Nancy Fiske, Ashburnham
Year ago I studied Russian language and literature and read all the requisite classics. In the past 15 years I’ve been to Russia a number of times and have developed a great interest in contemporary Russian literature and authors. Those books that I would reread because I loved them so much include Varlam Shalamov’s “Kolyma Tales” (how could anyone live through so many years of the gulag and come out such a sensitive humanist?); Vladimir Makanin’s “The Escape Hatch”; Vladimir Sorokin’s “Ice Trilogy”. And I love the work of Ludmila Ulitskaya, Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, and Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. My to-be-read pile includes Zakhar Prilepin, Mikhail Shishkin, Hamid Ismailov, and Tatyana Tolstaya. Can you recommend any other modern Russian writers or titles? I particularly like works that ask me to look differently at familiar topics, but I’ve yet to be excited by werewolves.
The following contains a spoiler from a classic Russian novel.
During high school I looked up from my homework one night just as the evening’s final Jeopardy answer flashed on the screen: This heroine from Russian literature killed herself by throwing herself under a train. I was 75 pages from the end of “Anna Karenina.” It’s still one of my favorite books, but I’ve sworn off Jeopardy.
Despite my devotion to Tolstoy, you are much more widely and deeply read in Russian literature than I am. My only hope in connecting you with some fresh books is to throw out a few Russian titles that are not on your list that I have loved. I go back to the elegant, modernist poetry of Anna Akhmatova often. During our email exchange you said you had read “The Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov, but I have to mention it for other readers since it’s rare to find a book whose star is a hard-drinking, gun-toting cat.
“Grey Is the Color of Hope” by Irina Ratushinskaya--a grim, but witty prison memoir--has stuck with me even though I first read it twenty years ago. I’d also like to suggest two sideways solutions. Just typing the first title gives me a pit in my stomach (in a good way!): “PU-239 and Other Russian Fantasies” by Ken Kalfus, a former resident of Russia. Second is last year’s “Little Failure,” Gary Shteyngart’s dark and funny memoir, which is an immigrant’s story. You beat me to Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. “There Once Was a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In” is close to the top of my to-read list. Two bonus books, “The Galosh: And Other Stories” by Mikhail Zoshchenko and “Life and Fate” by Vasily Grossman are also cheats--they are also from my to-read pile.