Sunday, December 31, 2017

Happy New Year! & 2017 Highlights

Happy New Year! С Новым годом! I hope you are enjoying the holiday and staying warm, wherever you are!

In terms of the year in books, 2017 seems (logically enough, I suppose) to fit the pattern of the last couple of years: lots of work on translations plus a quality-not-quantity situation with my reading. This year, however, brought some unexpected travel and more books than I ever thought I’d receive in a year. A few highlights… 

Two favorite books by authors new to me: Vladimir Medvedev’s Заххок (Zahhak), which I’ll be writing about soon, is the polyphonic novel set in Tajikistan that I’d been rooting for to win either the Yasnaya Polyana or Booker award. And then there’s Anna Kozlova’s F20 (previous post), which won the National Bestseller Award: F20 is harsh and graphic in depicting mental illness and societal problems. Its feels even more necessary to me a couple months after reading; it has really stuck with me.

Favorite book nobody else seems to like by an author I’d already read: Vladimir Sorokin’s Manaraga (previous post) may not be his best book—it’s tough to beast (ha!) his Oprichnik—but that doesn’t mean it’s not a smart, entertaining book that I loved zipping through. I feel a special gratitude to Sorokin for creating a body of work that lets the reader find common themes (sometimes, admittedly, too familiar) in his books and make connections that enhance the reading.

Favorite book other readers like by an author I’d already read: Sergei Kuznetsov’s Kaleidoscope (previous post), which is my favorite of the year, though I think of it as a 2016 book because that’s when I started it: in fact, I vividly remember reading it as I greeted 2017. Not many 800-page books work for me (see below) but this one’s so nicely structured and rooted in the canon and, hmm, human sentiments and reality, too, that I didn’t want it to end.

Least favorite trend & most favorite way to react: I won’t list titles but I ran across far too many books that felt unjustifiably long because of lack of structure and/or editing. On the positive side, I’ve been reading short stories as an antidote. Sergei Nosov gave me his collection Полтора кролика (A Rabbit and a Half) when I was in St. Petersburg and the first story, “Морозилка” (“The Freezer”), is, appropriately enough, set at New Year’s and involves the retelling of a scary story. It has a nice combination of tenderness, humor, and suspense: I read the beginning in the Metro in Petersburg and was sorry I didn’t have enough time to finish because my ride was too short. Another story from the collection, “Шестое июня” (“The Sixth of June”) was a favorite in the Petersburg Noir collection (previous post). I also got started on Elena Dolgopyat’s Родина (Motherland), which starts off with an updated, transplanted “Overcoat”-themed story… short stories feel like the perfect counterbalance to untrimmed novels that just don’t warrant 500 or more pages.

Favorite unexpected developments: My trips to Frankfurt for the Buchmesse and St. Petersburg, for the Cultural Forum, were both almost painfully wonderful (previous post), for the opportunity to see so many friends and colleagues from all over. And I was thrilled that my translation of Vadim Levental’s Masha Regina, for Oneworld Publications, was shortlisted for the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize.

Saddest moment: The death of Vladimir Makanin. I’m not sure I would have started writing this blog if it hadn’t been for the dearth of English-language information about his books. They deserve more attention.

PEN book pile, with cat ear in foreground.
Happiest things: There were some almost transcendental moments during travel—a dance party in a glass cylinder of a club, a wee-small-hours-of-the-morning tour of St. Peterburg thanks to a quirky taxi driver who wanted me to see more—and now there’s the ongoing happiness of reading dozens of books I received over the year. Authors and organizations gave me lots of books in Russian during the year, and, as a judge for the PEN Translation Prize, I received over 125 books in English translation. Reading them is a serious treat, particularly because so many of them are books I might never have heard of or picked up otherwise.

What’s coming up in 2018: There are lots of books on the shelves that I just didn’t get to in 2017: Sergei Kuznetsov’s Учитель Дымов (The Teacher Dymov, I think), Olga Slavnikova’s Прыжок в длину (Long Jump), and Dmitrii Novikov’s Голомяное пламя, the Booker finalist I’m not quite sure what to call, maybe Flame Over the Open Sea. There are also a few books in English I’m hoping/planning to get to sooner rather than later, including Janet Fitch’s The Revolution of Marina M., which I haven’t even bought yet, lest it distract me from the rest of my PEN reading; and City Folk and Country Folk, by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya, translated by Nora Seligman Favorov, which Columbia University Press already sent to me. I’m also excited to have some translations coming out in 2018, starting with Eugene Vodolazkin’s The Aviator, for Oneworld in May. I’m reading proofs and making final edits now… I can’t think about much beyond that for now!

Thank you! Finally, a very hearty thank you to everybody who visits the blog, whether regularly or occasionally. I’m glad something drew you to Russian literature and brought you here! Special thanks to the numerous organizations and individuals who did so many nice things for me in 2017, whether that was treating me to coffee, borscht, advice, or books, or making my travel possible, as the Institute of Translation and the Yeltsin Center did. Here’s wishing all of you a very happy 2018 filled with fun books (structured to your taste, though emphatically not “taste” in the Manaraga sense…) and good health. Happy New Year!

Up next: Sukhbat Aflatuni’s lovely Tashkent Novel and Vladimir Medvedev’s polyphonic Zahhak

Disclaimers: The usual, with, as mentioned above, special thanks to many people and organizations for books and travel.

Image credit: Fireworks in Bratislava, New Year 2005, from Ondrejk, via Wikipedia.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Yakovleva’s Atmospheric & Art-Filled Leningrad Detective Novel

Yulia Yakovleva’s Вдруг охотник выбегает, known in English as Tinker, Tailor, is a wonderfully atmospheric detective novel set in 1930 Leningrad: detective Vasily Zaitsev and his colleagues investigate some rather staged-looking murders. What made Tinker, Tailor tick for me was Yakovleva’s ability to blend dark details – nasty weather, dark streets, violent crime, and the start of the purges – with almost (I said “almost”!) cozy elements of Soviet life, things like train etiquette, a special delivery of potatoes (what says “love” like potatoes, anyway?), and an affection for the arts. Ballet, fine art, and the Hermitage all play large roles. Floating along with these and other period details, of course, is the Petersburg myth, something that seemed to follow around me like the Bronze Horseman both as I read and as I hurried down many of the same streets as Zaitsev when I was in Petersburg last month.

Although the plot of Tinker, Tailor felt rather lumpy – a little slow to gain momentum, then barreling to a conclusion – Yakovleva worked in plenty of historic and cultural details to hold my interest even when I was waiting for the book’s pieces to come together. Although I never quite felt I could distinguish Zaitsev’s entire supporting cast of colleagues, that’s often a problem for me, particularly with detective novels (in both Russian and English) where I seem to focus so/too much attention on clues and other details. In Tinker, Tailor it was especially fun to see historical, cultural, and political elements that came up in other books, among them Anastasia Vyaltseva’s song “Хризантемы” (“Chrysanthemums”), which comes up in Eugene Vodolazkin’s The Aviator (previous post) as well as the film adaptation (maybe the novel, too; I don’t know) of Sergei Lukyanenko’s Night Watch. And then there’s the fact that one of the deceased in Tinker, Tailor is an African-American communist, a detail that recalled Paul Goldberg’s The Yid (previous post).

And then there’s uneasiness and mistrust among the collective after an arrest. And political conclusions to criminal investigations. And generational clashes of values: toward the end, for example, the killer accuses Zaitsev, who’s younger and an orphan besides, of being a “дикарь” (“barbarian”) for his lack of cultural knowledge. Apparently it’s nicer to be a murderer than a police detective who’s willing to do plenty of remedial work that involves research requiring books as well as shoe leather. Zaitsev’s an appealing enough character that I’m very much looking forward to reading Yakovleva’s next book, Укрощение красного коня (Taming the Red Horse), which I bought, appropriately enough, last month in Petersburg. Even if Zaitsev isn’t quite as irresistible a figure as Boris Akunin’s Erast Petrovich Fandorin, he’s far more down-to-earth than Erast Petrovich (who can get a bit fussy) and has more than enough presence and smarts to make Tinker, Tailor an enjoyable novel.

I think that’s plenty, both to avoid spoilers and because it’s a lazy, snowy Christmas Day here. Merry Christmas!

Disclaimers: The usual. I first heard about Yakovleva’s books from Banke, Goumen & Smirnova Literary Agency; BGS represents Yakovleva and quite a few of my authors, and I often collaborate with them. I received the book from one of the organizers of the Russian stand at the Frankfurt Book Fair, thank you very much!

Up Next: Sukhbat Aflatuni’s lovely Tashkent Novel, Vladimir Medvedev’s polyphonic Zahhak, an end-of-year post, and something else…I have some appealing-looking books in English waiting for me!



Saturday, December 16, 2017

Big Book Winners for 2017

The Big Book Award announced its winners on Tuesday. This year’s results were nearly identical for the jury and reader awards.

The jury’s choices: 

First prize went to Lev Danilkin’s Ленин. Пантократор солнечных пылинок (Lenin. Pantocrator of Dust Motes, I believe, since Lenin refers to dust motes in Aristotle’s De Anima). A biography of V.I. Lenin, Ulyanov. A heavyweight checking in at 784 pages. This is an almost ludicrously lively biography; it was my top pick.

Sergei Shargunov won second prize for Катаев: «Погоня за вечной весной» (Kataev: “The Pursuit of Eternal Spring”) about author Valentin Kataev. This one’s 704 pages long; I have enjoyed reading Kataev so was disappointed that this biography just didn’t grab me.

Third prize was awarded to Shamil Idiatullin’s Город Брежнев (Brezhnev City, at least sort of: Naberezhnye Chelny was called “Brezhnev” during 1982-1988), which looks at adolescence in an automobile industry city during the late Soviet period… I read a very large chunk of this book (it’s also 700 or so pages) before reluctantly giving up. Though there’s lots of great material, it felt unsorted, like there was just too much book.

Readers chose the same three books but in a slightly different order: Shargunov, Danilkin, Idiatullin.

In other Big Book news, Viktoriia Tokareva, a novelist and screenwriter whose work I have barely read, won a special award for her contributions to literature. 

For a summary of the 2017 finalists, here is an article by Elena Makeenko, aptly titled Брежнев против Ленин (Brezhnev Against Lenin).

Up Next: Sukhbat Aflatuni’s lovely Tashkent Novel; Vladimir Medvedev’s polyphonic Zahhak; and Yulia Yakovleva’s thoroughly entertaining Tinker, Tailor (Вдруг охотник выбегает), an atmospheric detective novel that really plays on its setting in Leningrad. Yana Vagner’s Кто не спрятался (Accomplices), which I have barely started but which also seems pretty atmospheric and entertaining...

Disclaimers: The usual. I’m a member of the Big Book’s jury, the Literary Academy.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Aleksandra Nikolaenko Wins the 2017 Russian Booker

Just when I was feeling like a slacker for not having posted about the 2017 Russian Booker Prize winner, I noticed that the Russian Booker site hasn’t posted any news about this year’s results, either. Hmm.

In any case, Aleksandra Nikolaenko won the prize for her Убить Бобрыкина. История одного убийства (To Kill Bobrykin. The Story of One Killing), which I described on my shortlist post as sounding thoroughly mysterious, like some sort of odd inner dialogue. It pains me that I’m not as excited about the book itself as I’d like to be after reading descriptions and comments: the general sense that the language is poetic and interesting is a big plus but I’ve also read that the book is repetitive and derivative, huge minuses since I value structure and, well, freshness so much. Of course I’ll give it a go, just as I’ll try the Melikhov and Novikov books, both of which are on my shelf. What makes me happy about Nikolaenko’s win is that Bobrykin is apparently her first published book and she’s the second woman to win a major literary award this year, following Anna Kozlova, who won the NatsBest for F20 (previous post). (I guess it’s obvious that this year’s absurdly woman-less 2017 Big Book shortlist still rankles me, isn’t it?)

Paradoxical though it may look, I’d been rooting for Vladimir Medvedev’s Zahhak, the only book on the Booker shortlist that I’ve read in full. It may not be fair to root for a book after not reading all of its competitors—though I read a small part of Malyshev’s Nomakh but simply couldn’t go on and read a large chunk (enough to be a short-to-moderate novel!) of Gigolashvili’s tome The Mysterious Year before the repetition did me in—but Zahhak is a very, very good book. I’m sure I’m more than a little biased after translating excerpts, an experience that always accentuates a good novel’s strengths, particularly when it’s a polyphonic text. Zahhak seems especially deserving of recognition because this award year felt rather short on my favorite kind of books: enjoyable and compelling literary novels with strong form, style, and content. On the bright side, I hauled home some very promising-looking (recent) books from Frankfurt and Saint Petersburg.

Also on the bright side: Zahhak won the Student Booker, which, by the way, already posted its results, here. The Student Booker’s shortlist differs from the regular Booker’s, too, so is worth a look.

Up Next: Big Book Award winners. Sukhbat Aflatuni’s lovely Tashkent Novel; Vladimir Medvedev’s polyphonic Zahhak; and Yulia Yakovleva’s thoroughly entertaining Tinker, Tailor (Вдруг охотник выбегает), an atmospheric detective novel that really plays on its setting in Leningrad.

Disclaimers: The usual. Translating Zahhak excerpts.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Anna Kozlova’s Sharp F20

Anna Kozlova’s F20, which won this year’s National Bestseller Award, feels like an antidote to a lot of things. Back in October, it was the perfect book for fighting inevitable boredom (not to mention weird service) on a transatlantic flight. And thinking now about Kozlova’s fictional account of rough realities—which also have a very darkly humorous side—makes a startling counterpoint to treacly Christmas music at the grocery store and posh holiday gift lists. F20 is smart, immediate, and relevant, making it a harsh but necessary reminder of personal and societal ills. The fact that F20 won the NatsBest is also a nice antidote to this year’s Big Book shortlist, which is both mysteriously lackluster and absurdly all-male… despite F20 making the Big Book longlist.

F20 is the medical code for schizophrenia. Kozlova’s narrator, the teenage Yulia, and her younger sister Anyutik both seem to have it, though only Anyutik, whose symptoms are more obvious, has been formally diagnosed. Yulia opens up right from the start, telling us on F20’s first page that there are broken locks on the little suitcase of genes she and Anyutik received. They come from a broken family, too, and are growing up with their grandmother, their mother, and her boyfriend Tolik, someone she knew way back when… and then ran into years later when she brought Anyutik to the psychiatric clinic for a shot. Tolik and Anyutik share a diagnosis.

To call F20 sad, depressing, or heartbreaking doesn’t get at half of what Kozlova achieves: the novel is all that but it’s flickers of humor, humanness, absurdity, and even suspense that raise it above simple chernukha, that pitch-black dark reality I’ve often found so compelling. Yulia describes cutting German words into her foot when the going gets tough. Anyutik says their mother never should have given birth to them. Yulia decides early on that she has no future or potential. Anyutik’s “best” voices of the six she hears come from a talking dog (shades of Gogol?) and Pushkin. Medication helps, however, and Anyutik serves as her older sister’s pharmacist. Anyutik’s a veritable PDR, knowledgeable on doses and side effects. Toward the end of the book, Yulia serves as a home health aide to an elderly woman and makes a comment about a generation gap in perceptions of carnations, a once-popular flower, now outmoded. The combination of details co-existing in F20 gives the book an almost documentary aesthetic.

Meanwhile, in the story’s longer arc, Yulia is growing up, having sex (and often uses graphic language, something I’ve seen criticized by readers; it’s a criticism I don’t share), learning to drink heavily, and not always coming home. Also meanwhile, Yulia’s grandmother accuses Yulia’s mother of being too permissive and Yulia’s mother even wonders where she and Yulia’s Polish boyfriend’s parents went wrong: why do their children smoke, drink, and have sex? She wonders how they could have allowed that but at least some of the answers seem pretty obvious: maybe the parents didn’t start picking up vices as early in life as their kids, but the four of them manage to knock back a bottle of vodka in forty minutes during a two-family summit. And the boyfriend’s parents even have a fistfight. None of this (none of this!) struck me as unlikely in Kozlova’s telling. Another scene ensues later on, when Yulia and Anyutik’s father visits… and the problems clearly go beyond these two families.

Although certain twists toward the end of F20 felt a tiny bit off to me—the denouement with the elderly client seemed a little hasty, as did Yulia’s visit with her father—that doesn’t negate the book’s effect. I still believe Yulia when she says she is (a) reality and nobody needs her. And I still feel her aloneness in the world, something she mentions after she’s carved the word finsternis into herself. NatsBest jury member Roman Senchin—whom I see as a master of chernukha, thanks to his The Yeltyshevswrote that Kozlova’s writings is “увлекательно написанная жуть” (roughly “fascinatingly written awfulness”), which is just right because what happens is awful but it’s also horribly absorbing. Even if you don’t read Russian, the paragraph he cites in his review—and, yes, I do believe his claim that he selected it randomly—has simple enough syntax that even an online translator will give you a sense of Kozlova’s talent for making such awful things so fascinating and so absorbing. I think it’s safe to say the paragraph also displays why Senchin cites critic Lev Danilkin, who called Kozlova’s writing “ультрашоковая,” “ultrashocking.” The combination of real storytelling and that shock makes for a reading experience that’s both engrossing and worthwhile, something (not to keep grousing but…) I wish I’d felt in more of my 2017 Big Book reading.

Disclaimers: The usual. NatsBest secretary Vadim Levental wrote Masha Regina, which I translated. Not a disclaimer, but huge thanks to translator Reilly Costigan-Humes, who came to the 2017 ALTA conference bearing books from Moscow for a bunch of book-starved, US-based translators he had never even met… This was a very generous thing to do—printed books are heavy, after all—and I’m especially grateful because F20 was among the books he hauled. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting Reilly and his translation partner Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler in Minneapolis: they’ve already translated Serhiy Zhadan’s Voroshilovgrad (previous post on Zaven Babloyan’s Russian translation that I read) and they’re working on Lena Eltang’s Cartagena (another previous post). Hmm, they seem to like books with toponym titles. You can read more about Reilly and Isaac here.

Up next: Russian Booker and Big Book Award winners. Sukhbat Aflatuni’s lovely Tashkent Novel; Vladimir Medvedev’s polyphonic Zahhak; and Yulia Yakovleva’s entertaining Tinker, Tailor (Вдруг охотник выбегает), which is set in Leningrad.