Friday, August 12, 2016

Coloring Book for Grown-Ups - a review of Tatyana Yankovskaya's anthology

Dear commies and Russian speakers,
For your entertainment and enrichment, I am posting a review of an anthology by Tatyana Yankovskaya, Coloring Book for Grown-Ups. If you have any Russian speaking friends or family members, please consider getting this marvelous book as a gift.
I became acquainted with Tatyana Yankovskaya's literary works through an American speculative fiction e-zine Bewildering Stories. One of the editions featured an English translation of her short story "If She Had Not Learned How to Knit." The story resonated with me, so I started following the author's publications in various Russian venues. Every story is a skilfully crafted appetizer, with salt, sugar and spices in perfect balance. You do not walk away feeling stuffed or weighed down. You crave more. Naturally, when those appetizers are served on the same platter, they interact and harmonize with each other, leading to unforgettable multi-sensory experiences. You get the impression that the author's taste buds are hyperactive, able to capture the hints, tastes and aromas that are not accessible to a regular reader-taster. Her eye picks up every subtle detail. A gifted author should be in control not only of his/her words but senses as well.

Sometimes Yankovskaya leaves me feeling pangs of white envy because she was fortunate to witness the things I've only seen in passing, in a distorted form - the pomposity of the American pop culture of the 1980s. Yankovskaya got to experience the Reagan era, fascinating from every perspective - political, social and cultural. She had the opportunity to see those iconic action flicks on big screen. Those movies eventually made their way into the late-Soviet cinema houses, censored and badly dubbed. To me, an 80s kid, Reagan's America was the Holy Grail of western culture. I have a feeling that Yankovskaya's esthetic sensibilities were formed under the influence of American pop culture. Yankovskaya does not strike me as someone who likes to encapsulate her nostalgia, playing Pugacheva's hits over and over again. She expresses herself as a fully bilingual individual, as someone who integrated into the American mainstream successfully and harmoniously. Make no mistake, she still remembers the Brezhnev era. Those days are depicted quite vividly in her prose. The novella "Deja Vu" (not included in this particular collection - you can find it in her anthology "M&M") is a gem of corporate comedy. It takes a lot of skill to describe the political and sexual tempest within a research facility. The antics of the female protagonist will leave you laughing and gagging. The novella "A Would-Be Romance", written at the end of the 1990s, would win the approval of James Joyce - if this Irish genius understood Russian. 

Her writing is marked by sarcasm, so characteristic for an introspective, inquisitive person with an analytical mindset, but that that sarcasm is very humane, without a vindictive element. I've read enough immigrant fiction, and much of it is laced with one-sided bitterness and hostility towards "stupid America" with her "cardboard bread and watery, tasteless vegetables that don't come near to the ones growing on my summer property outside Chernigov." Then there is another extreme. You have people shuddering and foaming at the mouth while describing their horrible childhood/youth in "that bloody Soviet gulag." I am not saying that that angry immigrant recitative is entirely bereft of artistic value. Not at all. They have a right to exist and be read as examples of literature generated by the Russian diaspora. It is totally possible that they resonate with some readers. I must warn you though: you won't find anything of that sort in Yankovsakaya's anthology. She can describe the ugliest things with gusto, warmth and humor. You can taste her passion for life, yet she does not shove it down the reader's throat. She doesn't scream, "Life is beautiful!" but respects your right to pessimism. Heck, she managed to touch the heart of a hardened misanthrope like myself. And of course, her self-deprecation is very endearing. She refers to her short literary sketches, the equivalent of "flash" in English, as "half-formed embryos." But it's not uncommon for a mother to refer to her offspring in such disparaging terms. Russian mothers do tend to call their children as "slackers". 

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