Showing posts with label Russian. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Russian. Show all posts

Sunday, August 28, 2016

WITMonth Day 28 | Subtly Worded - Teffi | Review

Short story collections are always a bit problematic. There's a huge difference between collections written as single entities, collections curated from an author's body of work, or collections compiled from different authors (particularly when not written with a specific theme in mind).

Any collection that isn't written ahead of time as a single book often stumbles a bit in my opinion. I have a hard time sticking with the stories, since it often feels like there isn't much of a motivation to read through the collection at once. That was only half true of Teffi's Subtly Worded. On the one hand, Teffi's style is clean and consistent, calmly guiding the reader from one story to another. On the other hand, the stories span so many years that it's a little difficult to read them as one cohesive unit. (I also wasn't entirely clear on how much the translator impacted matters, since while the collection is mostly translated by Anne Marie Jackson and Robert Chandler [from what I could gather...], there were many translators credited and a few stories that felt a bit out of place did in fact turn out to be translated by other translators.)

I'd seen so many positive reviews of Subtly Worded that I came in slightly skeptical as to whether the book would actually be as charming as presented. I'm not sure how I came away. I really enjoyed Teffi's quietly humorous style in some of the stories, and found that the shorter pieces worked really well. But many of the longer stories lost me (particularly the Rasputin story, which was clearly supposed to be a standout sort of tale and most readers seemed to love yet thoroughly bored me).

The collection is sweet in parts, entertaining in others, funny at times and sadly melancholic in others. And it generally flows well. This isn't the sort of collection you start and stop every other story. It's also the sort of collection that makes me confident in Teffi as a writer, and intrigued enough to continue seeking out her works. I'm not sure I loved this collection as much as others, but it was pleasant enough (I really only skipped a few stories) and some of the stories were downright excellent. A pretty good balance for a short story collection, I'd say.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

WITMonth Day 7 | The Mountain and the Wall - Alisa Ganieva | Review

There are so many parts of Alisa Ganieva's The Mountain and the Wall (translated by Carol Apollonio) that I could focus on. I could talk about how otherworldly it felt (not least because I read the book while floating in a hammock under a flawless blue sky, a bright green tree with blooming pink flowers, and the most gentle breeze swinging me from side to side), or about how the book introduced me to a part of the world that has otherwise been completely off my radar, or about how the politics reminded me so thoroughly of my own local messes, or about so many other small moments in this surprisingly packed novel.

The Mountain and the Wall devotes a pretty significant portion of itself to religious extremism (specifically Islamic). It's a narrative that made me slightly uncomfortable at times, if only because much of it is framed by how quickly the extremism spreads and takes hold in a formerly not-so-religious society. It was almost too familiar, too sharp-eyed and critical of something that is too often lost in political shenanigans (see: US Elections 2016). Something that many of us - rightly, I believe - tend to frame in less aggressive tones because of the implications we might carry. Reading it made me pause and reflect quite a bit, but not always in the ways I wanted to.

The book isn't just defined by its politics, though. While the plot itself is a bit messy and at times felt like it tried to do too much in too little space (it's pretty dense, to be honest), there's a strong urgency in following this thread of characters. The writing is also a bit messy, with rather jolting shifts between very elegant, poetic bits (including actual poetry, which was gorgeous) and flat, sometimes oddly stilted dialogue. There are moments where the writing also feels like a seventh grader who was just told off by the teacher for over-using the word "said": Upon randomly opening the book now to a dialogue page, the words "rasped", "roared", and "stammered" all appeared. And these words are fine in theory, but as I learned at age eighteen (or thereabouts), the word "said" is often the cleanest. All these rasped and roared and mumbled, etc. make the text feel needlessly bloated and awkward. Which is a shame, seeing as the descriptive sections are clear and sharp in the best way.

I loved that The Mountain and the Wall forced me to learn about a new place, a new culture, and a new set of rules. To me, that's what literature needs to be about - challenging our preexisting perceptions and assumptions, illuminating realities we wouldn't otherwise know. A few years ago, I realized that I will never be able to travel to every part of the world and meet people from every single background. But I would be able to read about as many of them as possible (or watch films/television/webseries/whatever). I would be able to explore other cultures and mindsets in the second most-pure way possible (other than living through it myself) - reading it through the eyes of another.

That's how The Mountain and the Wall felt. The book frustrated me at times for various technical/literary reasons, but I loved how much it made me think. I loved how much it forced me to look at my own world a little differently. I loved how much time I spent during and afterwards, reading about Dagestan on Wikipedia and wondering more about its culture. And most of all: I loved the otherworldiness. The book has flashes of fantasy, of incredible imagination that made me feel like I was being transported (not unlike the characters). It's one of my favorite literary techniques, and The Mountain and the Wall was no exception in hooking me through that.

This is not a perfect novel, but it's nonetheless something special. And in an intersectional WITMonth environment when I'd like to point to as many interesting and different and unique books as possible, The Mountain and the Wall is a worthy read.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

WITMonth Day 21 - Some Contemporary Russian Reading Ideas | Guest post

Today's post marks a special occasion on the blog - the first ever guest/cross-post! Many thanks to Lisa of the excellent Lizok's Bookshelf for writing the post, originally published here (reblogged with permission).


When the blogger known as Biblibio invited me to write a guest post for Women in Translation Month—it’s right now, this August—I was quick to agree to write something for both our blogs. For one thing, I’ve been enjoying Biblibio’s posts for years. For another, I knew it would be easy to put together a list of wonderful female Russian writers; I’ve even translated a book and two stories by a couple of them. Best of all, it’s always fun to make lists like this by remembering good books and the people who write them. Here are some of my favorites.

Margarita Khemlin is one of my very favorite writers, both because I love her books and stories, and because she’s one of the first writers I chose to translate. I started reading Khemlin with her first book, the story collection The Living Line, and moved on to her novels—Klotsvog, Krainii (The Endman), and The Investigator—reading each as soon as I could after it was published. Margarita’s stories and novels are generally about life in eastern Ukraine, and I particularly love the language she uses to tell, with quiet but dark humor and occasional dialogue in surzhik, a combination of Ukrainian and Russian, about Jewish heritage and the never-ending effects of World War 2. I’ve published translations of two of Margarita’s stories from The Living Line: “Basya Solomonovna’s Third World War” appeared in Two Lines (the “Counterfeits” edition, 2011) and was reprinted in the Read Russia! anthology, too (PDF download); “Shady Business” came out in issue 17 of Subtropics earlier this year. “Shady Business” took me forever: I knew the words (and got great help from Misha Klimov, a local colleague, on the ones I didn’t, those being the surzhik) but wanted to be sure I was capturing the emotions of elderly characters who’d survived the war. I still can’t believe how much feeling and history Margarita can pack into so few, seemingly simple, words. I’m sure that’s why I love her writing so much.

Marina Stepnova's novel The Women of Lazarus also looks at history, through an unconventional family saga that begins just after the Russian Revolution and continues to the present, focusing on various women in the life of Lazar Lindt, the Lazarus in the title. I loved the novel’s combination of history, various forms of poshlost’, postmodernism, and cultural commentary when I read it but didn’t truly appreciate how much Stepnova had achieved until I was working on a late draft of my translation. (The many, many levels of new-found appreciation I find through translation are a big reason I love translating so much.) Stepnova, a literary magpie, fills her novel with colorful and changeable language, historical perspectives and figures (Beria has a cameo), Soviet science, references to pre-revolutionary cookery, and ballet. Among other things. But everything comes together, creating an almost ridiculously readable and comprehensive novel about the meaning of family and the meaning of country and culture and heritage. Among other things… it’s a very rewarding book that can be read on many levels.

Alisa Ganieva won notice by winning the Debut Prize for the novella Salam, Dalgat!, which she wrote under the male pseudonym Gulla Khirachev because of taboos against a woman writing about a world that is “absolutely male.” I loved Salam, Dalgat! for its story of a day in the life of a man searching Makhachkala, Dagestan, for a relative. As I wrote earlier, “With its mixture of humor, tradition (wife stealing even gets a mention, though a character says that’s a Chechen habit), and a sense of alarm about the future, Salam, Dalgat! felt unusually energetic and organic, all as poor Dalgat, seeking but never quite managing to find, trots along, a perfectly agreeable, generally patient, nearly blank slate of a character, the ideal figure for a reader like me, who’s never been to Makhachkala, to follow.” Translations of Ganieva’s writing are available and on the way: Nicholas Allen’s translation of Salam, Dalgat! appears in the anthology Squaring the Circle (Glas, 2011), Marian Schwartz’s translation of the story “Shaitans” is in the Read Russia! anthology (PDF download), and Carol Apollonio’s translation of The Russian Wall (Праздничная гора) will be published next summer by Deep Vellum.

Since I’ve been so chatty about the first three writers, I’ll keep things shorter and limit myself to brief notes on four more writers I’ve especially enjoyed reading. Each has a story in the same Read Russia! anthology I mentioned above and each has at least one novel already out in English translation… I’ve read quite a few books and stories by Ludmila Ulitskaya and think my favorite is probably Sincerely Yours, Shurik, which has never been translated into English. Of those that exist in English, I particularly enjoyed the polyphonic Daniel Stein, Interpreter, (which Arch Tate translated for The Overlook Press) about a Polish Jew who works for a Nazi officer and dies a Carmelite monk in Israel. The Big Green Tent is on the way, too, in Bela Shayevich’s translation… And then there’s Olga Slavnikova, whose 2017—beautifully stuffed with gems, metaphors, and plot lines—won the Russian Booker. I particularly enjoyed the expedition scenes and carnivalistic episodes; Marian Schwartz translated 2017 for The Overlook Press… Maria Galina’s Mole Crickets appealed to me because of the voice Galina creates for her narrator, a man who rewrites books (e.g. a classic by Joseph Conrad) by incorporating clients into the plot lines. Though Mole Crickets hasn’t been translated, Amanda Love Darragh won the Rossica Prize for translating Iramifications, published in 2008 by Glas… Finally, there’s Anna Starobinets, whose Sanctuary 3/9 kept me up late at night: the novel’s combination of folk tale motifs, suspense, and creepiness is perfect. Sanctuary hasn’t been translated into English but three other Starobinets books have: An Awkward Age, translated by Hugh Aplin for Hesperus; The Living, translated by James Rann for Hesperus; and The Icarus Gland, coming this fall from James Rann and Skyscraper Publications.

Happy reading! And a big, huge thanks to Biblibio for the invitation... and all this month’s posts about books written by women.

Disclaimers: I’ve translated work by some of the writers mentioned in this post and met all of them, if only briefly. I work on occasional projects for Read Russia and have translated a book for Glas: appropriately enough, it’s Russian Drama: Four Young Female Voices, with four very diverse plays by Yaroslava Pulinovich, Ksenia Stepanycheva, Ekaterina Vasilyeva, and Olga Rimsha.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Beautiful, inconsequential | An Armenian Sketchbook

An Armenian Sketchbook is a short book, almost an interlude. I first heard about it from Stefanie of So Many Books, and was so enamored by Vasily Grossman's writing style in the quotes Stefanie included that I decided I had to read this book. And I'm glad I did, even if by the end of it I was feeling a bit bored, a bit scattered, almost as if I myself had gone on a trip that had lasted just a bit too long.

The thing is that An Armenian Sketchbook is beautiful and incredible and powerful at times, but it also feels a bit inconsequential. Banal, even. The first half of the book is mostly comprised of Grossman making these lovely, carefully worded observations of this new land he has come upon, whether of the people or of the places. His fixation on stone, for example, is predictable but nonetheless remarkable - in these passages, Grossman contemplates civilization, history, the passage of time, architecture and so much more. It might be a bit pointless, but good god it's gorgeous.

The problem begins in the second half of this short book. Because here, Grossman shifts the focus a bit more towards himself and his experiences. Here Grossman muses about religion and faith. About culture differences. About Russia. About drinking. It's a turn inwards, and though aspects of it were again very nicely written and quite interesting, I found that it just wasn't holding my attention the same way the first parts had. It became less about the travel and more about the presence. Like I said - the trip lasted too long and I got bored.

There's also the fact that I felt as though it didn't really change anything. Travel books (or in general books about places) are supposed to change our point of view, give us something new and expand our horizons. An Armenian Sketchbook did a bit of that, but it's mostly in the title - "sketchbook". I learned a little about Armenian history and culture, but... it was only a little. Minor. I sort of hoped Grossman would delve a bit deeper, but his observations - even when sharp and utterly enchanting - still felt somewhat on the surface.

But it's a short book. Really short. There's no reason not to read it and there's no reason not to enjoy it. Grossman's writing is splendid even in the less interesting parts, and the translation is as natural as any I can imagine. This was a fine introduction to an author I've been meaning to get to for a long time - I'm now looking forward to tackling Life and Fate even more.