Saturday, June 19, 2021

Lizok’s Summer Reading Plan: The 2021 Big Book Shortlist

On Wednesday the Big Book Award announced a list of thirteen finalists for the 2021 prize. I’ve read very little from this year’s longlist thus far so can’t decide if I’m surprised that some authors (Vera Bogdanova, for example) didn’t make the list, though I know I’m a little disappointed Bogdanova’s novel – as well as, for various reasons, books by Sergei Nosov, Pavel Krusanov, and Irina Bogatyreva – wasn’t on it. Lots of familiar, perennial nominees and “usual suspects” were left out, too: Ilya Boyashov, Shamil Idiatullin, Zakhar Prilepin, Andrei Rubanov, Sergei Samsonov, and Roman Senchin among them. And Alexander Pelevin’s Pokrov-17, which recently won the National Bestseller Award, isn’t a Big Book finalist either. I’m reading Pokrov-17 now and enjoying it for its suspense and weirdness but haven’t yet read enough to go on record saying more than that.

In any case, the good news is that this year’s books look far more promising than last year’s, though (as my husband likes to say) that sets the bar pretty low. I’m sure some of my positive feelings about the 2021 list involve my familiarity with some of the authors: I’ve translated three of them and know four more. I’ve read and enjoyed (or at least finished!) books by others. And those I haven’t read generally sound interesting. Unfortunately, my biggest regret about the list is that (here I go again!) only four of the thirteen books were written by women, though (as always), I don’t know much about the overall pool of Big Book nominees. I’m happiest because I’m glad this list looks likely to keep me reading.

And so. Here’s the list, in Russian alphabetical order by author surname:

  • In Narine Abgaryan’s Симон (Simon), a man’s death brings together his former loves, who tell their stories. I read a large chunk of Simon on my reader but am going to reread (and finish) the novel on paper. (I think I’m getting crankier and crankier about electronic reading! I really need to flip those pages.) 
  • Dmitry Bavilsky’s Желание быть городом (The Desire to be a City?) describes itself in the book’s subtitle as “Итальянский травелог эпохи Твиттера в шести частях и тридцати пяти городах” – “A Twitter-era Italian travelogue, in six parts and thirty-five cities.” The publisher’s description uses the terms “documentary novel” and “autofiction.” I’m not much for travelogues but I do like, even relish, the thought of Bavilsky describing works of art he hasn’t seen.
  • Yury Buida’s Сады Виверны (The Wyvern’s Gardens, I guess?) sounds difficult to summarize with its three countries and four temporal settings so I’m just going to focus on thinking about the word “wyvern” for now. And buy the book.
  • Oksana Vasyakina’s Рана (The Wound) may well be the book on the list that intrigues me the most, with (apparently) an account of the narrator traveling with her mother’s ashes, bringing them to be buried. I read Polina Barskova’s introduction and the beginning of Vasyakina’s text on my reader but am going to order a print copy so I can fully appreciate Vasyakina’s writing.
  • Evgeny 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. I’m working on a short sample translation now and had a good laugh remembering how cats came to be.
  • 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. Two friend who’ve already read Koka enjoyed it. It’s in my reading cart and will probably be the book I choose after I finish Pokrov-17. Like The Devil’s Wheel it’s very long (720 pages) so should keep me busy!
  • Andrei Dmitriev’s Этот берег (That Shore) apparently tells the story of a retired schoolteacher who’s been living in Russia then moves to Ukraine, where he finds a new life for himself.
  • Maya Kucherskaya’s Лесков. Прозёванный гений (Leskov. The Missed Genius – I almost want to say something like “slept through” or “yawning” here to capture the sense of sleeping!) is a very big book (656 pages, 668 grams) about Nikolai Leskov. My life is embarrassingly under-Leskoved but, inspired by factors including Languagehat’s posts about Leskov and, subsequently, some personalized reading recommendations plus my own impressions after reading “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” back in my first youth, I’m looking forward to letting Kucherskaya, a kind person and a good reader, guide me to and through more Leskov.
  • Vladimir Paperny’s Архив Шульца (Shults’s Archive) looks, hm, potentially interesting, if a bit overwhelming at first: a Russian émigré living in Los Angeles receives a package of materials that turn out to form a family archive. A blurb from Alexander Genis uses the word “мозаика” (mosaic), something I confirmed by paging through a PDF of the book. We’ll see how it goes!
  • Alexei Polyarinov’s Риф (The Reef): I’ll leave the description to the publisher (here) and add that I’m looking forward to this one after finding Polyarinov’s Center of Gravity (previous post) fairly good.
  • Viktor Remizov’s Вечная мерзлота (Permafrost) is another heavyweight, clocking in at 925 grams (over 800 pages of rather small type, yeow) with a story based on actual events, about prisoners laying a railroad line in Siberia during 1949-1953. I enjoyed Remizov’s Ashes and Dust back in 2014 (previous post) and praised Remizov’s storytelling so am looking forward to Permafrost, which comes highly praised by Maya Kucherskaya and Vasily Avchenko.
  • I read a large chunk of Marina Stepnova’s Сад (The Garden) on my e-reader and found that it interested me far less for its nineteenth-century plot and characters (which, after translating two twentieth-century Stepnova books, made me feel a bit off-kilter) than for its stylized language. I had fun translating a sample. I’m going to buy a paper copy of The Garden since it’s another book that didn’t feel right to read electronically. (Have I mentioned that I don’t like e-reading?)
  • Leonid Yuzefovich’s Филлэлин (The Philhellene) is a novel where characters converse through journals, letters, and mental conversations. Yuzefovich’s own back-cover description refers to the novel as being closer to “variations on historical themes than a traditional historical novel.” This is one of those books where I’ve purposely avoided learning too much before reading.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The Usual. I’ve translated excerpts from two of these books and entire books by three of the finalist authors. I know other authors on the list and have ties to some of the others through publishers and literary agents.

Up Next: Svetlana Kuznetsova’s The Anatomy of the Moon, which I’m translating and enjoying for the third time but still don’t know how to write about. Vodolazkin’s The History of Island, which I’m rereading the way it should be read – slowly; A. Pelevin’s Pokrov-17, and maybe Alexander Belyaev’s The Air Seller, quick reading that I started while waiting for Pokrov-17 to arrive…


  1. Oh goody, another shortlist post!

    I think I’m getting crankier and crankier about electronic reading! I really need to flip those pages.

    You and me both. It's funny, I spent years reading a library's worth of fiction on my Kindle and didn't mind it, but suddenly I find I want books I can hold, flip through, and make notes in.

    1. This was a fun one to write, too, since just about everything here (I'm hedging my bets!) sounds like it has potential.

      And, yes, you mention the "thing" about electronic readers: reading on one is doable and many books work well enough for me on the reader. But I, too, really want, even need, to be able to turn back a page or two (or hundred). And make a big list of notes inside the back cover. That just doesn't work for me on a reader, even with an app that allows good annotations.

      So yes, I'm putting together another Ozon order. Happy reading on paper, Languagehat!

  2. I love real books, but I found the Kindle so valuable over the last year and a half. I couldn't go anywhere, but I could get things on Kindle!
    As always, though, Lizok's Bookshelf is DANGEROUS, encouraging me to, once again, try to bite up way more than I can chew. THANK YOU FOR THAT, Lizok!

    1. Thank you for your comment, Mary, I'm glad to hear the Kindle works for you!

      I do use my reader pretty regularly and it's often a crucial piece of equipment for reading a bit of a book from a PDF to see if I want/need to buy it on paper.

      I'm glad to hear the blog is keeping you over-committed to lots of books! Happy reading.

  3. As usual, reading Lizok's Bookshelf is DANGEROUS. It always leads me to, once again, try to bite off more than I can possibly chew. THANK YOU FOR THAT, Lizok!

  4. Thanks for this list update. Always so interesting to see your take on these things!!

    1. Thank you for your comment, Olga! We'll see how the reading goes))