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.