Monday, June 10, 2019

Lizok’s Summer Reading Plan: 2019 Big Book Finalists

The Big Book Award named twelve finalists last week and I breathed a big old sigh of relief because this year’s short list looks so much better – infinitely better – to me than last year’s*. I’ve already read several of the books, all of which were very good in their own ways; a few others are already calling out to me. The list is an interesting combination of familiar and not-so-familiar authors, though there only two – Gonorovsky and Bakharevich – were completely unfamiliar to me before the Big Book Long List. Perhaps most interesting: unless I’ve really missed the point here about something, there’s only one work of nonfiction this year, a biography of Venedikt Erofeev, which pretty much had to make the finals.

  • Sukhbat Aflatuni’s Рай земной (Earthly Paradise? Heaven on Earth?) looks back at political repression during the Stalin era, apparently layering fantasy and history. (If, that is, the book’s description is to be believed!) I’m very much looking forward to this one after Aflatuni’s The Ant King.
  • Olgerd Bakharevich says his Собаки Европы (The Dogs of Europe), a 768-page book is about everything, with Belarus, Europe, the world, and Minsk being some of that “everything.” He translated the book himself, rewriting it in the process.
  • Evgenii Vodolazkin’s Брисбен (Brisbane) tells the story of a virtuoso guitar player who discovers he has an incurable medical condition.
  • Aleksandr Gonorovsky’s Собачий лес (Dog Forest, though I’m suspecting layers of meaning here…) apparently combines a lot of genres and addresses topics including historical trauma.
  • Linor Goralik’s Все, способные дышать дыхание (literally something like All Capable of Breathing a Breath, perhaps? Or maybe “Everybody”? I’m interested in figuring out how to read this title.) The brief description introducing this excerpt says the book concerns a country that’s facing a huge catastrophe and discovers that empathy can be a double-edged sword.
  • The trio of Oleg Lekmanov, Mikhail Sverdlov, and Ilya Simanovsky hit the list for the biography Венедикт Ерофеев: посторонний (Venedikt Erofeev: The Outsider). Oliver Ready’s review for The TLS notes this, which makes me look forward to the book very much: “In fact, this is not one biography but two, for between each chapter comes an interlude devoted to Moskva- Petushki.”
  • Evgenia Nekrasova’s Калечина-Малечина (Kalechina-Malechina) is vivid, imaginative, and edgy in its description of a schoolgirl who is bullied and often left to her own devices.
  • Alexei Salnikov’s Опосредованно (Indirectly perhaps? This is what a colleague and I think might fit…) is about a woman living in the Urals who writes poetry in a world that’s almost like ours, though poems have drug-like effects. I enjoyed Indirectly very much but reading it electronically wasn’t enough so I’m going to reread it as a printed book.
  • Roman Senchin’s Дождь в Париже (Rain in Paris) is about a Russian man who’s in Paris reflecting on his life in Russia.
  • Grigory Sluzhitel’s Дни Савелия (Savely’s Days) (previous post) is the first-cat narrative I so enjoyed last year.
  • Vyacheslav Stavetsky’s Жизнь А.Г. (The Life of A.G.) concerns a Spanish dictator.
  • Guzel Yakhina’s Дети мои (Children of the Volga) blends history and fairy tale motifs in a novel about a Volga German man and his daughter.
*With one exception: I’m sorry (yet again!) to see how few books written by women hit the short list. Since I don’t know what books were nominated, it’s impossible to say what the starting material was for the first two rounds of selection but, looking at the long list, I can say that I already read Anna Nemzer’s The Round (previous post) and thought it was pretty good, couldn’t quite get into Ksenia Buksha’s Opens In though it seemed well-written and solidly structured, and still have several other longlisters written by women either on the shelf to read or on order from a generous friend willing to travel with lots of book baggage. I am looking forward to reading those books and the other finalists! [Added on 6/11/2019.]

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual. I’m a member of the Literary Academy, the large jury for the Big Book Award. I’ve translated works by three authors on the list, know a couple more, and have received copies of some of the books from various parties.

Up Next: Nekrasova’s Kalechina-Malechina, plus some of her shorter work. And then Alexander Pelevin’s Четверо (The Four, perhaps, though I’m still not sure), which I’m enjoying for its blend of three plotlines: futuristic space travel, a 1930s detective story set in Crimea, and a present-day description of a patient at a St. Petersburg psychiatric hospital who claims to have contact with someone from another planet. It’s lively and entertaining.


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