Sunday, January 20, 2019

Tidying Up the Shelf: Quick & Basic Takes on Books by Ganieva, Yakovleva, and Stolpovskaya

I’d been planning to write about the ASEEES (Slavist!) conference this week but my “read recently/read sooner” shelf is so packed that I decided to focus instead on three books so they can go to the stacks: Alisa Ganieva’s Оскорбленные чувтсва (Offended Sensibilities), Yulia Yakovleva’s Небо в алмазах (hmm, maybe The Diamond Sky?), and Olga Stolpovskaya’s Ненавижу эту сучку (I Hate That Little Bitch). All three books read quickly and easily, with no thoughts of quitting – what a relief after last year’s horrible streak of books that felt like rough drafts! A few thoughts on each book:

Ganieva’s Offended Sensibilities combines whodunnit (why did the regional economic development minister die?) with elements of parody and/or satire (I can’t quite decide which I’d emphasize but let’s say there’s arch humor), recent sociopolitical developments (corruption plus, yes, offended sensibilities), personal stories (one life is particularly hard-knock), and tinges of Gogol’s Government Inspector. The book is set in an unnamed Russian city, taking Ganieva away from her usual setting of Dagestan, and she certainly seems to enjoy her change of scenery. Among other things, she serves up some juicy love triangles, vivid details of opulent, over-the-top lifestyles, conflicts over how history is taught, protests, and a romance between one of the dead chinovnik’s staff members and a police detective. Offended Sensibilities left me with the impression of a light-but-pretty-serious novel about twenty-first century culture wars, politics, and the need for love. A couple of scenes felt a touch long but the book didn’t drag and I enjoyed seeing Ganieva’s city through characters who form a sort of Greek chorus showing contemporary life to the reader. Sure, the book is very Russian but many of the details feel painfully familiar. For more: an excerpt translated by Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler; that page has a link to a She’s in Russia podcast about the book.

The Diamond Sky, by Yulia Yakovleva, is volume three of crime-solving from Leningrad police detective Vasily Zaitsev. This time around, Zaitsev investigates the death of silent film actress Varya Metel’ (her surname means “blizzard”), who’s found in her room at a communal apartment where she lives with a group of people friendly to her. Although the settings in this Yakovleva book didn’t quite feel as textured as her other two – probably because this communal apartment isn’t as gritty as others, the “friendly” above is important – my notes included “overwhelming sense of dust => old things/times” and “she doesn’t want people to see her aging/changes.” All true and all part of Metel’s story. Despite not finding The Diamond Sky (the diamonds, by the way conjure up an aspect of Ilf and Petrov’s The Twelve Chairs) nearly as intriguingly convoluted as installment one or as unusually mixed in genre as installment two, the book still made for a very decent companion on winter evenings. I can only say a big “ouch” about what Zaitsev finds in the mystery’s denouement.

I enjoyed the Ganieva and Yakovleva books but (largely for reasons of genre) it’s Stolpovskaya’s I Hate That Little Bitch that has the most heart and soul: the novel tells the story of two women who work together at a TV production company (I think that’s the right way to put it) and start living together. The narrator, a Muscovite, is no longer with her husband and her girlfriend, Alex, was born in Russia, emigrated to Australia, then came to Moscow to work, away from her Australian husband. Stolpovskaya includes lots of little details that characterize her people, their settings, and their situations: a research institute renting out office space (been there, done that!), the narrator reading Kharms to her daughter at bedtime, and green slime (the “toy”) getting stuck on an Australian ceiling. There’s even an incident with an Australian bat. And a naked pianist. A trip from Moscow to Australia with other co-workers (!) felt a bit long (yes, travel delays are real but these made for slightly tedious reading) and sometimes the family feels a bit too wacky for fiction (see above: naked pianist) but Australia serves as a “through the looking glass” setting for the narrator to see Alex in a new way. (There’s a fair bit of antipodeness running through the book.) I certainly wouldn’t argue with the blurby back-cover quote from Stolpovskaya saying the book is about freedom. I think that, along with a combination of humor and melancholy about not belonging, is what helped the book endear itself to me, despite the travel delays: I love reading about women I can’t help but root for because they do what they want and aren’t afraid to love as they wish.

A quite note: I’m reading primarily books written by women this winter as I prepare to participate in a panel at the London Book Fair on March 14: “Women in Literature & Translation: Realities & Stereotypes.”

Up Next: The Slavist conference. Ludmila Petrushevskaya’s Kidnapped. Alexei Salnikov’s The Petrovs In and Around the Flu, which I truly am enjoying a million times more in print format – it makes me giggle.

Disclosures and Disclaimers: The usual. Something connects me to each of these books.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Anna Nemzer’s The Round

Anna Nemzer’s Раунд (The Round, I think) is a perfect example of why I don’t like to know (too) much about books before reading them. I knew The Round was polyphonic and I knew a main character was trans, but that’s about it. The Round is a finalist for this year’s NOSE Award.

What I didn’t know about The Round (or maybe never quite processed since I was jetlagged?) is that it covers about a century, is written in what I’ll call verbatim style, and is composed primarily of various sorts of interviews. Some of the characters are based on real people (I recognized Solomon Mikhoels, among others, though not the rapper) and some of what happens feels very up-to-the-minute. I’m torn on how many specifics to mention: on the one hand, they might attract readers but the most news-based line of the plot surprised me, making me afraid of spoilers. So I’ll be vague.

I often have difficulty with fictionalized versions of real figures and current events but Nemzer’s background as a journalist and her use of .doc stylistics – the interviews, some of which even mention an important, real documentary film – give her stories tremendous raw emotion and verisimilitude. The book opens with an interview with Dima, a rapper who’s been jailed for extremism; his girlfriend is now a trans man. And then Nemzer dives into the past, with interviewees who tell of theater and relationships… I don’t think it spoils much to mention that many of The Round’s characters are related, through blood and work.

The Round is described as “оптический роман,” an “optical novel,” something easy enough to see, though I admit I slacked off on tracking the optical thread. Chapter titles fit the theme –Doppler effect, x-ray, laser, etc. – plus one character’s profession is related to optics. Another is losing their vision. And of course we see events in various tellings, from different angles.

The Round had a strange effect on me. The first chapter/interview, with Dima, caught me because of his relationship with Sasha; I wanted, desperately, to find out what would happen. And though the more historical figures interested me less, they also felt familiar and even interesting, thanks in part, to all the years I read a Russian film journal. But what really kept me reading was momentum. The interviews and chapters and characters and their stories kept building on one another, circling around and around. (I think the novel’s title probably refers most directly to rounds in battle rap, as Languagehat suggested in a comment on another post, but a more general sense of “rounds” for talks (or interviews) or even a boxing match also feels pertinent.)

I’ll confess that I read The Round far, far too quickly: sure, interviews read easily because of familiar, colloquial language as well as lots of white space, but I just couldn’t put the book down, zipping through because I had to find out how the characters would end up relating to one another. I couldn’t help myself. (And let me just say that was a great feeling after all my unsatisfying reading last year!) For once, the balance of fact and fiction felt just right and Nemzer’s clever weaving of relationships, times, metaphors, and ambitions – and use of detail – works beautifully for this exploration of human nature, love, cruelty, truths, storytelling, and current events. And I loved the ending.

Up Next: Books by Alisa Ganieva, Ludmila Petrushevskaya, Yulia Yakovleva, and Olga Stolpovskaya. Slavist conference trip report.

Disclaimers: The usual. Publisher Elena Shubina recommended The Round to me and I took her up on a copy – thank you!