Sunday, May 21, 2017

Food for Thought: Sorokin’s Manaraga
Manaraga, in Russia's Komi Republic
I think the only way to write about Vladimir Sorokin’s latest novel, Manaraga is to imagine myself in the book for a minute. So: if, I, a woman, were somehow miraculously admitted into the exclusive ranks of book’n’grill chefs in some near-but-future century that I’m too lazy to calculate, what would be the most appropriate meal to grill using Manaraga (preferably a signed first edition) as a (burning, yes, burning) log?

My answer would be mixed grill. Preferably ordered by a book club whose members have finicky taste. And not to worry if they don’t read the book: there’s not much old-fashioned reading in Manaraga. What is important is what is to be grilled: I’d hope for a barely compatible combination of shrimp, sausage, and some kind of nicely marinated chicken pieces. The chicken would be skewered since lots of things get skewered in Manaraga. The chicken would be the meal’s highlight because so often marinade is where the real flavor is. Humor is the marinade in Manaraga, at least for me.

I’ll start with the chicken because I love marinated chicken (especially this simple and ridiculously versatile recipe) and I loved the humor in Manaraga, too. As is already obvious, half the fun of Manaraga is that it’s about books. About the sad fate of books in an age where electronic reading has taken hold and only money is printed. This is a time when book’n’grill chefs use illicitly procured books to grill food in private homes—this is known as reading—and fulfill clients’ specific requests. Sorokin doesn’t spare much of anyone, skewering everything from self-publishing to poor paper quality in the Yeltsin-era (oh, do I have evidence of this on the Bookshelf!) for an edition of Andrei Platonov’s Chevengur. Books used as logs fit with aspects of clients’ celebrations or lives, too, so a reading with M. Ageyev’s Novel [or “romance”] with Cocaine includes white powder and a reading for the cast of a Master and Margarita adaptation includes the novel plus, of course, jokes about manuscripts burning (or not). And there’s also the insight that Chekhov stories are ideal for cooking shrimp… I had many an audible laugh with Manaraga. Here’s another one: reading Bakhtin is a good moneymaker. Fortunately, Sorokin didn’t let me down on an obvious laugh: I’d wondered how far in I’d need to go for a mention of Fahrenheit 451: since it just had to be there, I don’t think I’m spoiling anything at all to say it’s about half-way through. It involves steak.

Part of why Sorokin’s humor works so well in Manaraga is that he creates a homey voice for his narrator, Geza, a 33-year-old man who travels the world to read Russian classics. I should add that he’s guided and protected by electronic “fleas” implanted in his head. Book’n’grill is an underground venture so it’s dangerous and the fleas—this is one of the futuristic aspects of the novel—assess safety and provide background information on what Geza sees. Woe be to anyone whose fleas are removed and becomes naked and helpless. (This is yet another reason I wouldn’t want a smart phone...)

Shrimp is risky grill food (even in this delicious rendition) because it can dry out so quickly, which means there are times when it feels like Sorokin’s using one too many of his familiar tropes. We get details of a man’s journeys and work, and that somehow reminds of The Blizzard and Day of the Oprichnik, even more so because holograms, a giant narco-goldfish, and mentions of past wars come into play. Many of those familiar details didn’t matter much to me because I was so taken by the book-related layer. Even so, the weakest element of Manaraga is related to those tropes: though most of the individual readings are fun enough to read, the slow-burn thread (skewer?) that Sorokin chooses to hold those episodes together—a threat to the book’n’grill chefs’ Kitchen conglomerate, caused by mass-produced molecular copies of one certain individual old copy of Nabokov’s Ada—and create the semblance of a novel feels more like a plot device to create the semblance of a novel than an organic development. This seemed more like a linkage and development problem than anything else: the conclusion (cue the action genre!) made perfect sense to me, though because of accounts of the individual readings that preceded it.

In the end, Manaraga feels rather like sausage: something in it might be a little artificial, clichéd, and/or guilt-inducing but—like this Maine-made kielbasa that’s so delicious that even I happily ate some cold one night—it’s very tasty fun and pretty filling, too, since there’s plenty of food for thought about the present and the future of books. Electronic or print? Bespoke or mass-produced? For the mind or the market? Are books like franchises? And what is reading, anyway? And how should it affect you? As with mixed grill, there’s something for just about anyone in Manaraga and—given the humor and my familiarity with Sorokin’s menu of literary ingredients—the book feels almost like comfort food. I wonder, of course, if that’s a good thing… and I ask myself if that’s because I’ve immersed myself further into Sorokin’s world or because his writing doesn’t have the edge it used to? Or both?

I won’t offer my answer to all those questions but I realize now that I forgot to add marinated mushroom burgers to my mixed grill menu: they’re light but nutritious and delicious, too.

Yes, I’m hungry.

Edit, three days later. I should add that my original post wasn’t clear enough about the nutritional aspects of Manaraga: comfort food or not, what sticks with me most about the novel is the broader sociocultural implication of Sorokin’s vision of literature, books, and, perhaps most frightening of all, the huge influence of fleas. Again, it’s Geza’s homey storytelling voice that underpins the novel’s success for me: Geza makes this world feel as if it’s (almost?) normal.
For more fun details (and some mild spoilers) about Manaraga, visit literary agent Galina Dursthoff’s site, here.

Up next: I hadn’t been planning to write about Manaraga so soon so the backlog grows! First up will be also a shortish novel by Aleksandr Gadol that won third place in last year’s Russian Prize competition. And lots of award news, too: the Big Book short list and NatsBest winner. Plus Afanasy Mamedov’s novella set in Baku that I mentioned in so many previous posts. And some futurist-related reading in English, including Charlotte Hobson’s The Vanishing Futurist and James Womack’s translations of Vladimir Mayakovsky in “Vladimir Mayakovsky” & Other Poems.

Photo credit: By ugraland [1] from Moscow, Russia - Flickr, CC BY 2.0,

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Yet More Award Info: Another Better-Late-Than-Never Post

Better-late-than-never posts seem to have become a bit of a habit here at the Bookshelf. Then again, this does seem to be award season: posts about the Big Book shortlist, Yasnaya Polyana longlist, and NatsBest winner will all be on the way relatively soon, too. In a more timely manner. I hope.

For now, though, a few bits of old news.

I’m often remiss in writing about the annual Pushkin House Book Prize since it covers only nonfiction, but this year’s shortlist includes a few titles that sound particularly interesting even to a fiction freak like me. One, Teffi’s Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea, is a translation by Robert Chandler, Elizabeth Chandler, Anne Marie Jackson, and Irina Steinberg, with an introduction by Edyth C. Haber. Another is Daniel Beer’s The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars, which I’ve been interested in since reading several enthusiastic reviews when it was released. (I suspect the title helps, too, since I thought Dostoevsky’s House of the Dead was so good…) And then there’s Simon Sebag Montefiore’s The Romanovs: 1613-1918, which sounds especially vivid. The other titles—Rosalind P. Blakesley’s The Russian Canvas, Anne Garrels’s Putin Country, and Simon Morrison’s Bolshoi Confidential—help create a nicely rounded shortlist. Pushkin House’s page with the shortlist includes links to helpful individual pages about each book so I’ll leave the details to them. The winner will be announced on June 7.

And then there’s the Russian Prize, the Русская Премия—for writers who live outside Russia and write in Russian—which was awarded in late April, just when I was so caught up in finishing a translation that I completely missed the news. Oops. Mikhail Gigolashvili won the long fiction award for his Тайный год (The Secret Year, I guess…), which should arrive at my doorstep any day now. Second and third prizes went to, respectively, Shirin Shafieva for Сальса и Веретено (Salsa and Vereteno) and Vladimir Lidskii for Сказки нашей крови. Метароман (hmm, maybe The Fairytales of/in Our Blood. A Metanovel, or even “tall tales,” depending on the book…). Short fiction awards went to Tatiana Dagovich, Leia Liubomirskaia, and the team of Andrei Zhvalevskii and Evgenia Pasternak, and poetry awards were made to Gennadii Rusakov, Sergei Solovyov, and Oleg Iuriev. All titles, along with countries of residence and brief descriptions, are available on the information-packed Год литературы site, here, or on the Russian Prize site, here.

Finally, two brief items on translations. I’m very excited that my translation of Vadim Levental’s Masha Regina, published by Oneworld, is a finalist for this year’s Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize, which will announce results on June 3. Contemporary Russian fiction was represented on the 2017 Best Translated Book Award prose shortlist, too, by Oblivion (Предел забвения in Russian), written by Sergei Lebedev, translated by Antonina Bouis, and published by New Vessel Press. Since this one’s all over, I’ll mention that the BTBA winner for prose was Lúcio Cardoso’s Chronicle of the Murdered House, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson and published by Open Letter Books. The poetry winner was Alejandra Pizarnik’s Extracting the Stone of Madness, translated from the Spanish by Yvette Siegert, and published by New Directions.

Disclaimers: The usual.

Up Next: There’s a bit of a backlog around here, particularly with more award posts coming… There’s also the Afanasy Mamedov novella set in Baku that I mentioned in previous posts. And some reading in English, including Charlotte Hobson’s The Vanishing Futurist, which was perfect reading for (and about) a hectic time; it pairs nicely with James Womack’s translations of Vladimir Mayakovsky in “Vladimir Mayakovsky” & Other Poems, which arrived not long ago. There’s also a shortish novel by Aleksandr Gadol that won third place in last year’s Russian Prize competition… I just finished it but it got under my skin enough that I may write about it first.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

The 2017 Big Book Longlist: Another Better-Late-Than-Never Production

I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again, more than once: I love literary award longlists. And I particularly love comparing literary awards longlists because it seems there are lots of good books that make longlists but not shortlists…

Anyway. This year’s Big Book longlist has 34 titles, of which two are in manuscript form, hence unpublished at the time they were submitted. (I always find this a bit mysterious…) As for methodology: I’ll first list eight books I’m already interested in then move on to a few titles by unfamiliar authors.

  • Andrei Volos’s Должник (The Debtor) is book three of a tetralogy. I’ve never read Volos, despite numerous recommendations over the years… Maybe the tetralogy is the place to start.
  • Mikhail Gigolashvili’s Тайный год (The Secret Year, though I suspect this is “secret” with a good dose of mysteriousness…) is set during the time of Ivan the Terrible.
  • Dmitri Danilov’s Сидеть и смотреть (Sit and Look/Watch), which I read part of—and enjoyed but wanted to read in print form—when it first came out in journal form is very Danilov. (Much of it was written on a phone.)
  • Shamil Idiatullin’s Город Брежнев (Brezhnev City, at least sort of: Naberezhnye Chelny was called “Brezhnev” during 1982-1988) is a brick of a book (700 pages) about the 1980s. Recommended highly by critic Galina Yuzefovich.
  • Anna Kozlova’s F20 is apparently a novel about a teenager with schizophrenia. F20 is already on the 2017 NatsBest shortlist; it won the most points in the first round.
  • Dmitry Novikov’s Голомяное пламя (hmm, the first word is an adjectival form of “голомя,” a Pomor word that means open sea or distant sea… so maybe something like Flame Out at Sea or Flame Over the Open Sea…), which I’ve seen recommended several times already this year, is a book I have a special interest in because Novikov is from Petrozavodsk and writes about the Russian north.
  • Vladimir Sorokin’s Манарага (Manaraga) apparently involves cooking food over fires of burning books. Yuzefovich recommended this title, too. Hmm, I didn’t know Manaraga’s a mountain…
  • Anna Starobinets’s Посмотри на него (Maybe Look at Him? I’m not sure…) is about motherhood and the loss of a child before birth.

Though there are plenty of books by authors I’ve already read—Yuri Buida, Viktor Pelevin, Andrei Rubanov (The Patriot is already a NatsBest shortlister), Dina Rubina, and Aleksei Slapovskii—I’ll pick books by three authors I’d never heard of:

  • Olga Breininger’s В Советском Союзе не было аддерола (There Was No Adderal in the Soviet Union) certainly has a memorable title. Breininger’s originally from Kazakhstan but lives in Boston. The novel starts off mentioning a conference of Slavists… the book was longlisted for the Debut Prize in 2015. Confession: I’ve liked academic conference novels since reading David Lodge during my grad school years. (I wonder if this is connected to the fact that I dropped out of grad school?)
  • Viktoria Lebedeva’s Без труб и барабанов (Without Trumpets and Drums) sounds like it’s a family history/saga, set from the middle of the twentieth century until the present.
  • Andrei Tavrov’s Клуб Элвиса Пресли (The Elvis Presley Club) does not seem to take place near Graceland. Darn. But it looks like there’s Sochi.

Disclaimers: The usual; I’m a member of the Big Book jury, also known as the Literary Academy. The shortlist will be along in late May.

Up next: The Afanasy Mamedov novella set in Baku that I mentioned in previous posts. And some reading in English, including Charlotte Hobson’s The Vanishing Futurist, which is perfect reading for (and about) a hectic time; it pairs nicely with James Womack’s translations of Vladimir Mayakovsky in “Vladimir Mayakovsky” & Other Poems, which arrived last week. I’ll be reading other translations in preparation a roundtable during Russian Literature Week in early May, hosted by Read Russia in New York.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

NatsBest Shortlist 2017: Lizok’s Better-Late-Than-Never Edition

The National Bestseller Award announced a seven-book shortlist on April 14—oh, the shame that I’m this late! This is a wonderful and rare case where I’m interested in nearly all the books on a shortlist. Here’s the list, including the number of points awarded by the “big” jury, plus links to jury members’ reviews, which are easier to find than ever on the new NatsBest site. They are a fantastic resource. NatsBest secretary Vadim Levental’s comments about the list are here. The winner will be announced on June 3.

  • Anna Kozlova’s F20 (10 points) is apparently a novel about a teenage girl with mental illness. Jury reviews are here.
  • Elena Dolgopyat’s Родина (Motherland) (9 points) is a collection of short stories by an author whose work I’ve enjoyed reading in the past. I haven’t read this collection yet—I don’t even own it—but have to admit that I’m already rooting for Dolgopyat because her past work has impressed me so much. Jury reviews are here.
  • Andrei Filimonov’s Головастик и святые (known in English as Manikin and the Saints) (7 points) is represented by the Elkost literary agency so I’ll leave the description to them; it’s here. Jury reviews are here.
  • Figl’-Migl’s Эта страна (This Country) (6 points) is a book I want to know nothing about: it’s enough for me to know that it concerns political prisoners from the early Soviet period. I’ve been waiting for it and F-M, whom I still haven’t read, won the NatsBest a few years ago. Despite mixed reviews—running the full gamut, something that I often take as a positive since it generally means the book gets under the reader’s skin—since the NatsBest longlist came out, I’m still very interested. Jury reviews are here.
  • Aleksandr Brener’s Жития убиенных художников (Life Stories [as in lives, in the context of “lives of saints”] of Killed Artists) (6 points) is, according to the publisher, Hylaea, a book composed of brief stories/chapters about Brener’s experiences in various places around the world, looking at people, meetings, attachments, impressions… Jury reviews are here.
  • Sergei Beliakov’s Тень Мазепы (Mazepa’s Shadow) (6 points) is nonfiction about Ukrainian history during the Gogol epoch. Jury reviews are here.
  • Andrei Rubanov’s Патриот (The Patriot) (6 points) sounds, based on the BGS literary agency’s description (here), like a very Rubanovian Rubanov novel. Rubanov’s very good at showing contemporary Russian life. Jury reviews are here.

Disclaimers: The usual plus I translated NatsBest secretary Vadim Levental’s novel Masha Regina.

Up Next: Big Book longlist post, also late! And then, hmm, the Afanasy Mamedov novella set in Baku that I mentioned in my last post. And some reading in English, including Charlotte Hobson’s The Vanishing Futurist, which is perfect reading for (and about since it’s set in Moscow around the time of the revolution) a hectic time; it pairs nicely with James Womack’s translations of Vladimir Mayakovsky in a book entitled “Vladimir Mayakovsky” & Other Poems, which arrived last week. I’ll be reading other translations to prepare for a roundtable during Russian Literature Week in early May, hosted by Read Russia in New York.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Favorite Russian Writers from A to Я: Х Marks the Spot

It’s been years, literally years, since I’ve written an alphabet post: I left off with the titanic letter T in July 2014. And then I struggled with the letter У/U, just as I had struggled with O earlier, because I simply didn’t have enough favorite authors to compile a post. I decided to skip a few letters after one of you asked me last week when there would be another alphabet post: since I’d already skipped O (and something else, too, I think…), I decided not to bother with У/U or Ф/F, either, at least for the time being. Hence we’ve arrived at Х, the letter often represented in English as Kh.

And what a productive letter Х/Kh is! My first Kh author to mention is Mikhail Kheraskov, an eighteenth-century writer I studied in grad school. It wasn’t Kheraskov’s Rossiad—a classic epic poem that was/is evidently in school curricula—that drew me, though, but his plays, which Wikipedia rightfully says have been “neglected by posterity.” Kheraskov’s Гонимыя (in the old orthography; I called it The Persecuted in English) was not only the reason I learned how to use a microfiche machine: it was also a good lesson about the literary transition from sentimentalism to classicism. And literary influences. Kheraskov contributed to my love of sentimentalism—The Persecuted’s title pages call it a “teary drama”—and it was his work that got me interested in analyzing literary genres. That’s more than enough to make him a favorite.

One of my favorite contemporary authors, Margarita Khemlin, who died a very young death in autumn 2015, is the first writer whose work I loved so much I had to translate it. I’ve enjoyed her long and short stories, and her novels, too, and am very happy I’ll be starting work on her Klotsvog (previous post), for the Russian Library at Columbia University Press, in June. I’ve always admired Margarita’s ability to write about the damage of World War 2 and Jewish heritage with humor, grit, and grace. And I can’t wait to create an English-language voice for Maya, the narrator (and title character) of Klotsvog, my favorite of Margarita’s novels. (Favorite that I’ve read at this writing, anyway: a new one was recently published posthumously.) I missed her terribly when I was in Moscow last fall and think about her constantly: her trust in me years ago means a lot to me as a person and as a translator. And I always loved her sense of humor as a person. (Her husband and sister both took to calling me Becky Thatcher, too.) Melanie Moore translated The Investigator (Дознаватель), which earned excellent reviews and was published by Glagoslav.

Khlebnikov's grave, Moscow, November 2012, my fuzzy photo
And then there are three that I always enjoy reading but don’t have such personal feelings for… There’s the wonderful Daniil Kharms, whom I took a liking to in the early 2000s after reading Старуха (The Old Woman): Kharms is always good for some absurdity: I bought a compact 1991 edition with prose, poetry, drama, letters, and art when I lived in Moscow and enjoy picking it up every now and then for a little weirdness. Kharms has grown on me over the years, like a cucumber. There’s lots of Kharms available in translation, including Matvei Yankelevich’s Today I Wrote Nothing, from Overlook Press (2009), and Alex Cigale’s Russian Absurd, from Northwestern University Press (2017). That “three” includes two poets: Vladimir Khodasevich and Velimir Khlebnikov, neither of whom I have read methodically or even broadly but both of whom I love reading when references or mentions pop up. I’ve always had a thing for futurism so enjoy Khlebnikov for that. And, of course, for his “Incantation by Laughter,” which is mentioned in this fun post (and my comments) about Khlebnikov on Wuthering Expectations. I’ve read less of Khodasevich but he keeps turning up, both at translator conferences (represented by his translators, of course!) and in quotations in fiction. Since I’m utterly inept at writing about poetry, I’ll leave this one to Wuthering Expectations, too, since there’s this post about Selected Poems, which contains Peter Daniels’s beautiful translations. Here’s a sample of Peter’s work, from’s “Poem of the Week” feature. Peter’s collection, by the way, was published by Angel Classics in the UK and Overlook in the US.

Х is an unusual letter for me because nearly all the Kh authors on my shelf are favorites. The only writer left unread is Boris Khazanov: I have a collection that a friend borrowed and enjoyed very much.

Up Next: An Afanasy Mamedov novella set in Baku. Kir Bulychev’s Поселок (known in English as Those Who Survive): I read very little science fiction (I’ve failed on nearly every attempt at reading the Strugatsky Brothers) but enjoy it when I find something that suits my taste. This Bulychev book feels like a perfect fit for a very frenetic time. I’ll also be doing some preparatory reading before participating in Russian Literature Week events in early May. And I’m still plugging away with Crime and Punishment, though may switch to Oliver Ready’s translation of the novel, which I enjoy reading much more than Dostoevsky’s original, which I’ve been rereading as a remedial measure and as a prelude to reading Robert Belknap’s Plots, which discusses C&P as well as King Lear

Disclaimers: The usual, including knowing the translators mentioned in this post.