Thursday, December 1, 2016

Aleshkovsky and Yuzefovich Win Russian Booker Prize and Grant

Pyotr Aleshkovsky won the 2016 Russian Booker Prize today for his novel Крепость (The Citadel). Aleshkovsky has been a Booker finalist in the past—in 1994 for Жизнеописание Хорька (Skunk: A Life), in 1996 for Владимир Чигринцев (Vladimir Chigrintsev), and in 2006 for Рыба (Fish)—so I wasn’t surprised to see The Citadel win. The Citadel, which I began but did/could not finish, is also a finalist for the Big Book Award; Big Book Award winners will be announced next week.


Several of Aleshkovsky’s books have been translated into English: Arch Tait translated Skunk: A Life for Glas (the original title refers to a ferret), and Nina Shevchuk-Murray translated Fish: A History of One Migration and Stargorod: A Novel in Many Voices, which combines stories from Aleshkovsky’s Институт Сновидений and Старгород, for Russian Life Books. I wrote about Fish here, mentioning in that post that I’d enjoyed nature passages from Skunk (Ferret!) very much: some of Aleshkovsky’s winter scenes in that book have stuck with me longer than my more recent readings of Fish and The Citadel. Please note that Aleshkovsky’s first name is spelled “Peter” on all these translations.

In other news, Leonid Yuzefovich won the Booker’s grant award, for an English-language translation of his The Winter Road, a beautifully compiled and composed book about Civil War figures in the Russian Far East. The Winter Road also won this year’s National Bestseller Award and is on the Big Book shortlist, too; it was one of my top three books in the eleven-book list of finalists.

Edit: Links!
-The Booker has yet to post a story about the awards but TASS did: here.
-TASS also posted a piece by Konstantin Milchin (an acquaintance of mine) about the award, in which he discusses his dissatisfaction with the Booker jury's decision, which, in effect, says The Citadel is the best novel of the year--that's the Booker's stated goal, after all. The piece is here and, as so often happens, I agree with Kostya's points, which get at some of the reasons I didn't/couldn't finish the book. I was also interested to see that he mentioned, as I did in my post, the fact that Aleshkovsky was thrice a Booker finalist before The Citadel. (I have to think that fact and being able to point to the novel's positive hero were deciding factors for the jury.) The quotes that Kostya included seem to have inspired readers to dig up other awkward passages that, hmm (repurposing Kostya's words a bit), show a lack of compassion for the reader, see, for example, Meduza, here.
-I'll add more links when/if I find them!

Disclaimers: Russian Life Books sent me copies of Fish and Stargorod. I received electronic copies of The Citadel from both the Big Book and Aleshkovsky’s literary agency, and The Winter Road from the Big Book Award.

Up Next: Big Book winners; Sukhbat Aflatuni’s The Ant King, which is just plain weird but also suspenseful and mysteriously compelling; book roundup; and two books in Boris Minaev’s Soft Fabric trilogy, which were, combined, a Booker and Yasnaya Polyana finalist.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Big Book 2016 Finalists: A Summary

This year’s Big Book Award finalists (previous post with the list is here) fit neatly into three categories: three books I praise highly, three books I enjoyed well enough to finish, and five books I couldn’t finish. Five in the “did not finish” category might sound high, but it’s not unusual for me to finish only about half the books I start; one of the reasons I don’t write more posts about books is that I abandon so many without finishing. Big Book winners will be announced on December 6. Here’s a brief summary of my reading:

Those I praise highly. It probably comes as no surprise that Evgenii Vodolazkin’s Авиатор (The Aviator) was my favorite in the bunch (previous post) and is a big favorite for the year, too. The Aviator looks at the nature of time, life, and Soviet history from an angle that I particularly like… but won’t reveal. Translating The Aviator is a treat for the emotions it raises, its simple elegance, and the multiple settings Vodolazkin manages to create. Alexei Ivanov’s Ненастье (Nenast’e) is a treat of an entirely different sort (previous post, which discusses the title) and not just because I’m not translating it: this social novel about Afghan War veterans is suspenseful, dark, and painful, a well-plotted novel about all kinds of relationships. It’s very good and I’ve been pleased to see it garner so much praise among readers. I’m still reading away on Leonid Yuzefovich’s Зимняя дорога, (The Winter Road), one of the most enjoyable works of nonfiction I’ve read in a long time, with Civil War figures and wonderful details about people, places, and politics.

Those I enjoyed well enough to finish. Maria Galina’s Автохтоны (part one/part two) (Autochthons) still mystifies me more than a bit since I’m still not exactly sure what happens (previous post) but Galina’s dark-but-cozy combination of tasty meals, cultural history, and a small city setting on the edge of Europe—not to mention humor and the possibility of a character being a sylph—remain vivid in my memory. And I do want to reread it. Using the book light again. Sasha Filipenko’s Травля (Hounding) (previous post) also stuck with me, though for opposite reasons: there’s only darkness, nothing cozy, in this story of a journalist who’s being hounded for political reasons. And there are certainly no sylphs. I think I appreciated most the account of bitterness after the 1998 default. Ludmila Ulitskaya’s Лестница Якова (Yakov’s Ladder or Jacob’s Ladder, though I’ll use Ulitskaya’s agent’s title with “Yakov”) (previous) is a family saga that’s told in story-like episodes and includes letters from Ulitskaya’s own family archives. This isn’t my favorite Ulitskaya novel but the familiarity of Ulitskaya’s style and settings made this rather long book read easily, though I often wanted the balance to tip more toward character development than history.

Those I just couldn’t finish. This is the section that gives me no joy whatsoever. Vladimir Dinets’s Песни драконов (Dragon Songs) wasn’t the fun surprise that Nature Girl here dared to hope for. My parents live in Florida—where there seem to be alligators everywhere—and I’ve been to crocodile country in Australia, so I thought I was off to a decent start but somehow I just couldn’t sink my teeth into things like descriptions of alligators “dancing,” and I just wasn’t interested in Dinets’s personal details. Alexander Ilichevsky’s Справа налево (From Right to Left) book of essays is a mishmash that, I’m sorry to say, didn’t grab me at all. Even sadder, though, I thought all the novels in this category lacked narrative drive, a coherent structure, and/or the sense of a good story. I gave Pyotr Aleshkovsky’s Крепость (The Citadel) 106 pages to show me where it was going and, to borrow from what I wrote on Goodreads, was sorry it couldn’t decide whether it wanted to be a serious social novel about an honest archaeologist or a melodrama with family hysterics. (The big sign I was done: I kept finding excuses to compare recipes in 660 Curries and think about what I needed to buy at the Indian grocery store…) Anna Matveeva’s Завидное чувство Веры Стениной (Vera Stenina’s Envy; the Russian title is closer to Vera Stenina’s Enviable Sense but that is, indeed, tough to sort...) was equally painful, though I read nearly 200 pages, hoping something might develop beyond a rather utilitarian tale of one woman’s envy (envy is visualized as a bat here) of her friend. I made it through less (about 50 pages) of Sergei Soloukh’s Рассказы о животных (Stories About Animals), the tale of a man who travels a lot for work. I can’t say I much enjoy reading about driving (perhaps because I don’t especially enjoy driving?) so Stories and I didn’t get off to a good start. Though I’d hoped for a compelling novel about what causes people to lose their humanness, particularly in times of social upheaval, alas, Stories was too muddled to tell me much.

Disclaimers: The usual. I received electronic texts of all these books from the Big Book, for which I serve on the Literary Academy, the award’s jury; I received a couple from the authors’ literary agents, too. Among other things: I’m currently translating The Aviator and have translated excerpts of some of Maria Galina’s other books.

Up Next: I think I’ll write more summary posts: travel, books read in Russian, and books read in English. And a full-length post on Boris Minaev’s Soft Fabric, volume one…

Thursday, November 3, 2016

A Busy (Yester)Day for Russian Literary Awards: 2016 Yasnaya Polyana Winners & NOSE Finalists

I’m a day late posting about the Yasnaya Polyana Award’s 2016 winners and the NOSE Award’s 2016 shortlist—I got so caught up working on last year’s Yasnaya Polyana winner, Guzel Yakhina’s Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes, that I forgot to write my post!

Yasnaya Polyana first: there’s a Russian summary with juror commentary here and Alexandra Guzeva’s English-language Russia Beyond the Headlines article on Yasnaya Polyana is very complete, too. Best of all, it means I can stop agonizing over how to translate a problematic winning title and expand on summaries of the books I haven’t read, too. So! The two co-winners—this is the first time a Yasnaya Polyana award has been shared—of the “XXI Century” award are Narine Abgaryan’s С неба упали три яблока (Three Apples Fell from the Sky), a novel I liked very much when I read it last summer (previous post), and Aleksandr Grigorenko’s Потерял слепой дуду (A Blind Man Lost his Flute). As I’d expected, Three Apples won reader voting, too. It’s the Grigorenko title that I wasn’t quite sure how to translate when I wrote my post about the shortlist: beyond the possibility of word play, the word “дуду” is “duduk” in English (Wikipedia offers lots of information about it) but this word for a wooden, double-reeded wind instrument feels a bit obscure to me. In any case, I loved Grigorenko’s Mebet (previous post) so am looking forward to reading the novella, as well as his Ilget, which I bought in September.

The winner of the “Childhood, Adolescence, Youth” award is Marina Nefedova’s Лесник и его нимфа (The Woodsman and His Nymph; RBTH uses “forester”). I was very, very pleased that Vladimir Makanin won the “Modern Classic” prize for his 1984 novella Где сходилось небо с холмами (Where the Sky Meets the Hills): I’ve enjoyed several of Makanin’s early novels and stories (previous posts involving Makanin) and have long regarded him as a modern classic. Finally, Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness in My Mind, which Apollinaria Avrutina translated into Russian, won the “Foreign Literature” award. Guzeva’s RBTH article notes that A Strangeness has a Russian basis: “[Avrutina] said that the whole novel is based on the epigraph for the second part of A Hero of Our Time by Russian writer Mikhail Lermontov: ‘Asians... once let them feast and drink their fill of boza at a wedding or a funeral, and out will come their knives.’” How about that!

Moving right along, to the NOSE Award… Finalists were announced at the Krasnoyarsk Book Culture Fair after public debates. The winner will be chosen on January 24, 2017.

  • Eugene Vodolazkin’s Авиатор (The Aviator), which is already on the Big Book shortlist and which I’m already translating and loving all over again (previous post). I’m glad to see it made this list.
  • Kirill Kobrin’s Шерлок Холмс и рождение современности. Деньги, девушки, денди Викторианской Эпохи (Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of Modernity. Money, Young Women, and Dandies of the Victorian Epoch) is nonfiction that the title and this excerpt explain.
  • Sergei Kuznetsov’s Калейдоскоп (excerpt) (Kaleidoscope) involves dozens of characters and their stories, set in the twentieth century; one of my Goodreads friends noted sex and vampires. This one sounded interesting from the start but for some reason hearing it described—in a positive way, mind you—as “Pynchon lite” more than once in Moscow intrigues me all the more.
  • Vladimir Martynov’s Книга Перемен (The Book of Changes) is described as more of a palimpsest than a book and as a sort of hypertext for hyperreading that uses zapping and fortune telling practices from The Book of Changes. I was an I Ching fan as a teenager but well, hmm.
  • Aleksandra Petrova’s Аппендикс (excerpt) (The Appendix, in a metaphorical sense, it seems) is a novel about Rome. (A review)
  • Boris Lego’s Сумеречные рассказы (Dusky Stories) is a collection of nineteen Russian gothic stories; a cover blurb calls it the scariest book of the year…
  • Sergei Lebedev’s Люди августа (People of August, click through for synopsis and excerpt) is also on the 2016 Booker shortlist.

Disclaimers & Disclosures: The usual, plus translating that Vodolazkin book, having translated books by two YP jurors, the fact of support for my translation work from Prokhorov Foundation grants, having received the Abgaryan book from her literary agency and translating the very beginning of Three Apples.

Up Next: Trip reports (Moscow and Oakland), Oleg Zaionchkovsky’s Timosha’s Prose and Alexander Snegirev’s patient Faith/Vera, books I’ve been reading in English, plus other Big Book finalists, though the second half of the Big Book list brings me little joy and much left unfinished…

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The 2016 NOSE Award Longlist

Thank goodness for the NOSE Award longlist! I have to admit that a rainy Saturday and a windy, blustery Sunday weren’t very conducive to writing trip reports or book reports… but an award longlist (oops, almost a “lostlist”) feels like just the thing. And the NOSE Award—a program of the Prokhorov Foundation—is always a quirky matter (I still don’t quite understand the NOSE), whether we’re talking about a longlist, shortlist, or award final, and that makes NOSE all the more appealing today. Beyond that, there’s not much time to post the list: the shortlist is apparently on the express, scheduled for debate and arrival on November 2. So here’s the whole longlist, in the order presented on the Prokhorov Foundation site and with my completely inconsistent transliterations of names:

  • Yuri Buida’s Цейлон (Ceylon), which has already hit other longlists and which I’ve read (previous post).
  • Eugene Vodolazkin’s Авиатор (The Aviator), which is already on the Big Book shortlist and which I’m already translating and loving all over again (previous post).
  • Polina Zherebtsova’s Тонкая серебристая нить (Thin Silver Thread) is a collection of stories about civilian life in Grozny during the Chechen Wars. Brief extracts from Zherebtsova’s diary (NB: this is a different book!).
  • Kirill Kobrins Шерлок Холмс и рождение современности. Деньги, девушки, денди Викторианской Эпохи (Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of Modernity. Money, Young Women, and Dandies of the Victorian Epoch) is nonfiction that the title and this excerpt explain.
  • Sergei Kuznetsov’s Калейдоскоп (excerpt) (Kaleidoscope) involves dozens of characters and their stories, set in the twentieth century; one of my Goodreads friends noted sex and vampires. This one sounded interesting from the start but for some reason hearing it described—in a positive way, mind you—as “Pynchon lite” more than once in Moscow intrigues me all the more.
  • Vladimir Martynov’s Книга Перемен (The Book of Changes) is described as more of a palimpsest than a book and as a sort of hypertext for hyperreading that uses zapping and (appropriately enough, I suppose) fortune telling practices from that other The Book of Changes. I was an I Ching fan as a teenager and don’t want to sound dismissive but, hmm.
  • Aleksandra Petrova’s Аппендикс (excerpt) (The Appendix, in a metaphorical sense, it seems) is a novel about Rome. (A review)
  • Moshe Shanin’s Левоплоссковские. Правоплоссковские (The title refer to residents of the villages of Levoplosskaya and Pravoplosskaya) is a collection of stories written by a young writer—he was a Debut winner for short fiction in 2014—from Severodvinsk, which interests me from the start because of my many visits to Arkhangelsk.
  • Vladimir Voinovich’s Малиновый пеликан (excerpt) (The Raspberry Pelican, perhaps referring to the bird’s color, based on the cover…) is more Voinovich satire with absurdity.
  • Dmitrii Lipskerov’s О нем и о бабочках (expert from GQ) (Lipskerov reads from the book on YouTube) (About Him and About Butterflies/Moths/Bow Ties, I’m betting on the lepidoptera, based on a reader review and other factors…) seems to be about a man who loses, ahem, intimate anatomy. The GQ excerpt intro compares it to Gogol’s “The Nose,” one of my all-time favorites, and it’s obvious why, even just skimming the excerpt.
  • Igor Sakhnovsky’s Свобода по умолчанию (Freedom by Default) is apparently a novel about love, internal freedom, and political absurdity.
  • Vasilii Avchenko’s Кристалл в прозрачной оправе (Crystal in a Transparent Frame) carries the subtitle “lyrical lectures about water and stones,” and Avchenko is said to cover many aspects of life in Vladivostok, including fish(ing), as in this excerpt. Ocean lover that I am, I bought this one after it hit the 2016 NatsBest shortlist.
  • Aleksei Zikmund’s Карело-финский дневник (Karelian-Finnish Diary) is a bit of a mystery…
  • Oleg Zaionchkovsky’s Тимошина проза (Timosha’s Prose), which I read and don’t quite know how to describe… it’s a detached but close narrative about a young man. The novel lacks the, hmm, snap and pop (and crackle, too, I suppose) of Zaionchkovsky’s previous books.
  • Boris Lego’s Сумеречные рассказы (Dusky Stories) is a collection of nineteen Russian gothic stories; a cover blurb calls it the scariest book of the year…
  • Sergei Lebedev’s Люди августа (People of August, click through for synopsis and excerpt) is also on the 2016 Booker shortlist.
  • Andrei Sharys Дунай. Река империй (The Dunai. River of Empires, okay fine, The Danube…) has a lovely cover (I like old maps) and looks at history and the Danube over three millennia.
  • Ivan Shipnigov’s Нефть, метель и другие веселые боги (Oil, Blizzard, and Other Cheerful Gods) is a collection of stories in which, according to the publisher, oil is the most cheerful of the Gods or gods, I’m not sure which, particularly since the publisher also compares Shipnigov’s prose to the young Pelevin’s. Here’s a sample story from the collection.


Up Next: Trip reports (Moscow and Oakland), the afore-mentioned Zaionchkovsky book and Alexander Snegirev’s patient Faith/Vera, more award news, and other Big Book finalists, though this second half of the list brings me little joy and much left unfinished…

Disclaimers and disclosures. The usual, plus translating that Vodolazkin book and the fact of support for my translation work from Prokhorov Foundation grants.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Happy Birthday to the Bookshelf: Nine Years

Well, there are no cupcakes in the house again this year but at least I have tea and Russian chocolates! I’ll readily admit I’m especially sleepy this October 16, though it’s a nice kind of sleepy: a combination of residual happy tiredness after last week’s return from the American Literary Translators Association conference in Oakland and a wonderfully dreary (if only very intermittently) fall day that would seem to be crying out “You need a nap!” even if I didn’t need a nap.

All that aside, thank you to everyone who reads the blog, whether you visit regularly or only occasionally. It’s gratifying that so many people find it helpful for personal and work-related reasons. Thank you for stopping by!

Not much has changed since last year’s birthday post: work is still super-busy, I’m again translating Eugene Vodolazkin (this time his Aviator), and I’m thrilled to be working on Guzel Yakhina’s Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes (previous post), too. I’m also excited about my translations that were released this year: Vadim Levental’s Masha Regina and 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution, an anthology edited by Boris Dralyuk, for which I translated, “The Blue Banner,” a story by Mikhail Prishvin. Recent travel to Moscow and Oakland (trip reports coming soon!) were great fun, too, and I love my work as much as last year, if not more.

I mentioned last year that I got the impression that stereotypes about Russian fiction seemed to be easing a bit, away from thinking everything is way too intensely Heavy, Deep, and Real (to borrow a phrase from a beloved college housemate) for true enjoyment to realizing there is plenty of Russian literature available in translations that might offer, say, some deep thoughts, real settings, and heavy enjoyment. I know I’m not imagining this: lots of people ask questions when I tell them what I do, and I was especially happy to tell an Oakland TSA agent—who greeted me with a cheery «привет» when I told him I translate from the Russian—where to find the blog. The great variety of books being translated these days—you can check the new translation lists by clicking on the sidebar—means there’s something for just about any reader. And I can’t wait to get started on the stack of books I brought back from Moscow: there are lots written by writers I’ve never read so I’m looking forward to seeing what else I might like to recommend to publishers.

On to blog stats! I will repeat, yet again, an old line: “Google Analytics provides fewer interesting data about searches these days but there’s still plenty about geography and popular posts.” Here’s a bit:

Geography. As before, the United States is way out front in terms of sessions, followed by the United Kingdom, Russia, Canada, and Australia. Among the top ten, though, readers from The Netherlands (at number nine) read the most pages: 2.42 per session. Visitors from the Netherlands also spend the most time (2 minutes, 38 seconds) per session, and Russia is in second place, followed by Australia. The top city is (not set), which further confirms the tendency toward suppressing personal data, followed by New York, London, Moscow, and Melbourne. It’s nice to see places like Vilnius, Oxford, and New Delhi rounding out the top ten.

Popular Posts. The most popular landing page again this year, after the home page, is Russian Fiction for Non-Native Readers, followed by Back to Classics: Turgenev and the Generation Gap (this makes me happy since I love Fathers and Sons!) and Gogol’s “The Overcoat,” a perennial favorite. I’m glad my new translation lists for 2014 and 2016 are also in the top ten; I’m not sure why there’s less interest in the 2015 list, which includes lots of good contemporary fiction. The only post about contemporary fiction in this year’s top ten list is my post about Vodolazkin’s Laurus. That makes me happy, too.

Common and Odd Search Terms. This category is pretty much a total bust again this year, with (not provided), (not set), and spammy stuff taking up six of the top ten slots. The top real search terms are generation gap in fathers and sons, lazarus Vodolazkin [oops, somebody’s mixing metaphors there!], and maksim osipov. There are better terms later, things like “russian sadism,” i love narine [this must be Abgaryan!], and russian book very simple. Someone apparently even wants to know when one of my colleagues (I won’t mention the name, so as not to cause stress!) will finish a translation… but there’s little of the wonderfully crazy stuff of years past.

And so, another slightly sleepy but very, very heartfelt thanks for your visits, comments, notes, and interest in Russian literature. I’ll see you again soon for more trip reports and book reports. Thank you again for your visits and for your interest in Russian literature!

Up Next. Trip reports on Moscow (Translator Kongress) and Oakland (ALTA conference), plus Alexander Snegirev’s Faith and Oleg Zaionchkovsky’s Timosha’s Prose, as well as more Big Book finalists. Also: some Russia-related books written in English.

Cupcake credit. nazreth, via stock.xchng, for the cupcake.