Sunday, November 29, 2015

2015 Big Book Award Roundup

Now that my Big Book Award ballot has been scanned and sent in for counting, it’s time for a Big Book Award blog post. Jury prize winners will be announced on December 10; I think reader voting results are usually announced a little earlier. A reminder: you can vote (or check current reader voting) online with either Bookmate, ReadRate, or ЛитРес.

There were nine Big Book finalists this year, and my ratings fall, all too easily, into three categories. This year’s finalists were so weak for my taste that I didn’t finish many: active avoidance of reading is a sure sign to move on. I should mention: Big Book sent me books in electronic form, which is how I did most of my reading. Please see my “2015 Big Book Award Finalists” post for links and Russian titles.

The Top Three. My favorite book of the nine is Guzel Yakhina’s Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes (previous post), a book that strikes me as “big” in lots of ways because Yakhina is so successful in writing a wonderfully readable (debut!) historical novel about a kulak woman who’s exiled. Zuleikha has already won the 2015 Prose of the Year and Yasnaya Polyana awards but, given this year’s Big Book field, I have to think she’ll win something at Big Book, too, even if it’s not a first prize. (She’s leading very handily in reader votes on all three sites.) My second-place book is Valerii Zalotukha’s The Candle. The Candle is so long—around 1,850 pages of small print in two volumes—that I haven’t yet finished it but have no qualms about that, in terms of voting. On the one hand, I’d have placed it a touch lower than Zuleikha anyway, due to occasional wordiness, particularly in the stream-of-consciousness passages. On the other hand, the first 500-600 pages were so enjoyable and interesting that the book could implode totally and I wouldn’t lower its rating: I’ve already read the equivalent of a typical medium-to-long novel! How could I go wrong with a novel set in Moscow in the nineties? With a main character who loves War and Peace? Beyond that, Zalotukha has a great sense of humor and really brings back the feel of the era. I bought a hard copy of The Candle last week and am looking forward to finishing it. It may take some time because there’s just so much book and it’s been especially fun to read it in chunks. It’s the rare book I don’t want to finish too fast. My third-place book is Anna Matveeva’s Nine from the Nineties, a short story collection that I thought was very decent… until I got to the final piece, a novella. Like Zalotukha, Matveeva examines the nineties, primarily in her native Urals, but I thought the book faltered when she brought one of her characters to Paris for the novella. That said, Matveeva does beautifully with topics like class differences, leaving Russia, crime, inflation (there’s even a gym bag/wallet), and school situations, and her characterizations are good, too. Her stories are tidy and I finished all but one, probably a personal record.

The Muddle in the Middle. The three middle books are a real mixed bunch. I finished, grudgingly, Boris Ekimov’s Autumn in Zadon’e: it’s relatively short and I have to give Ekimov credit, again grudgingly, for giving the book a measure of narrative drive. That said, I thought this short novel about a family of Cossack descent that goes back to its roots and wide open spaces by the Don River was most notable for remaking village prose in an odd way, featuring an annoyingly precocious child and overlaying patriotism with xenophobic tinges on the story. It felt uncomfortable in all the wrong ways. And then there’s Roman Senchin’s Flood Zone, another book about rural life, or, really, the death of rural life, since the book’s about a village that’s evacuated for a dam. I’ve liked several of Senchin’s books very much but Flood Zone felt horribly flat and predictable to me—bureaucrats against villagers, thin-walled apartments against wood-heated houses, etc.—all with the dam looming in the background. I read more than two-thirds of the book before I just couldn’t go on. Then comes Aleksei Varlamov’s The Imagined Wolf, which is set in the Silver Age but felt flat, too, though Varlamov’s writing is far denser than Senchin’s, resulting in an effect that a friend calls поток слов, which for my purposes, was more a flood (apologies to Senchin) of words than just a flow. I read and read and read (150 pages or more) but always came away wondering what I’d read, despite the fact that everything seemed to make sense to me. Even reading this one on paper didn’t help, which was disappointing because the metaphor of the imagined wolf and the fear that accompanies it sound so intriguing.

The Laggards. My favorite of the bottom three is Igor Virabov’s Andrei Voznesensky, which I enjoyed at times, though primarily for inserted documentary material (dialogue between Voznesensky and Khrushchev was a highlight) or passages more about Pasternak than Voznesensky. Certain things, like descriptions of Peredelkino, where I saw Voznesensky once or twice at annual events marking Pasternak’s death, made the book feel familiar, which probably helped, too, and Virabov does make the book lively. Sometimes so lively that it feels excessively, even embarrassingly, gossipy and kitschy, almost like a dishy 700-page blog post. I read, sometimes skimming, 250 crammed pages. I did learn from it and may scavenge for more interesting material. Next is Dina Rubina’s trilogy, Russian Canary: I read more than 200 pages of the first volume (a Russian friend called me a hero for that) before I succumbed to TMI syndrome—for excessive detail, floweriness, and Rubina’s attempt to shoehorn too many genres into one book—and had to set it aside. I don’t mean to sound snarky particularly since I have to admit I understand why Rubina’s chatty, friendly tone makes this family saga with pet canaries, Odessa, and adventure so popular with many readers. It just isn’t my book at all. Finally, we have Viktor Pelevin’s Love for Three Zuckerbrins, which did me in at about 50 pages. I’ve never been a Pelevin fan—though I’m still hoping to find something I can truly enjoy—but the best thing I can say for this one is that it forced me to take Pushkin off the shelf, for his Пророк” (“The Prophet”). As usual with Pelevin, there’s something going on in the book about the nature of reality and I have electronic margin comments like “god as jokester” but, as I mentioned to another friend, reading Pelevin reminds me of late nights in college when everybody’s imbibed in too much of something: conversations about philosophy and are-we-real-or-are-we-imaging-this feel brilliant at the time but all you’re left with in the morning is a hangover and the sense that you talked about something really cool. Oh well!

Disclaimers. I’m a member of the Big Book jury, the Literary Academy, and received electronic versions of all the finalist books. Thank you to Big Book for the books and for inviting me to serve on the Literary Academy! I’ve translated excerpts of Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes for Elkost International Literary Agency.

Up Next. Russian Booker winners and Big Book winners. Sergei Nosov’s Curly Brackets, which was a decent travel companion but rather disappointing for a NatsBest winner. A trip report about the ALTA conference, which was tons of fun, as usual; a trip report about Read Russia’s Russian Literature Week, where, among other things, I’ll be speaking with Eugene Vodolazkin at a Bridge Series event at BookCourt in Brooklyn and moderating a Russian-language roundtable at the Brooklyn Public Library with Vodolazkin, Vladimir Sharov, and Dmitry Petrov. A full RLW schedule is online here. Please come if you’ll be in New York during the week of December 7!

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Narine Abgaryan’s People Who Are Always With Me

Narine Abgaryan’s Люди, которые всегда со мной (People Who Are Always With Me) is the second book from a fun little “summer surprise” book package I received from Abgaryan’s literary agency, Banke, Goumen & Smirnova. If the first book, Three Apples Fell from the Sky, can be described as magical realism, it might just be possible to describe People as a form of realistic magic: though People contains few touches of magic in its plot, Abgaryan’s warmth in portraying everyday twentieth-century reality, such as it is, in Berd, Armenia, feels like a unique form of writerly magic.

Describing People requires a unique form of bloggerly magic that I don’t think I possess. Given my deficiency, I’ll look at certain aspects of the book that particularly struck me. Abgaryan jumps around in time, and between a close third-person narrator and a little girl, who’s known simply as Devochka, or the Little Girl. (There’s a reason for that; I won’t reveal it.) The novel is told episodically, and it opens (pretty much, more on this below) with the Little Girl and her mother making a trip to a somewhat scary neighbor’s to buy milk. I love the Little Girl’s voice, talking about kasha she thinks tastes disgusting, a cow named Marishka, and how adults are pretty smart but really should haven’t dreamt up that disgusting mannaya kasha, the stuff I grew up calling Cream of Wheat. I loved Cream of Wheat as a child and I love the day-to-day details in People: there’s also a milk mustache, outhouse humor, and family photos. And differences in the smells of old and new buildings…

Maybe I read too much when I was hungry but I came away with particularly vivid pictures of family meals and foods: among other treats, there’s spiced dried meat known as basturma and dried sausage called sudzhuk, a scented bakery, and slices of potato with cheese, which, of course, made me craziest of all. More than anything, though, there’s family: mothers, fathers, siblings, aunts and uncles, aunties, grandparents, and friends who are so close they’re part of the family, too. All these people, of course, are who should remain with us—and, of course with the Little Girl—after their death. I have no idea how Abgaryan somehow manages to avoid sappiness when the Little Girl’s father tells her they will remain behind her, like wings. Somehow the word “lovely” fits the book doubly: not only does it contain beautiful accounts of daily life but it depicts love among family and friends.

People Who Are Always With Me covers multiple generations and Abgaryan includes historical references, some of which relate to the Armenian genocide and ongoing hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Though many of the details in those passages are very good—there’s a pogrom in Baku and suspenseful travel at a dangerous time—and the characters’ experiences feel organic to the story, for my taste, occasional lines felt a bit too expository, too nonfictionish, for the novel, particularly in the very beginning. That’s a very minor complaint, though, given episodes where, for example, a doctor explains his atheism or the Little Girl is said to be too little to grasp the flow of time because each instant is infinity and eternity for her. In many senses, that’s exactly what the book is about: retaining an element of childhood, the part of life when, as the Little Girl’s mother notes, “you love everybody and don’t hold grudges.” I don’t think it’s an accident that Abgaryan gave the Little Girl’s mother the name Vera, which means “faith.”

Disclaimers: The usual. And thank you to BGS for the Abgaryan books, which I truly enjoyed. I should also note that I translated an excerpt from Abgaryan’s Three Apples for BGS.

Up Next: More books. A roundup about the Big Book finalist list, including Boris Yekimov’s Autumn in Zadon’e, which I finished but didn’t like very much (at all), and Anna Matveeva’s story collection Девять девяностых (Nine from the Nineties). I also somehow shoehorned in Sergei Nosov’s Curly Brackets, which was a decent travel companion but rather disappointing for a major award winner. And, of course, a trip report about the ALTA conference, which was tons of fun, as usual.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

NOSE, the Short(list) Version

Well, dear readers, it’s time for a short NOSE post: the НОС/NOSE Award named its finalists in late October, when I was in Arizona enjoying sidewalk dining and wearing short sleeves. I thank the NOSE people for a nice, fitting shortlist to post this week since I came back from Tucson—where this year’s American Literary Translators Association conference was held—with a silly cold and probably couldn’t have put enough thoughts together for a real book post this week.

Here’s the seven-book shortlist for 2015. Perhaps what’s most interesting here is that there aren’t many repeaters: yes, Guzel Yakhina has already won the Prose of the Year and Yasnaya Polyana Awards and sure, Danila Zaitsev was also named a Yasnaya Polyana finalist, but I don’t think any of the other writers have been finalists for major awards this year. But stop the presses! I remembered just before posting that that’s simply not true: Polina Barskova’s book is a finalist for the Bely Award, for which the shortlists are here. Im happy to report that Lena Eltang’s Cartagena is on the prose shortlist, too. But I do ramble. Here’s the NOSE list!

  • Aleksandr Ilyanen: Пенсия (Pension). According to the book’s description, this is another novel about a nonexistent Petersburg; there’s lots of language play, though the pension is literal. Apparently an odd love story. Igor Gulin’s review on Kommersant. Author interview on Of the books completely new to me, this one intrigues me most, perhaps because of the Petersburg element.
  • A. Nune: Дневник для друзей (A Diary for Friends). (excerpt) Based on an actual diary written while spending time in a hospice in East Berlin.
  • Polina Barskova: Живые картинки (Living Pictures) is a book of prose by a poet, a collection of twelve pieces that came out of Barskova’s research into the history of the Leningrad blockade (excerpt). Knowing Polina’s dedication to this subject, I can’t imagine that the book isn’t interesting. Also on the NatsBest long list.
  • Tatiana Bogatyreva: Марианская впадинa (The Mariana Trench). I read this novella/long story in the journal Искусство кино a year or so ago. (It didn’t make much of an impression, no pun intended.)
  • Danila Zaitsev: Повесть и житие Данилы Терентьевича Зайцева (The Life and Tale of Danila Terentyevich Zaitsev). In which a Russian Old Believer born in China and living in Argentina tells his story. A Yasnaya Polyana Award finalist and Booker longlister.
  • Maria Golovanivskaya: Пангея (Pangea). Apparently a historical fantasy novel (or dystopia?) in brief stories/episodes; a cast of over a hundred characters… A long review that I’m saving for later. And another.
  • Guzel’ Yakhina: Зулейха открывает глаза (Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes). A Big Book and Booker finalist, as well as the 2015 Yasnaya Polyana winner; I loved translating excerpts for Yakhina’s literary agency. A historical novel in which a kulak woman is exiled. (previous post)

Disclaimers: The usual.

Up Next: So many books! More books from the Big Book finalist list, including Boris Yekimov’s Autumn in Zadon’e, which I finished but didn’t like very much (at all), and Anna Matveeva’s story collection Девять девяностых (Nine from the Nineties). Also: Narine Abgaryan’s People Who Are Always With Me. And, of course, a trip report on the ALTA conference, which was tons of fun, as usual, with lots of Russian translators.