Sunday, May 29, 2011

Borges the bookstore

At the end of last week, I attended two literary events at a brand new bookstore on Nevsky Prospekt in St. Petersburg--a bookstore with a telling name, "Borges." Unlike San Francisco and most other cities in the United States, St. Petersburg is experiencing something of a bookstore boom: in the fall, I presented my collection of stories at a brand new location of a local chain, Bookvoed. Now, Borges opened a block away from Bookvoed. A few more blocks away, there's a bookstore called "Poryadok Slov" -- "Word Order," selling "intellectual literature." This bookstore opened in January 2010, and I haven't had a chance to check it out. Perhaps this is because they (and the events they book) focus on non-fiction and film.

Browsing bookshelves on my first visit to Borges, I overheard a conversation between another customer and the administrator. The customer wondered why the store's inventory has changed so dramatically, and the administrator was confused because the store had only been open for two weeks. Eventually, she realized the source of confusion: Borges opened in the space previously occupied by an LGBT store "Indigo" (the term I overheard was: "the bookstore for sexual minorities"). Indigo is still in business, although they moved to a different location--the other part of Nevsky, closer to Vosstaniya. As far as I know, Indigo is the only store in the city targeted directly toward the LGBT community. When I started asking people about it, it turned out that some of my friends had heard of it--Indigo advertised on Nevsky as an Internet hot spot. They also sold (and probably continue to sell) a good amount of English-language books (hard to find in St. Petersburg), Russian-language books from smaller publishers, and stocked cute t-shirts and underwear.

Unlike Indigo, Borges does not (yet?) advertise on Nevsky (the store, although it has a Nevsky address, is located deep inside a courtyard, and is not visible from the street). Perhaps they advertise in other ways; as far as I know, they only advertise to the literary community. Does this mean that the literary community in this city is vibrant and wealthy enough to carry one more bookstore? I wonder. The two events I went to were attended both nights by many of the same people and certainly not all of them were buying books. I am really hoping this bookstore has a long-term business strategy that will enable them to prosper for years to come--it's a cute little space, selling excellent books, and friendly to the local authors. Yay!!

The first event I attended was dedicated to Phillip Roth. Two of his translators to Russian led the debate about the significance of the International Booker Prize he recently won. Also, one of his translators, Vera Kobets, has just released a book of short stories, and so the event was also meant to mark the publication of her book. The second event was dedicated to the publication of a new anthology that contains the work of Andrei Bely Prize laureates. The prize committee and a few of the current and past laureates were in attendance and talked about the future of the prize, the future of literature, and the future of the book. The consensus here is divided, some people think that most interesting stuff these days happens on the Internet, while others think that Internet is inundated by trash and that the only books worth reading are published in paper form. Interestingly enough, nobody mentioned ebook readers -- for one reason or another, they are not making as huge of an impact on book publishing here (yet?). One philosopher (with a large local following) argued that copyright in the contemporary world is becoming meaningless, that works are created by consortium of people and no longer by an individual, and that we're witnessing the complete breakdown and end of an era of individual authorship.

One thing I found interesting during both events is that both the authors and the audience were reluctant when it came to reading from the books. During the second event (the anthology release party), nobody read from the book at all and one of the authors even said "I don't want to bore everyone." During the first event, Vera Kobets did read a short-short (a tiny two page story), but also apologized in advance about reading in general and about the quality of this particular story (she said that its inadequacies are quite blatant but hoped that the audience might find this interesting). I bought both books, and have started reading Kobets's work over the weekend -- I'm enjoying it a great deal. The quality of the prose is impressive, there is a lot of character depth, a large range of subject matter. It's as good of a book as any I've been reading lately in Russian, and yet I wouldn't have ever thought so from the way it was presented. She (and everyone else who spoke about the book, including the man who wrote the intro) spoke about it as a slight but worthy effort of an insignificant woman-writer with a lyrical, poetic style (as opposed to Rothian, detail-oriented and dry). It seemed to me as though the author and her editors were too shy, too reticent, too concerned about the opinion of their peers to speak well of the book (to praise? never!). I registered this as a major cultural difference from the San Francisco lit scene.

Another cultural difference--attitude to cell phones. Cell phones rang throughout both literary evenings; some people even picked up the phone and held brief telephone conversations during the talks. In a room the size of an urban living room, this affected everyone's ability to concentrate on the authors--and yet nobody (except me) seemed to be disturbed or bothered by it. At one point, even one of the speakers got a phone call. Instead of muting his phone and apologizing (what I with my American attitude toward cell phones would've expected), he picked up the call and yelled into the receiver: "Call me back, I'm at a bookstore, in the middle of a speech!" Then, I started to wonder whether this kind of attitude was possible because everyone in the room knew each other quite well and were like family to one another. Considering the fact that I, too, were slightly acquainted with a few of the audience members, I think this is not a bad theory. A book event at a store is not necessarily all that different from a family gathering in a large communal kitchen or a living room. But can one family really sustain even a living-room sized bookstore? Luckily, I've brought my aunt to the first event, and they've now got her to advertise on their behalf.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Autobiographic Geography

St. Petersburg is a fairly large city with a sizable historical downtown, and yet the routes that I traverse on my visits here include only few places of historical or cultural interest; I spend most of my time in the nondescript residential neighborhoods where my friends and family live. And even when I do get to go downtown, I tend to visit the same places over and over again, and never set foot in other fascinating parts of the city. I've spent three afternoons on Nevsky Prospekt--at or around Dom Knigi--the "House of Books"--a centrally located bookstore. Three times I've been to Vasilyevsky Ostrov, the island on the Neva where St. Petersburg University is located. I've gone to the same theatre complex twice, to see shows by two different companies. The Hermitage? The Peter and Paul fortress? The Russian Museum? The Neva embankment? On this trip, I haven't had time to walk around the city at all. I am proud though of making it to the new art museum, the museum that's opened just this fall, Erarta--the museum of contemporary St. Petersburg art. How cool am I to go to a museum!

My parents flat (where I lived from age 8 until 17) is located near "Kirovsky zavod," a famous old factory that stands just outside the historical downtown area. In 1905, the workers of this factory (it was then named after its owner, Putilov) started a strike that became Russia's first revolution (the strike was brutally suppressed by the tsar). My father's father was an engineer at this factory, made a long career from the 1930s until 1970s. When the workers of this factory started a strike and walked from here to the Winter Palace (where the Hermitage is now located), this walk must've taken them at least two hours. Nevsky Prospect is ways away--I've walked the distance only once or twice in my life; measured in subway stops, it's at least five stops away.

It's possible to live in a residential neighborhood and never make it to the historical downtown. In fact, many people who have kids make the trek downtown only a few times a year, to take the kids to a museum or to a show. In my childhood, I remember that every trip downtown was an event, a treat. When, as a 15-year-old, I went to math school that was located in the downtown itself, I loved the experience of traveling to school every day. At least once or twice or three times every week, I would make a detour on my way home from school. I'd walk down Liteyniy Prospect to Nevsky, and head for Dom Knigi--the House of Books, where I'd stand in front of the counter and stare at the books displayed behind the glass and on the opposite wall. I had other routes. I'd go to the Summer Garden. I'd walk across the river to the Finland Train Station. I'd stop by my parents office near Vosstaniya. Many times, one or two of my classmates would come along--we'd buy ice cream on the way and try to get into strange and silly adventures. Talk to foreigners on the street. Walk into a residential building to see if we could find access to the roof. For many years, during my visits back to St. Petersburg, I liked to check up on my favorite side streets and buildings. Now I can hardly make time even for this simple exercise.

Sunday, May 22, 2011


This week, parts of St. Petersburg--not the historical downtown where
there are few trees and little greenery of any kind--are covered with bright yellow flowers. Dandelions in Russia are considered a weed: if you are trying to grow a field of potatoes, dandelions are a nuisance. And yet in the city, even today when mowing lawns has become fashionable, nobody has the heart to mow the blooming dandelions. The Russian word for the flower, oduvanchik, originates from the verb "to blow," it means something that's being blown at or away--something very transitory--referring to the phase that comes after the blooming, when every gust of wind sends little white dandelion paratroopers afloat to establish new dandelion colonies out in the world. Dandelions are ubiquitous.

Yesterday, my friend Lyona, his wife Yulya, and I went to "TsPKO"-- "Central Park of Culture and Recreation" -- a largish park in the Northwest part of the city. Built in the 18th Century in the English style, the park is a system of canals and islands, with a very popular boating house where people can rent traditional wooden boats and row around. Booths selling ice cream abound; also games like darts--the goal is to hit several balloons; if you hit at least three balloons, you get a prize. Yulya did really well at this game, she was able to hit 4 or 5 balloons with 5 darts. I didn't hit any (despite considerable practice several years ago at a bar in the town of Sonoma). On a neighboring island, there are larger attractions--"American slides" -- roller coasters and other rides. My friends and I had ice cream and walked around. Somewhere in the park, there is an old palace that now houses some kind of a museum, but we didn't walk far enough. It was a beautiful warm day. Cheryomukha, "bird cherry," is also blooming. Cheryomukha is a medium sized tree that blooms with small, incredibly fragrant white flowers. I've been a little sick all week--my nose is stuffed--so I'm missing a large part of the spring experience. The dandelions, though, the dandelions--I feasted on the very sight of them.

Dandelions, I know, are a very useful plant. Wikipedia tells me that in China (where Dave is currently partying), it's considered a vegetable. Roasted dandelion roots can be used as coffee substitute. Young dandelion greens are very good in a salad. The yellow flowers themselves can be made into jam or wine (I'm remembering Ray Bradbury's story, "Dandelion Wine"). Honey made from dandelion flowers has a very potent taste and fragrance. In Russia, though, as I mentioned earlier, we mostly treated dandelions as a weed. At the beginning of every summer my grandmothers would concern themselves with making dandelion juice--for vitamins. We, the kids, collected the flowers and helped our grandmothers clean them and stuff them into the large glass jars with a bunch of sugar. In a day or two we were supposed to drink the sweet and slightly bitter mixture. I remember being thoroughly grossed out by it, but it wasn't the worst thing we were supposed to consume for our health as children. Something about the experience was oddly pleasant. It was like drinking the concentrated taste of summer itself.

The main reason my brother and I loved dandelions was because we could make striking gold crowns out of them. My grandmother taught me to weave dandelions into garlands--the stems of freshly picked dandelions are perfect for weaving: they are supple yet bendable. The stems are also full of sap, white when it first leaks out and gray-green when it dries on your hands, on your dress, on your face. It's almost impossible to make a garland or a crown without getting your clothes, your arms and legs and face completely smeared in dandelion sap. To make a thick wreath, we used two or three flowers at once; and the trick was to work fast and to try not to damage the flower. The yellow flowers are very fragile, they remain full and fluffy for only a few hours after picking, and if you're rough in handling them, they wilt immediately.

This is what the summer is like at its best: barefoot in a dandelion patch with a dandelion crown on my head, a dandelion garland around my neck, another dandelion crown I'm making for my brother.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


A few days before I was due to arrive in St. Petersburg, my mother was introduced to an administrator of one of the small local theatre companies. This woman turned out to be a huge theatre popularizer and a ticket resale agent. Clearly good at her job, she talked my mother into buying tickets to at least four shows in the upcoming weeks, and maybe more that I don't yet know about. As a result, I've been splitting my time in St. Petersburg between working (among other things, I'm preparing to give a talk at a major city library about my recent book, Keys From the Lost House), visiting friends--and going to the theatre.

On Friday, we went to see "Скамейка [The Bench]," a Soviet play from approximately 1960s. A man and a woman meet at a bench in the park, and it turns out that they'd met there before and had gone home together. The man is a habitual liar and a womanizer, and the woman is a naive and yet relentless detective, determined to help him and help herself. The production was stylized to the 1960s aesthetic (this didn't please my brother and his partner who came with us), the two actors of "Our Theatre" did a very good job, he, playing a man with many different faces, and she, a woman who constantly wavers between her desire to believe him and her lack of trust in his words. This play would be a great subject of analysis from the feminist point of view: I found it interesting that she initiated all the action in this play, and he was the one constantly on the defensive. They played traditional gender roles in that she was looking for a man to marry, while he was looking for a one night stand, but then it was also quite clear that this particular man would be a huge nuisance to her as a husband, and he thinks of one night stands as a kind of a chore.

On Monday, my parents, my aunt Maya and I went to the opera at the Mariinsky theatre, to see "Boris Godunov." Blame a young conductor or the ancient staging (the theatre restored Tarkovsky's production from 1960s or 1970s), this particular opera was a slow, depressing bore. This, despite the fact that all the singers were in excellent form, and our family friend, Akimov, sang the major tenor part, Grishka Otrepiev. His sweet, colorful voice woke us up once in a while, but by the end of the performance most of us were overcome with deep, albeit fitful, sleep.

Tonight's theatrical engagement was with a company named "Not Very Big Dramatic Theatre" (as opposed to the local "Bolshoi Theatre" and "Malyi Theatre" -- the Big and the Small theatres). The play was called "The Orchestra," written by a French playwright Jean Anouilh in 1962. After WWII, a man obsessed with an orchestra imagines the difficult private lives of the musicians. The acting was excellent, once again this week, especially parts of the play that were mimed or done in incoherent speech. I was not a huge fan of the dialogue--some of it felt much too melodramatic. The staging was very imaginative and inventive--characters used very simple and clear signs to indicate change from realist mode into a more introspective scene. Great use of simple props--like buckets of water to wash the floor of the theatre at several key moments during the play. What was particularly unexpected about this play: I think, this is the first time, when on the stage of a St. Petersburg theatre, I get to see a love scene between two men. It was the best scene of the play, too. The actors had great chemistry with one another, and although they stopped shy of a kiss, they seemed completely in love. There was also a hint at a sexual relationship between two women, little more than a hint, really; worse, intimations of an abusive relationship. I wonder what this relationship looks like in the text of the play. Would love to see other productions!

Both of the plays we saw ("The Bench" and "The Orchestra") were produced by small theatre troupes. Each of these companies employs about 10-12 actors. Both of these small troupes are sponsored by the government. The Russian government pays actors salary, also pays rent. This enables them to stage rather ambitious plays (like "The Orchestra" that seemed to require the participation of the entire company) in small spaces. The auditoriums at these theatres are limited to about 200 people, and despite their excellent qualities, neither of the plays sold out. I kept expecting the actors to ask for money at the end of the performance, but they never did. Such a thing is unheard of here; instead, at the end of the performance, dedicated theatre patrons give their favorite actors flowers--and applaud until their hands develop callouses.

By the way. One of the pieces "The Orchestra" played (in addition to a bunch of French chanson) was a Squirrel Nut Zippers song, straight from the 50s, right! Go Zippers! Except, I bet the theatre never paid the band any kind of usage fee.

Dave is in China, and blogging from China again:

Friday, May 13, 2011

Eating fish in St. Petersburg

I am in St. Petersburg again. It's warm here, in the 60s, but there's still a sense of everything waking up after a long winter. The trees are still budding, the fragile green leaves are slowly unraveling, turning towards the sun. The grass is coming up from under the ground in uneven patches. Lots of sand dust in the air. Pale yellow and beige buildings look like they need a new coat of paint. The good weather feels tentative.

In St. Petersburg, it's koriushka season. Koriushka, "European smelt," is a small white fish, traditionally fried with some breading. They say, fresh koriushka smells strongly like cucumbers -- not sure if that's the most accurate analogy, but it certainly has a peculiar smell. They also say that in the old days, in the spring, the whole city of Leningrad would smell of koriushka. The fish is found in all the northern seas, including the Baltic. It also lives in the lakes and rivers, including the Ladoga lake near st. Petersburg. It spawns in the spring, when ice melts and water warms up to +4C. This is also the fishing season. The traditional recipe is as simple as can be: clean off the scales, take out the guts (leaving the roe and the head), coat with flour and salt, and fry in butter or oil. Some people add eggs and breadcrumbs to the flour before frying.

Last night, my parents treated me to some koriushka that they bought already cooked. To warm it up, my mom fried it again. "You can never fry koriushka too much, that's the best part."

Here's a picture of koriushka from a blog that also has step-by-step cooking instructions: