Saturday, April 17, 2021

The 2021 NatsBest Shortlist

Well, that seemed to happen fast: The National Bestseller Award announced its six-book shortlist last week. I’m so behind on new releases that I haven’t studied up much on some of these titles. So no time like this chilly spring day to learn a bit more.

  • Mikhail Gigolashvili’s Кока (Koka) (10 points) is the only book I know much of anything about. It’s a continuation (of sorts?) of The Devil’s Wheel (previous post), which I loved so very much about ten years ago. A friend just bought Koka and I’m looking forward to hearing her thoughts. (I was going to order it a couple weeks ago myself but it sold out!)
  • Alexander Pelevin’s Покров-17 (Pokrov-17) (8 points) is set in the Kaluga area in 1993 but the action somehow connects to a World War 2 battle. Pelevin loves playing with time like this, which is one of the reasons I’ve enjoyed two of his books (The Four) and (Kalinova Yama) so much. I’ve actively avoided learning more about Pokrov-17 before reading.
  • Vera Bogdanova’s Павел Чжан и прочие речные твари (Pavel Zhang and Other River Creatures) (7 points) sounds scarily intriguing, with its digital concentration camp and “total chipization.” I’ve seen lots of praise for this book and am looking forward to reading it.
  • Mrshavko Shtapich’s Плейлист волонтера (A/The Volunteer’s Playlist) (6 points) is, according to nominator Yulia Selivanova’s text, “a contradictory book” thanks to its narrator’s depiction of his own deviant behavior, which contrasts with media characterizations of idealized volunteers. Nonfiction. One NatsBest juror, Mitya Samoilov, called it a “guilty pleasure.” Juror Denis Epifantsev says it’s the best book he’s read this year and compares Shtapich to Hunter S. Thompson. (!)
  • Daniel Orlov’s Время рискованного земледелия (A/The Time of Risky Arable Farming?) (5 points) is set in today’s Russia; Andrei Astvatsaturov’s nomination note calls it a “wonderful example of contemporary realistic, social prose,” going on to note dynamic plot lines. I love the thought of dynamic plot lines and arable farming in one book.
  • Ivan Shipnigov’s Стрим (Stream) (5 points) sounds like a polyphonic, “verbatim” book about life among young (Russian) adults. Given that Shipnigov is a screenwriter, this may be a book where the verbatim approach actually works.

So there you have it. These six books sound like a pretty decent lot, though (here comes my perennial gripe) I’m disappointed there aren’t more books written by women. Which means I’m going to order up a few from the longlist that sound good but didn’t make the shortlist. This seems to have become an annual ritual.

Just a reminder that the NatsBest site has an archive of reviews/opinions written by “Big Jury” members (here) and that their votes are archived as well (here). The winner will be selected on some future day at some future time. (Translation: I didn’t see a date mentioned for the ceremony.)

Up Next: The Big Book longlist. My reread of Vodolazkin’s Island. Another book to reread, which finally arrived in a printed copy.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual, with some familiar names on the nominator, author, and jury lists.


Sunday, April 11, 2021

Fear Itself?: Anton Chizh’s Fear Machine

Anton Chizh’s Машина страха – I think I’ll take the easy way out and go for the Ronco-like title, The Fear Machine – is a retro detective novel set in 1898 St. Petersburg among a circle of people who hold séances where participants don’t just commune with the dead, they die. The Fear Machine blends historical, detective, and mystical elements, and it felt a bit peculiar to me, though that’s probably largely because I joined Chizh’s series of books about investigator Rodion Vanzarov and his crime-fighting cohort rather late in the game, as they say, with (if goodreads is correct) book eleven of a series.

So many characters! It feels like there are dozens of policemen, doctors, scientists, mediums, nosy neighbors, relatives, servants, and various other figures (the notary!) strewn throughout the novel. Come to think of it, there probably are that many. That’s not so much a complaint about Chizh’s book as a complaint about my own decision to read the most recent Vanzarov book (yes, #11!) when I could have started with book one and gotten to know Vanzarov’s co-workers more gradually. Then again, who am I for those subtleties?

I’m especially not inclined to complain because The Fear Machine made for fairly satisfying reading. I confess that I’m still having trouble focusing on certain types of books, particularly those set in the present day, meaning that the distant past is lovely (no worries about masking!), the contrast of the mediums’ psychic seeing with Vanzarov’s more scientific psychologika (my version, sorry) is welcome (mysticism takes me out of the news of the day), and detective novels tend to offer resolutions (satisfying in these indefinite days). For better or worse, The Fear Machine, which I think could rightly be considered a police procedural, ends with resolving whodunit1 (finding the murderer) but leaving whodunit2 (the fate of the machine, called “machina terroris” in a footnote) unsolved. The book ends with “конец I сеанса,” which sure looks in this case like “end of the first séance.” Implying: to be continued.

The Fear Machine plods along – it truly does describe a lot of police procedures – but the use of hypnosis, the notions of employing technology to catch criminals, and Vanzarov’s relentless use of psychological methods combine pretty decently. Particularly given all the personal fears and foibles sprinkled in. As well as familiar Petersburg toponyms. And humor: there’s even a sneaky little reference to Alexei Salnikov’s The Petrovs in and Around the Flu. All in all, a moderately satisfying book to read in strange times. These days, a “moderately satisfying,” even average, book that’s a slight bit cozy and involves genre norms can work its own practical wonders by not keeping me up at night.

Up Next: Vodolazkin’s History of Island, which I love, though it’s too fine a book to reread quickly these days. I have a print copy of another book to reread on the way, too.

Disclaimers and disclosures: The usual.