Sunday, May 2, 2021

The 2021 Big Book Longlist: Best-Laid Plans Edition

The Big Book Award announced a longlist of forty-one books a Tuesday or two ago. This year’s longlist gives me hope that the 2021 shortlist might be at least a little better (meaning more readable!) than last year’s, though (cue my perennial gripe) only 11.5 of this year’s longlist titles were written by women. That’s a bit better than last year’s eight out of thirty-nine although, as always, I don’t know much about what books were nominated.

I started this post last weekend but didn’t finish (an all-life-cycles mouse infestation in the garden shed was a complete downer) but am picking back up today and attempting to accentuate the positive and focus on some books that sound good.

First off, three books overlap with this year’s National Bestseller Award shortlist. It’s probably no coincidence that these three had the top scores in NatsBest voting and are also the (unread, for me) books that interest me most:

  • Mikhail Gigolashvili’s Кока (Koka) is a continuation (of sorts?) of The Devil’s Wheel (previous post), which I loved so very much about ten years ago. The friend who bought Koka seems to be enjoying it. 
  • Alexander Pelevin’s Покров-17 (Pokrov-17) is set in the Kaluga area in 1993 but the action somehow connects to a World War 2 battle. Pelevin loves playing with time like this, which is one of the reasons I’ve enjoyed two of his other books (The Four) and (Kalinova Yama) so much. I’ve actively avoided learning more about Pokrov-17 before reading.
  • Vera Bogdanova’s Павел Чжан и прочие речные твари (Pavel Zhang and Other River Creatures) sounds scarily intriguing, with its digital concentration camp and “total chipization.” I’ve seen lots of praise for this book and am looking forward to reading it.

 Then there are some books I’ve read or have on the shelves:

  • I’m still rereading Eugene Vodolazkin’s Оправдание Острова (The History of Island), which I loved on the first reading for its chronicle-like format (sometimes!) and stylization (varying!) and blend of timelines. It’s a very Vodolazkonian novel; he’s exceptionally skilled at writing about favorite themes from new angles that make his material fresh, relevant, and related to his others works without repeating them.
  • Shamil Idiatullin’s Последнее время (it sounds like this is more likely Last/Final Time(s) than, say, Of Late, though who knows!) concerns an invented country. Maria Galina’s back-cover blurb calls it ethnofantasy. I haven’t been a big fan of Idiatullin’s realistic work so bought this with the hope of enjoying something that’s less a part of this world.
  • Sergei Samsonov’s Высокая кровь (High Blood) is a thick (630+ pages of small print) book set during the Civil War that (among other things) borrows on themes from Sholokhov. Translating a sample was very, very challenging thanks to Platonovesque stylistics, regional language, and literary references. The text is dense and interesting. I need to read the rest of the book.
  • Leonid Yuzefovich’s Филэллин (The Philhellene) is a novel where characters converse through journals, letters, and mental conversations. Yuzefovich’s own back-cover description of the book refers to it as being closer to “variations on historical themes than a traditional historical novel.” This is another book where I’ve purposely avoided trying to learn too much before reading.
  • Bulat Khanov’s Развлечения для птиц с подрезанными крыльями (perhaps something like Diversions for Birds With Clipped Wings) is described as a book about rebels but I read about a third and found it a bit slow to develop, even plodding, as it follows four people who seem to be all too fated to meet. I suspect part of my problem with Birds is that, well, its wings feel so clipped, making it feel very safe compared to Khanov’s much briefer, far riskier, and higher soaring Rage (previous post). William Barclay, by the way, translated an extended sample of Rage, under the RusTRANS project.
  • I’ve had so many similar problems with books by familiar (even favorite) authors in the last year, that I wonder if my problem is due to my pandemic-era pickiness rather than flawed novels. To wit… Narine Abgaryan’s Симон (Simon) also didn’t quite hit me though I wonder if that’s because her Three Apples Fell From the Sky, which I translated, still feels so familiar and very dear to me. Similarly, Marina Stepnova’s best-selling Cад (The Garden, a.k.a. A New Breed) interested me far less for its nineteenth-century plot and characters than for its stylized language, which made me more than happy to work on a sample; this could be a matter of familiarity, too, after so enjoying translating two Stepnova novels set in later times.

Now a few potentially interesting books and/or authors I hadn’t known anything about. The pool isn’t very bigI’ve read twenty-seven of the authors on the longlist – so first I’ll cheat and mention a few more familiar authors on the list: Irina Bogatyreva, Ilya Boyashov, Sergei Nosov, Aleksei Polyarinov, Roman Senchin, and Alla Gorbunova. Since I’m always looking for novels (preferably novels with plots!) that narrows my choices a lot for unknown books and authors. But here are three books, one of which has only been published in a journal thus far, making it all the more mysterious:

  • Ksenia Dragunskaya’s Туда нельзя (which I really want to call Don’t Go There, in the literal sense) sounds like it might connect several characters’ stories because of a lake. (?)
  • Olga Pokrovskaya’s Летучий корабль (Airliner, perhaps?) is apparently about aviation.
  • Roman Shmarakov’s Алкиной (Alcinous, I guess) is set in the fourth century, in the late Roman Empire. Although it’s apparently often described as a “philological novel,” Artyom Roganov’s review for Gorky Media says it’s more. (And even cites humor! We enjoy humor!)

Up Next: Two rereads: Vodolazkin’s History of Island and Svetlana Kuznetsova’s The Anatomy of the Moon, which I nominated for the Big Book and am translating. I reread very slowly!

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual, including having translated some of the authors on the longlist. I signed a request to call in an unnominated Pavel Krusanov collection for Big Book; he’s a good writer so I’m glad it made the list. I’ve received a number of the books on the list from agents, authors, or publishers in either electronic or print copies.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

The 2021 NatsBest Shortlist

Well, that seemed to happen fast: The National Bestseller Award announced its six-book shortlist last week. I’m so behind on new releases that I haven’t studied up much on some of these titles. So no time like this chilly spring day to learn a bit more.

  • Mikhail Gigolashvili’s Кока (Koka) (10 points) is the only book I know much of anything about. It’s a continuation (of sorts?) of The Devil’s Wheel (previous post), which I loved so very much about ten years ago. A friend just bought Koka and I’m looking forward to hearing her thoughts. (I was going to order it a couple weeks ago myself but it sold out!)
  • Alexander Pelevin’s Покров-17 (Pokrov-17) (8 points) is set in the Kaluga area in 1993 but the action somehow connects to a World War 2 battle. Pelevin loves playing with time like this, which is one of the reasons I’ve enjoyed two of his books (The Four) and (Kalinova Yama) so much. I’ve actively avoided learning more about Pokrov-17 before reading.
  • Vera Bogdanova’s Павел Чжан и прочие речные твари (Pavel Zhang and Other River Creatures) (7 points) sounds scarily intriguing, with its digital concentration camp and “total chipization.” I’ve seen lots of praise for this book and am looking forward to reading it.
  • Mrshavko Shtapich’s Плейлист волонтера (A/The Volunteer’s Playlist) (6 points) is, according to nominator Yulia Selivanova’s text, “a contradictory book” thanks to its narrator’s depiction of his own deviant behavior, which contrasts with media characterizations of idealized volunteers. Nonfiction. One NatsBest juror, Mitya Samoilov, called it a “guilty pleasure.” Juror Denis Epifantsev says it’s the best book he’s read this year and compares Shtapich to Hunter S. Thompson. (!)
  • Daniel Orlov’s Время рискованного земледелия (A/The Time of Risky Arable Farming?) (5 points) is set in today’s Russia; Andrei Astvatsaturov’s nomination note calls it a “wonderful example of contemporary realistic, social prose,” going on to note dynamic plot lines. I love the thought of dynamic plot lines and arable farming in one book.
  • Ivan Shipnigov’s Стрим (Stream) (5 points) sounds like a polyphonic, “verbatim” book about life among young (Russian) adults. Given that Shipnigov is a screenwriter, this may be a book where the verbatim approach actually works.

So there you have it. These six books sound like a pretty decent lot, though (here comes my perennial gripe) I’m disappointed there aren’t more books written by women. Which means I’m going to order up a few from the longlist that sound good but didn’t make the shortlist. This seems to have become an annual ritual.

Just a reminder that the NatsBest site has an archive of reviews/opinions written by “Big Jury” members (here) and that their votes are archived as well (here). The winner will be selected on some future day at some future time. (Translation: I didn’t see a date mentioned for the ceremony.)

Up Next: The Big Book longlist. My reread of Vodolazkin’s Island. Another book to reread, which finally arrived in a printed copy.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual, with some familiar names on the nominator, author, and jury lists.


Sunday, April 11, 2021

Fear Itself?: Anton Chizh’s Fear Machine

Anton Chizh’s Машина страха – I think I’ll take the easy way out and go for the Ronco-like title, The Fear Machine – is a retro detective novel set in 1898 St. Petersburg among a circle of people who hold séances where participants don’t just commune with the dead, they die. The Fear Machine blends historical, detective, and mystical elements, and it felt a bit peculiar to me, though that’s probably largely because I joined Chizh’s series of books about investigator Rodion Vanzarov and his crime-fighting cohort rather late in the game, as they say, with (if goodreads is correct) book eleven of a series.

So many characters! It feels like there are dozens of policemen, doctors, scientists, mediums, nosy neighbors, relatives, servants, and various other figures (the notary!) strewn throughout the novel. Come to think of it, there probably are that many. That’s not so much a complaint about Chizh’s book as a complaint about my own decision to read the most recent Vanzarov book (yes, #11!) when I could have started with book one and gotten to know Vanzarov’s co-workers more gradually. Then again, who am I for those subtleties?

I’m especially not inclined to complain because The Fear Machine made for fairly satisfying reading. I confess that I’m still having trouble focusing on certain types of books, particularly those set in the present day, meaning that the distant past is lovely (no worries about masking!), the contrast of the mediums’ psychic seeing with Vanzarov’s more scientific psychologika (my version, sorry) is welcome (mysticism takes me out of the news of the day), and detective novels tend to offer resolutions (satisfying in these indefinite days). For better or worse, The Fear Machine, which I think could rightly be considered a police procedural, ends with resolving whodunit1 (finding the murderer) but leaving whodunit2 (the fate of the machine, called “machina terroris” in a footnote) unsolved. The book ends with “конец I сеанса,” which sure looks in this case like “end of the first séance.” Implying: to be continued.

The Fear Machine plods along – it truly does describe a lot of police procedures – but the use of hypnosis, the notions of employing technology to catch criminals, and Vanzarov’s relentless use of psychological methods combine pretty decently. Particularly given all the personal fears and foibles sprinkled in. As well as familiar Petersburg toponyms. And humor: there’s even a sneaky little reference to Alexei Salnikov’s The Petrovs in and Around the Flu. All in all, a moderately satisfying book to read in strange times. These days, a “moderately satisfying,” even average, book that’s a slight bit cozy and involves genre norms can work its own practical wonders by not keeping me up at night.

Up Next: Vodolazkin’s History of Island, which I love, though it’s too fine a book to reread quickly these days. I have a print copy of another book to reread on the way, too.

Disclaimers and disclosures: The usual.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Opening the Windows: Buksha’s Advent

Not long after the turn of the century, when I still wanted to be a fiction writer, I attended the Stonecoast Writers’ Conference, where one of my teachers, Michael White, liked to say something like “Open the window” when he thought we, his students, should somehow expand the material in our stories. I couldn’t help but think of Michael White’s advice when I sat down to write about Ksenia Buksha’s Адвент (Advent).

Buksha incorporates literal and figurative advent calendars into her novel about a young family – mathematician Kostya, music writer Anya, and their daughter Stesha – that is celebrating the holidays. Stesha opens little advent calendar windows but her parents open mental windows into accounts of past experiences, many of which were rather unpleasant for them. Their reminiscences include old friends, family members, and schoolmates.

Buksha varies her writing significantly in these two layers of her novel, writing about the present (which feels pretty much like our current present, given a mention of Zooming and repetition of the word “hipster”) in usual paragraphs, with sentences and punctuation, but writing about the windowed past in a form that looks a lot like poetry and contains minimalist punctuation. Buksha plays a lot with her words in these excursions into the past, often including laughter (for better or worse, I got so caught up in other aspects of the book that I didn’t think enough about the laughter, other than constantly recalling Khlebnikov’s “Incantation by/of Laughter”, perhaps just for the very fact of laughterness) and generally creating a nice run-on effect. I can’t say the past is always easy to read in Advent, particularly compared to the simple, spare prose of the other halves of Buksha’s chapters, but it left me thinking of spoken word and stream of consciousness. Bullying, suicide, and smoking too many cigars in one go are among the topics that surface from the past. These stylized accounts make for a perfect window-opening device, showing Kostya and Anya at various stages of their lives.

I particularly enjoyed scenes with Stesha, though. Particularly descriptions of Anya taking Stesha to kindergarten. The bus ride (people want to give Stesha a seat, though she’d rather stand), Stesha’s ritual tears upon parting, the teacher scolding Anya… it all felt very real to me, though I suppose that could be because I don’t have children. The whole book, by the way, feels both real and not-real, rather like Buksha’s Churov and Churbanov (previous post). Phantasmagoria wafts in and out of both books; both make good use of the feel of St. Petersburg. Advent mentions specific streets and places, including Piskaryovskoe Cemetery, frozen canals (since we’re in winter), and the Pribaltiyskaya Hotel (now a Radisson!), making the novel feel especially atmospheric. There are also small details linking Advent and Ch and Ch.

I confess that I doubted Advent a bit in the middle: there wasn’t quite a muddle there, though it felt like the book was losing energy. A couple chapters felt a tiny bit forced and I wondered if (cliché alert) the book might end up feeling less than the sum of its very decent individual parts: the dual/dueling stylistics, the laughter, the advent device, the characters. Fortunately, the succession of vignettes again begins to meld into something resembling a story arc and Buksha’s final chapters wrap things up nicely, using a formal difference plus the holiday calendar to signal a shift toward the future.

I suppose what counted most for me in Advent was Buksha’s ability to sum up life’s sadness, absurdity, and/or horrors in a few piercing sentences. As when Stesha recalls her kindergarten teachers’ story about children at Treblinka, prodding her to consider human evils and, perhaps more mundanely, reflect on daily routine and the passage of time, eventually leading, of course, to death. I reread that brief passage many times, wondering about the teacher, the child, and a lot of other things like the expectation of death. And could/would a teacher really tell such small children a story like that? And does the “really” matter when we’re reading fiction? Stesha’s reaction links with the advent theme and structure, too, not just because of the routines of opening the little and big windows but also through the expectation of things to come, be they a savior, a birth, or death. Even if Advent didn’t work quite as well for me as Churov and Churbanov, I appreciate Advent as an example of what I think of as everyday existentialism, here in the form of a novel that reads easily but contains many brief and memorable sections, such as this one, that dare look directly at life and death, with their joys and horrors. Advent is one of the unusual books that has grown on me since I finished reading.

Disclaimers and disclosures: Just the usual.

Up Next: Vodolazkin’s History of Island. And then, hm. (I’m feeling a little restless with my other reading, where vignette-like chapters don’t always accumulate and find story arcs this successfully.)