Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Big Book’s 2014 Finalists & Read Russia Prize Finalists

All that work compiling the entire Big Book long list last month had its benefits: Big Book’s finalists were announced today, the day I head to New York for BookExpo America, so all I have to do is select the nine finalists from that big, long list. Here’s the list of finalists… and I’m off…

  • Svetlana Aleksievich: Время секонд хэнд (See Second-Hand Time for a detailed description and a list of translations). Nonfiction about Russia’s post-Soviet history.
  • Ksenia Buksha: Завод “Свобода” (The “Freedom” Factory). About a factory called Freedom that was founded in 1920 then fails in a later era; based on real events. Shortlisted for this year’s National Bestseller.
  • Aleksandr Grigorenko: Ильгет. Три имени судьбы (excerpts) (Ilget. Three Names for Fate). Shortlisted for this year’s NOSE Award. Novel set in the early thirteenth century in the taiga.
  • Aleksei Makushinskii: Пароход в Аргентину (Steamship to Argentina). A novel about émigré life and Proustian searches.
  • Zakhar Prilepin: Обитель (The Cloister). A novel about the Solovetsky Islands in the 1920s.
  • Viktor Remizov: Воля вольная (Willful Will/Free Freedom… oh, how I want to preserve those common roots even if the title doesn’t work!). In any case, this is a novel about poaching, corruption, and conflict in the Russian Far East… though there’s much more to it than that. [Description edited after reading the book.]
  • Vladimir Sorokin: Теллурия (Tellurium). On my NatsBest long list post, I wrote: A polyphonic novel in 50 highly varying chapters. I read about 150 pages before setting Tellurium aside: Sorokin’s use of a futuristic medieval setting, tiny and huge people, kinky stuff, sociopolitical observations, and a novel (ha!) psychotropic agent all felt way too familiar after Day of the Oprichnik, The Blizzard, and The Sugar Kremlin. Shortlisted for this year’s National Bestseller.
  • Evgenii Chizhov: Перевод с подстрочника (literally Translation from a Literal Translation) A novel about a translator who goes to an invented country with a name ending in –stan to get some literal translations of poetry that need to be translated into real Russian.
  • Vladimir Sharov: Возвращение в Египет (Return to Egypt). In which one Kolya Gogol (a distant relative of familiar old Nikolai Gogol) finishes writing Dead Souls. An epistolary novel. Shortlisted for this year’s National Bestseller.

And a last-minute, late-breaking bonus! Here are the finalists for the Read Russia Prize for Russian-to-English translations. The award will be announced on Friday evening. I’ll add a comment to this post that night, naming the winner.

Disclaimers: The usual. I have worked on projects for Read Russia over the last several years.

Up Next: Yuri Mamleyev’s The Sublimes and lots more award news, including NatsBest, the Read Russia Award, and Inspector NOSE results. Not to mention a BookExpo America trip report.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Sniffing Out Post-Soviet Detective Novels with Inspector NOSE

I’ve been having such terrible hay fever problems this spring that it seemed especially fitting to find news late last week about a special NOSE Award competition from the Prokhorov Foundation: Inspector NOSE. Inspector NOSE aims to inventory and assess Russian-language detective novels written since 1991, looking at how authors use the genre within and outside its usual norms, and examining the detectives themselves, with an eye on whether they can stand alongside classics like Holmes, Maigret, Brown, or Marple.

The Inspector NOSE longlist contains 32 books, of which I’ve read a grand total of four, though those four certainly attest to variety in NOSE’s list: Leonid Yuzefovich’s Казароза (Kazaroza) (previous post), Boris Akunin’s Азазель (The Winter Queen), Margarita Khemlin’s Дознаватель (The Investigator) (previous post), and Polina Dashkova’s Легкие шаги безумия (Madness Treads Lightly). Of those four, the only book that’s been translated into English is the Akunin: Andrew Bromfield has, in fact, translated a whole slew of books from Akunin’s series featuring Erast Fandorin. I think Akunin’s first nine books starring Fandorin are particularly fun. Though it’s not on this list, I want to mention that Marian Schwartz translated Yuzefovich’s Костюм Арлекина (Harlequin’s Costume) (previous post), the first of a historical detective novel trilogy featuring Ivan Dmitrievich Putilin, a character based on an actual Saint Petersburg police inspector. I enjoyed the first two books in the Putilin trilogy though felt even more affinity for Kazaroza because Yuzefovich brings elements including Civil War, Esperanto, and Lermontov.

But I do digress: the Inspector NOSE long list includes 28 other books, many by writers I’ve never heard of, though I’ve read books, albeit not the books on the NOSE list, by two others: Sergei Kuznetsov was listed for Шкурка бабочки (Butterfly Skin) and Alexandra Marinina, a blockbuster name in the Russian detective genre, is on the list for Стечение обстоятельств (Confluence of Circumstances), which, according to Wikipedia, was translated into English and published in Soviet & Post-Soviet Review, vol. 29, 2002. I’ve read short stories in the Moscow Noir (previous post) and Petersburg Noir (previous post) anthologies by several other writers on the list: Anton Chizh, listed for Божественный яд (Divine Poison/Venom); Andrei Kivinov, listed for Кошмар на улице стачек (Nightmare on Strike Street), and Master Chen, listed for Любимая мартышка дома Тан (Pet Monkey of the House of Tang). Master Chen’s book is one-third of a trilogy that includes Любимый ястреб дома Аббаса, available from Russian Life as The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas, translated by Liv Bliss.

Beyond that there are a few other familiar names, some more familiar than others: Lev Gurskii and his Перемена мест (maybe Changed Places?); Arsen Revazov with Одиночество -12 (Solitude 12), which I have but have not read; Alexander Bushkov, a huge bestseller, for Танец Бешеной (Mad/Crazy Woman’s Dance); and Sergei Kostin, author of the espionage thriller Пако Аррайя. В Париж на выходные (Paris Weekend, translated by Todd Bludeau). The rest of the books on the longlist are, as they say, terra incognita for me. Meaning I haven’t a clue. As a reader who enjoys the detective genre in lots of different forms, I’m looking forward to reading more about the debate, shortlist, and winner on June 3… and maybe even watching the proceedings over the Internet.

Disclaimers: The usual. I’m very happy to be working on two translations funded by Transcript program grants from the Prokhorov Foundation and am look forward to visiting the Prokhorov booth during BookExpo America this week.

Up Next: I’m hoping that my head will be together enough one of these days to finish my post about Yuri Mamleyev’s The Sublimes, though sometimes I think this dazed and altered state induced by pollen and Allegra might be the best way to write about such a crazy book! There will also be award news galore: NatsBest, the Big Book shortlist (very soon!), Read Russia Award, and Inspector NOSE results. Not to mention a BookExpo America trip report. And other books...

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Baldaev and Vasiliev’s Soviets

SOVIETS coverEvery now and thenmaybe once a year or soI read a book that gives me a fleeting case of PhD program dropout remorse syndrome. I like, no, I love, the book, see its value for a broader readership, and begin designing courses and creating syllabi in my head so I can force (okay, attempt to force…) a group of unsuspecting but curious undergraduates to read, appreciate, and love it, too. “Fleeting” means the syndrome usually disappears within a few minutes, after I’ve remembered how much I hate grading, office hours nobody comes to, and academic paperwork. Besides, I have a completely painless outlet for some of those urges: some of you occasionally ask me for book ideas for your courses.

I’m sure you can see where this is going: I read Soviets by Danzig Baldaev and Sergei Vasiliev and would love to put it on someone’s reading list. Soviets is my second book from Fuel, a London-based publisher. The first was Baldaev’s Drawings from the Gulag, which I called “a deeply disturbing book that documents, through detailed drawings and concise captions, the horrors of the Soviet Gulag system.” Soviets isn’t nearly as disturbing, though many of Baldaev’s dozens of angry caricatures and commentaries on life in Sovietdom are uncomfortable and grotesque, addressing subjects like anti-Semitism, alcoholism, and the Afghan War. Soviets juxtaposes Baldaev’s work with photos by Sergei Vasiliev, a photographer who worked for Vecherny Chelyabinsk. Like Drawings, Soviets is bilingual (this is great for students!), with English-language translations from Polly Gannon and Ast A. Moore.

Soviets covers so much that it’s hard to summarize its value for students of Soviet-era or post-Soviet Russian literature and culture. For someone like me, a life-long learner in the field who lived for an extended period in 1990s Russia, (and admittedly has trouble making it through book-length nonfiction), the broad range of figures in Baldaev’s drawings and Vasiliev’s photos—the former draws everyone from a barfing drunk to a medal-covered Brezhnev, and the latter photographs everyone from soldiers meeting Yuri Gagarin to female prisoners “volunteering” on their day off—goes a long way toward filling in gaps on aspects of Soviet life that I never had a chance to witness or learn about. Things like scientists sorting vegetables in a storage facility or the name Нихухрымухрыниксы (transliterated: Nikhukhrymukhryniksy, which the book calls “a portmanteau of ne khukhry-mukhry (‘not to be sniffed at’) and the Kukryniksy – three satirical cartoonists who signed their work collectively under this name.” Kukryniksy drawings were published in the Soviet magazine Krokodil. “The fifth column,” a term that’s making a comeback these days, also appears in Soviets.

I should add that many of the panels in Soviets include explanatory notes. Randomly opening—this was a fortuitous opening to a particularly rich panel—brings up a page depicting tiny people being emptied into a Belomorkanal cigarette carton by the NKVD and an ashtray bearing the saying “Лес рубят – щепки летят” and holding what looks to be a heap of people. This page includes a reference to poet Osip Mandelstam with a brief note about his life, work, arrest, and death plus a note about Belomorkanal cigarettes, created to commemorate the construction of the canal between the White and Baltic Seas. The saying on the ashtray, by the way, is rendered as “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs,” which is certainly more familiar and, thus, clearer to casual readers than something more literal, like “If you cut down trees/forests, sawdust flies,” something I’d never really thought much about until sawdust really did fly in my backyard last week on a breezy day.

Many pages of Soviets also contain quotations from works about the Soviet Union that complement the topic in the drawing. The book endeared itself to me even more when I found a quote from The Soviet Union: empire, nation, and system, by Aron Katsenelinboigen, whose course in Soviet geography taught me more about the Soviet system than all my other college courses combined. He’s quoted on a page about alcohol, workers, and payment, noting that workers were sometimes compensated in pure alcohol, measured by the glass. The bibliography in Soviets contains around 30 items. From a to z, they start with Martin Amis’s Koba the Dread and end with Aleksandr Zinovyev’s Homo-Sovieticus.

And then there are Vasiliev’s photos, all black and white, many depicting official parades, sporting events, and workers. They make a beautiful complement to Baldaev’s drawings, particularly because it’s often difficult to decide which angle on Soviet reality feels more realistic. Or absurd. I’m sure part of the reason the spectral double-paged picture of a long, long line for Lenin’s mausoleum on a snowy day particularly struck me: I went to the mausoleum in 1983 and was nearly denied entry because I was wearing sandals. Disrespectfully open sandals. There’s also the contrast of an tubercular inmate who has a Lenin tattoo on his shoulder, and, later in the book, five nude sunbathing women on a roof in Chelyabinsk in 1976. The shadows are lovely. The ethereal photo across from that one shows a woman bathing her son in a small washtub on a roof; it looks like there’s a clothesline, too, and a breeze. It’s 1977.

The Fuel Web site offers some sample pages from Soviets, here. The photographs include the afore-mentioned photo of the line to Lenin’s mausoleum.

Disclaimers: The usual. Thank you very, very much to Fuel for sending me a review copy of Soviets.

Up Next: Yuri Mamleyev’s The Sublimes. Later still, Mikhail Bulgakov’s White Guard, which I like very, very much but find slow going. Also, Irina Ratushinskaya’s The Odessans. And a trip report on BookExpo America, which is coming up at the end of the month and will feature a day-long program about translated literature.