Monday, December 31, 2018

Happy New Year! & 2018 Highlights

Happy New Year! С Новым годом! Wherever you are, whenever you read this, I hope the holidays have been enjoyable and I wish you lots of good reading in 2019!

Reading in 2018 followed the same pattern as the last several years, with good novels to translate but a dearth of satisfying new books to read. Although I don’t track the numbers, I’m certain I abandoned far more books than I finished. Despite that – and far too many pieces of sad news – there were some nice reading surprises this year, plus great travel and even some positive developments on the translation side of things. Here are some highlights:

Favorite book by a new author: One of my favorite reading highlights this year was Grigory Sluzhitel’s Дни Савелия (literally Savely’s Days) (previous post), which came highly recommended by Eugene Vodolazkin. Savely slinked his way into my heart thanks to his penchant for valerian, love for traipsing around Moscow, and smooth way with words. Savely’s Days would have been a favorite even in a good year but in this lackluster reading year, the book particularly stood out for its observations of people, cats, and Moscow.

Most enjoyable books written by authors I’d already read: Sergei Kuznetsov’s Учитель Дымов (Teacher Dymov), which, oddly enough, I haven’t written about, is a sort of ensemble family saga novel, a book where characters, psychology, and the little things in life are the focus, (generally) leaving historical crises of the Soviet and post-Soviet eras in the background. The book is vivid and detailed as it flows from generation to generation and it kept me up late reading. I also enjoyed Yulia Yakovleva’s Укрощение красного коня (Taming the Red Horse) (previous post), an atmospheric retro detective novel that plays with genre.

An unexpected achievement: I finally read and finished a Strugatsky Brothers novel, Град обреченный (available in English as Andrew Bromfield’s The Doomed City, Chicago Review Press) (previous post) in Russian! There are plenty of thoroughly repellant characters in the novel but it’s, hmm, intriguing in its own odd way so kept me reading and then thinking, too, as did Eduard Verkin’s Остров Сахалин (Sakhalin Island) (previous post), which got under my skin like some sort of stubborn rash or parasite. (Verkin’s Sakhalin still won’t quite let me go so I was glad that a visiting Russian friend had just read it, too, so we could talk.)

Favorite English-language reading: I seem to have read a higher percentage of satisfying books in English this year than in Russian: Janet Fitch’s The Revolution of Marina M. is the start of a big, thick novel about a young woman who comes of age at the time of the October Revolution. I also loved Curzio Malaparte’s The Kremlin Ball, translated by Jenny McPhee, a piece of writing (fiction? nonfiction? both? does it matter?) about Moscow in the late 1920s. (previous post on both) Another good one: Sofia Khvoshchinskaya’s Городские и деревенские, known in Nora Seligman Favorov’s very pleasant English translation as City Folk and Country Folk. I described the book in a previous post as “a fun, smart nineteenth-century novel.”

Speaking of translations: I was very pleasantly surprised to find that this year’s list of Russian-to-English translations topped sixty entries (previous post). There’s something for everybody – we’ll see if the 2019 list can come close to 2018’s in terms of quality and quantity!

Happiest things while traveling: Despite seeming to have a reputation as a bit of a recluse (I think living in Maine and burning wood for heat gives that sort of impression automatically) I really do love going to translator conferences and book fairs. This year’s trips – to Moscow for a translator conference (previous posts 1 and 2) , Frankfurt for the book fair (previous post), and Boston for a Slavist convention (post coming soon!) – were especially enjoyable not just for my papers and presentations but for having the chance to see colleagues. Though I should really say that a good deal of this “seeing” colleagues is really the chance to “eat with” colleagues. Thanks to them, “the most important meal of the day” takes on new meaning, eating wurst and French fries in Frankfurt becomes something positively lovely especially under a warm (!) October sun, and late dinners are a perfect way to finally sit longer and, yes, eat slower (food) after rushing around all day. It’s the people I see at these events – translators, writers, publishers, literary agents, event organizers, and even a few people from my distant academic past – who make travel so enjoyable despite jetlag and packed schedules. I’m a very, very fortunate person.

Best acquisitions: My newish Kobo Aura One electronic reader makes it almost pleasant to read electronically even if the device doesn’t particularly like PDFs. And A History of Russian Literature by Andrew Kahn, Mark Lipovetsky, Irina Reyfman, and Stephanie Sandler is a great (and gigundo) addition to my library that the good people of Oxford University Press were only too happy for me to take off their hands toward the end of the Slavist conference. It’s already come in handy quite a few times and even the index is fun to page through! Special thanks to the nice Marriott employee who helped me cram it into my luggage for the ride home.

Final goodbyes: Sadly, 2018 brought the deaths of Vladimir Voinovich (previous post), Vladimir Sharov (previous post), and Oleg Pavlov (previous post), all of whom I’ve written about, as well as Andrei Bitov, whom I’ve read so little that I’m not even sure what to say other than something absurdly banal about recognizing his importance. (And that I need to buy a better, newer edition of his Pushkin House – the late Soviet-era edition I have is fuzzily printed on awful paper, making it painfully difficult to read.) The loss of Sharov still gives me no peace.

What’s coming up on the blog: Despite my complaints about 2018’s Big Book finalists (previous post) and the high ratio of “abandons” in my reading for much of the year, things are looking up: I loaded up on books in Moscow and Frankfurt, and have been a much happier reader since my required reading period ended. I’ll also be reading mostly books written by women until mid-March, when I’ll be participating in a panel at the London Book Fair about women in literature and translation. I have quite a shelf of recent Russian books, thanks to my own purchases plus gifts from authors, publishers, and the Russian stand in Frankfurt. My stack of English-language books written by women, many of which are translations from various languages into English, is even larger. Best of all is that I haven’t abandoned a book in weeks: I’m on a roll with Alisa Ganieva, Ludmila Petrushevskaya, Yulia Yakovleva, and Olga Stolpovskaya. On the English side, I’ve been reading Lara Vapnyar and just started Anna Burns’s Milkman today (a gift from one of those wonderful meal-time colleagues I mentioned above). I’m reading Milkman on the treadmill, which fits the heroine’s habit of reading while walking, not to mention Burns’s skazzy writing, with its momentum and flow, as well as plenty of sly humor and word play.

On that cheery note: Happy New Year! And happy reading!

Disclaimers: The usual. As noted above, I received copies of some of the books mentioned in this post from publishers, literary agents, and other sources. Thank you to all! And thank you to everyone who helped with my travel in various ways. Also: I’m translating Sergei Kuznetsov’s Kaleidoscope.

Image credit: Fireworks in Bratislava, New Year 2005, from Ondrejk, via Wikipedia.


  1. Lisa, Happy New Year! Thank you for your wonderful recommendations. I think we all agree on the Dni Saveliya - there has been no better book this year, and I hope Mr. Sluzhitel considers writing more in the very near future. I too have been abandoning books, in all manner and languages at that, with some frequency - I still hope that I can somehow come around to finishing Gigolashvili's Secret Year from a while ago (I bought it this past year, but it may have been from a prior publication year). There was an interesting discussion on the Meduza Galya and Nastya podcast about abandoning books that don't click, as well as translation quality and reading in translation and persevering if the original or teh translation do not seem to engage - I was happy to hear other language steeped readers think it's ok to do :) Well, with that said, I am happy to committ to a good book if it calls my name - I downloaded Slavnikova's The Long Jump and it's been good to me :), so I am actually hoping to continue; her 2017 was amazing and I know there hasn't been anything of that caliber since. Well, let's hope the next Laurus is waiting somewhere this year, please keep your updates and reviews coming!

  2. Happy New Year to you too! It was lovely to meet you in Boston!

    1. Thank you, Nina! Yes, I'm glad we finally met in real life!