Thursday, December 31, 2015

Happy New Year! & 2015 Highlights

It’s a mystery to me how 2015 managed to slip by so quickly, but here I am, yet again, with holiday greetings. Happy new year! С Новым годом! For at least the third year in a row, the reading situation has been quality over quantity with lots of abandonments but also a fair number of books I’ve enjoyed. It’s been another busy year of translation, too. Here are a few highlights in categories that I’ve (as always!) fashioned to fit what I enjoyed most:

Favorite debut novel. Guzel Yakhina’s Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes (previous post) was one of my favorite books of the year and, as I’ve noted before, my enjoyment of the book only grew when I translated excerpts for Elkost, Yakhina’s literary agency. I still don’t quite understand how Yakhina makes a book about the exile of a kulak woman into such a lovely, affecting novel, but I’m going to just chalk that up to the magic of fiction. As I’ve said before, Zuleikha certainly deserves the praise and awards—the Yasnaya Polyana and Big Book—that it has won. It was a pleasure to rank Zuleikha highest on my Big Book ballot in my first year as a voting jury member.

Favorite book by a writer I’d already read. Marina Stepnova’s Italian Lessons (Безбожный переулок in Russian) (previous post), which I’m happy to say I’ll start translating in March for World Editions, publisher of my translation of Stepnova’s The Women of Lazarus, released this September. (You can read about Stepnova and The Women of Lazarus here, in a comprehensive piece by Phoebe Taplin.) Anyway! Italian Lessons tells of a love triangle but is, more than anything, put broadly, hmm (particularly since I might change my mind after translating), a novel about the difficulties of contemporary Russian life. With background, food, travel, and lots of literary references I can’t wait to sort through.

Favorite children’s book. I don’t read many children’s books but I did read two this year… and I enjoyed Anna Starobinets’s Catlantis (previous post) so much that I had to mention it, particularly since Pushkin Press recently published Jane Bugaeva’s English translation. I read the Russian but—knowing Jane, her love for cats, and her love for linguistic fun—I’m certain the translation is just as much fun as the original. If you’re looking for a chapter book about a love-struck, time-traveling cat, search no further than Catlantis!

Favorite book I haven’t finished. Valerii Zalotukha’s The Candle (Свечка), my second-place Big Book book. Weighing in at about 1,850 pages, I admit I still haven’t finished the book, though with its combination of the Moscow nineties, references to War and Peace, and themes of criminal activity and sociocultural wreckage, I might love to be stuck in The Candle for years. I’ve read at least one novel’s worth already, in binges and in small bits, and love how easy it is to enjoy The Candle however I read. A post will be coming whenever.

Signing books at The Strand!
Favorite travel. This is tough because I always enjoy the American Literary Translators Association annual conference… but I think Russian Literature Week, which brought me to New York earlier this month, had that beat. Not only did I love being part of a Bridge Series event with Eugene Vodolazkin, about Лавр/Laurus, at BookCourt in Brooklyn, and moderated by Sal Robinson, but it was fun moderating a roundtable at the Brooklyn Public Library with Vodolazkin, Vladimir Sharov, and Dmitry Petrov, too. Of course it was great to just have a chance to spend time in balmy New York (60 degrees F!) with them, Leonid Yuzefovich, translators Marian Schwartz and Oliver Ready, and many, many other translators, writers, readers, publishers, and other colleagues from New York, Moscow, and beyond. My memories of the week are so horribly skewed from being a part of two events—even when I attended events I wasn’t involved in, I was thinking about how anything Sharov and Vodolazkin said might apply to our roundtable—that I’m thoroughly incapable of writing a trip report, so I’ll just say here that it was all great fun. And that sitting under a warm December sun in the middle of Broadway or walking around Central Park talking about Russian books is pretty nice.

Happiest mood. What seems to stick most about 2015 is how good the year was to me and my books. Three of my translations were released—Vladislav Otroshenko’s Addendum to a Photo Album, Stepnova’s Women of Lazarus, and Vodolazkin’s Laurus—and all have had nice reviews on reader blogs, in publications like The TLS, and even in the wonderfully hybrid New Yorker Page-Turner blog, where Ken Kalfus’s “Holy Foolery,” about Laurus, helped the book find many, many readers. And that, I have to say, is one of the reasons I love this translation thing so much to begin with: beyond the fun of translation itself and the very humbling honor of becoming a writer’s English-language voice, I love being able to help books reach new readers. And that, I think is the perfect place to end 2015, though only blog-wise since there is still a little food, wine, and reading to go. And I do want to say how much I’m looking forward to next year’s books, too: Vadim Levental’s Masha Regina and Vodolazin’s Solovyov and Larionov, which, like Laurus, will be published by Oneworld Publications.

More finally: another thank you! Thank you for visiting the blog, whether you come by regularly or occasionally. I hope you continue to enjoy it and I wish you a very happy, healthy, and book-filled 2016!

Up Next: Sergei Nosov’s Curly Brackets, Yurii Buida’s Ceylon, and who knows what else… there are shelves and shelves of books hanging around, waiting to be read!

Disclaimers: The usual.

Image credit: Fireworks in Bratislava, New Year 2005, from Ondrejk, via Wikipedia. Book signing, publicist Becky Kraemer.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Getting Off the Island: Vagner’s Truly Human

Sequels are always tough so I have to admit I began Yana Vagner’s Живые люди—which her agents call Truly Human, rather than the more literal and far more awkward Living People—with a bit of trepidation. I loved Vagner’s Vongozero (previous post) for its road journey: a group of people leaves Moscow for a remote island near the Russian-Finnish border, to escape a killer virus. There’s lots of snow. Most of the genres I mentioned before—psychological thriller, race for survival, and horror story—are still in force for Truly Human, but road story is replaced by a version of hermetic fiction this time. Hermetic seals are, of course, always just waiting to burst…

There’s snow on the island in Truly Human, too, since it’s still winter: Truly Human tells what happens when the road trip ends and the motley group of people settles in. The narrator is again Anya, a thirty-something woman who’s married to Sergei and is mother to teenage Misha. She’s crammed into a tiny house with her overbearing father-in-law, three neighbors from her old life (they’re still annoying), Sergei’s ex-wife and their child, and one other couple. There’s also a dog. Once again, Vagner’s writing is plain and very appropriate to her book’s events. This time she depicts a Spartan lifestyle: not only do the cigarettes run out but there’s lots of ice fishing, sleeping on uncomfortable-sounding beds, and sharing small spaces with people Anya doesn’t like very much.

I think that’s what I enjoyed most about Truly Human: Anya’s honesty about her companions. Some of them are shadowy here, barely described, reflecting their places in her consciousness. Or lack thereof: sometimes it feels like she simply wants to will them out of existence. With its island setting, Truly Human begins as a pretty hermetically sealed book but Vagner works in three new neighbors on the shore; one of them seems especially threatening, which starts building some slow suspense. It’s worth noting that the Chekhovian guns present in Vongozero haven’t exactly been thrown in the lake. Nor have most of the other post-cataclysmic, existential threats one might expect, like hunger, boredom, thin ice, and illness. Vagner covers most of that, too, again starting off slowly but quickening her pace.

Although there’s a distinct sense here of hell being other people (that’s one side of being “truly human” and “living people,” isn’t it?) Vagner also shows the women drinking by a campfire (there’s a nice mess of trout that day) and telling stories about their lives before the virus. And later, when the first of the group dies, everyone mourns not only that person but their other loved ones: to paraphrase, nobody had time to mourn the sharp feelings of loss they’d brought with them to the island. Anya may not always be a sympathetic character or narrator but she’s insightful and very, very real. And human, too, as emotions and plotlines heat up when all sorts of calamities hit. And how could they not? The food’s bound to run out, spring and migrating ducks come late to northern Russia, and the three guys on shore always looked a little sketchy. Even if I didn’t love Truly Human quite as much as Vongozero—which I’d expected after finding Vongozero so oddly magical—I have to admire Vagner’s ability to put her characters in a small house without much food, space, or privacy. And to let them sort things out in ways that felt, well, pretty truly human to me.

Up Next: Year-end summary, Sergei Nosov’s Curly Brackets, and likely Yuri Buida’s Ceylon, which I started yesterday and which feels a little like comfortable old (but not smelly) slippers.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Big Book Goes to Guzel Yakhina

I was very happy to see that Guzel Yakhina won the 2015 Big Book Award for Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes. My second-place pick, Valery Zalotukha's The Candle, won second prize, and Roman Senchin's Flood Zone came in third.

Reader's choice awards went to Yakhina followed by Anna Matveeva's Nine from the Nineties and Zalotukha's The Candle.

That's it from New York City, where there are still lots of great Russian Literature Week events on the calendar for tonight and tomorrow. The schedule's still here!

Disclaimers: I'm a member of the Big Book's jury and have translated excerpts from Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

The 2015 Russian Booker Goes to Snegirev!

I was so excited on Thursday to see that Alexander Snegirev won the 2015 Russian Booker that I screamed (nothing creative, just a very loud “Snegirev!”) when I saw his picture on Snegirev won for Вера, which, as I’ve noted in past posts, could be translated as Vera or Faith, and I can’t wait to read the rest of the book on paper after enjoying the beginning of the electronic copy he sent me earlier this year… I was just yearning to take lots of notes on paper margins. I’ve enjoyed other Snegirev novels—Petroleum Venus and Vanity—so am thrilled to see him win a major prize. He’s not just a good writer, he’s also a wonderful person, something that I think comes through in his work.

This year’s Booker translation prize, for publication of an English-language translation, went to Alisa Ganieva, who was a Booker finalist for Жених и невеста (Bride and Groom), which Carol Apollonio is already translating for Deep Vellum Publishing, a new press with an almost painfully impressive list of translated fiction. Deep Vellum has already published Apollonio’s translation of Ganieva’s Праздничная гора, as The Mountain and the Wall. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed meeting Ganieva a number of times over the years, too, so am also very, very happy for her. Beyond that, I can’t wait to read the book, which is on the shelf waiting for me.

Up Next: Big Book Award winners. Trip reports for ALTA and Russian Literature Week, which is coming right up, starting tomorrow, in New York! I hope to see some of you at events; just check that link for a full schedule and to RSVP. And books: Sergei Nosov’s Curly Brackets.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

2015 Big Book Award Roundup

Now that my Big Book Award ballot has been scanned and sent in for counting, it’s time for a Big Book Award blog post. Jury prize winners will be announced on December 10; I think reader voting results are usually announced a little earlier. A reminder: you can vote (or check current reader voting) online with either Bookmate, ReadRate, or ЛитРес.

There were nine Big Book finalists this year, and my ratings fall, all too easily, into three categories. This year’s finalists were so weak for my taste that I didn’t finish many: active avoidance of reading is a sure sign to move on. I should mention: Big Book sent me books in electronic form, which is how I did most of my reading. Please see my “2015 Big Book Award Finalists” post for links and Russian titles.

The Top Three. My favorite book of the nine is Guzel Yakhina’s Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes (previous post), a book that strikes me as “big” in lots of ways because Yakhina is so successful in writing a wonderfully readable (debut!) historical novel about a kulak woman who’s exiled. Zuleikha has already won the 2015 Prose of the Year and Yasnaya Polyana awards but, given this year’s Big Book field, I have to think she’ll win something at Big Book, too, even if it’s not a first prize. (She’s leading very handily in reader votes on all three sites.) My second-place book is Valerii Zalotukha’s The Candle. The Candle is so long—around 1,850 pages of small print in two volumes—that I haven’t yet finished it but have no qualms about that, in terms of voting. On the one hand, I’d have placed it a touch lower than Zuleikha anyway, due to occasional wordiness, particularly in the stream-of-consciousness passages. On the other hand, the first 500-600 pages were so enjoyable and interesting that the book could implode totally and I wouldn’t lower its rating: I’ve already read the equivalent of a typical medium-to-long novel! How could I go wrong with a novel set in Moscow in the nineties? With a main character who loves War and Peace? Beyond that, Zalotukha has a great sense of humor and really brings back the feel of the era. I bought a hard copy of The Candle last week and am looking forward to finishing it. It may take some time because there’s just so much book and it’s been especially fun to read it in chunks. It’s the rare book I don’t want to finish too fast. My third-place book is Anna Matveeva’s Nine from the Nineties, a short story collection that I thought was very decent… until I got to the final piece, a novella. Like Zalotukha, Matveeva examines the nineties, primarily in her native Urals, but I thought the book faltered when she brought one of her characters to Paris for the novella. That said, Matveeva does beautifully with topics like class differences, leaving Russia, crime, inflation (there’s even a gym bag/wallet), and school situations, and her characterizations are good, too. Her stories are tidy and I finished all but one, probably a personal record.

The Muddle in the Middle. The three middle books are a real mixed bunch. I finished, grudgingly, Boris Ekimov’s Autumn in Zadon’e: it’s relatively short and I have to give Ekimov credit, again grudgingly, for giving the book a measure of narrative drive. That said, I thought this short novel about a family of Cossack descent that goes back to its roots and wide open spaces by the Don River was most notable for remaking village prose in an odd way, featuring an annoyingly precocious child and overlaying patriotism with xenophobic tinges on the story. It felt uncomfortable in all the wrong ways. And then there’s Roman Senchin’s Flood Zone, another book about rural life, or, really, the death of rural life, since the book’s about a village that’s evacuated for a dam. I’ve liked several of Senchin’s books very much but Flood Zone felt horribly flat and predictable to me—bureaucrats against villagers, thin-walled apartments against wood-heated houses, etc.—all with the dam looming in the background. I read more than two-thirds of the book before I just couldn’t go on. Then comes Aleksei Varlamov’s The Imagined Wolf, which is set in the Silver Age but felt flat, too, though Varlamov’s writing is far denser than Senchin’s, resulting in an effect that a friend calls поток слов, which for my purposes, was more a flood (apologies to Senchin) of words than just a flow. I read and read and read (150 pages or more) but always came away wondering what I’d read, despite the fact that everything seemed to make sense to me. Even reading this one on paper didn’t help, which was disappointing because the metaphor of the imagined wolf and the fear that accompanies it sound so intriguing.

The Laggards. My favorite of the bottom three is Igor Virabov’s Andrei Voznesensky, which I enjoyed at times, though primarily for inserted documentary material (dialogue between Voznesensky and Khrushchev was a highlight) or passages more about Pasternak than Voznesensky. Certain things, like descriptions of Peredelkino, where I saw Voznesensky once or twice at annual events marking Pasternak’s death, made the book feel familiar, which probably helped, too, and Virabov does make the book lively. Sometimes so lively that it feels excessively, even embarrassingly, gossipy and kitschy, almost like a dishy 700-page blog post. I read, sometimes skimming, 250 crammed pages. I did learn from it and may scavenge for more interesting material. Next is Dina Rubina’s trilogy, Russian Canary: I read more than 200 pages of the first volume (a Russian friend called me a hero for that) before I succumbed to TMI syndrome—for excessive detail, floweriness, and Rubina’s attempt to shoehorn too many genres into one book—and had to set it aside. I don’t mean to sound snarky particularly since I have to admit I understand why Rubina’s chatty, friendly tone makes this family saga with pet canaries, Odessa, and adventure so popular with many readers. It just isn’t my book at all. Finally, we have Viktor Pelevin’s Love for Three Zuckerbrins, which did me in at about 50 pages. I’ve never been a Pelevin fan—though I’m still hoping to find something I can truly enjoy—but the best thing I can say for this one is that it forced me to take Pushkin off the shelf, for his Пророк” (“The Prophet”). As usual with Pelevin, there’s something going on in the book about the nature of reality and I have electronic margin comments like “god as jokester” but, as I mentioned to another friend, reading Pelevin reminds me of late nights in college when everybody’s imbibed in too much of something: conversations about philosophy and are-we-real-or-are-we-imaging-this feel brilliant at the time but all you’re left with in the morning is a hangover and the sense that you talked about something really cool. Oh well!

Disclaimers. I’m a member of the Big Book jury, the Literary Academy, and received electronic versions of all the finalist books. Thank you to Big Book for the books and for inviting me to serve on the Literary Academy! I’ve translated excerpts of Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes for Elkost International Literary Agency.

Up Next. Russian Booker winners and Big Book winners. Sergei Nosov’s Curly Brackets, which was a decent travel companion but rather disappointing for a NatsBest winner. A trip report about the ALTA conference, which was tons of fun, as usual; a trip report about Read Russia’s Russian Literature Week, where, among other things, I’ll be speaking with Eugene Vodolazkin at a Bridge Series event at BookCourt in Brooklyn and moderating a Russian-language roundtable at the Brooklyn Public Library with Vodolazkin, Vladimir Sharov, and Dmitry Petrov. A full RLW schedule is online here. Please come if you’ll be in New York during the week of December 7!

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Narine Abgaryan’s People Who Are Always With Me

Narine Abgaryan’s Люди, которые всегда со мной (People Who Are Always With Me) is the second book from a fun little “summer surprise” book package I received from Abgaryan’s literary agency, Banke, Goumen & Smirnova. If the first book, Three Apples Fell from the Sky, can be described as magical realism, it might just be possible to describe People as a form of realistic magic: though People contains few touches of magic in its plot, Abgaryan’s warmth in portraying everyday twentieth-century reality, such as it is, in Berd, Armenia, feels like a unique form of writerly magic.

Describing People requires a unique form of bloggerly magic that I don’t think I possess. Given my deficiency, I’ll look at certain aspects of the book that particularly struck me. Abgaryan jumps around in time, and between a close third-person narrator and a little girl, who’s known simply as Devochka, or the Little Girl. (There’s a reason for that; I won’t reveal it.) The novel is told episodically, and it opens (pretty much, more on this below) with the Little Girl and her mother making a trip to a somewhat scary neighbor’s to buy milk. I love the Little Girl’s voice, talking about kasha she thinks tastes disgusting, a cow named Marishka, and how adults are pretty smart but really should haven’t dreamt up that disgusting mannaya kasha, the stuff I grew up calling Cream of Wheat. I loved Cream of Wheat as a child and I love the day-to-day details in People: there’s also a milk mustache, outhouse humor, and family photos. And differences in the smells of old and new buildings…

Maybe I read too much when I was hungry but I came away with particularly vivid pictures of family meals and foods: among other treats, there’s spiced dried meat known as basturma and dried sausage called sudzhuk, a scented bakery, and slices of potato with cheese, which, of course, made me craziest of all. More than anything, though, there’s family: mothers, fathers, siblings, aunts and uncles, aunties, grandparents, and friends who are so close they’re part of the family, too. All these people, of course, are who should remain with us—and, of course with the Little Girl—after their death. I have no idea how Abgaryan somehow manages to avoid sappiness when the Little Girl’s father tells her they will remain behind her, like wings. Somehow the word “lovely” fits the book doubly: not only does it contain beautiful accounts of daily life but it depicts love among family and friends.

People Who Are Always With Me covers multiple generations and Abgaryan includes historical references, some of which relate to the Armenian genocide and ongoing hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Though many of the details in those passages are very good—there’s a pogrom in Baku and suspenseful travel at a dangerous time—and the characters’ experiences feel organic to the story, for my taste, occasional lines felt a bit too expository, too nonfictionish, for the novel, particularly in the very beginning. That’s a very minor complaint, though, given episodes where, for example, a doctor explains his atheism or the Little Girl is said to be too little to grasp the flow of time because each instant is infinity and eternity for her. In many senses, that’s exactly what the book is about: retaining an element of childhood, the part of life when, as the Little Girl’s mother notes, “you love everybody and don’t hold grudges.” I don’t think it’s an accident that Abgaryan gave the Little Girl’s mother the name Vera, which means “faith.”

Disclaimers: The usual. And thank you to BGS for the Abgaryan books, which I truly enjoyed. I should also note that I translated an excerpt from Abgaryan’s Three Apples for BGS.

Up Next: More books. A roundup about the Big Book finalist list, including Boris Yekimov’s Autumn in Zadon’e, which I finished but didn’t like very much (at all), and Anna Matveeva’s story collection Девять девяностых (Nine from the Nineties). I also somehow shoehorned in Sergei Nosov’s Curly Brackets, which was a decent travel companion but rather disappointing for a major award winner. And, of course, a trip report about the ALTA conference, which was tons of fun, as usual.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

NOSE, the Short(list) Version

Well, dear readers, it’s time for a short NOSE post: the НОС/NOSE Award named its finalists in late October, when I was in Arizona enjoying sidewalk dining and wearing short sleeves. I thank the NOSE people for a nice, fitting shortlist to post this week since I came back from Tucson—where this year’s American Literary Translators Association conference was held—with a silly cold and probably couldn’t have put enough thoughts together for a real book post this week.

Here’s the seven-book shortlist for 2015. Perhaps what’s most interesting here is that there aren’t many repeaters: yes, Guzel Yakhina has already won the Prose of the Year and Yasnaya Polyana Awards and sure, Danila Zaitsev was also named a Yasnaya Polyana finalist, but I don’t think any of the other writers have been finalists for major awards this year. But stop the presses! I remembered just before posting that that’s simply not true: Polina Barskova’s book is a finalist for the Bely Award, for which the shortlists are here. Im happy to report that Lena Eltang’s Cartagena is on the prose shortlist, too. But I do ramble. Here’s the NOSE list!

  • Aleksandr Ilyanen: Пенсия (Pension). According to the book’s description, this is another novel about a nonexistent Petersburg; there’s lots of language play, though the pension is literal. Apparently an odd love story. Igor Gulin’s review on Kommersant. Author interview on Of the books completely new to me, this one intrigues me most, perhaps because of the Petersburg element.
  • A. Nune: Дневник для друзей (A Diary for Friends). (excerpt) Based on an actual diary written while spending time in a hospice in East Berlin.
  • Polina Barskova: Живые картинки (Living Pictures) is a book of prose by a poet, a collection of twelve pieces that came out of Barskova’s research into the history of the Leningrad blockade (excerpt). Knowing Polina’s dedication to this subject, I can’t imagine that the book isn’t interesting. Also on the NatsBest long list.
  • Tatiana Bogatyreva: Марианская впадинa (The Mariana Trench). I read this novella/long story in the journal Искусство кино a year or so ago. (It didn’t make much of an impression, no pun intended.)
  • Danila Zaitsev: Повесть и житие Данилы Терентьевича Зайцева (The Life and Tale of Danila Terentyevich Zaitsev). In which a Russian Old Believer born in China and living in Argentina tells his story. A Yasnaya Polyana Award finalist and Booker longlister.
  • Maria Golovanivskaya: Пангея (Pangea). Apparently a historical fantasy novel (or dystopia?) in brief stories/episodes; a cast of over a hundred characters… A long review that I’m saving for later. And another.
  • Guzel’ Yakhina: Зулейха открывает глаза (Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes). A Big Book and Booker finalist, as well as the 2015 Yasnaya Polyana winner; I loved translating excerpts for Yakhina’s literary agency. A historical novel in which a kulak woman is exiled. (previous post)

Disclaimers: The usual.

Up Next: So many books! More books from the Big Book finalist list, including Boris Yekimov’s Autumn in Zadon’e, which I finished but didn’t like very much (at all), and Anna Matveeva’s story collection Девять девяностых (Nine from the Nineties). Also: Narine Abgaryan’s People Who Are Always With Me. And, of course, a trip report on the ALTA conference, which was tons of fun, as usual, with lots of Russian translators.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

2015 Yasnaya Polyana Award Winners

The winners of the 2015 Yasnaya Polyana Award were announced today in Moscow. Here, quickly, and from breakfast at the Atlanta airpirt--I'm on my way to Tucson for the American Literary Translator Association conference--are the winners. Apologies for the cut and paste work!

For the “XXI Century”award:
Guzel’ Yakhina’s Зулейха открывает глаза (Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes). Also my favorite Big Book finalist. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and translating excerpts. A lovely historical novel in which a kulak woman is exiled and finds a new life.

For the “Childhood, Adolescence, Youth” prize:

Valerii Bylinski’s Риф (Reef). A collection of stories and a novella.

Finally, Andrei Bitov won the prize I don't remember the name of. But will add later from Arizona!

Sunday, October 25, 2015

A Final Goodbye to Margarita Khemlin

Learning yesterday morning that Margarita Khemlin had died during the night, apparently after her heart stopped, made for a horribly sad wakeup and some unsteady days. She was only 55; I will miss her and her writing. Rita was more than just a favorite writer: she was also the first author I chose, myself, to translate, and it was a treat to see her at Russian literature events in various places over the last several years. I feel tremendous respect, affection, and gratitude to her, as a writer and as a person.

Rita was funny (she loved calling me “Becky” because I reminded her of Becky Thatcher) and she was generous (she let me translate her when I had no translation credits whatsoever) but of course it was her writing that endeared her to me first, long before we corresponded or met. The initial appeal of her writing was in its humor and generosity, too, but her books grew on me because of Rita’s ability to describe the long-term effects of World War 2, things Rita grew up with in her native Ukraine. I love her use of skaz technique, I love her complex characters, I love the amber necklace she made for me (it’s a sort of good luck charm for my readings), and I love remembering the time I spent with her.

I’m going to list, below, Rita’s works that have been translated into English and links to previous posts about her books. Before I do that, though, here’s a lovely piece for Izvestia written by Evgenia Korobkova that speaks of Rita’s achievements and character. Among other things, Korobkova mentions that Rita was to have been jury chair for the Russian Booker next year.

Works translated into English:
  • The Investigator (Дознаватель), translated by Melanie Moore, was published on October 15, 2015.
  • “Shady Business” (“Темное дело”), translated by me, was published in the journal Subtropics, Issue 17, winter/spring 2014. (A brief description here.)
  • “Basya Solomonovna’s Third World War” (“Третья мировая Баси Соломоновны”), translated by me, was first published in Two Lines XVIII/Counterfeits and reprinted in the Read Russia! anthology, available free, in PDF form, here. (The Russian originals of both the stories I translated are here.)

Past posts:

Friday, October 16, 2015

Happy Birthday to the Bookshelf: The Blog Turns Eight

It’s October 16, so the cupcake is back! If there’s a cupcake to eat this year, it’ll be eaten in Florida… and since I’m writing this post before I travel, I can’t be sure whether to say it’s hot, sunshiny, humid, beautiful, or something else (thunderstormy?) in Naples, but I can be sure it will be nice to see my parents, aunt, and cousins, for a family wedding.

No matter what the weather, I send a big thanks to all of you who read the blog, whether regularly or occasionally. I’m glad so many of you seem to find it helpful and/or enjoyable! Thank you.

The big theme for the last year is that work has been super-busy (understatement!) with translations: editing and revising Eugene Vodolazkin’s Laurus (previous post), turning in a draft of Vadim Levental’s Masha Regina (previous post), and getting started on Vodolazkin’s Solovyov and Larionov (as a 2014 highlight). I’m also excited that three translations were released this year: Vladislav Otroshenko’s Addendum to a Photo Album (favorite review), Marina Stepnova’s The Woman of Lazarus (a lovely review), and Laurus (reviews: RBTH, Asymptote, Complete Review), which was released in the U.S. this Tuesday.

I intend no self-indulgence whatsoever in posting the reviews: what’s most important is that non-Russian readers really, truly can understand and appreciate Russian fiction in English translation. I already knew that and you probably already knew that, too, if you’re reading this blog post, but I keep running into stereotypes about Russian fiction that you probably hear, too: the books are (too) long, (too) serious, (too) heady, and (too) all sorts of other things. Though I think this is slowly changing, sometimes it feels to me like there’s some sort of Pavlovian response: hearing "Russian fiction" triggers thoughts of Heavy, Unreadable Stuff that’s just way too serious for mere mortals to finish a book in one lifetime. (Hmm, maybe this has been bothering me?!) The responses to Laurus have been especially heartening, not just because there’s been a fair number of reviews—Oneworld Publications, who just so happened to publish Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings in the UK, knows its books and its readers and does a fantastic job getting its books out—but because the reviewers (and not just these but others, from trade publications) are so appreciative of Vodolazkin’s play with time and language. I’m glad that came through in the translation.

All “my” translations are, of course, group efforts that involve my colleague Liza Prudovskaya, who checks a draft for each of my books, plus head editors, copy editors, proofreaders, and friends and colleagues with specific knowledge of specific related subjects. It’s also wonderful to work with authors—all the above—who are so patient in answering my odd questions about the horizons and flexibility of the words and expressions they use. Thank you to everyone who’s helped and thank you to all of you who have bought and/or asked about my translations. I appreciate your trust! Literary translation is not (not always, anyway) the lonely profession it’s imagined to be.

Moving on to blog stats, I’ll start by repeating last year’s line. “Google Analytics provides fewer interesting data about searches these days but there’s still plenty about geography and popular posts”:

Geography. As in years past, the United States continues to lead in visitor sessions, followed by United Kingdom, Russia, Canada, and Germany. In the top ten countries for visitorship, though, it’s readers from The Netherlands and France who read the most, with 2.02 and 1.84 pages/session, respectively, and over two minutes for average time length, too. By city, the top five are New York, (not set), London, Moscow, and Oxford, with Arlington Heights not far behind; I’ll list it to compensate for (not set).

Popular Posts. The most popular landing pages again this year “other than the home page, [are] Russian Fiction for Non-Native Readers, followed by Top 10 Fiction Hits of Russian Literature.” (Cut and paste is a marvelous thing.) I’m happy that the new translations list for 2014 is next, followed by my posts on Gogol’s “The Overcoat” and Sologub’s The Petty Demon. The most popular post about a contemporary book concerns Pelevin’s Omon Ra, at number nine; Pelevin’s the only contemporary writer in the top ten.

Common and Odd Search Terms. This used to be my favorite category, but this year it’s “(not provided)”, which leads by many, many, many thousands over the next term, which is “(not set)”. The rest of the top ten is pretty dull, with variations obviously created by people looking for easy Russian-language reading. I’m happy to say, though, that the only name in the top ten is one I know: “marina stepnova.” A few terms that made me happy: denisov’s pronunciation, best compromise in the compromise dovlatov, cat manhattan high line, fur hat symbolism in dr zhivago, i don’t like Russian winters, and war and peace Natasha famous passages flirtation. I’ll stop on that happy note!

Finally, another huge and hearty thank you very much to all of you for your visits, comments, notes, and love of Russian literature. See you again next year for another cupcake! For now, signing off from Florida.
File:Historic Naples FA.JPG
"The historic centre of Naples, Florida"
Disclaimers. The usual.

Photo Credits: MJJR for Naples, via Creative Commons; nazreth, via stock.xchng, for the cupcake.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The 2015 Russian Booker Shortlist & a Nobel Note

The Russian Booker Prize jury announced the 2015 Russian Booker shortlist on Friday. What feels most notable this year is that the writers are so young: Pokrovsky, born in 1954, has been on the planet the longest, Senchin is in his mid-forties, and the rest are in their thirties. The list also feels pretty varied and appealing (!). The (!) is because some Russian Booker shortlists have seemed a bit, hmm, dry. Here you go:
  • Alisa Ganieva’s Жених и невеста (Bride and Groom), which Carol Apollonio is currently translating for Deep Vellum Publishing, for release in 2017. The novel apparently looks at the institution of marriage (including tradition and superstition) among young people in rural Dagestan.
  • Vladimir Danikhnov’s Колыбельная (Lullaby). This book’s description says it’s a noirish novel set in a nameless southern city beset with serial killings. It also indicates the writing reminds of Platonov’s. An excerpt is available on; epigraph from Mickey Spillane.
  • Yuri Pokrovsky’s Среди людей (Among People) is set in the 1970s, also in a nameless city (top secret military stuff), and is composed of 49 connected “fragments” related to nine main characters.
  • Roman Senchin’s Зона затопления (Flood Zone) examines what happens when everyone’s forced out of a village to make way for a hydroelectric plant. Not my favorite Senchin—I couldn’t bring myself to finish it and my favorite is still The Yeltyshevs—but Flood Zone is on this year’s Big Book and Yasnaya Polyana shortlists, too. I have to think it will win a major award as a sort of “makeup call” after The Yeltyshevs didn’t win. Excerpts available on Журнальный зал; I read more than half the book and thought “Чернушка” was one of the best chapters I read.
  • Alexander Snegiev’s Вера (Vera or Faith, depending on whether you’d like to translate the meaning of the name or not…). Either way, Vera was on the NatsBest shortlist, too; I’ve seen Snegirev’s writing in Vera compared to Platonov’s, too (for example here). I enjoyed reading the beginning of Vera on an electronic reader but was just jonesing to take real notes in the margin, with a real pencil…
  • Guzel Yakina’s Зулейха открывает глаза (Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes) is also a finalist for the Big Book and Yasnaya Polyana awards. I very much enjoyed reading Zuleikha and translating excerpts was at least as much fun (previous post). An excerpt is available on

In other news, I’m sure everybody already knows that Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize in Literature last week. With my big old fiction bias, I haven’t read any of her books but thought I’d note current translations in English. (Thanks to a project for the Institute of Translation last week, I just happen to know what’s on the list!) I’ll just mention the English-language titles here, without the original Russian. There may be more excerpts of various works available online: they aren’t easy to track down due to varying spellings, titles, and multiple versions. These variables make my poor, addled head spin. Please note, too, that the author’s last name is sometimes spelled Alexievitch. Here’s her page on the site of her literary agent, Galina Dursthoff so you can keep track of new books on the way. I welcome any and all corrections and additions to this list—I’m sure there are other pieces available!

I think the Nobel Prize’s site has the best listing of current translated books so will send you there rather than retype book information. Time Second-Hand, which was a Big Book Award finalist last year and won the reader award, will be out from Fitzcarraldo Editions next year, in Bela Shayevich’s translation.  

Shorter Pieces and Excerpts that I believe are from the same cycle or collection:

There are also several pieces in various issues of Autodafe: The Journal of the International Parliament of Writers; some pages are blocked so I’m not always sure exactly what’s where or there.

Disclaimers: Having translated work by Senchin and Yakhina, and met Ganieva and Snegirev multiple times.

Up Next: So many books! Narine Abgaryan’s People Who Are Always With Me.
Lots more books from the Big Book finalist list, including Boris Yekimov’s Autumn in Zadon’e, which I finished but didn’t like very much (at all), some books I didn’t finish, plus the ones I’m working on now: Alexei Varlamov’s The Imagined Wolf (it really is “imagined”), Valery Zalotukha’s super-long but ridiculously mesmerizing The Candle, and Igor Virabov’s “biography” of Andrei Voznesensky that I might want to call “kitschy” or “tacky,” though/therefore that factor does keep me turning the pages. And there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pages, all with very small type. We’ll see if I tire…

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Another Long List: NOSE

Well, another week, another long list: this week it’s the НОС/NOSE Award long list, though this time I’m reporting on said list in a timely fashion. In other NOSE news, NOSE has a new jury this year, and most members aren’t writers, critics, or other representatives of the literary profession (whatever that means), though they’re all somehow involved in the arts, journalism, or oral history. I’m still trying to figure NOSE out so will be interested to see how this season goes. For starters, though, I can say the list is yet another a mishmash of books.

Here’s the entire nineteen-book long list, in the order NOSE presents it. I had just the kind of week that makes me want to go through a long list, just for kicks (ha!), partly so I can collect links to reviews to read later… for now, I haven’t delved into each title to see how interested I am. And I do mean “delved”: one thing I’ve noticed while sorting through this list of books is that publishers’ descriptions seem to be getting vaguer and vaguer (meaning less and less useful) by the minute.

  • Aleksandr Ilyanen: Пенсия (Pension). According to the book’s description, this is another novel about a nonexistent Petersburg; there’s lots of language play but the pension is literal. Apparently an odd love story. Igor Gulin’s review on Kommersant. Author interview on
  • A. Nune: Дневник для друзей (A Diary for Friends). (excerpt) Based on an actual diary written while spending time in a hospice in East Berlin.
  • Polina Barskova: Живые картинки (Living Pictures) is a book of prose by a poet, a collection of twelve pieces that came out of Barskova’s research into the history of the Leningrad blockade (excerpt). Knowing Polina’s dedication to this subject, I can’t imagine that the book isn’t interesting. Also on the NatsBest long list.
  • Aleksandra [sic? I think this should be Tatiana] Bogatyreva: Марианская впадинa (The Mariana Trench). I read this novella/long story in the journal Искусство кино a year or so ago.
  • Aleksandr Ilichevsky: Справа налево (From Right to Left). An essay collection. (an example)
  • Platon Besedin: Учитель (The Teacher) is apparently a novel about a Ukrainian boy, the first book in a tetralogy (!). (Mitya Samoilov’s NatsBest Big Jury review). A veteran longlister (NatsBest, Booker).
  • Vadim Levental: Комната страха (House of Fears, per the cover). A short story collection by the author of Masha Regina, my translation of which is coming in spring 2016.
  • Aleksei Tsvetkov: Маркс, Маркс левой (Marx, Marx [with your] left, I’d say, playing on a song title from Наутилус Помпилиус, (here if you want to listen), where the phrase has “марш” (“march”) instead of “Marx.” That song brings back memories!) Tsvetkov won last year’s NOSE.
  • Danila Zaitsev: Повесть и житие Данилы Терентьевича Зайцева (The Life and Tale of Danila Terentyevich Zaitsev). In which a Russian Old Believer born in China and living in Argentina tells his story. Already a Yasnaya Polyana Award finalist and Booker longlister.
  • Igor Levshin: Петруша и комар (Petrusha and the Mosquito). A debut short story collection. (excerpt)
  • V. Gureev (a.k.a. Maksim Gureev?): Калугадва (Kalugatwo). Apparently a novella originally published in a journal in 1997 (!) by one Maksim Gureev.(Im so confused!)
  • Andrei Bychkov: На золотых дождях (Literally, In Golden Rains, though this Russian phrase can mean all sorts of things, including gobs of cash or golden showers.). (excerpt) Apparently about forbidden love between family members; I can’t quite figure this out even after Evgenii Lesin’s review. In a book where one of the characters is named Lobachevsky, pretty much all bets are off until reading everything.
  • Andrei Astvatsaturov: Осень в карманах (Autumn in (Our?) Pockets). A novel in stories set in Petersburg and Paris.
  • Maria Golovanivskaya: Пангея (Pangea). Apparently a historical fantasy novel (or dystopia?) in brief stories/episodes; a cast of over a hundred characters… A long review that I’m saving for later. And another.
  • Ekaterina Margolis: Следы на воде (perhaps Ripples in the Water? or maybe the wake behind a boat or, say, a gondola?). An autobiographical book with Venice. And Moscow. And the “river of human lives,” as the book’s description says. (excerpt)
  • Pavel Nerler: Осип Мандельштам и его солагерники (Osip Mandelshtam and His Campmates, though “campmates” sounds rather too cheery). About the last twenty months in Mandelshtam’s life. (excerpts)
  • Roman Senchin: Зона затопления (Flood Zone). A 2015 Big Book Award and Yasnaya Polyana Award finalist and Booker longlister; a new take on themes from Valentin Rasputin’s Farewell to Matyora: a village is about to be flooded for a hydroelectric plant. Not my favorite Senchin.
  • Guzel’ Yakhina: Зулейха открывает глаза (Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes). Another Big Book and Yasnaya Polyana finalist (previous post) that’s also on the Booker long list; I loved translating excerpts for Yakhina’s literary agency. A historical novel in which a kulak woman is exiled.
  • Maks Nevoloshin: Шла Шаша по соше (Hmm, this title is a corrupted version of a tongue twister, in which Sasha walks along a roadway. Instead of “Shla Sasha po shosse” the title is “Shla Shasha po soshe.”). In any case, it’s a story collection.

Disclaimers: The usual.

Up Next: Lots of books! More books from the Big Book finalist list, including Boris Yekimov’s Autumn in Zadon’e, which I finished but didn’t like very much (at all), and Anna Matveeva’s story collection Девять девяностых (Nine from the Nineties), which I’m finishing. Also: Narine Abgaryan’s People Who Are Always With Me.