Sunday, May 2, 2021

The 2021 Big Book Longlist: Best-Laid Plans Edition

The Big Book Award announced a longlist of forty-one books a Tuesday or two ago. This year’s longlist gives me hope that the 2021 shortlist might be at least a little better (meaning more readable!) than last year’s, though (cue my perennial gripe) only 11.5 of this year’s longlist titles were written by women. That’s a bit better than last year’s eight out of thirty-nine although, as always, I don’t know much about what books were nominated.

I started this post last weekend but didn’t finish (an all-life-cycles mouse infestation in the garden shed was a complete downer) but am picking back up today and attempting to accentuate the positive and focus on some books that sound good.

First off, three books overlap with this year’s National Bestseller Award shortlist. It’s probably no coincidence that these three had the top scores in NatsBest voting and are also the (unread, for me) books that interest me most:

  • Mikhail Gigolashvili’s Кока (Koka) is a continuation (of sorts?) of The Devil’s Wheel (previous post), which I loved so very much about ten years ago. The friend who bought Koka seems to be enjoying it. 
  • Alexander Pelevin’s Покров-17 (Pokrov-17) 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 other 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) 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.

 Then there are some books I’ve read or have on the shelves:

  • I’m still rereading Eugene Vodolazkin’s Оправдание Острова (The History of Island), which I loved on the first reading for its chronicle-like format (sometimes!) and stylization (varying!) and blend of timelines. It’s a very Vodolazkonian novel; he’s exceptionally skilled at writing about favorite themes from new angles that make his material fresh, relevant, and related to his others works without repeating them.
  • Shamil Idiatullin’s Последнее время (it sounds like this is more likely Last/Final Time(s) than, say, Of Late, though who knows!) concerns an invented country. Maria Galina’s back-cover blurb calls it ethnofantasy. I haven’t been a big fan of Idiatullin’s realistic work so bought this with the hope of enjoying something that’s less a part of this world.
  • Sergei Samsonov’s Высокая кровь (High Blood) is a thick (630+ pages of small print) book set during the Civil War that (among other things) borrows on themes from Sholokhov. Translating a sample was very, very challenging thanks to Platonovesque stylistics, regional language, and literary references. The text is dense and interesting. I need to read the rest of the book.
  • Leonid Yuzefovich’s Филэллин (The Philhellene) is a novel where characters converse through journals, letters, and mental conversations. Yuzefovich’s own back-cover description of the book refers to it as being closer to “variations on historical themes than a traditional historical novel.” This is another book where I’ve purposely avoided trying to learn too much before reading.
  • Bulat Khanov’s Развлечения для птиц с подрезанными крыльями (perhaps something like Diversions for Birds With Clipped Wings) is described as a book about rebels but I read about a third and found it a bit slow to develop, even plodding, as it follows four people who seem to be all too fated to meet. I suspect part of my problem with Birds is that, well, its wings feel so clipped, making it feel very safe compared to Khanov’s much briefer, far riskier, and higher soaring Rage (previous post). William Barclay, by the way, translated an extended sample of Rage, under the RusTRANS project.
  • I’ve had so many similar problems with books by familiar (even favorite) authors in the last year, that I wonder if my problem is due to my pandemic-era pickiness rather than flawed novels. To wit… Narine Abgaryan’s Симон (Simon) also didn’t quite hit me though I wonder if that’s because her Three Apples Fell From the Sky, which I translated, still feels so familiar and very dear to me. Similarly, Marina Stepnova’s best-selling Cад (The Garden, a.k.a. A New Breed) interested me far less for its nineteenth-century plot and characters than for its stylized language, which made me more than happy to work on a sample; this could be a matter of familiarity, too, after so enjoying translating two Stepnova novels set in later times.

Now a few potentially interesting books and/or authors I hadn’t known anything about. The pool isn’t very bigI’ve read twenty-seven of the authors on the longlist – so first I’ll cheat and mention a few more familiar authors on the list: Irina Bogatyreva, Ilya Boyashov, Sergei Nosov, Aleksei Polyarinov, Roman Senchin, and Alla Gorbunova. Since I’m always looking for novels (preferably novels with plots!) that narrows my choices a lot for unknown books and authors. But here are three books, one of which has only been published in a journal thus far, making it all the more mysterious:

  • Ksenia Dragunskaya’s Туда нельзя (which I really want to call Don’t Go There, in the literal sense) sounds like it might connect several characters’ stories because of a lake. (?)
  • Olga Pokrovskaya’s Летучий корабль (Airliner, perhaps?) is apparently about aviation.
  • Roman Shmarakov’s Алкиной (Alcinous, I guess) is set in the fourth century, in the late Roman Empire. Although it’s apparently often described as a “philological novel,” Artyom Roganov’s review for Gorky Media says it’s more. (And even cites humor! We enjoy humor!)

Up Next: Two rereads: Vodolazkin’s History of Island and Svetlana Kuznetsova’s The Anatomy of the Moon, which I nominated for the Big Book and am translating. I reread very slowly!

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual, including having translated some of the authors on the longlist. I signed a request to call in an unnominated Pavel Krusanov collection for Big Book; he’s a good writer so I’m glad it made the list. I’ve received a number of the books on the list from agents, authors, or publishers in either electronic or print copies.