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 Chzhan 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.)


Saturday, February 27, 2021

Favorite Russian Writers A to Я: Chekhov (Where “It” All Began), Chukhovskaya, Chizhov

It’s been nearly three years since I last wrote an alphabet post but I’ve been thinking about Chekhov so much lately that it’s time to finally move on from Х to Ч, fill in another letter, and mention a few Ч-named writers I’ve particularly enjoyed reading.

I always seem to reminisce a fair bit about Anton Pavlovich Chekhov because his “The Bet” (“Пари”) was the first piece of Russian literature (other than Baba Yaga stories) that I ever read. In sixth grade. (I went down Memory Lane on “The Bet” back in 2010, for Chekhov’s hundred and fiftieth birthday, here.) I went on to take a Chekhov course in college and, rather predictably, most enjoyed longer stories, with “Ward Number Six” (in Ronald Hingley’s translation) my big favorite. “Дама с собачкой” (“The Lady With the Dog” (oops, almost “God”!)) was the first Chekhov I read in Russian, in that same era. I’ve gone on to (re)read lots of other short Chekhov stories, particularly when a collection from Restless Books – Chekhov: Stories for Our Time, with an introduction by Boris Fishman – brought me back to A.P. back in 2018 (previous post) and got me thinking I needed to do better justice to the modest Russian-language collections of long and short stories I’d purchased a few years earlier.

One of the works in one of those collections is Моя жизнь (My Life), which I started reading last year, in preparation for a visit to Duke University in March 2020. Of course the visit didn’t happen. And, predictably, I didn’t finish My Life, which Carol Apollonio’s Chekhov class was going to be discussing during my visit. I had a hard time concentrating on my reading in the early pandemic months but am plotting a reattempt at My Life and some other Chekhov reading. I’m especially motivated because Carol sent me a copy of her book, Simply Chekhov, which examines A.P.’s life and work. I love talking with Carol about Russian literature, so who better to guide me? I have two other longer works – “Степь” (“The Steppe”) and “Дуэль” (“The Duel”) – that we didn’t get around to in college, so there’s plenty of new material to go along with old favorites like “Gooseberries.”

Now, a confession: I don’t have many other real, true favorite Ч writers. But there are some interesting books to mention. I read and enjoyed a shortened version of N.G. Chernyshevsky’s What Is To Be Done? (Benjamin R. Tucker’s translation, revised and abridged by Ludmilla B. Turkevich, in a Vintage edition with an Edward Gorey cover design) back in grad school and have happy memories of that experience simply because I was reading at the ocean. I remember very little (meaning: pretty much nothing at all) about the novel, but oh my, my marginalia tell me the book thoroughly engaged me at the time. I sometimes feel guilty for not remembering even a basic plot, though I’m not sure I feel guilty enough for an imminent reread.

Lidia Chukovskaya’s Sofia Petrovna, however, has long been a genuine favorite: I’ve read it several times, always appreciating the simplicity of the form and language, which leave so much room for Chukovskaya to offer a close-up of the devastating effects of totalitarianism (previous post). It was a lovely surprise to look at my Chukovskaya book today and find that the afterword I actually read and enjoyed (marginalia tell all!) back in 2011 was written by Olga Zilberbourg, a writer I met in 2016 at a translator conference. I wrote about her Like Water story collection last year (previous post). My book with Sofia Petrovna also includes Спуск под воду (Going Under), which I haven’t yet read, though I’ll put the book in my trolley and consider it to soon.

Contemporary fiction wouldn’t have given me a favorite Ч-named writer if Evgeny Chizhov hadn’t decided to use a pseudonym. His Translation from a Literal Translation (previous post), which I thought was very, very good, is plenty to put him on the list even if it’s his only novel that I’ve finished.

Charskaya, reading at the dacha  

My pandemic book buying binges b(r)ought me two other books (new acquisitions already in the trolley, unread, so not yet favorites) by Ч-named writers: a book containing Lidia Charskaya’s Записки институтки (something like: Notes of a [Female] College/Institute Student) and Княжна Джаваха (Princess Dzhavakha, a.k.a. Little Princess Nina, I believe, in Hana Mus̆ková’s translation?), which both look promising. And then there’s Anton Chizh’s Машина страха (maybe The Fear Machine?), a retro detective novel set in 1898 Petersburg. Of course I love detective novels. Who knows how this one will be, but, yes, I’m still rather stuck in the past – or in various alternate, often futuristic, realities – and having difficulty reading fiction about this century since characters are rarely masked up, vaccinated against COVID-19, or staying far, far away from each other. Fortunately, Russian fiction offers plenty of fantasy, mysticism, and other twists on what we conventionally consider reality.

Up Next: Ksenia Buksha’s Advent and Eugene Vodolazkin’s History of Island.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual. Carol Apollonio is a friend and colleague. As is Olga Zilberbourg, though we’ve only met once in person; she has reviewed a couple of my translations.


Photo by M.G. Nikitin, public domain, obtained through Wikipedia.