Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Happy New Year & 2019 Highlights

Happy New Year! С Новым Годом! I hope you’re enjoying the holidays, no matter where you might be, and I wish you lots and lots of good reading for 2020!

As in recent years, this year’s reading patterns continued one of my least favorite trends: I suspect I abandoned more books than I finished. On the positive side, though, (and also as usual) I found some that I thoroughly enjoyed and, as a bonus, I found more to like on the Big Book finalist list than in the last two or three years. Here are some reading highlights, which I’m going to keep relatively brief and cursory since I’m getting too hungry to type, let alone think!

Most unexpected pleasures: Two of the books I most enjoyed reading during 2019 were biographies: Alisa Ganieva’s book about Lilya Brik, Её Лиличество Брик на фоне Люциферова века (Her Liliness, for short) and Венедикт Ерофеев: посторонний (Venedikt Erofeev: The Outsider), written by Oleg Lekmanov, Mikhail Sverdlov, and Ilya Simanovsky. I wrote about both these books two days ago. The authors’ accounts of Brik and Erofeev sucked me in from the start, both books kept me up at night, and both gave me further reading lists.

Favorite book by an author new to me: Alexander Pelevin’s Четверо (The Four) (previous post), a finalist for the National Bestseller Award, wove multiple plotlines and timelines into a wonderfully seamless novel that was apparently inspired by Twin Peaks. Between that and mentions of cats, I was all set.

Favorite book written by an author I’d read before: I thought Anna Kozlova’s F20 (previous post), which won the National Bestseller Award in 2017, was an intriguing depiction of teenage mental illness so was excited to give her Рюрик (Rurik) (previous post) a try, too. A book named for a parrot (and founder of the Rurik dynasty!) has to have something going for it, and Kozlova didn’t disappoint, with this up-to-the-minute account of a runaway teenager’s twisted roadtrip.

The book that really scared the hell out of me: As far as reading pleasure and horror (what a combination!) go, though, Alexei Salnikov’s Отдел (The Department) really takes the cake (previous post). I loved the rhythms and strange humor of this book and still can’t stop thinking about it. The Department was probably my favorite reading of 2019.

Most authory moments: I was fortunate to have two translations come out this year: Guzel Yakhina’s Zuleikha (Oneworld Publications) and Margarita Khemlin’s Klotsvog (Russian Library/Columbia University Press). It was lovely to see Guzel (as well as other friends and colleagues) in London and New York City for Read Russia events – Guzel is always fun to talk with and it’s a pleasure to see the success of her books. I miss Margarita terribly, though, and am sorry she’s not here to tell about some of the insightful comments and reviews I’ve read about Klotsvog, a book that has long been a favorite.

Etc.: English-language books also brought some good reading and I’ll be writing soon about Jennifer Croft’s Homesick and Olga Zilberbourg’s Like Water, both of which stood out… this year’s list of translations into English has grown a bit… and I remain eternally optimistic that more books by women will be translated in the coming years…

The decade’s translations: Olga Zilberbourg asked if I might be able to compile a list of noteworthy translations from the last decade. I said I could, though that turned out to be a more difficult task than I’d anticipated! Even looking at only contemporary fiction and even selecting only books that I’d consider successful pieces of literature in Russian, the list got big. Too big. And it got bigger when I thought of adding some books I haven’t read but should read. If I had to pick just a very few, though, I think I’d choose Day of the Oprichnik (Vladimir Sorokin/Jamey Gambrell, FSG), Maidenhair (Mikhail Shishkin/Marian Schwartz, Open Letter), Catlantis (Anna Starobinets/Jane Bugaeva, Pushkin Press/NYRB), Land of the Stone Flowers (Sveta Dorosheva/Jane Bugaeva, Chronicle Books), and Oliver Ready’s translations of Vladimir Sharov’s novels for Dedalus Books. I’ve purposely chosen a varied set of books because I think the very fact of that varied set of books a selection that includes a book for children and a book like Land of the Stone Flowers, which is difficult to classify – is important to bringing Russian books to a diverse readership. (I decided to keep my own books off that list...)

With that cheery note about translations (since I like ending on cheery notes, particularly when translations are involved!), I want to wish everyone a very happy New Year and lots more good reading in 2020!

Disclaimers: The usual. I received some books mentioned above from publishers, literary agents, and other sources. Thank you to all! Special thanks to Read Russia for bringing me to New York and London this year for events.

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


  1. And a very happy New Year to you too -- keep up the good work!

    1. Thank you so very much, Languagehat -- here's a big "likewise" on all counts!