Every once in a while I get an e-mail from a publisher asking if I’m interested in a copy of a book (obviously hoping I’ll write about it); I usually say “thanks, but no thanks,” because the books are often not that interesting to me and I have plenty to read already. But when a marketing person from Spiegel & Grau asked me if I’d like a copy of One More Year, a collection of short stories by Sana Krasikov, and I read that her protagonists were “largely Russian and Georgian immigrants who have settled on the East Coast,” I knew the book was right down my alley and said “sure.”

I’m happy to report that the book is everything I hoped for. Krasikov (she was born in Ukraine and grew up in Georgia) has the essential gift of her calling: she tells compelling stories about people who seem as real as the ones you see on the street. Her prose is efficient and graceful, and—what is much rarer—she sees people with a moral clarity that makes no excuses and passes no judgments. In that she reminds me of Chekhov, and in many ways she fits into the Russian tradition, with its emphasis on the elements in life beyond the daily grind. There’s plenty of daily grind here—her characters inhabit unfashionable neighborhoods and have shaky living arrangements, often made shakier by their own bad decisions—but the overriding question they keep implicitly asking, and making us ask, is “What is important in life?” Specifically, how can our need for love be woven into the fabric of the rest of our life without tearing it apart? Whether the stories are set in New York, Moscow, or Tashkent (each vividly realized), these questions create a pressure that impels the narrative and lend a grandeur to even the most regrettable folly.

On a lower level, but still impressive in these slapdash days, the book is impeccably produced (the only error I noticed was “Boystovskaya” Street for Boytsovaya on p. 181, and I don’t know if that’s a misprint or a mistake that got into the manuscript somehow), and the fact that the author’s English is not native is rarely apparent (from the same page: “those absconding the homeland”). Also impressive, in terms of pure synchronicity, is the fact that Krasikov managed to touch on two issues that have recently hit the headlines. From “Maya in Yonkers,” in a passage describing a smuggling route from Russia to Georgia: “Another $200 for a driver to take the crate across the mountains to South Ossetia, where Luisa’s husband would pick it up and bring it to Dusheti.” And from “The Repatriates” (which appeared in The New Yorker earlier this year), this passage on the activities of one of the titular characters gave me a chill:

He was staying in Moscow to look for financiers for a business idea that would do for the Russian market what mortgage traders had done on Wall Street since the eighties: pool and repackage loans for investors in one massive turbine of debt and capital. He would build not only wealth for himself but a better life for the doctors and schoolteachers in distant provinces, still living in run-down, vermin-infested apartments and dreaming of raising their kids in solid houses, if only Russia could grow a robust mortgage industry.

That’s what I call having your finger on the Zeitgeist.


  1. A.J.P. Crown says

    You abhor our praise, thinking it suspect, but I think you are an excellent reviewer, Language. I like the way you did this one and also the one of John Emerson’s book, Substantive Marrow (great book of assorted essays), which I was thinking of writing about myself, until I read yours and saw that it couldn’t be bettered.

  2. A.J.P. Crown says

    No, it’s not Substantive, it’s Substantific Marrow. Sorry John, I’m no good at adjectives.

  3. Thanks, and I by no means abhor the praise of my readers, who are self-evidently a perceptive bunch. If you weren’t, why would you be hanging out here?

  4. Aha! I just ordered this. Glad to know I’ll be glad to get it. And I second — or third, or fourth — the praise. You are a wonderful reader.

  5. Moscow… vividly realized

    “Through the vibrating rain drops on the car window, she could see the jagged monument marking the limit of the German advance in ’41 and, just beyond it, the cobalt blue of an Ikea superstore.”

    I haven’t been to Moscow. But that’s Moscow.

    Another nice moment from “The Repatriates” (husband and wife):
    “At the gym, people involved her in the theatre of their daily lives as though she were a bartender, handing them not towels but glasses of gin. In the evening, when she’d tried to interest Grisha in these stories, he’d listened with a face of painful submission. When she was with him, the life that gave her pleasure seemed frivolous; it was like describing a sitcom—the plots unravelled, the jokes were no longer funny.”

    Wasn’t sure about “the guttural cawing of a crow,” though.

  6. Krasikov was just named as one of the National Book Foundation’s “Five Under 35” for this book.

  7. She has an excellent story, “Ways and Means,” in the latest New Yorker.

  8. @languagehat: That really was an excellent story. The only criticism I had was that the assignment of two different metaphors (one foreground, one background) for the perpetrator’s name was a bit distracting. One the one hand, the play on the name Riff, with the comparison to jazz improvisation and it being part of the character’s in-universe mystique, was very effective, especially as it is revealed near the end that Riff is not really as nimble an interviewer as he seems on air. On the other hand, naming the public broadcasting host Ollie Riff is, in the story’s context, an obvious allusion to Charlie Rose. As I read, I found the discrepancy between these two visions of the character somewhat distracting.

  9. an obvious allusion to Charlie Rose

    I didn’t even think of that! I’m such a sloppy reader…

  10. Krasikov has a superb story in last week’s New Yorker, “The Muddle.” I would have thought it was too soon to produce good fiction about the ongoing war, but she’s done it. What a writer!

    At School No. 6, French had been Alyona’s favorite subject, and, by extension, Shura’s. Chattering in broken French was how they got to pretend that they were more than provincial Soviet schoolgirls in a quasi-industrial railroad city. In their sixth-grade production of “Cinderella,” Alyona, with her shining blond head and biscuit skin, was cast as Fée Marraine, the fairy godmother. Shura, slight, pale, with dark braids and eyes that could narrow suspiciously, had played an evil stepsister. Alyona was one of only five Ukrainian kids in their class of twenty-nine. Zhidovskaya shkola—the Jew school—was how the Ukrainians and the Jews both referred to School No. 6, a neighborhood Russian school known to be one of the best in the city. Not a snide designation, just fact. There was a Ukrainian school in the same neighborhood, so parents had a choice. Alyona’s parents, engineers at the mechanical plant, had chosen the Jew school.

    All Shura remembered now of her French was that song they’d sung at the top of their voices, walking home. “Les Russes veulent-ils la guerre?” Do the Russians want war? A refrain that, fifty years later, could land you in prison. Alyona had kept up her French, reading classics in the original. When Shura had spoken to her by Skype last year, while Alyona and Oleg were living in Winnipeg (no, not living, only visiting, as it turned out), Alyona had been working through a copy of Colette’s “Le Blé en herbe.” Into the corporate-issued Mac that Shura had inherited in her retirement, she’d nearly shouted, “What are you doing with that? You’re wasting your time. It’s Winnipeg, not Quebec! Start practicing your English.”

    Alyona’s French is a perfect complement to her character, and the interactions in the story are convincing both emotionally and in terms of the “real world.” (Archived version if my direct link doesn’t work for you.)

  11. I’ve just read all the three stories. All of them are good – well-made and believable – but closer to great journalism than fiction.

    “…if only Russia could grow a robust mortgage industry.” The year was 2008 IIRC. Too early for the mortgage boom but too late for the long stock market rally. Still he could have bought some stocks in 2009 and sell in 2013 for a nice profit. The Russian mortgage market only started growing in earnest towards the end of the 2010s.

    @Brett: At first, I thought of Philip Rieff and his son with Susan Sontag. Then the story mentioned Ollie’s experience as a jazz pianist. But in jazz, unlike in stand-up comedy, riffs were originally understood as repeated patterns supporting someone else’s improvisation. As one old Russian textbook put it, “inciting the soloist to greater expressivity.” This seems to fit Riff’s role as an interviewer perfectly: helping his interviewees to give their best solo performance. Seduction is a different game.

    “As a reader, I found the discrepancy between these two visions of the character somewhat distracting.” I would argue it makes the piece less journalistic and helps avoid, or at least weaken, a prefab feel to the character. The Catholic lady still feels a bit stock.

  12. Poor editing on my part. My original text went roughly, “he would have done well to buy… and sell.” Then I changed the first section to “he could have bought” but neglected to change “sell” to “sold.” Alas, typical me.

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