Saturday, September 17, 2022

Hey, Dima! Congratulations on Your Awards for Hey, Sasha!

I’m days late and many dollars short here but very happy to write that Dmitry Danilov won two awards this fall for his novel Саша, привет! (Hey, Sasha!). He won Prose of the Year about two weeks ago and just yesterday he won the Yasnaya Polyana Award, too. Before I go on about Sasha, I should note that Islam Khanipaev won the YP reader’s choice award for his Типа я, which I’ve called Like Me; the book got an impressive 46.3% of the vote.

I read Hey, Sasha! an embarrassingly long time ago. It was so long ago (last year…) that I don’t remember when Danilov sent me the text. Or even which device I read it on. What I do remember, on conscious and subconscious levels, is the reading itself. Everything of Danilov’s that I’ve read – Description of a City, Horizontal Position, and “Black and Green” – speaks to me in similar ways by (to borrow a phrase from his Description) getting into my livers. What’s most remarkable about the fact that Danilov’s prose reaches my livers is that his writing initially looks so simple, almost rudimentary. But he uses that apparent simplicity to great effect, constructing texts that have a surprisingly emotional, almost moving effect. As I wrote in my post about Description of a City, “Danilov has been called a new realist but his realism is a very particular and peculiar realism. His realism is abstract and almost transcendent, a realism with a lot of остранение, defamiliarization.”

With Hey, Sasha!, Danilov adds a huge dose of absurdity to the usual elements of his realism. The short plot summary is that a man, Sergei, a university instructor, commits a moral crime by having consensual sex with a woman under twenty-one. Perpetrators of moral and economic crimes (but not violent crimes) are subject to capital punishment so he’s sentenced to death. He’s imprisoned in a hotel-like place in central Moscow and forced each day to face the possibility that he’ll be shot during a walk down a certain hallway. After that walk, he’s allowed to go out to a park. The hotel-like facility is described as “three-star” and meals are brought to him. Sergei lectures his students over Zoom, though they seem to raise their virtual hands more to ask about their instructor’s situation than to discuss the literature they’re reading. Meanwhile, his wife and the young woman have forgiven him. (His wife, by the way, also teaches literature and deals caustically with students’ curiosity about her husband, ultimately finishing a lecture on the Serapion Brothers by telling her students to read Wikipedia.) Everybody’s forgiven Sergei but the state.

My favorite scenes in this novel – the novel, by the way, reads like a wily blend of a script and a conventional novel – involve religion. Our (anti?)hero receives brief visits from a lama, a rabbi, a priest, and an mullah. None of them really feel they have much to offer to Sergei and they all pretty much urge him to waive his right to have them visit. They speak in rather similar terms, though I particularly liked the rabbi for discussing soccer. And, really, what could the two of them talk about other than sports? As Sergei says, he’s essentially already a dead man. We’ll all die, whether we’re shot in that metaphorical hallway or hit by a chance meteor or stricken by some uncontrollable disease. There’s always something. The point is that no matter who we are, we get up in the morning and walk down some version of that hallway, knowing we might be finished. But we work hard at forgetting, so we can live…

That’s all familiar material – Hey, Sasha! reminds in many ways of Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading, as one article or social media post (which I now can’t find!) reminded me yesterday – but, as always, Danilov inhabits it and makes it his own both. His stripped-down language and humor are perfect for a tell-it-like-it-is story of this sort. And then there are the Orwellian absurdities of society and the world these days. And isolation that almost reminds of lockdowns, complete with Zoom meetings, though most of us don’t have three-star hotel services that included meals. Best of all is that Hey, Sasha! got into my livers so thoroughly that I barely had to look at the text to remind myself of details, even all these many months after reading the book. I did forget Sergei’s name but I didn’t forget Danilov’s jokes or how the novel keeps flowing along. I also didn’t forget the most important thing: the feeling of mental claustrophobia I always get when I read successful fiction that addresses absurdity, death, and societal norms. I’m sure that feeling of claustrophobia arises largely because art, meaning literature in these cases, so resembles what we consider real life, particularly when depicting various forms of imprisonment, as Danilov, Nabokov, and so many others do.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual. Plus Danilov is a friend.

Up Next: My next attempt to chip away at my backlog…

Saturday, August 20, 2022

Yasnaya Polyana Award Finalists for 2022

Well, I’m back, with a very belated post about the Yasnaya Polyana Award shortlist! I suppose it’s fitting that my last post, which is almost two months old, is about the Yasnaya Polyana Award longlist…

Weeks (weeks!), have passed since this year’s YP finalists were announced, so I’ll get right to the list:

  • Anastasia Astafyeva’s Для особого случая (maybe something like For a Special Case?) is a collection of short stories. Her surname is familiar because writer Viktor Astafyev is her father. The title story of the collection is here… I’m still meaning to read it and resolve the question of the title!
  • Sergei Belyakov’s Парижские мальчики в сталинской Москве (Parisian Boys in Stalinist Moscow) is apparently exactly what it purports to be: nonfiction about Parisian men (including Marina Tsvetaeva’s son, Georgy Yefron) and their life and times in Stalinist Moscow. This book is a Big Book finalist, too.
  • Dmitry Danilov’s Саша, привет! (Hey, Sasha!) (text) is the only book on the list that I’ve read in full. Danilov is a friend and a perennial favorite writer, and Hey, Sasha! is one of my favorite Danilov books. Hey, Sasha! concerns a man who’s committed a moral crime and is being punished in an odd way. Everything about the book hit me just right: form, content, and absurdity. And it just keeps feeling truer and truer… Sasha is also a Big Book finalist.
  • Kanta Ibragimov’s Маршал (The Marshal but not really…) takes place over nearly five or six decades, examining the deportation of Chechens to Central Asia and their subsequent return to Chechnya… as well as one figure’s (frequent?) dancing of the lezginka, which he calls the “marshal,” which (according to a reader’s review on LitRes) means “freedom” in Chechen. (In googling, I find “marsho” for “freedom” but maybe there’s some nuance to this, a different ending/suffix for the name of the dance?) It sounds like this book is nonfiction. (I find the publisher’s description a bit confusing!)
  • Anna Matveeva’s Каждые сто лет (Every Hundred Years) is told by two women in two different centuries; both keep diaries. And of course they will somehow meet.
  • Islam Khanipaev’s Типа я (Like, Me, perhaps?) was a NOSE Award finalist in 2021 and NatsBest finalist in 2022: it’s another diary, this time written by an eight-year-old boy.
  • Finally, Ivan Shipingóv’s Stream (Стрим) sounds like a polyphonic, “verbatim” book about life among young (Russian) adults. Given that Shipingov is a screenwriter, this may be a book where the verbatim approach actually works. Stream has been waiting in my book cart for all too long – more than a year? – though I can still honestly say I’m looking forward to reading it.

The winners will be announced on September 16. I’m hoping to post about some books before then… This has been my Year of Unexpected Events and the most recent installment, several weeks ago, included major surgery for one of our cats. Fortunately it finally feels like things are starting to return to some semblance of normal (or maybe “normal”?) at our house. I learned all sorts of interesting things from this episode of Diary of a Cat Mom. Top revelation: Cellar crickets, Edwina’s favorite prey and snack, are now forbidden because they can carry nasty parasites that wreak havoc on a cat’s stomach! It was also interesting to hear from Edwina’s surgeon that Edwina won’t miss her spleen. For now, I’m crossing my fingers for quieter times so I can start some new projects, catch up on my reading (so many books! like Stream!), and take on some of the household and office chores that were postponed while I was caring for Edwina. I hope you, too, are enjoying the end of the summer.

Up Next: Danilov’s Hey, Sasha! And a slew of other books…

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual. Plus knowing several of the YP jurors, including Otroshenko and Vodolazkin, both of whom I have translated. Danilov is a friend.

Saturday, June 25, 2022

Déjà Vu All Over Again: The 2022 Yasnaya Polyana Longlist

Another week, another award list. And another award list – this time it’s the Yasnaya Polyana longlist – that repeats many of the nominees found on previous award lists. But I shrug my shoulders (yet again!) since, well, awards and juries do what they do. Which is fine.

And so. This list contains thirty-seven books that fit many of the usual patterns. Thirteen of the titles (just over one third) were written by women. Twelve of them were published by Elena Shubina’s imprint at AST. Six of the thirty-seven books – by Belyakov, Danilov, Yermakov, Mamedov, Matveeva, and Sinitskaya – are on the 2022 Big Book shortlist. One – Shipingóv’s Stream (Стрим) – was shortlisted for the 2021 NatsBest and NOSE awards. Islam Khanipaev’s Типа я (Like, Me, perhaps?) was a 2021 NOSE finalist and a 2022 NatsBest finalist, though, alas, that NatsBest prize will never be awarded. And Yevgenia Nekrasova won the regional (“wanderer”) NOSE award for Кожа (Skin). I’m sure there are other repeaters that I could mention.

There are lots of other familiar names on the list: Alexander Ilichevsky, Andrei Volos, Alexander Snegirev, and Alla Gorbunova… But there are also a few names I’d never heard. And since the new-to-me writers (and publishers, too) are what I enjoy most about longlists, I’ll mention a few that arouse my curiosity:

  • Sakhib Shikhmirzaeva’s В ритме гоор (In the Goor Rhythm? “goor” is an Avar dance) sounds like a family saga set in Dagestan. Shikhmirzaeva mentions in an interview that Vladislav Otroshenko, a YP juror and one of my authors, admired the book early on.
  • Denis Sobelyov’s Воскрешение (Resurrection) sounds like an epic of a historical novel (928 pages!), looking at a brother and sister during the 1980s and 1990s (plus perhaps family history?) with settings all around the world.
  • Anastasia Astafyeva’s Для особого случая (maybe something like For a Special Case?) is a collection of short stories. Her surname is familiar because writer Viktor Astafyev is her father. The title story of the collection is here… may I’ll read it and resolve the question of the title!
  • Artem Lyakhovich’s Логово Змиево (The Zmiev Lair or somesuch, since Zmiev is apparently a toponym) sounds like a fantasy novel about a pianist who’s so caught up in his own world that he doesn’t notice a coup. Lyakhovich is a Ukrainian writer (primarily of children’s books – he’s won three Kniguru awards) and, yes, a pianist, too.

On that happy note, I’ll remind you that you can find this list of books on the Yasnaya Polyana site (with links to descriptions that are far better than mine!), here.


Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual. Two of “my” authors are jurors for this award. I know some of the authors on the list.

Up Next: Yes, I will get to the books I’ve read! (I’d planned to start on that today… but then came this list.) Maybe I’ll start with the two on this list that I’ve read in full: Danilov’s Hey, Sasha! and Bogdanova’s Season of Poisoned Fruits. Both are very good.

Saturday, June 4, 2022

The 2022 Big Book Award’s Short Finalist List

The Big Book Award released its list of finalists last week: ten books made the list. The list is a bit short for a Big Book finalist list, which maxes out at fifteen, according to rules and regulations. The list leaves me scratching my head a bit more than Big Book lists from recent years past. I’m very happy for the authors and publishers who made the list – the books by Danilov, Mamedov, and Sinitskaya particularly appeal to me – but I’m very sorry it doesn’t include a few more new author names or small publishers. I’m especially sorry that (yes, here I go again!) only three of the ten books were written by women.

Of course it’s an annual ritual to complain about award lists and winners, particularly for the Big Book since, well, it’s so big and publicized. But this year’s list feels sadder and safer than most, particularly because so many of the finalists are repeaters and five finalist slots went unused. Vera Bogdanova’s Season of Poisoned Fruits, which I think is very, very good, deserved recognition and I thought Natalia Repina’s Lev: A Life (previous post) was very good, too. Bogdanova’s Season and Tatyana Zamirovskaya’s Смерти.net (her literary agency calls it The Deadnet), which I have not yet read, have both been mentioned in a few of the social media posts I’ve seen that ask, “How could they not have included…?” In any case, rather than complain even more about a list that I can’t change, I’ll just add the Mamedov and Sinitskaya books to my personal wish list.

And so…

  • Pavel Basinsky’s Подлинная история Анны Карениной (The True Story of Anna Karenina) is, as I wrote on the NatsBest end-of-season post, apparently just what it purports to be.
  • Sergei Belyakov’s Парижские мальчики в сталинской Москве (Parisian Boys in Stalinist Moscow) is also apparently just what it purports to be: nonfiction about Parisian men (including Marina Tsvetaeva’s son, Georgy Yefron) and their life and times in Stalinist Moscow.
  • Alexei Varlamov’s Имя Розанова (The Name of Rozanov) is a biography of Vasily Rozanov.
  • Dmitry Danilov’s Саша, привет! (Hey, Sasha!) (text) is the only book on the list that I’ve read in full. Danilov is a friend and a perennial favorite author, and Саша, привет! is one of my favorite Danilov books. Hey, Sasha! concerns a man who’s committed a moral crime and is being punished in an odd way. Everything about the book hit me just right: form, content, and absurdity. And it just keeps feeling truer and truer…
  • Oleg Yermakov’s Родник Олафа (The Olaf Spring or Olaf’s Spring? (in the sense of a source of water)) (the beginning) is the first novel of a trilogy set in the distant past (the description mentions “ancient” Russia), apparently encompassing a journey (literal and figurative, I suspect) and childrearing as a boy, his father, and friends go to sell oak lumber (and fur?).
  • Ruslan Kozlov’s Stabat Mater (chapters) is set in a world where a pandemic kills only children.
  • It’s enough for me to know that Afanasy Mamedov’s Пароход Бабелон (The Steamship Babelon) (excerpt) is set in Baku in 1936. And that it blends genres. I thoroughly enjoyed Mamedov’s Frau Scar (previous post) so am looking forward to this one.
  • Anna Matveevas Каждые сто лет. Роман с дневником (Every Hundred Years. A Novel with a Diary) sounds like it blends two temporal and geographical settings in stories told by two women.
  • Sofia Sinitskaya’s Хроника Горбатого (I’m still guessing The Hunchback’s Chronicle here…) seems to combine history and fiction; it’s apparently set in Vyborg, a place I’ve ridden through on trains once or twice.
  • Guzel Yakhina’s Эшелон на Самарканд (Train to Samarkand) is summed up very well on the Elkost literary agency’s Web site, here.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: I’m taking time off (a year or two or three or forever, I haven’t yet decided) from serving on the Big Book Award’s jury. I know several of the authors on the list. And I’ve translated samples of Vera Bogdanova’s work as well as a Guzel Yakhina’s novel Zuleikha.

Up Next: The afore-mentioned Sasha, Privet!, Kirill Ryabov’s 777, Julia Kisina’s Bubush, Vera Bogdanova’s Season of Poisoned Fruits… and a couple others. There’s quite a pile here on the bookshelf…

Saturday, May 7, 2022

The 2022 Big Book Longlist

The Big Book Award’s 2022 longlist was released about two weeks ago but I’m still sluggish so here we (finally) are! This year’s list truly is long: 48 books. I’ve read three in full, have one in the cart, and am very interested in a bunch more. Only four authors are totally unknown to me, which is a bit of a disappointment since I’m always looking for new authors to read. Even more of a disappointment is that not even quite a third of the longlisted titles are written by women.

The shortlist should be announced by mid-June. For now, here’s a sliver of the longlist.

I’ll start with three books I read and enjoyed very much:

  • Vera Bogdanova’s Сезон отравленных плодов (The Season of Poisoned Fruits) explores the lives of three characters – three cousins whose parents hover in the background – as well as societal norms and events (notably terrorism) that formed their (millennial) generation. I particularly liked Bogdanova’s use of a dacha setting. I’ll be posting about this book soon.
  • A dacha settlement also figures prominently in Natalia Repina’s Жизнеописание Льва (Lev: A Life) (previous post), which was shortlisted for the 2021 Yasnaya Polyana Award.
  • Dmitry Danilov is a friend and a perennial favorite author. His Саша, привет! (I still hear this title more as Hey, Sasha! than Hi, Sasha!) concerns a man who’s committed a moral crime and is being punished in an odd way. Everything about Hey, Sasha! hit me just right: form, content, and absurdity. And it just keeps feeling truer and truer…
  • I’ll note that there’s one book on the list that I blogged about but didn’t finish: Timur Valitov’s Угловая комната (The Corner Room) (previous post). To keep the chain going: that post also describes a book by Sasha Filipenko who’s on the 2022 Big Book longlist for Кремулятор (The Cremulator), a novel that’s available online here and here.

What else? How about two slightly familiar titles that sound promising?

  • I have Ivan Shipnigֶóv’s Стрим (Stream), a 2021 NatsBest finalist, in the book cart. It sounds like a promising polyphonic novel.
  • Sofia Sinitskaya’s Хроника горбатого (The Hunchback’s Chronicle) combines history and fiction. Languagehat reported in a comment to my 2022 NatsBest shortlist post that “apparently the novel features the descendants of the crusader Thomas the Hunchback and the pagan weaver Ursula, for what that’s worth.”

Among the unknowns are:

  • Sergei Dmitrenko’s Салтыков (Щедрин) (Saltykov (Shchedrin)), a biography of none other than Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, whose absolutely crushing The Golovlyov Family I’d recommend to just about anyone.
  • All I need to know about Katerina Kozhevina’s Лучшие люди города (The City’s Best People, in the sense of “elite” though I’m not sure what would fit the novel’s tone) is that the geographical setting is Sakhalin Island, a favorite place, and the temporal setting is vague.

Finally, here’s something a bit unusual that I hope comes into being:

  • The book listed as “Manuscript No. 296” is На небе никого (There’s Nobody in the Sky, I guess?), which you can read about on this crowdfunding page. It’s described as “a book about people at war” and it combines photographs from Artur Bondar’s collection with texts by Ksenia Buksha that are based on diaries and recollections. I hope it receives funding.

There are plenty of other books on the list that sound promising, including several that I’ve read in part (some await my return…) but I’ll leave further explorations to you!


Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual. I served on the Big Book jury for seven seasons; I left the Literary Academy this year, though, something I’d been contemplating for a year or two. On another note, the Big Book longlist isn’t the award’s only news: Georgy Urushadze, who headed up the organization that ran the award and is also the person who invited me to join the jury, recently left his job. I’m very grateful to him for the opportunity to become part of Big Book.

Up Next: I truly do plan to write more about books I’ve read! I’ve promised posts about several, among them Danilov’s Sasha, Kirill Ryabov’s 777, and Bogdanova’s Season… and there are a few more. I swear I’ll get to them soon.