Saturday, October 10, 2020

Getting Caught Up: Pandemic-Era Reading Potpourri

Books have been one of my main sources of comfort and calm during these long pandemic months: ordering them to keep a good variety on the shelves, reading them, thinking about them. Feeling more distracted than usual – by the combination of news, horrible circumstances around us, and long hours keeping up with my usual work – initially meant I had a hard time reading at all, later meant I read happily but didn’t retain much, and now seems to mean I do very, very well with books I love but am more eager than ever to set aside books that don’t suck me in. I’ve also been reading more in English than usual, thanks in part to committing, as I mentioned in a previous post, to a very slow reading of In Search of Lost Time. I’m enjoying it a lot, both for the novel and for a commitment that lends stability. I’m glad there’s still nearly a year left.

After all these months (I’m not counting them), my list of thoroughly absorbing Russian books is relatively small – Belyaev’s rather silly Professor Dowell’s Head (previous post), Buksha’s heartfelt Churov and Churbanov (previous post), Inga Kuznetsova’s wondrous Промежуток, which I’ll write about soon, and a couple other books I’ll mention below. The list is short in large part because I haven’t found this year’s Big Book finalists to be overwhelmingly, er, rousing. I’ve been happily reading some upcoming releases, though, and will write more about those later. For now, here’s a bit about some of the books I’ve mentioned in “Up Next” over the pandemic months but haven’t written about (and won't write about) in any great depth.

I feel particularly sorry that Aleksei Polyarinov’s Центр тяжости (The Center of Gravity) fell through the cracks of both my bookshelves and my mind. I recall that I was reading it just as the pandemic was starting to take hold in the U.S. – back then I was planning on a three-day trip to Duke University and considering using the beginning of the novel for a translation workshop – so my reading of The Center of Gravity straddled the before/after line, skewing my reading and fogging my memories considerably. Sometimes, though, foggy outlines speak more to me than sharply focused memories. Polyarinov’s descriptions of childhood are wonderful, with boyish hijinks, a lost lake, and family quirks emerging from the fog as compelling thematic outlines; the second part of the book, which earned it a “cyberpunk” label from some, interested me less, though it’s more distinct and memorable with its descriptions of tyranny and technology, not to mention brotherly differences. I also noted down a few references that speak to the novel’s magpie character: Costa-Gavras’s Missing, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and Don Quixote. All in all, my quibbles over things like the slightly hectic blend of genres and references are minor: The Center of Gravity made for entertaining and affecting reading.

I read Alexander Grin’s “Quarantine” in Fandango and Other Stories, translated by Bryan Karetnyk around that same time. “Quarantine” is a short story and short stories spoil easily, so I won’t say much other than that it’s not about medical quarantine, though it is about how solitude and apartness can save a life. The main character may not be a very sympathetic person but Bryan’s translation is lush, lovely, and full of life. I’m looking forward to reading more of Fandango.

One of the biggest disappointments of my early pandemic reading was Ivan Turgenev’s On the Eve, which Wikipedia sums up just fine, thank you, relieving me of the duty. Yes, I finished and yes, I’m glad I’d saved it for a difficult time, though neither Turgenev’s writing nor my reading felt especially inspired, at least if compared to Fathers and Sons, Rudin, or Nest of the Gentry. Then again, On the Eve made for odd pandemic reading: one character falls ill with something that sounded suspiciously COVID-19esque, inspiring marginalia like “sick like COVID-19, ой!” and “evidently not so contagious because all visit” and “symptoms CV-19-ish and linger.” The novel’s highlight is Elena who makes her own decisions and loves nature (including insects and frogs) so much it makes her father jealous.

There are also two books I started some time ago and haven’t yet finished, though I keep working on them after long work days: Aleksandr Stesin’s Нью-йоркский обход (New York Rounds) and Tatyana Pletneva’s Пункт третий (Point Three). New York Rounds is a graceful and almost meditative series of vignettes written by a young doctor working in New York City hospitals. I’m sure my past work as a medical interpreter enhances my appreciation for New York Rounds – I noted “apparent lack of hosp. interps?!” early on – but I also enjoy Stesin’s portrayals of colleagues, snapshots of New York (the sad beauty of the early-morning Bronx), and mentions of literature, which include noting that an audiobook of Proust featured a reader with “a strong Odessa accent.” (This was before I started on ISOLT!) Although I couldn’t bear to read New York Rounds when New York’s COVID-19 cases peaked in the spring, I’ve returned this fall and will keep going. Point Three is an entirely different kind of book: fiction about, well, Soviet dissidents in 1979-1981. Pletneva establishes several plotlines that intersect, offering up very human characters plus a sense of realistic absurdity. And/or absurd realism. This book is also a bit hectic but it’s well-organized. Better yet, given, well, the circumstances, it’s also so vivid – settings include apartments, a courtroom, and a prison camp – that I find it easy to set aside and return to without feeling any loss of continuity. I’m about halfway through and find it almost mysteriously enjoyable.

Up Next: Inga Kuznetsova’s Промежуток, which I confess I may be afraid to write about since I enjoyed it tremendously and don’t want to overanalyze.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: I received a review copy of the Grin book from the Russian Library and Bryan is a wonderful friend and colleague; the Russian Library is one of my publishers, too. Since I mentioned that, I’ll add that I have several other Russian Library titles waiting for more attention: Woe from Wit (Griboedov, Hulick), The Nose and Other Stories (Gogol, Fusso), and Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow (Radishchev, Kahn/Reyfman). They all look great, though I’m especially looking forward to Radishchev… my fascination with eighteenth-century Russia never left me.


  1. Heh. Yes, On the Eve would not be the first Turgenev book I'd recommend!

    1. Heh, indeed! I'm not sure I'd even recommend it during usual times. (Whatever those are!)