Sunday, June 24, 2018

The 2018 Yasnaya Polyana Award Longlist

The contemporary fiction longlist for this year’s Yasnaya Polyana Award contains 43 books, many of which have mercifully brief and translatable titles, something that’s always a plus for this reporter. Late-breaking: I discovered, just as I was finishing up this post, that Yasnaya Polyana posted an English-language translation of this entire list.

Since this year’s longlist truly is long and there’s plenty to mention, I’ll get right to it, listing, in Russian alphabetical order, some books I’ve read, several notable books, plus a few books by authors whose names are new to me (marked with asterisks). I can’t say there are any unfamiliar titles that jumped out and begged me to read them, though I can be a bit slow on the uptake with book descriptions, many of which are (annoyingly) cryptic at best. In any case, the shortlist will be announced in September.

  • Vasily Aksyonov’s Была бы дочь Анастасия (Perhaps If There Were a Daughter Anastasia? YP goes for If Only There Had Been a Daughter Anastasia) was a 2018 NatsBest finalist. About nature in Siberia.
  • Yana Vagner’s Кто не спрятался (Accomplices) is a hermetic murder mystery set in a European mountain house/hotel. The flashbacks did me in because they broke the novel’s tension, but I give Vagner credit for her cast of rather annoying film industry characters, their spouses, and their problems.
  • Sana Valiulina’s Не боюсь Синей Бороды (I’m Not Afraid of Bluebeard a.k.a. Children of Brezhnev) contains some lovely description and atmosphere but it didn’t quite grab me. I liked the rhythm of the writing, though, so I set it aside to try again later.
  • Marina Vishnevetskaya’s Вечная жизнь Лизы К. (literally The Eternal Life of Liza K.) also wasn’t quite my thing, with, among other things, its blend of love story, office plankton, political demonstrations, and (the final straw) an appearance by SpongeBob SquarePants. A friend enjoyed this one so I was especially disappointed not to.
  • Oleg Yermakov’s Радуга и Вереск (Rainbow and Heather, maybe? SeeLanguagehat’s comments on a previous post) is a Big Book finalist that sounds like it combines multiple stories, one set in the seventeenth century, the other in 2015.
  • *Marina Kudimova’s Бустрофедон (Boustrophedon) makes me curious because of its title… I never knew “boustrophedon” was either a phenomenon or a word. Anyway, this looks like it’s about contemporary life.
  • Sergei Kuznetsov’s Учитель Дымов (Teacher Dymov) is a low-key family saga sort of novel that I read ages ago and enjoyed very much. I really will post about it soon!
  • *Marina Kulakova’s Столетник Марии и Анны (Maria and Anna’s Agave/Century Plant) is about three generations of women.
  • *Natalya Melyokhina’s Железные люди (People of Iron/Iron People) looks like a collection of short stories about a village after perestroika.
  • *Bolat Ospanov’s Мой прадед-найман (My Great-Grandfather the Naiman) sounds like a family history/saga novel wet in Mongolia.
  • Ludmila Petrushevskaya’s Нас украли. История преступлений. (Kidnapped. The History of Crimes) sounds packed with all sorts of contemporary material, too; I keep meaning to get this one because I enjoyed Petrushevskaya’s The Time: Night so much and she so rarely writes novels!
  • Aleksei Sal’nikov’s Петровы в гриппе и вокруг него (The Petrovs in Various States of the Flu) won this year’s NatsBest plus the literary critic panel’s NOS(E) Award. I found it a bit underwhelming, though want to try it again now that it’s out in print form.
  • Olga Slavnikova’s Прыжок в длину (Long Jump), another Big Book finalist, is about an athlete who loses his lower extremities in an accident. I read a large chunk of Long Jump and set it aside—the dense metaphors can get a bit exhausting—but definitely plan to finish.
  • Maria Stepanova’s Памяти памяти (In Memory of Memory, to borrow LARB’s title translation) is another Big Book finalist; this one’s about cultural history, family history, and (of course) memory.
  • Andrei Filimonov’s Рецепты сотворения мир (Recipes for the Creation of the World), also a Big Book finalist, is so nicely summarized in Galina Yuzefovich’s review for Meduza, translated by Hilah Kohen, that I’ll leave the description to them.
  • *Aleksei Shepelev’s Мир-село и его обитатели (The Village of Mir and Its Inhabitants) is apparently about modern-day peasants in the Tambov region. (Tangent: I can’t hear “Tambov” without thinking of this odd earworm of a song from my Moscow years… Warning: click at your own risk.)
  • Sasha Shchipin’s Бог с нами (God Is With Us) concerns the end of the world but wasn’t quite compelling enough to keep me reading, though it’s certainly very genial.
  • Lena Eltang’s Царь велел тебя повесить (The Tsar Ordered Your Hanging) sounds very good, not to mention complex, apparently focusing on a man who’s been imprisoned for a murder he didn’t commit; he writes letters home from jail.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: Not much other than the usual and that I have received several books on the list, in either print or electronic form, and have translated/am translating work by Eltang and Kuznetsov.

Up Next: From my constantly growing (and groaning) “write about” shelf: I think I’ll start with a short story roundup, move on to the Vladimir Makanin novella and a creepy long story by Yelizaveta Alexandrova-Zorina, then finish things off with full-length novels, those being Sergei Kuznetsov’s Teacher Dymov, Janet Fitch’s The Revolution of Marina M. (I’m already waiting for the sequel!), and Vladimir Sharov’s The Rehearsals in Oliver Ready’s translation.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

2018’s Big Book Finalists: Eight Books Sized Up for Summer Reading

The Big Book Award announced its eight-book shortlist back on Wednesday and I still haven’t quite figured out what I think of it other than that I’m grateful not to see any megabiographies. On the one hand, I’m glad that there are two women on the list after last year’s list included zero. On the other hand, I’d have loved to have seen a few more unfamiliar names—and more women—on the list. On some happy third hand that I often wish I had, I thank the committee for naming a shortlist that’s close to genuinely short and is (blogger bonus!) composed of fairly translatable titles.

Here’s the list, in Russian alphabetical order by author surname:

Alexander Arkhangel’sky’s Бюро проверки (Verification Bureau or something of the sort) is set in 1980 Moscow (think: Olympics) and depicts how the main character is “tested” for stability (think: Cold War). Recommended by a friend. Easily beachable at 416 pages with a mass of 384 grams.

Dmitry Bykov’s Июнь (June) is set during 1939-1941 and brings together three characters and their stories (which apparently cover three genres) making the book sound relatively economical at 512 pages and 572 grams. Recommended by a different friend.

Alexei Vinokurov’s Люди черного дракона (People of the Black Dragon) is set along the Amur River (apparently known in Chinese as Black Dragon) around the time of the 1917 revolution. I’d never heard of Vinokurov so this is a mystery book for me. It’s also very nimble at 288 pages with a mass of 366 grams.

Yevgeny Grishkovets’s Театр отчаяния. Отчаянный театр (Theater of Despair. Desperate Theater, I guess) is labeled as a “memoiristic novel.” The book came out very recently and the descriptions are brief, though the book itself is anything but brief at 912 pages. And at 1320 grams (including packaging) it’s certainly not light reading.

Oleg Yermakov’s Радуга и Вереск (Rainbow and Heather, though is this literal?…) is big, too, at 736 pages (massing out at relatively compact 564 grams) and it sounds like it also blends multiple stories, one set in the seventeenth century, the other in 2015. Lots of friends have recommended Yermakov to me over the years so I’m eager to try this one.

Olga Slavnikova’s Прыжок в длину (Long Jump) concerns a young athlete who loses his lower extremities when he leaps to save a boy from being hit by a car. Though interesting for its portrayal of the long-term aftermath of the accident (the characters aren’t especially sympathetic and there’s a lot of social commentary), I felt bogged down by metaphors and similes around page 150 and put the book on hold. At 512 pages and 460 grams, though, it’s relatively manageable compared to some of these other finalists, plus I am pretty curious about what happens. Also recommended by friends.

Maria Stepanova’s Памяти памяти (I’ll call it In Memory of Memory, as this LARB interview does) is probably the book I’ve heard the most about, meaning that it also comes recommended, as a book about cultural history, family history, and, yes, memory. This sounds like such a thoughtful book that it feels thoroughly uncouth to give its bare statistics: 408 pages, 546 grams.

Andrei Filimonov’s Рецепты сотворения мира (Recipes for the Creation of the World) is so nicely summarized in Galina Yuzefovich’s review for Meduza, translated by Hilah Kohen, that I’ll leave the description to them. I will add, though, that the book’s cover says “От Парижа до Сибири через весь ХХ век” (“From Paris to Siberia, through the entire twentieth century”), putting me in awe of Filimonov for limiting himself to a very efficient 320 pages that mass in at 375 grams.

Yes, this polleny past week made me a little silly…

Disclaimers and Disclosures: Not much other than the usual and that the Slavnikova book was given to me by the organizers of the Russia stand at the Frankfurt Book Fair, thank you!

Up Next: More from the heavy “write about” shelf: a short story roundup, Sergei Kuznetsov’s Teacher Dymov, Janet Fitch’s The Revolution of Marina M. (I’m already waiting for the sequel!), and Vladimir Sharov’s The Rehearsals in Oliver Ready’s translation. And then there’s a Vladimir Makanin novella… and whatever I start tonight.