’t draw me in immediately but let’s see what happens as I go through it more carefully, to see what’s new. There are 39 books on the list (and only eight written by women, which is a disappointment yet again, though, as always, I have no idea what books were nominated) so I certainly don’t plan to list everything. But I love longlists so am (eternally) hoping there might be something good to discover. Here goes.

First, a few books that I’ve already read, if only in part:
  • Mikhail Elizarov’s Земля (Earth), the only book I’ve read in full. And “in full” means hundreds and hundreds of pages (previous post), so in full. Earth was the top vote-getter for this year’s NatsBest shortlist.
  • Dmitry Zakharov’s Средняя Эдда (Middle Edda), of which I read about half, was a big disappointment, though the book itself is slender. It’s fairly up-to-the-minute with its sociopolitical and sociocultural material but, for my taste, it’s too packed with people, places, and stuff to read well. It was also hugely distracting that a character is named Ovechkin, calling to mind The Great 8.
  • Evgeny Chizhov’s Собиратель рая (perhaps Collecting Heaven?) is a good-natured book that’s the opposite of Middle Edda: slow and meandering. It, too, disappointed, though I appreciated some of the humor and flea market finds.

A few other books have already made this year’s NatsBest shortlist or NOSE shortlist. Almost all of these sound good in some way.
  • Andrei Astvatsaturov’s Не кормите и не трогайте пеликанов (Don’t Feed or Touch the Pelicans) (NatsBest)
  • Kirill Kobrin’s Поднебесный экспресс (The Celestial Express), which still sounds interesting. (NOSE)
  • Olga Pogodina-Kuzmina’s Уран (Uranium), which I very much want to read. (NatsBest)
  • Kirill Ryabov’s Пёс (The Dog) (NatsBest)
  • Sofia Sinitskaya’s Сияние "жеможаха" (still punting on the title!) (NatsBest)
  • Alexander Stesin’s Нью-йоркский обход (New York Rounds) (NOSE, winner of the jury award)

And this time, given that I’ve spent time doing unexpected tasks like diverting runoff in the yard (I’ve loved doing this since childhood so couldn’t resist), I’m going to pick a few other books using my favorite method: the easiest titles (of fiction) to translate. Preferably books and/or authors I don’t know much about.

  • Ksenia Buksha’s Чуров и Чурбанов (Churov and Churbanov) is about two classmates who grew up in the nineties. Sounds interesting and is now on order.
  • Timur Kibirov’s Генерал и его семья (The General and His Family) is billed as a historical novel about a family; it’s set in the late Soviet period.
  • Victor Martinovich’s Ночь (Night) is billed as a dystopia and a novel that’s a travelogue and game… where the world is an ongoing cold night. Hm. Sounds intriguingly dreary.
  • ???’s Гимны (Hymns) is a total mystery since it’s Manuscript No. 101. (But the title’s easy!)
  • Dmitry Stakhov’s Крысиный король (The Rat King) sounds a bit bizarre, about a guy who specializes in rat/rodent extermination (дератизация! I had no idea this was a word… but there you go!) by using cannibal rats; it’s set from the early twentieth century until now. (Hmm, I’ve been reading Camus’s The Plague where the early rat scenes brought me back to my Moscow Years…)

I’ll end on that cheerful note and wish everyone good health and happy reading! Big Book finalists, by the way, will be announced by June 15.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual, including having translated excerpts from one of these books. And being a member of the Big Book jury. Who is, I hasten to add, grateful that some of these books sound like they could be interesting. I have two or three of these on order and would have ordered more had they been readily available on kniga.com!

Up next: Potpourri post.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

The 2020 NatsBest Short List

The National Bestseller Award announced its six finalists the week before last. (Yes, I’m still a little slow here!) Given the current uncertainties in just about everything due to COVID-19, it’s unclear when, exactly, the winner will be chosen and announced in the fall.

On the positive side, that means there’s plenty of time to read the finalists. Here they are, listed with the number of points the first jury awarded.

  • Mikhail Elizarov’s Земля (Earth) (13 points) (previous post) tells, over more than 750 packed pages, of life, death, and the Russian funeral industry. And that’s only volume one! This is the only book on the list that I’ve read so far.
  • Olga Pogodina-Kuzmina’s Уран (Uranium) (9 points) is apparently a documentary novel about events at and around the Sillamäe uranium plant in 1953. This one definitely interests me.
  • Andrei Astvatsaturov’s Не кормите и не трогайте пеликанов (Don’t Feed or Touch the Pelicans) (6 points) concerns an urban neurotic who goes to London and gets sucked into some sort of real-life (but fictional) detective story.
  • Sofia Sinitskaya’s Сияние “жеможаха” (Oh, woe is me on this title!) (6 points) contains three interconnected novellas that I suspect are probably connected with her Мироныч, дырник и жеможаха, which also has a difficult title. I started reading that first book at exactly the wrong time, late this winter, when I was just too distracted to appreciate it. I’m eager to start over.
  • Kirill Ryabov’s Пёс (The Dog) (6 points) sounds like a short novel about deep desperation – if not for the book description noting hope, it might sound like The Dog is чернуха, that dark, dark realism I used to read so much of. Maybe it’s part of what I see as the new wave of chernukha, though.
  • Bulat Khanovs Непостоянные величины (Inconstants [? This title appears to play on the mathematical term for “constants.”) (5 points) is about a young teacher of Russian language and literature who graduates from Moscow State University and goes to teach in Kazan, challenging himself to see how long he can stand teaching in an ordinary school.

Up Next: More award news, a potpourri post of books read, including Turgenev’s On the Eve, which may not be my favorite Turgenev but which held my attention quite nicely.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual, plus having translated a novel by the NatsBest secretary, excerpts from one of the finalists, and having met a couple of the finalists.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Finding Consolation in Russian Literature

It’s been more than a month since I last wrote and I hope that this post finds you well, wherever you might be. Although I’ve known for weeks that I wanted to write about consolation – it was a thread in a talk that I gave at Bowdoin College in late February, even before Covid-19 had been documented in many states – I found it difficult to try to write when I was still trying to figure out how to adjust to
Cutting your own hair is fun!
this new reality. I’m more than happy to stay at home but the barrage of sad news is beyond unnerving (though I don’t loop and reloop it) and the logistics of day-to-day things like buying food and getting paid have changed a lot. I’m still figuring certain things out but chats with friends and colleagues, caring for cats, translation projects, cooking good meals with unusual combinations of available ingredients, and, of course, reading have all helped me find a new rhythm. There’s far too much bad news in the Big World, but I’m more than comfortable at home, love my work, and have even had some good news about two of my translations, as I mention below.

First off, though: Russian classics! Although I decided not to reread War and Peace this spring (I reread a large chunk of W&P a few years ago so it feels too soon), I’ve been enjoying reading about the book thanks to a virtual book club, led by Yiyun Li and hosted by A Public Space. There are many forms of consolation here, from the cycles of life Tolstoy describes in the book to the very fact that people are reading and discussing the novel online. It’s particularly nice and enlightening – as well as touching – to read so many thoughtful tweets (#tolstoytogether) about the characters and Tolstoy’s writing. I’ve been thinking about (re)reading other classics, perhaps Turgenev, though more likely Chekhov, whom I set aside just as I was getting going on My Life, which I’d intended to read before a university visit in mid-March. As Languagehat wrote in a recent post about Sologub’s The Petty Demon, “good writing is never depressing.” Although I’d been admiring and loving Chekhov’s writing – his ability to combine words feels like a miracle whenever I read him – I was feeling a bit too unfocused for subtlety (and, of course the trip was cancelled) so I switched to a detective novel. I’ll be finishing that tonight, though, and am feeling ready for something more complex again so may opt for restarting My Life. Or perhaps I’ll go for a long Sologub story from one of the collections on my shelf? Who knows what will strike me!

And then there’s contemporary Russian fiction, where I seem to gravitate toward translating books that somehow (if only toward the end) end up consoling and soothing. Vodolazkin’s Laurus (previous post), one of my all-time favorite books, certainly does all that, with its variation on the “life of a saint” genre, tracking a life that includes plague, doctoring, holyfooling, and, eventually, of course, death. And then there’s Vodolazkin’s The Aviator (previous post), where the main character focuses a lot on small details that help define a life and time; a brief passage on gargling particularly struck me. (Why do I find it so reassuring to think about the fact that people will always gargle?!)

Guzel Yakhina’s Zuleikha (previous post), where the title character’s life changes after she’s exiled to Siberia for being a kulak, also reassures. Living in a distant place with a harsh climate is anything but easy but (no spoilers here!) Zuleikha discovers a lot about herself. My first bit of good news is that Guzel, Zuleikha, and I were recently named finalists for the EBRD Literary Prize. I’m excited about being a finalist but also hope that the book will gain some new readers thanks to recognition through the prize: there’s certainly a strong element of isolation in the novel that might feel all the more relevant now. And then there’s my most recent translation, Narine Abgaryan’s Three Apples Fell from the Sky (previous post), which Asymptote named as a book club selection a few days ago. Asymptote’s announcement includes Josefina Massot’s wonderful review, which explains (far better than I could) why Three Applies is such perfect reading for this time and this strange form of isolation/quarantine so many of us now find ourselves in. I’ve been thinking back to a lot of favorite books (particularly War and Peace) during recent weeks but my translations become a part of me, internalized, during the many months I spend with them, making me all the more grateful to my authors for writing such beautifully soothing novels.

Here’s wishing everybody good health!

Disclaimers and disclosures: The usual.

Up next: Alexei Polyarinov’s Center of Gravity, which is soothing in its own way, too.


Sunday, March 1, 2020

Three Hybrid Books: Barnes, Croft, and Zilberbourg

Well. This is a post I’ve been dreading for all too long, about three books I read in English. The dread comes from the fact of enjoying and admiring each so much for its creative blend of fact, fiction, and technique, plus readability, stylistics, and, hm, information imparted. I’d recommend each to nearly any reader, which may be the reason I find this trio so difficult to write about.

Taking the books alphabetically by author surname, I’ll start with Julian Barnes’s The Noise of Time (Knopf), which I bought shortly after it came out but didn’t read until this winter. The Noise of Time is a biographical novel about Dmitri Shostakovich, a composer I knew all too little about, both musically and historically. Although Barnes loads the novel with details from Shostakovich’s life and career – official disapproval of his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, based on Nikolai Leskov’s story, is a key event – I can’t say I’m much more knowledgeable about him now. That, however, is Barnes’s greatest success for this reader. He weaves his facts into a novel that creates a painful and (almost or completely, I can’t decide which) claustrophobic portrait of a man – Shostakovich – living under a totalitarian regime. I’ve read lots of fiction and nonfiction about the Stalin era, so much of Barnes’s material is familiar, though much remains unexplored, given that the topic is so large and important. He shows how political power uses its citizens – including musicians – so the “total” in “totalitarian” is firmly felt when absolute control is exerted over careers, lives, and private thinking. The Noise of Time reminds me in some ways of Lidia Chukovskaya’s Sofia Petrovna, which I’ve read several times, most recently in 2011 (here). Both these novels would be perfect reading for courses on the Soviet system and/or totalitarian regimes. Bonus in The Noise of Time: Barnes includes mentions of the song “The Chrysanthemums in the Garden Have Long Since Faded,” which also comes up in Eugene Vodolazkin’s The Aviator and plays in the film adaptation of Sergei Lukyanenko’s Night Watch; it may need its own tag one of these days.

Jennifer Croft’s Homesick, from Unnamed Press, is described on the copyright page of my advance reading copy as “a work of creative nonfiction,” where “names, identifying details, and places have been changed.” Its title page calls it a memoir; the combination works well. Writing in the third person, Jennifer describes the young lives of two very close sisters: Amy is a wunderkind and Zoe has a puzzling illness. The story of Amy’s love for and devotion to Zoe would have been beautiful on its own but Jennifer’s use of her own photographs (often with captions about words and language) as well as chapter titles like “Even though she knows she’s not supposed to, Amy looks forward to tornados” (we’re in Oklahoma, after all) give the book a snappiness that is paradoxically matter-of-fact. The first chapter, with its childhood Cheerios and mentions of catastrophes like AIDS, tornadoes, earthquakes, and the Holocaust, presages intersections of innocence and doom. Jennifer’s seemingly simple descriptions of Amy and Zoe’s lives find the perfect tone for capturing private youthful emotion and love as well as the world’s very public and very adult threats. That would have been plenty to suck me in but Amy is drawn to words and eventually to translation, making Homesick feel all the closer. To top that off, there’s a thick Russian layer in the book. Amy and Zoe learn Russian from a tutor named Sasha. They focus their attention on Soviet skaters during the Lillehammer Winter Olympics (their story is scarily like my obsession with Soviet gymnasts in Munich in 1972!). And Amy takes a course in Russian poetry with Yevgeny Yevtushenko. (Homesick even includes two Yevtushenko poems.) Although I’d recommend Homesick to any reader as a personal and vivid story about childhood, sisterhood, growing up, and the tolls of illness, I think it will particularly resonate with readers interested in writing, translation, and the power of words. And even more for those who, like me, came of age during the Soviet Union’s final decades. I know Jennifer through translation, which made Homesick feel all the more personal, beautiful, and meaningful. For more: Emily Rapp Black’s review, for the New York Times Sunday review section.

I met Olga Zilberbourg, the author of Like Water and Other Stories, (WTAW Press) through translation, too. Her Like Water is a slender volume containing stories of varying lengths, from one very funny short sentence to a few pages (this is most common) to thirteen pages long. As with any collection, I found some stories more compelling and intriguing than others, but the stories in Like Water flow together harmoniously, fulfilling Olga’s artist statement that says the stories “invite the reader to consider the way becoming a parent turns one’s lived experience into a battleground for potential identities.” Her later mention of “bicultural identity” is one of the big draws in Like Water because it crosses into her writing, too, with expressions, words, and items I associate with Russia(n) and don’t often run into in English, things like “parklets” and the comment “it’s not a conversation to have over the telephone” (“нетелефонный разговор,” something I’ve updated to email). There are also mentions of buckwheat groats (my beloved breakfast гречка) and “Anatoly Kashpirovsky, a television hypnotist whose healing séances came to be broadcast on Channel One…” That list might not sound at all earthshattering but Olga’s writing is a wonderful example of how vocabulary and experiences broaden when two cultures and languages coexist in one person’s brain. And she can even write unusual stories like “Computational Creativity,” in which a computer (your computer) goes to night school “while you sleep.” And then there’s “Sweet Porridge,” which invokes the Brothers Grimm in the first paragraph and includes fairytale motifs and cultural differences. Like Water brings many surprises.

I appreciate all that, though what I appreciate most is her ability to radically change the reader’s view of a story in its very last paragraph, as in “My Mother at the Shooting Range,” which begins with the narrator offering details about her mother’s Leningrad childhood, just after the Great Patriotic War. There’s a “remodeled air-raid shelter” in her apartment building’s basement – it’s used for shooting practice. “At the top of the back wall, painted sky blue, the metallic gray ducks with yellow noses are flying.” Some actual practice follows, then the narrator’s mother, as a little girl, helps the practicers gather pellets off the floor. And then, well, everything changes at the very end, in a way I won’t and can’t describe because it would ruin everything. But I found it so poignant and so unexpected that all I could scribble at the end was “Why, how does this work?!” This sort of inexplicable success, often in stories that initially feel unremarkable, is one of my favorite sensations when reading. (I have a special affection for fiction that initially feels unremarkable but then finds something tranformingly transcendent.) Most of all, I don’t want to know how Olga does this. One thing I do know, though, is that she has lots of inexplicable successes in Like Water, both at capturing cultural and linguistic differences, and at capturing idiosyncrasies in ways that, taken together, not only broaden language but broaden our views of humanity.

Rather than attempt to describe more about Olga’s stories – given their nuance, that’s an exercise as futile as trying to explain why a joke is funny – I’m going to paste in links to a couple from the collection that are available online so you can read them for yourself.
“Therapy. Or Something” on ravishly.com (I particularly loved this one!)

You might also be interested in reading Punctured Lines, a blog that Olga and Yelena Furman founded in 2019 to look at “post-Soviet literature in and outside the Former Soviet Union.”

Disclaimers and disclosures: The usual. As noted above, I know both Jennifer Croft (as well as, ever so slightly, her editor) and Olga Zilberbourg, both of whom sent me copies of their books.

Up next: Alexei Polyarinov’s Center of Gravity, which I’m still enjoying very much, perhaps because Polyarinov is also a master of making the unremarkable into something remarkable. Perhaps some Chekhov.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

National Bestseller Award Nominees for 2020

What better to think about on a cold, windy, sunny (yester)day than the 2020 list of 47 National Bestseller Award nominees? This year’s list seems a bit unusual for its lack of repeat nominations – books nominated by more than one person – and I think (suspect?) there are more unfamiliar names for me than usual. The new-to-me names (as well as the lesser-known publishers) are what I find so much fun about NatsBest. Alexander Pelevin’s The Four, a 2019 NatsBest finalist, was one of the most interesting books I read last year and I hadn’t known of either A. Pelevin or his publisher, Пятый Рим/Fifth Rome. NatsBest will announce its 2020 shortlist on April 16. For now, “Big Jury” reviews are already starting to appear on the NatsBest site. Here a few of the nominees…

Starting with books I’ve already read:
  • Liubov Barinova’s Ева (Eve) (previous post) tells of a killing and a kidnapping.
  • Mikhail Elizarov’s Земля (Earth) (previous post) tells, over more than 750 packed pages, of life and death. And that’s only volume one!
  • Dmitry Zakharov’s Средняя Эдда (Middle Edda) tells of a street/graffiti artist (Banksyesque) whose work has political twists and consequences. (I’m still reading, so this is a bit of a cheat.) I’d been looking forward to Middle Edda since I knew it would be very contemporary, but I’m finding it rather confusing because so many characters are doing so many things so very quickly. (I see that critic Galina Yuzefovich had a similar complaint about the book.) Most distressing, Middle Edda doesn’t even feel especially fresh, as literature, though it’s too early to say for sure.
  • Anna Kozlova’s Рюрик (Rurik) (previous post) tells of a boarding school student who hitches a ride with a motorcyclist and goes missing. Another big favorite from 2019, Rurik really did feel fresh.
Continuing with books I was already interested in reading:
  • Evgenia Nekrasova’s Сестромам (Sistermom) is a story collection; I’ve read and appreciated some of the stories already.
  • Olga Pogodina-Kuzmina’s Уран (Uranium) is apparently a documentary novel about events at and around the Sillamäe uranium plant in 1953.
Books by authors I’d never heard of is a big category this year, though not many of them (I’m limiting myself to books that are available now in printed form, not manuscripts) intrigue me enough to put them on a “buy-or-borrow” list. That said, several more almost made this chunk of my post because they sound suitably odd. I really do like odd. Belkin’s book about famous people (the великие/major/big of his title) and animals (the мелкие/minor/small of the title) – e.g. Dostoevsky and bedbugs, Napoleon and bees – sounds like it could be strange enough that it just might work. Here are a few that sound especially promising for the likes of me:
  • Tatyana Zamirovskaya’s Земля случайных чисел (The Land of Random Numbers) sounds like it’s about alternate universes and/or realities. Just my thing.
  • Boris Kletinich’s Моё частное бессмертие (My Personal Immortality) sounds like a polyphonic novel that covers lots of twentieth-century history. Also just my thing?
  • Vladimir Mironenko’s Алёшины сны (Alyosha’s Dreams) is apparently a mystical history tour that includes Rasputin (Grigory) and apocalypse. This definitely sounds like my thing.
Rasputin and apocalypse seem like a good note to end on before more snow and rain fall. Stay warm and dry, wherever you are!

Up Next: Those oft-promised books in English, to which I’ve added a third. Zakharov’s Middle Edda.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual. I have translated/am translating excerpts from several of the books on this year’s NatsBest list of nominees. I’ve received copies of some books on this year’s list from literary agents and/or authors and have ties to some nominators, authors, and agents, as well as the award’s secretary.