Friday, November 2, 2007

Бестселлеры -- Bestsellers, Moscow-style

Bestselling books last week at Moscow's Biblio-Globus? Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, The Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing, a cookbook for the lazy, plus self-help books on smoking cessation, talking to your child, career advice for women, and how rational people make stupid mistakes that can ruin their lives.

That's not all, of course. Romance and detectives were represented, too, and there were some translations from French plus, of all things, William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew.

There was also a little space for Russian literary fiction... whatever that means:

Vladimir Voinovich recently published his third (and final, he says) novel about Private Ivan Chonkin. The Chonkin books are Soviet classics, satires about Soviet life and bureaucracy that are easier read than described. I also enjoyed Voinovich's Монументальная пропаганда (Monumental Propaganda), which picks up a tangent from the Chonkin books. Here's what I wrote about it for a literature workshop:
Vladimir Voinovich’s Monumental Propaganda isn’t a Soviet-era work but this satire begins in the 1940s and ends in the ‘90s, covering the life of a woman who likes Stalin so much that she has a statue of him put up in her city. When the statue is taken down during the Khrushchev era, she brings it to her apartment, where she cleans and talks to it. The book lags a bit in the beginning (despite a lot of humor) but is a good portrait of someone who sticks by the Stalin mythology – I saw people like this character marching in the streets of Moscow and found the book very believable in its look at how politics affects real lives. Voinovich is extremely popular; his Chonkin books are must-reads, and some of his short stories are also very good.
Evgenii Grishkovets's Следы на мне (Traces on Me)is a collection of short stories. Here's my translation of part of the description on Biblio-Globus: "Grishkovets discusses people who played an important role in his life. Some stories, some events -- nothing exotic. Impressions and experiences that are more important than events." The focus is not on the book's "heroes" but on life and self, adds the summary.

It's oddly frustrating for a writer to read Grishkovets: I think many of us probably think we could have written his books and stories. They feel very simple, in both style and content. But that simplicity -- and, even more important, an unabashed sincerity -- have made Grishkovets uniquely popular. He examines small things in life that almost any reader can relate to: waking up and feeling like you're sick, obsession with being in love, or finding a pre-warmed seat on public transportation. Russians enjoy Grishkovets's writing, music, and stage productions enough that I've seen him in American Express ads. (Member since when, you wonder? I don't remember.) I particularly like Grishkovets's spoken songs and think his short novel, Рубашка (The Shirt), would do well in translation. It is also a nice book for students of Russian because it is short and fairly easy to read.

Post Scriptum: Perennial Bestsellers. Sergei Luk'ianenko and Dar'ia Dontsova are also on the list. Luk'ianenko wrote Ночной дозор (Night Watch) and its sequels, which have been adapted into two blockbuster Russian films that fall somewhere into the science fiction and fantasy realms. They show the struggle between people representing light and dark, though Luk'ianenko says they are better described as altruists and egoists. I read the first half of the first book and thought it was just okay. It quickly felt repetitive (or perhaps predictable), though I rather liked the casual narrative voice.
Dontsova has written several series of "ironic detective" novels with (translated) titles like Kama Sutra for Mickey Mouse and The Frog of the Baskervilles. She is fantastically popular, in large part, I suspect, because her books are optimistic and show everyday women of various social classes solving crimes, lovin' it at McDonald's, and holding extended households together. Dontsova's books are not literary (or likely to be translated), and I've found that some of them could use more editing, but they're predictable in a good way: she doesn't stray from her genre, and all the books I've read wrap up happily.
At the end of a busy and stressful day, many Russian women want something light, not a postmodern prize winner. Incidentally, optimism is a big part of Dontsova's life: I first learned about her when she was on a Russian talk show, speaking about how she survived cancer. Dontsova's best-selling book this time around is the cookbook for lazy people!

In this posting:
Vladimir Voinovich Books on Amazon
Night Watch on Amazon


Post a Comment