Sunday, August 30, 2015

Munching on Abgaryan’s Three Apples

Narine Abgaryan’s С неба упали три яблока (Three Apples Fell from the Sky) was a perfect summer surprise: Abgaryan’s literary agency sent me the book, which quickly won me over with gentle humor, sadness and happiness surrounding births and deaths, and a remote setting in Maran, a village of (mostly!) elderly people in the Armenian mountains. Three Apples is both magical—with mentions of dreams and even a bolded reference to Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude—and a bit gritty, thanks to accounts of day-to-day and historical hardships. Beyond all that, any book where characters live right over an abyss gets my attention.

Three Apples begins as Sevoyants Anatolia (we go last name first here) settles in to die a little after noon on a Friday; she’s bleeding heavily. Though Anatolia is so prepared to die that she’s readied clothes, she soon agrees to marry Vasily, a widower and blacksmith who brings her a new scythe, proposes marriage, and quickly moves in. This is all unexpected for Anatolia, a childless widow and former librarian who shelved books by color and loves French and Russian literature, with the notable exception of Tolstoy, whose Anna Karenina thoroughly disgusted her.

Abgaryan tells of the village’s residents through stories of famine—one little boy foresees deaths and the village later receives supplies, including a white peacock that ends up living right at that abyss—and of the plagues of flocks of rats, mice, and flies. The peacock, the dreams, the humor of yeast (much dissed in Maran after having being received from the outside world) thrown into the outhouse (never, ever throw yeast away like that!), and the magical happening that comes toward the end of the book are all wonderful in multiple senses of that word, both for comic relief and because, well, life is magical… but the everyday side of life’s magic, something that sounds pretty cheesy when described in those terms, works simply and beautifully in the book, and appealed to me even more.

I loved, for example, Anatolia and Vasily’s quiet lunch with their neighbors, where there’s little talk beyond asking for salt and clinking of cutlery: “Анатолия впервые ощутила жизнь не как данность, а как дар.” (“For the first time, Anatolia sensed/appreciated life not as a given but as a gift.”) And I loved that a young visitor (an in-law) to the family that lives by the abyss feels “размеренность бытия” (literally a measuredness of existence, a slow sort of rhythm or regularity to things) that comes to her from the nearby forest and the people. Passages like these sum up the book’s charm, particularly when life is busy for the reader: the measured routine of life in Maran, where, hmm, there doesn’t seem to be any Internet, and the quiet company of friends are what hold people together.

On the last page of the novel, there’s a mention of circles of life that resemble ripples from rain drops, where “…every event is a reflection of what came before…” I ripped that from the middle of very, very long sentence that ends with three apples waiting to be dropped to earth from the heavens, as is traditional at the end of Armenian fairytales: “одно тому, кто видел, другое тому, кто рассказал, а третье тому, кто слушал и верил в добро”—“one for the person who saw, another for the person who told the story, and the third for the person who listened and believed in what is good.” It’s a fitting end to a book with so much that is good—both universal and specific to Maran—that’s worth believing in.

Disclosures: The usual. Thank you to Banke, Goumen & Smirnova Literary Agency for the book! I’ve heard a lot about Abgaryan’s “Manyuna” books for young adults and was glad to be introduced to her writing through Apples.

Up Next: Guzel’ Iakhina’s Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes, which I also enjoyed tremendously. Zuleikha is the first of the Big Book finalists that I’ll write about; I’ll also write a summary post about three Big Book finalists I just can’t bring myself to finish (!). And then another of Abgaryan’s books, People Who Are Always With Me, which is also very good, and a fifth Big Book finalist, Boris Ekimov’s Autumn in Zadon’e.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

A Lazy Summer Post: Elena Minkina-Taycher’s The Rebinder Effect

I didn’t expect to take such a long break from blogging during (and even after) my last month of translating Vadim Levental’s Masha Regina (previous post), which I turned in at the end of July to Oneworld Publications. Masha Regina, though, wormed its/her way even further into my head than I’d expected (a very good thing), brain fatigue set in (not such a good thing), and one evening a bat even settled, albeit very temporarily, in a flower pot on top of the office module of Lizok’s Bookshelf (not a good thing at all). Sometimes taking naps, feeding cats (not always as easy as it sounds), pulling weeds, and staring into space is about all I can handle during my time off. I did keep reading—slower than usual—but feel like a happier person now that I’m back to my usual pace. And back to blogging. At least until I finish the next book, Eugene Vodolazkin’s Solovyov and Larionov, which is due, also to Oneworld, at the end of February 2016.

When I was reading Elena Minkina-Taycher’s Эффект Ребиндера (The Rebinder Effect) earlier this summer, I often found myself describing the reading as “pleasant”: the book reads smoothly and easily, which is just the thing for busy times, and it left me with a peculiarly homier, fuzzier, and vaguer impression than most books. Rebinder is a novel told in episodic chapters, each of which is titled by a line from Pushkin’s poetry. Minkina-Taycher’s literary agency is not, of course, wrong in using the term “family saga” to describe the book, though it covers multiple, intertwining families whose members include a doctor, a musician, scientists, well-to-do people, a boy from an orphanage, and people with ties to far-away France. (The agency’s description also nicely summarizes the Rebinder Effect; a big thank you to them for taking care of that!) In some senses, The Rebinder Effect feels more like a saga of the entire human family than a saga of one family with a common name. I suppose that’s probably why it left me with that slightly fuzzy, vague sense.

I’ll ‘fess up: books with lots of characters often create problems for me because I have trouble keeping track of who’s who, but that mattered less than usual with Rebinder. I didn’t always remember each figure by name, even when I was reading, but everybody felt clear enough at the time, based on context. The book’s strong sense of family—in that sense of “humanity” or “mankind”—felt more important anyway, even as Minkina-Taycher’s characters were affected by historical events including dekulakization, the doctors’ plot, and the Chernobyl nuclear plant accident. Despite important historical events, it always felt that what mattered most were personal relationships and histories, and doing normal human things like dancing a crazed twist, discussing opinions of poets in the sixties, and taking camping trips. Characters love, characters live, characters die. And they’re resilient, as per the Effect.

I think Rebinder has its strongest effect in its first half, where the tones feel almost like sepia and the real-life past has had a chance to settle into history. (Or should that be vice versa?) In earlier chapters, characters love, live, and die as, for example, residents of communal living spaces, as classmates at school after one girl’s mother is targeted by the state, and as people caring for one another during difficult times. Those chapters felt more self-assured to me than some later chapters: it seemed as if the balance between historical events and characters shifted a little and Minkina-Taycher’s hand grew heavier. The Chernobyl chapter, for example, felt particularly contrived because a character happened to be nearby when the accident began; the outcome was obvious. Despite those misgivings, The Rebinder Effect is very decent mainstream fiction—something I don’t write to damn with faint praise—that makes for good, personable, low-key company thanks to Minkina-Taycher’s focus on characters primarily as people. People who need to be people.

Since there’s been previous discussion of electronic reading on the blog, I’ll also note that I read The Rebinder Effect on a new device. First off, my demands for a device on which to read. Since I seem to do best reading electronically when I have a PDF that shows a book’s layout, I wanted a reader with a screen large enough to display an entire PDF page. This creates the illusion (*sigh*) that I’m reading an old-fashioned book printed on paper. I wanted a reader with a matte screen. I wanted a reader that didn’t cost much. Okay, I wanted it to be very, very cheap. I wanted a reader that wouldn’t be cumbersome to hold or carry. I wanted a reader that wouldn’t advertise anything. My dream reader might well be the PocketBook InkPad, which gets fantastic reviews but is expensive and not readily available in the US. After a lot of Internet research and some spins around local stores with very limited options, imagine my surprise when I ended up with something that’s super-cheap and readily available, but gets not-so-great reviews: a Nextbook Ares 8 tablet from Walmart! So far, after more than two months of solid reading on the Ares 8, I’m very happy with it after slapping on a nonglare screen protector. The Ares 8 is the perfect size, pretty much the same as a typical book page, and it’s easy to hold, too. Equally important: I found a PDF app, also rather obscure, that works very well for my needs. Xodo SmartQ crops PDFs easily, turns pages nicely, and offers good annotation features. Not all PDF apps generate lists of annotations but XodoSmartQ’s lists are always accessible. (Foxit, my second-favorite PDF reader, only generates lists on demand, which is ridiculously cumbersome.) I don’t think I’d recommend the Ares 8 for much other than unusual uses like mine: it’s an easy-to-use Android device and seems sturdier than average, but Internet searches are pretty slow in either Chrome or Firefox. Finally, for the record, despite being happy with the Nextbook—and enjoying electronic reading more than I ever have—I’d still much, much rather read books on paper than electronic files.

Up next: Narine Abgaryan’s Three Apples Fell From the Sky and Guzel’ Iakhina’s Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes, both of which I enjoyed tremendously. Zuleikha is the first of the Big Book finalists that I’ll write about; Roman Senchin’s Flood Zone, which I’m reading now and seems only so-so after about 100 pages, will be the second.

Disclaimers: The usual. I received an electronic copy of The Rebinder Effect from Banke, Goumen & Smirnova Literary Agency. Thank you!