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Literary Voyeurism: From Russia with …

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Whenever anyone asks me where I plan to travel next, without skipping a beat I say Russia. I’ve long been fascinated by the country: its ruthless winters, its self-serious cultural history, and its tortured political past. I know my view of Russia is anachronistic, as if there were a switch that flips it from 1880 to 1980 and back again with very little in between or after. I often imagine stepping off the plane and sinking knee-deep into the quicksand of days gone by.

I know the country is no longer the land of revolutionaries conspiring to overthrow the czar and that the fields are no longer littered with peasants, stooped and head-covered, hacking away at wheat with their scythes; I know the political and economic landscape has changed and with it the arts as well.

It’s actually the Russia of today that keeps me from reserving a hotel room and booking a flight. Thoughts of Moscow fill my mind with visions of great wealth discrepancy—nouveau riche on the streets of Moscow, women draped in furs with diamonds hanging off their fingers, and men in Armani suits opening the doors of shiny, black Mercedes for them. Meanwhile, in the parks I can see bums sleeping on benches, surrounded by empty bottles. At least this is the reason I tell myself why I haven’t visited yet but my noble stance falls apart when you consider my daily walk to the subway includes passing numerous homeless people either passed out or crouching in doorways while me and my peers head off to office jobs or the local coffee shop for a day of freelancing. In the end, it’s laziness more than a sensitivity to human suffering that keeps me from leaving the country.

So, how does a lazy, wannabe traveler experience Russia’s present day culture without an airline ticket? Well, if you’re like me, you head to the nearest bookstore and look for a good novel. While it’s hard to argue that reading a book and visiting a country are on equal footing, one can surely soak up a sense of a culture through literary voyeurism.

When many of us think of Russian writers it’s Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov that come to mind; and if we’ve read anything at all it’s Anna Karenina, War and Peace, and for those who scratch surfaces, possibly The Master and the Margarita by Bulgakov. These selections are only encouraged when perusing the literature section of many bookshops but if you’re someone who has read all the classics they wish to encounter, or if you would rather read contemporary fiction, finding new voices can be frustrating.

Even at the best bookstore, the Russian titles range from those published in the 1800s to those from the Soviet-era. While byzantine governments often make for interesting tales, the USSR dissolved in 1991 and it’s time for our shelves to reflect the change. Much of the absence of modern day Russian writing is in large part due to lack of translations. Modern day works in English are hard to come by simply because they don’t exist.

Lucky for those interested, just this past June, New York-based publishing house Overlook Press announced it was partnering with the Russian Federal Agency for Press and Mass Communication (also known as Rospechat). Together, they will publish at least 125 classic and contemporary titles in English over the next 10 years, beginning in 2013.

The goal of the project, which will include fiction, drama, and poetry, says Overlook publisher, Peter Mayer, “is to transcend the well-respected classics and broaden the awareness of Russian culture by making available for the first time in uniform editions these important works of literature, so many barely known outside Russia.” Which contemporary authors and titles they will publish is yet to be announced.

For those who want to start now, Akashic Books has two collections of contemporary Russian crime writers in their excellent noir series. In 2010 they released Moscow Noir, edited by Petersburg-based literary agents Natalia Smirnova and Julia Goumen. This month, the same editors return with St. Petersburg Noir, featuring a new crop of writers to discover.

However manufactured for literary effect the stories may be, both books offer a strong sense of place. Just one example is “Europe After the Rain” by Alexei Evdokimov (Moscow Noir):

Here, the river and the open space in front of Kiev station leave a large expanse open to view. Here, you can really see the sky, which is rare in this capital city that squeezes you between enormous stone slabs. The view that spreads out before you here—the Gothic silhouette of the university on a distant bluff to the left, the palisade of mighty pipes on top of the Radisson, the spire of the Hotel Ukraine perpendicular to layers of lilac clouds—is one of those typical and utterly urban landscapes that create the face of a city, which Moscow, monstrous and vague with its eroded individuality, so lacks.

While these two collections are not the strongest in the series, a difficult task if there ever was one, they succeed in bringing much-needed attention to genre writing happening in Russia today.

In their introduction to the Moscow collection, Smirnova and Goumen explain the state of crime fiction in their country: “A noir literary tradition does not yet really exist in Russia in general or Moscow in particular. Why? Possibly due to the censorship of czarist Russia, to say nothing of the Soviet era.”

However, for their St. Petersburg introduction they claim a different legacy:

Petersburg somehow nurtures ironic, satirical, and darkly humorous interpretations of reality. The darker and harsher life gets, the more humorous its interpretations tend to be. Indeed, only at a Petersburg house party could writers argue enthusiastically over the most efficient way to get rid of a corpse … The origins of this rich noir tradition come from the city’s history, its urban landscape, and even the weather, as Petersburg’s climate undoubtedly affects local character. What morbid thoughts can freezing winds from the Baltics bring along? Which emotions swirl inside a person struggling through snowdrifts in the streets? How can one remain positive when the long-awaited northern “summer” offers less than a dozen sunny days?

An annotated travel guide of sorts, these two collections—so obviously tailored to the psyche of their respective city—offer a look into the individualism that exists in this vast country today; and as I had craved, many of the stories struggle with post-Soviet Russia, its identity and inner workings, and the residue left from the previous decades. Regardless of what impact Russian masters might have had on the literary landscape, the country’s noir—and more broadly, the writing coming from this new generation—has a fresh feel, one of promise and commitment to the days ahead.

Anyone interested in bringing contemporary Russian writers to an American audience should support these new and forthcoming publications. If there’s a show of interest from the reading public, there’s a chance we’ll see more from these new voices.

::[Links]::
Find Moscow Noir at your local indie
Find St. Petersburg Noir at your local indie
Learn more about Read Russia
Read a review of Moscow Noir at Bookslut
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New in Paperback for July

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July is an exciting month in the world of paperbacks. These are the new releases I’m looking forward to seeing hit the bookstores in the next few days. Look for them as you wander around the front tables this weekend. The comments are open below, what paperback releases are you looking forward to?

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar
by Cheryl Strayed

Life can be hard: your lover cheats on you; you lose a family member; you can’t pay the bills—and it can be great: you’ve had the hottest sex of your life; you get that plum job; you muster the courage to write your novel. Sugar—the once-anonymous online columnist at The Rumpus, now revealed as Cheryl Strayed, author of the bestselling memoir Wild—is the person thousands turn to for advice.

Tiny Beautiful Things brings the best of Dear Sugar in one place and includes never-before-published columns and a new introduction by Steve Almond.  Rich with humor, insight, compassion—and absolute honesty—this book is a balm for everything life throws our way.

Dear Sugar columns at The Rumpus
An interview with the Other People podcast
An interview with NPR’s Weekend Edition
An interview with TIME magazine

The Nervous System
by Nathan Larson

After a series of large-scale terrorist attacks, New York City is reduced to a shadow of its former self. As the city struggles to dig itself out of the wreckage, a nameless, obsessive-compulsive veteran with a spotty memory, a love for literature, and a strong if unique moral code has taken up residence at the Main Branch of the New York Public Library. Dubbed “Dewey Decimal” for his desire to reorganize the library’s stock, he gets by as bagman and muscle for unscrupulous politicians and underworld figures—as detailed in the first book in this series, The Dewey Decimal System.

In The Nervous System, Decimal, attempting to clean up loose ends after the violent events in the first book, stumbles upon information concerning the gruesome murder of a prostitute and a prominent US senator’s involvement. Immediately he finds himself chasing ghosts and fighting for his life, pursued by Blackwater-style private military contractors and the ever-present specter of his own past. Decimal confronts a twilight world of Korean hostess bars, childhood bogeymen, and the face of the military-industrial complex gone haywire—all framed by a city descending toward total chaos.

Nathan’s Book Notes piece for the soundtrack to The Dewey Decimal System

The Future Is Not Ours: New Latin American Fiction
by Diego Trelles Paz (Editor); Janet Hendrickson (Translator)

The Future Is Not Ours: New Latin American Fiction brings together twenty-three Latin American writers who were born between 1970 and 1980. The anthology offers an exciting overview of contemporary Spanish-language literature and introduces a generation of writers who came of age in the time of military dictatorships, witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War, the birth of the Internet, the murders of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and the September 11th attacks in New York City.

The anthology features: Oliverio Coelho, Federico Falco, and Samanta Schweblin (Argentina); Giovanna Rivero (Bolivia); Santiago Nazarian (Brazil); Juan Gabriel Vásquez and Antonio Ungar (Colombia); Ena Lucía Portela (Cuba); Lina Meruane, Andrea Jeftanovic, and Alejandro Zambra (Chile); Ronald Flores (Guatemala); Tryno Maldonado and Antonio Ortuño (México); María del Carmen Pérez Cuadra (Nicaragua); Carlos Wynter Melo (Panama); Daniel Alarcón and Santiago Roncagliolo (Peru); Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro (Puerto Rico); Ariadna Vásquez (Dominican Republic); Ignacio Alcuri and Inés Bortagaray (Uruguay); and Slavko Zupcic (Venezuela).

Dublinesque
by Enrique Vila-Matas; Anne McLean (Translator); Anna Milsom (Translator)

Dublinesque opens with a renowned and retired literary publisher’s dream: he finds himself in Dublin, a city he’s never visited, and the mood is full of passion and despair. Afterwards he’s obsessed with the dream, and brings three of the writers he published on a trip to the same cemetery where Paddy Dignam was buried in James Joyce’s Ulysses, where they hold a funeral for “The Gutenberg Age.” And then he notices that he’s being shadowed by a mysterious man who looks exactly like Samuel Beckett…

In this witty and poignant novel, perhaps his finest yet, Enrique Vila-Matas traces a journey that connects the worlds of Joyce and Beckett and all they symbolize: great literature and evidence of the difficulties faced by literary authors, publishers, and good readers, their struggle to survive in a society where literature is losing influence.

Read an interview with Vila-Matas on The Paris Review Daily
The Quarterly Conversation reviews Vila-Matas’s previews novels

Your Voice in My Head: A Memoir
by Emma Forrest

Emma Forrest’s memoir was called “a journey of healing” by Interview magazine and “a beautifully written eulogy for the doctor she credits with saving her life” by Los Angeles Magazine. The book received acclaim from reviewers across the country, the movie rights were snatched up quickly, and Emma herself enchanted audiences at readings in New York and Los Angeles. Brave, brilliantly written, and anchored in the reality of everyday life, Your Voice in My Head is destined to become a classic of the genre.

An excerpt at The Guardian
Emma’s essay in The New York Times
Emma’s essay in The Paris Review
Emma’s Book Notes piece for the soundtrack to Your Voice
Maud Newton reviews Your Voice in My Head at The Awl
An interview with Interview Magazine
An interview with Ron Hogan

The No Variations: Journal of an Unfinished Novel
by Luis Chitarroni; Rhett McNeil (Translator)

A cryptic, self-negating series of notes for an unfinished work of fiction, this astonishing book is made up of ideas for characters and plot points, anecdotes and tales, literary references both real and invented, and populated by an array of fictional authors and their respective literary cliques, all of whom sport multiple pseudonyms, publish their own literary journals, and produce their own ideas for books, characters, poems . . . A dizzying look at the ugly backrooms of literature, where aesthetic ambitions are forever under siege by petty squabbles, long-nurtured grudges, envied or undeserved prizes, bankrupt publishers, and self-important critics, The No Variations is a serious game, or perhaps a frivolous tragedy, with the author and his menagerie of invented peers fighting to keep their feelings of futility at bay. A literary cousin to David Markson and César Aira,The No Variations is one of the great “novels” of contemporary Latin American literature.

The Man of Numbers: Fibonacci’s Arithmetic Revolution
by Keith Devlin

Leonardo of Pisa—better known today as Fibonacci—was the first Westerner to recognize the power of the Hindu-Arabic number system (featuring the numerals 0 through 9), which offered a much simpler method of calculation than the finger reckoning and cumbersome Roman numerals used at the time. His book Liberabbaci (The book of Calculation) remade the West as the dominant force in science, technology, and large-scale international commerce. Leonardo of Pisa is best known today for discovering the Fibonacci sequence of numbers appearing in biological structures throughout nature, but despite the ubiquity of his discoveries, he has largely slipped from the pages of history. Keith Devlin, NPR’s “Math Guy,” re-creates the life and enduring legacy of this brilliant yet overlooked mathematician.

Listen to Keith on NPR’s Weekend Edition
Follow him on Twitter

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