Friday, January 29, 2010

February 4: Elena Fanailova reading

Ugly Duckling Presse (is the final "e" silent?), located in a former can factory in the none-too-scenic Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn, hand-typesets and prints many of its beautiful publications on a vintage letterpress (nice NYT article on the press here). To celebrate their latest Swan, presumably from Matvei Yankelovich's East European series, the UDP-e invites you to a reading, (you know where) this Thursday, February 4, at 7pm. Elena Fanailova is: poet, journalist, host for Radio Liberty's "Far from Moscow" program, linguist, teacher and even (my favorite) a graduate of the Voronezh Medical Institute and at one time a practicing doctor! Welcome to your first full-length collection in English translation, Dr. Fanailova! Oh, and the reading will be moderated by the eminent writer, translator, biographer, and co-founder of Columbia University's Center for Literary Translation Michael Scammell, whose own magisterial biography of Arthur Koestler just came out to the most inspired reviews I've seen in years. See you there!

Monday, January 18, 2010

A Mountain of Crumbs

See the mountain of books artfully arrayed? It was the debut party this past Thursday for author Elena Gorokhova and her memoir about growing up in Russia during what we used to call the Era of Stagnation (Brezhnev, the eyebrows, the-government-will provide-consumer-goods-if-the-people-will-pretend-to-believe-in-Communism, wink-wink, nudge-nudge).

Simon and Schuster, A Mountain of Crumbs' publisher, put on a terrific spread that included the Samovar's famously satisfying pelmeni (meat dumplings in broth), beef Stroganoff, black bread, smoked salmon, herring and potatoes, beet salad...I could go on and on.

Certainly the waitstaff went on and on, continually bringing more tasty treats until long after I faded into the New York night. No crumbs here, folks. Although I was the only plate-licker (see below).

Ernst Neizvestny came! The famous sculptor who during World War II actually died, but then revived to go on to art school, fame and controversy, has a website well worth perusing (you can begin doing so by clicking here). Neizvestny is pictured here with Gorokhova (all photos of this event by Lauren Perlstein). And here are the foothills of Crumbs:

I wish my mother had come from Leningrad, from the world of Pushkin and the tsars, of granite embankments and lace ironwork, of pearly domes buttressing the low sky. Leningrad's sophistication would have infected her the moment she drew her first breath, and all the curved façades and stately bridges, marinated for more than two centuries in the city's wet, salty air, would have left a permanent mark of refinement on her soul.

But she didn't. She came from the provincial town of Ivanovo in central Russia, where chickens lived in the kitchen and a pig squatted under the stairs, where streets were unpaved and houses made from wood. She came from where they lick plates.

Born three years before Russia turned into the Soviet Union, my mother became a mirror image of my motherland: overbearing, protective, difficult to leave. Our house was the seat of the politburo, my mother its permanent chairman. She presided in our kitchen over a pot of borsch, a ladle in her hand, ordering us to eat in the same voice that made her anatomy students quiver. A survivor of the famine, Stalin's terror, and the Great Patriotic War, she controlled and protected, ferociously. What had happened to her was not going to happen to us. She sheltered us from dangers, experience, and life itself by a tight embrace that left us innocent and gasping for air.

She commandeered trips to our crumbling dacha — under the Baltic clouds, spitting rain — to plant, weed, pick, and preserve for the winter whatever grew under the rare sun that never rose above the neighbor's pigsty. During brief northern summers we sloshed through a swamp to the shallow waters of the Gulf of Finland, warm and yellow as weak tea; we scooped mushrooms out of the forest moss and hung them on thread over the stove to dry for the winter. My mother planned, directed, and took charge, lugging buckets of water to beds of cucumbers and dill, elbowing in lines for sugar to preserve the fruit we'd need to treat winter colds. When September came, we were back in the city, rooting in the cupboard for gooseberry jam to cure my cough or black currant syrup to lower my father's blood pressure. We were back to the presidium speeches and winter coats padded with wool and preparations for more April digging.

Maybe if I hadn't spent every spring Sunday ankle-deep in cold, soggy dirt, I wouldn't have been so easily seduced by the decadent sound of the English language that poured from the grooves of a record called Audio-Lingual Drills, my tutor's pride. I might have gone to medical school, like my mother, or engineering school, like everyone else. I might have even married a Russian...

NY Times review here. Bony appetite!