2019’s top Russia-related books ‘Meduza’ has your reading list for the next 10,000 years
Hundreds of books about the Russian-speaking world are scheduled to be published in English in 2019. This list narrows that group down to 104 that show exceptional promise — and gives you the tools to find the ones you’ll love in seconds.
Disclaimer: Meduza’s English-language news editor, Hilah Kohen, composed this directory with help from publishers, translators, and writers who are credited at the end of this piece. That group, while knowledgeable, cannot help being biased. As a result, the previews below are largely laudatory, but their optimism can make them a light read in and of themselves: this collection will take you from literary greats to romping counterfactual histories and from dark Soviet humor to gorgeous children’s books.
Categories at a glance
- Contemporary classics: history made personal
- New covers for old favorites
- Political intrigues real and imagined
- Soviet and post-Soviet farce
- Russian-American literature
- American-Russian literature
- Nonfiction of the past
- Nonfiction of the future
- For young adults and kids of all ages
- Historical dramas with strong female leads
- Jewish life and history
- Art and art history
- On literature and philosophy
- On classical music
- Now in paperback
Every book on this page demonstrates that the Russian-speaking world contains a multitude of experiences — one that most English-language news does not reflect. However, no group of books showcases the diversity of Russian literature quite as viscerally as these. Here, a renowned Odessa-born poet imagines a Deaf insurgency that is already getting rave reviews. One of the first Kazakhstani women to gain international fame as a writer asks us to communicate with the inhuman world around us in new ways. This year’s poetic releases prove that verse form is inextricable from the love, trauma, mathematics, or mid-60s pop songs it brings into being.
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Ilya Kaminsky, Deaf Republic: Poems. Graywolf Press, March 2019.
During a protest, a deaf boy named Petya is killed, and the gunshot leaves an entire city deaf. Kaminsky’s verse narration of the resistance that follows has already won multiple prestigious awards and promises to be one of the most highly anticipated poetry collections of the year. The author’s Twitter also comes highly recommended.
Aigerim Tazhi, Paper-Thin Skin. Translated by J. Kates. Zephyr Press, May 2019.
Tazhi, who was born in Aktobe, Kazakhstan, already has a number of literary prizes to her name. Now her poems, which reflect on the mirrors humans use to interact with nature and with death, will be available in English translation for the first time.
Gala Mukomolova, Without Protection. Coffee House Press, April 2019.
A young woman from a Russian fairy tale struggles against the witch figure Baba Yaga as Craigslist, lesbian love, Myspace, the Russian Jewish emigration, and Lesley Gore weave into their fates. Mukomolova also writes under the pseudonym Galactic Rabbit.
Anzhelina Polonskaya, To the Ashes. Translated by Andrew Wachtel. Zephyr Press, February 2019.
Polonskaya’s latest poems, no longer publishable in Russia, will appear in both English and Russian here for the first time. In this collection, the award-winning poet explores how movement becomes separation and, ultimately, exile.
Dmitri Prigov, Sovietexts, Calculations, & Other Writings. Translated by Simon Schuchat. Ugly Duckling Presse, 2019.
Though Prigov’s writing emerged from the late Soviet and early post-Soviet era, this is the first selected volume of his poems and experimental prose to appear in English. Prigov was known as a Moscow Conceptualist leader who created subtly dissident literature and art in all genres and even collaborated with Pussy Riot.
Andrei Monastyrski, Elementary Poetry. Translated by Brian Droitcour and Yelena Kalinsky. Ugly Duckling Presse, 2019.
Known primarily as a performance artist, Monastyrski weaves visual and aural experiments into his poetry, which this volume collects alongside objects related to his collaborative protest actions.
Contemporary classics: history made personal
The political nature of English-language interest in Russia can make it hard to realize that Russian-language literary prose didn’t end with the death of Solzhenitsyn. Far from it: in these remarkable new translations, writers who are already literary celebrities in Russian will take English speakers on moving, unexpected historical journeys. The translators who will facilitate those journeys are a cross-section of the most respected professionals working in the field today. In fact, each of the publications listed below is so major that I could not manage to choose just a couple of covers to feature. As a bonus, I threw in Sergey Kuznetsov’s The Round Dance of Water in Valeriya Yermishova’s translation, which will be reprinted this year.
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Guzel Yakhina, Zuleikha: A Novel. Translated by Lisa C. Hayden. Oneworld Publications, February 2019.
Yakhina’s debut novel has shaken the Russian book world so deeply over its first three years of life that her second book topped the 2018 sales charts alongside international bestsellers by Dan Brown and Jojo Moyes. In Zuleikha, which is based on Yakhina’s family history, a young Tatar woman is caught up in Stalin’s repressions and forcibly evacuated to Siberia along with a motley crew of Soviet citizens. This tale of a woman who holds onto compassion while enduring atrocity also features cinematic narration and intricate plot construction.
Maxim Osipov, Rock, Paper, Scissors: And Other Stories. Translated by Boris Dralyuk, Alex Fleming, and Anne Marie Jackson; preface by Svetlana Alexievich; edited by Boris Dralyuk. New York Review Books, April 2019.
Fans of Anton Chekhov should be flocking to this book. Osipov, who lives and practices medicine on Moscow’s outskirts, depicts the misadventures of contemporary small-town life with love and a dose of dark humor.
Ludmila Ulitskaya, Jacob’s Ladder: A Novel. Translated by Polly Gannon. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, July 2019.
Jacob’s Ladder, which may be the final book written by a titan of contemporary Russian literature, is a multigenerational saga. Like some of Ulitskaya’s previous writing, it uses fictional family documents to see the twentieth century with new eyes.
New Russian Drama: An Anthology. Edited by Maksim Hanukai and Susanna Weygant; preface by Richard Schechner. Columbia University Press (Russian Library), August 2019.
Contemporary Russian drama is known for its shocking approaches to politics, violence, and anything else that falls into the range of its performances. This anthology offers English speakers an opportunity to reconceptualize theater with inspiration from that tradition.
Hamid Ismailov, Hayy ibn Yaqzan and the Language of the Bees (tentative title). Translated from Uzbek and Russian by Shelley Fairweather-Vega. Tilted Axis Press, November 2019.
This epic follows the global travels of an Uzbek writer after he sees the 11th-century thinker Avicenna in a dream and becomes convinced the scholar and alchemist is still alive. As the book proceeds, Ismailov’s slyly autobiographical narrator traces his intellectual heritage and struggles to find respect in Western Europe and the United States.
Sergei Lebedev, The Goose Fritz. Translated by Antonina W. Bouis. New Vessel Press, March 2019.
Celebrated by international greats like Svetlana Alexievich and Karl Ove Knausgaard, Lebedev offers a family saga with a dark premise: a German healer who lands in the court of Catherine the Great fathers nine children, but everyone in the family gets caught in the fatal events of Russian history except for one young Russian — the novel’s narrator. His efforts to uncover his mysterious family history stretch across space and time.
Evgeni Grishkovets, The Hemingway Game. Translated by Steven Volynets. Glagoslav Publications, 2019.
This debut novel by a well-known dramaturg, actor, and playwright earned mixed reviews in Russian, but it will hold a unique appeal for readers who prefer straightforward prose and narrative unity to literary excess. The Hemingway Game follows a day in the life of a shirt (yes, a shirt) from the moment it is pulled on one morning to the time it is taken off that night.
New covers for old favorites
Even in the centuries that gave us Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Bulgakov, numerous brilliant writers were shut out of the English language through no fault of their own. Today’s publishers and translators are still working to change that state of affairs and to print new editions of the classics English-speakers already love.
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Vasily Grossman, Stalingrad. Translated by Robert Chandler and Elizabeth Chandler. NYRB Classics, June 2019.
Stalingrad is the prequel to Life and Fate, a classic of twentieth-century Russian literature. In combination, the two books depict the Second World War with epic depth and scale. Stalingrad simultaneously fills in the gaps left by its second half and offers readers who are new to Grossman a set of haunting absences that may draw them deep into the well-loved writer’s work. The translators of this volume are known for their attention to both linguistic and historical detail.
Karolina Pavlova, A Double Life. Translated by Barbara Heldt. Columbia University Press (Russian Library), August 2019.
The Russian Library series is printing a new edition of this particular translation for good reason. 19th-century Russian literature may seem to be a man’s world, but this subtly satirical aristocratic marriage plot crosses from prose to poetry and back to prove otherwise.
Irina Odoevtseva, Isolde. Translated by Irina Steinberg; Pushkin Press, 2019.
Banine, Days in the Caucasus. Translated from French by Anne Thompson-Ahmadova. Pushkin Press, April 2019.
This memoir, has never before been published in English despite its critical success in French. It offers a wild ride through the author’s life as the granddaughter of Azerbaijani peasants whose descendants struck black gold but were forced to flee to Iran, Georgia, Turkey, and finally France. Banine has been praised for her razor-sharp sense of humor.
Russian Stories. Edited by Christoph Keller. Everyman’s Library, April 2019.
This volume brings together stories from a slew of the best-known Russian-language writers under a well-designed, giftable cover. While this collection seems to pat itself on the back a bit much for including women writers who have been very well-read in Russian for decades and available in translation for just as long, it is unique in that it stretches from Alexander Pushkin to present-day stars like Tatiana Tolstaya.
Anton Chekhov, In the Ravine & Other Stories. Translated by Constance Garnett; introduction by Paul Bailey. Macmillan Collector’s Library, September 2019.
This collector’s edition of Chekhov’s short stories, translated by the woman who first brought Russian literature to English speakers en masse, includes works from throughout the writer’s career and promises to make an excellent gift.
Political intrigues real and imagined
Short news stories and the buzz that surrounds them may be the most easily available resources for understanding Russian politics, but that doesn’t make them the best. These books offer readers a bigger picture by layering context and documentation onto current events. Some of them tend to gloss over the fact that Russia is inestimably more than its government, but many of them successfully analyze government through research about people, institutions, and cultures.
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Eric Haseltine, The Spy in Moscow Station: A Counterspy’s Hunt for a Deadly Cold War Threat. Forward by General Michael V. Hayden. Thomas Dunne Books, April 2019.
Haseltine has held a number of roles in U.S. intelligence, including Director of Research at the NSA. Before that, he was an executive for Disney. This book promises to synthesize true crime and entertainment to tell the story of a Cold War-era spy mission in which American officers defy both the Soviet government and their own.
Mark Galeotti, We Need to Talk About Putin: How the West Gets Him Wrong. Penguin, 2019.
Galeotti’s latest dive into the intricacies of contemporary Russian politics bills itself as a primer on everything Western commentators have gotten wrong about the Russian president. It relies largely on original sources, both public and never before seen.
Eliot Borenstein, Plots against Russia: Conspiracy and Fantasy after Socialism. Cornell University Press, April 2019.
Borenstein is known as an innovative writer who is as comfortable between politics and culture as he is between popular and academic writing. This book delves into speeches, TV shows, and more to flesh out the zany conspiracy theories that live in many corners of Russian society. Make sure to grab the paperback: academic hardcovers are pricey.
Owen Matthews, Black Sun: A Novel. Doubleday, July 2019.
This political thriller is different from most English-language fiction about the Soviet Union: the protagonist is himself a KGB officer. He must investigate a murder at a top-secret facility where scientists live freely so long as they keep working on the world’s most destructive bomb. If you’ve been following the news on Dau, this one is for you.
Nina Khrushcheva and Jeffrey Tayler, In Putin’s Footsteps: Searching for the Soul of an Empire Across Russia’s Eleven Time Zones. St. Martin’s Press, February 2019.
Two experienced commentators on the Russian-speaking world find a springboard at the very beginning of the Putin era, when the new president hoped to travel through all of Russia’s time zones fast enough to give a New Year’s address in every one. Unlike many similar books, this one keeps the focus away from the Kremlin and turns to Russia’s regions instead. As a bonus, one author is Nikita Khrushchev’s great-granddaughter.
Rachel S. Salzman, Russia, BRICS, and the Disruption of Global Order. Georgetown University Press, April 2019.
This meatier scholarly volume uses the history of BRICS, a largely Russian-led international consortium, to ask big questions about challenges to U.S. hegemony.
Harvey Klehr, The Millionaire Was a Soviet Mole: The Twisted Life of David Karr. Encounter Books, July 2019.
This romping political biography introduces readers to a shady but influential figure. David Karr had a hand in just about every center of power in the United States — along with the KGB and the Mossad.
Alexander Zvyagintsev, The Nuremberg Trials. Translated by Christopher Culver. Glagoslav Publications, 2019.
Zvyagintsev, a respected historian, typically uses his trove of archival research and interviews about the Nuremberg Trails to write weighty historical nonfiction. Here, he aims to let his narrative creativity run free with a fictional tale of romance and espionage.
Richard Sakwa, Russia’s Futures. Polity, April 2019.
In a book that promises wide-ranging analysis of the challenges facing the Russian state, Sakwa argues that those challenges have been made all the more difficult by an international order that failed to make room for a changing Russian society.
Soviet and post-Soviet farce
Totalitarianism breeds morbid humor, and the Soviet Union is no exception to that rule. This year boasts an impressive group of farcical tales that promise to take readers back to the USSR with a heady combination of laughter and tears. Their absurd premises, from a family that hides the Soviet Union’s collapse from its patriarch to a scam that underlies the entire Soviet space program, should provide plenty of food for thought in the current political environment.
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Olga Slavnikova, The Man Who Couldn’t Die: The Tale of an Authentic Human Being. Translated by Marian Schwartz; introduction by Mark Lipovetsky. Columbia University Press (Russian Library), January 2019.
When a Soviet veteran has a stroke in the early 1990s, his wife and stepdaughter develop an elaborate ruse to keep him in comfort by pretending the Soviet Union never collapsed. The stepfather, it turns out, has other plans. Both the writer and the translator of this post-Soviet classic have received widespread accolades.
Zach Powers, First Cosmic Velocity. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, August 2019.
In this highly intriguing debut novel, the entire Soviet space program has been built on a lie: no spacecraft has ever managed to return to Earth, so every cosmonaut has a twin waiting to take over their life once they lift off for good. Leonid, the last of the twins, grapples with the consequences of this deception as Nikita Khrushchev, who is unaware of the entire scheme, asks for his own dog to be sent to space.
Olga Gromyko, The As*trobiologists (tentative title). Translated by Shelley Fairweather-Vega. 2019.
Gromyko has earned a cult following for her series of absurdist space adventures, and this is the first of the Belarusian author’s books to appear in English. An eccentric crew on an extraterrestrial research mission encounter space pirates on a treasure hunt, and hilarity ensues.
Yuz Aleshkovsky, Nikolai Nikolaevich and Camouflage: Two Novels. Translated by Duffield White; edited by Susanne Fusso. Columbia University Press (Russian Library), June 2019.
Aleshovsky’s novels of the 1970s refract the absurdities of Soviet life through frenzied monologues and plenty of profanity. In the first of these two novels, a pickpocket gets caught up in romantic and political intrigues after donating sperm for a biological experiment. In the second, a group of alcoholics who believe they work for the Soviet military wander the streets.
Andrei Egunov-Nikolev, Beyond Tula: A Soviet Pastoral. Translated by Ainsley Morse. Academic Studies Press, May 2019.
Published by an official Soviet press in 1931 but quickly removed from circulation, this is a lighthearted satire of the USSR’s often tragic attempts at rural industrialization. Written by a classics scholar gone rogue, Beyond Tula promises a campy, burlesque-like take on early Soviet history.
Writers have found themselves somewhere between the Russian- and English-speaking worlds for more than a century, but late and post-Soviet immigration to North America has turned this category into a widely recognized genre. The books that will emerge from it this year seem to be particularly powerful: in this section, both new and experienced writers weave their personal experiences crossing languages and borders together with impressive literary craftsmanship. The recurring character in most of these books is motherhood, which anchors memoirs, short stories, and novels alike.
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Sophia Shalmiyev, Mother Winter: A Memoir. Simon & Schuster, February 2019.
This highly anticipated debut book is an account of the author’s life as a girl who grew up a motherless refugee and as a woman who sought motherhood in unexpected places. Mother Winter is earning impressive reviews for its lyricism and vulnerability.
David Bezmozgis, Immigrant City. Harper Collins, March 2019.
This short story collection ties together Latvia and Canada more than it touches on Russia or the United States. Bezmozgis, whose last collection was released more than a decade ago to critical acclaim, presents a series of touching but complicated vignettes on immigrant life.
Maria Kuznetsova, Oksana, Behave! A Novel. Spiegel & Grau, March 2019.
Oksana’s parents and her grandmother, all from Ukraine, struggle through their first years in Florida as the protagonist herself gets tangled in an escalating series of misadventures. With a middle finger to the reader right on the cover, this debut novel is sure to provoke both shock and laughter.
Olga Zilberbourg, Like Water & Other Stories. WTAW Press, fall 2019.
After three Russian-language story collections, Zilberbourg is becoming one of those few writers who successfully crosses languages without the aid of a translator. This collection spans topics from immigration and motherhood to birth and death.
Irina Reyn, Mother Country: A Novel. Thomas Dunne Books, February 2019.
In this new novel, an experienced writer tackles the human consequences of war and xenophobia. Nadia, who is ethnically Russian but immigrated to Brooklyn from Ukraine, grapples with the conflicts of the last five years as the Department of Homeland Security keeps her daughter from joining her. When her daughter loses access to medicine she needs, Nadia begins taking extraordinary measures to bring them back together.
Maxim D. Shrayer, A Russian Immigrant: Three Novellas. Cherry Orchard Books, September 2019.
To close out this category, an experienced cataloguer of Jewish-Russian-American life presents three interlinked journeys filled with suspense and nostalgia. Shrayer’s protagonist, Simon Reznikov, travels the United States in a narrative that weaves back and forth in time as its characters struggle to confront their pasts.
The literary impact of immigration from Russian-speaking areas to English-speaking ones stretches beyond writers who were a part of that movement themselves. Multiple books that are making a major splash in the world of American literary fiction are actually stories about Russia and Russians. From a mystery that sweeps through the far eastern Kamchatka Peninsula to a year abroad in Louisiana that spins into chaos, these novels offer piercing new points of view.
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Julia Phillips, Disappearing Earth: A Novel. Knopf, May 2019.
Two young girls go missing, and the residents of an entire peninsula begin to rethink their places in the communities around them. Moving forward month by month, each of this mystery’s thirteen chapters opens onto the life of one woman in the year following the kidnapping. Phillips’s debut novel seems to ask readers to move past easy ethnographic readings of both women and Russia. In their place, this book offers close listening and empathy.
Lydia Fitzpatrick, Lights All Night Long: A Novel. Penguin Press, April 2019.
Ilya, a 15-year-old from a small Russian town, is just beginning to acclimate to the oddities and excesses of life abroad in Louisiana when his attention turns back home. His rebellious older brother has landed in prison, and Ilya is determined to defend him. Fitzpatrick has won accolades as a short story writer, and her novel is poised to have a similar effect.
Karen Ellis, Last Night. Mulholland Books, February 2019.
Crisp Crespo, born and raised in a Russian-American family, is one of very few black kids in Brighton Beach. He seems sure to have a shining future ahead until one night’s adventures go very wrong. The second in a series of mystery novels about Detective Lex Cole, this book provides a perspective on Russian émigré culture that would be difficult to find in Russian literature itself.
Chris Cander, The Weight of a Piano: A Novel. Knopf, January 2019.
An upright piano links Katya, a musician and mother forced to leave the Soviet Union, with Clara, a young auto mechanic in near-present-day California. Clara, who was given the piano but does not play, breaks her hand while moving it, setting in motion a series of events that shed light on the complexity of art and immigration.
Nonfiction of the past
This year’s English-language historical nonfiction about Russia is remarkable in several respects. It narrates events outside the Russian-speaking world most readers know by reaching into Eastern Europe, the far north, Kazakhstan, and the Mongol Empire. It also includes multiple works that have been translated from Russian and a range of formal styles inspired by social media and military battle diagrams alike.
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Joanna Lillis, Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan. I.B. Tauris, January 2019.
This portrait of Kazakhstan is based on the author’s 13 years documenting the country’s politics and culture as a journalist. The book promises a roller coaster ride among landscapes, communities, and political intrigues of all kinds (ostrich farming, anyone?) and is already earning fans both in academic circles and among readers who just enjoy learning from a good story.
Svetlana Alexievich, Last Witnesses: An Oral History of the Children of World War II. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Random House, July 2019.
Alexievich, the 2015 Nobel Prize laureate in literature, has already made a permanent impression on global audiences with The Unwomanly Face of War, her oral history of women on the Eastern Front of World War II. This book was published in Russian in 1985 as the subsequent installment of Alexievich’s epic cycle Voices from Utopia, but it is now being published in English for the first time. Alexievich’s ability to weave the voices of those she interviews into a powerful narrative is already haunting enough when she focuses on adults; when applied to childhood experiences, it is bound to leave readers aching.
Bathsheba Demuth, Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait. W.W. Norton & Company, August 2019.
This first-ever popular history of the Bering Strait poses questions that will only grow more important in a warming climate: it explores how animals, plants, natural landscapes, and human beings responded as capitalism and communism demanded that they serve ideas of human progress. Demuth’s research in Inupiat, Yupik, and Chukchi communities shows care and rigor, but it is the poetry of her writing that tends to come up first in recommendations and reviews.
Mikhail Zygar, Eyewitness 1917: The Russian Revolution as it Happened. Translators to be announced. Fontanka Publishers, March 2019.
1917: Free History was a live social media feed that posted letters, diaries, articles, and other primary sources from the year 1917 one century to the day after they were first written. The Russian version of the project even included multimedia ballet premieres, strategy games played against Lenin himself, and a modified Tinder app that pairs users with celebrities of the period. Readers can hope that Zygar, the founder and director of the project, has brought that same sense of innovation to this printed version.
Mark Galeotti, Kulikovo 1380: The Battle that Made Russia. Illustrated by Darren Tan; maps by Paul Kime. Osprey Publishing, February 2019.
This is a book for hardcore fans of military history. It offers detailed account of the battle that began to loosen Mongol control over city-states and regional princedoms in 14th-century Rus’. The book includes day-by-day accounts of the battle as well as maps and diagrams drawn in three dimensions.
Nonfiction of the future
These books deserve their own category because they seem to have one eye constantly trained on events to come. By drawing on an impressive range of interviews and archival materials, they use history to discern more general patterns in human behavior and to ask how those patterns might recur.
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From Russia with Code: Programming Migrations in Post-Soviet Times. Edited by Mario Biagioli and Vincent Antonin Lépinay. Duke University Press, March 2019.
This collection of articles is dedicated to the significant roles Russian-born computer scientists play in politics, technology, and migration around the globe. Its contributors conducted more than three hundred interviews with programmers living inside and outside Russia.
Kate Brown, Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future. W.W. Norton & Company, March 2019.
Brown’s contribution to the narratives surrounding Chernobyl is a focus on the failure of powerful institutions to grapple with the disaster’s human and environmental consequences. This book offers readers and international political players a glimpse of the behavioral patterns that accompany many human-induced catastrophes.
Anya Bernstein, The Future of Immortality: Remaking Life and Death in Contemporary Russia. Princeton University Press, June 2019.
Though this book concentrates on present-day inventors and utopians who are exploring the limits of death in Russia, it also draws on centuries-old histories of Russian and Soviet experiments with immortality. Bernstein aims to bridge academic and popular audiences with a gripping writing style.
For young adults and kids of all ages
These books all have ties to Russian cultural traditions, but there is no other criterion that would bring them all together. Three of them are detective stories about woodland animals written by a star of contemporary Russian literature. Another is a vivid, folklore-inspired graphic novel. Others depict coming-of-age stories and grapple the challenges of immigration. Though intended for younger readers, many of these books have a lot to offer grown-ups, too.
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Starobinets, Anna: A Predator’s Rights: A Beastly Crimes Book, translated by Jane Bugaeva; Dover, January 2019.
Starobinets, Anna: Claws of Rage: A Beastly Crimes Book, translated by Jane Bugaeva; Dover, June 2019.
Starobinets, Anna: The Plucker: A Beastly Crimes Book, translated by Jane Bugaeva; Dover, August 2019.
Anna Starobinets is by all accounts a remarkable writer: her thrillers and everyday horror stories, written for children and adults alike, have earned her a prominent position in the mainstream of Russian literary fiction (and more than 30,000 Facebook followers). This detective series for elementary-aged readers has matched her existing popularity in Russian. It follows the Holmesian pair of Chief Badger and his young assistant Badgercat as they attempt to keep the peace in the Far Woods. Three books in the series are scheduled to be published this year with detailed illustrations. Book one can be found here.
Alexander Utkin, The Water Spirit: Gamayun Tales Vol. 2. Translated by Lada Morozova. Nobrow Press, January 2019.
Utkin’s series of graphic novels based on Russian folklore features lush illustrations that alternate between crisp figure drawings and natural elements that seem to burst off the page. Aimed at readers aged 10 and up, this series tells the story of a merchant and his son who find themselves entangled in a world of nature spirits. The first book in the series, The King of Birds, can be found here.
Rebecca Podos, The Wise and the Wicked. Balzer + Bray, May 2019.
This fantasy novel for young adults features an innovative premise: every woman in the Russian-American Chernyavsky family has a vision of her own death at the moment she comes of age. That vision is seemingly the last power that has survived the family’s escape from the powerful men who tried to hunt them down in Russia. Young Ruby Chernyavsky unearths new mysteries about her family’s powers and teams up with her cousin to solve them at great personal risk. Podos, a Lambda Award winner for her previous YA writing, is an author worth following.
Yevgenia Nayberg, Anya’s Secret Society. Charlesbridge, March 2019.
Anya grows up in Russia, where gossip about her left-handedness leads her to imagine a secret society of left-handed artists like herself. This picture book for beginning readers presents a view on immigration that will resonate with some but that others might find overly optimistic. Regardless, its illustrations look like they have been painted on wood carved in bas relief, and its storyline will get readers thinking about how society treats those who do not match its expectations.
Katia Raina, Castle of Concrete: A Novel. Young Europe Books, June 2019.
The collapse of the Soviet Union allows Sonya’s dissident mother to return from exile in Siberia, and Sonya begins to break out of her self-conception as a timid, ordinary Soviet citizen. This young adult novel explores her personal growth as the creative Jewish girl navigates a romance with a potentially anti-Semitic boy while her mother dreams of emigration.
Historical dramas with strong female leads
If you think “women’s fiction” isn’t worth your time, these books may very well change your mind. Their authors are chin-deep in the history of science, theater, war, and more, and that research produces a range of unexpected plots. In this category, women fly apparent suicide missions into Nazi territory and survive, struggle to build their careers as war endangers their loved ones, and shed new light on events from the medieval to the modern.
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Rachel Barenbaum, A Bend in the Stars. Grand Central Publishing, May 2019.
This debut novel has a fascinating plot. Miri and Vanya Abramov are raised by their matchmaker grandmother in a small Jewish community. Miri is poised to become one of Russia’s only female surgeons, and Vanya is hammering at the cracks in Einstein’s theory of relativity. As war breaks out in 1914, both are torn between escaping with their lives and trying to survive in a homeland where they both might make scientific history. However, when Vanya goes missing and Miri decides to look for him, both their safety and their scientific discoveries are at risk. With impressive early endorsements and comparisons to hits like All the Light We Cannot See, this is a novel to watch and to read.
Garth Ennis and Russ Braun, The Night Witches. Dead Reckoning, March 2019.
The women who flew Soviet biplanes in extremely risky missions against the Nazis are already a historic legend, but this graphic novel approaches that history from a new angle. First, it depicts the life of a single “Night Witch” visually, putting readers in the hands of two veterans in the world of comics. Second, it explores the complications of standing (or flying) between the Nazis and the threat of Soviet repressions, complicating a narrative that tends to be purely patriotic.
Janet Fitch, Chimes of a Lost Cathedral. Little, Brown and Company, July 2019.
The sequel to Fitch’s highly successful Revolution of Marina M., this book finds Marina reeling from the aftermath of the October Revolution and struggling to keep herself safe as she carries a child to term during the Russian Civil War. When she returns to Petrograd to try and make a difference in the city’s fate, Marina faces tragedy and continues coming into her own as a poet.
Katherine Arden, The Winter of the Witch. Del Rey, January 2019.
The final installment in the Winternight Trilogy, which began with The Bear and the Nightingale, follows its gifted heroine Vasilisa in her final effort to save Moscow from the magical forces that threaten it. Heavily inspired by Russian folklore, this series also relies on extensive research into the everyday lives of medieval Slavs.
Martha Hall Kelly, Lost Roses: A Novel. Ballantine Books, April 2019.
The bestselling author of Lilac Girls, which centered on the very real World War II-era philanthropist Caroline Ferriday, returns with a prequel set a generation earlier. In it, Eliza Ferriday and her friend Sofya, a Romanov cousin, struggle through war and revolution. Varinka, a member of Sofya’s domestic staff, brings a working-class point of view to their story.
C. W. Gortner, The Romanov Empress: A Novel of Tsarina Maria Feodorovna. Ballantine Books, July 2019.
This novel follows the life of Russia’s penultimate empress from her childhood as a Danish princess named Minnie to the aftermath of the revolution that cost her family their lives. While the revolutions of 1917 have been fictionalized plenty, the queen mother’s unique perspective on the intrigues and the downfall of the Russian aristocracy is featured here for the first time.
This latest book from a bestselling author of historical fiction features three central characters: a Soviet Night Witch who barely survived World War II, a war correspondent-turned-Nazi hunter, and a 17-year-old budding photographer living in postwar Boston. What brings them all together is the mystery of a Nazi assassin known as the Huntress who, like many real-world Nazis, has escaped to the United States.
Susana Aikin, We Shall See the Sky Sparkling. Kensington, January 2019.
Lily, who has eluded her family’s domestic expectations by becoming an actress, is forced to flee London for St. Petersburg when a mentor sets out to destroy her reputation. When she falls into an affair with a radical aristocrat, however, Lily must find a new role for herself in the eastern city of Vladivostok. Unlike most of the novels in this category, which center on the two world wars, this story features the Russian-Japanese War that set the stage for those conflicts.
Imogen Edwards-Jones, The Witches of St. Petersburg: A Novel. Harper Paperbacks, January 2019.
Edwards-Jones, an experienced author in multiple genres, based this novel on real historical figures who practiced black magic in pre-revolutionary Russia. In the book, two sisters from Montenegro must navigate the erotic and social obstacles of the Romanov court despite their outsider status. As the Tsarina, who is perceived as a foreigner herself, becomes increasingly desperate to give birth to a male heir, she turns to the sisters and their skills in the occult, inadvertently introducing Grigory Rasputin into her family.
The Russian Revolutions of 1917 are known in English for a handful of charismatic leaders and an explosive effect on the politics of the 20th century. These stories fill out that picture by introducing figures who dove into revolutionary activities without conspiring to rule Russia themselves, leaving a detailed paper trail behind them. In addition, these books make clear that 1917 was just one very major mark on a long timeline of Russian revolutionary thought.
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Alexandra Kollontai, Alexandra Kollontai: Writings from the Struggle. Translated and edited by Cathy Porter. Haymarket Books, March 2019.
Victor Serge, Notebooks: 1934–1947. Translated by Mitchell Abidor and Richard Greeman. NYRB Classics, April 2019.
Victor Serge was involved in socialist anarchism from a very young age and faced the threat of repression in Belgium, France, Spain, Russia, Vichy France, and ultimately Mexico. In the process, he managed to write multiple novels, do his best to expose the injustices of the Stalinist regime, and create a record of his eventful life. These notebooks include appearances by André Breton, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Leonora Carrington, and Octavio Paz along with elegies to Lev Trotsky, Osip Mandelstam, and Maxim Gorky.
Boris Savinkov, Pale Horse: A Novel of Revolutionary Russia. Translated by Michael R. Katz. University of Pittsburgh Press, May 2019.
Michael Katz follows his translation of Crime and Punishment with this classic novel, whose plot adheres closely to the assassination of Sergei Alexandrovich, a son of Alexander II. Savnikov aims to delve into the psychology of a group of revolutionary conspirators and explore the motivations that underlie political violence.
Jewish life and history
Even with the enormous impact Eastern European Jews have already made on Anglophone culture, there is always more to write and read about them. The number of remarkable books on Ashkenazi culture that will be published this year only underscores that fact. Among them is a formally impressive first-person novel, a volume of military history on the seventh to 11th centuries CE, and multiple new accounts of 20th-century border-crossers who managed to build meaningful lives out of chaos.
לייענט וועגן אַכט ביכער
Margarita Khemlin, Klotzvog. Translated by Lisa Hayden. Columbia University Press (Russian Library), August 2019.
This novel about Jewish identity, wartime trauma, and Soviet life is a character study of the insufferable Maya Abramovna Klotzvog. Klotzvog, in the tradition of first-person narrators like Dostoevsky’s man from underground, has far too much to tell you about her Ukrainian childhood, her evacuation to Kazakhstan, and her series of unfortunate husbands, but that doesn’t mean readers will be able to look away. This is not the first time Hayden, a major translator of contemporary Russian literature, has tackled Khemlin’s work.
Mikhail Zhirohov, David Nicolle, and Christa Hook, The Khazars: A Judeo-Turkish Empire on the Steppes, 7th–11th Centuries AD. Osprey Publishing, January 2019.
The Khazar Empire, which controlled areas from southeast Europe to western Central Asia for seven centuries, was also the largest Jewish-ruled state in world history. This detailed study of the empire includes numerous illustrations and diagrams. It depicts military strategies and groundbreaking metalworking technologies that would lay the foundations for Ukrainian and Russian statecraft.
Luba Jurgenson, Where There Is Danger. Translated from French by Meredith Sopher. Academic Studies Press, October 2019.
Jurgenson, a Jewish writer, scholar, and translator who is widely recognized in France, published this account of living bilingually to great acclaim. In it, she analyzes her own experiences standing between Russian and French in a series of anecdotes.
Steven J. Zipperstein, Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History. Liveright, July 2019.
An accomplished historian writes on a 1903 anti-Semitic rampage that served as a prototype for pogroms and genocides to come. As he investigates the attacks that killed 49 and left 600 raped or wounded, Zipperstein aims to sift through widespread misconceptions about Kishinev and uncover the origins of civil rights institutions that still operate today.
Francine Klagsbrun, Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel. Schocken, April 2019.
The author, a frequent columnist on both Jewish and women’s issues, has created an extensive biography of Israel’s controversial fourth prime minister—and its first representative to the USSR. This book includes Meir’s most prominent actions as a politician but moves beyond them to shed light on her background and her final years.
Kadya Molodovsky, A Jewish Refugee in New York: Rivke Zilberg’s Journal. Translated from Yiddish by Anita Norich. Indiana University Press, April 2019.
Educated in present-day Belarus, Poland, and Russia, Molodovsky was one of the 20th century’s best-known Yiddish writers. This journal is actually fictional: Molodovsky imagines the life of a 20-year-old Jewish refugee in New York to shed light on the development of one of today’s most impactful Jewish communities.
Doba-Mera Medvedeva, Daughter of the Shtetl: The Memoirs of Doba-Mera Medvedeva. Translated by Alice Nakhimovsky; edited and translated by Michael Beizer. Academic Studies Press, April 2019.
Moishe Rozenbaumas, The Odyssey of an Apple Thief. Translated by Jonathan Layton; edited by Isabelle Rozenbaumas. Syracuse University Press, June 2019.
Moishe Rozenbaumas’s autobiography begins in a Lithuanian yeshiva town and takes its readers through the author’s struggle to convince his family to flee the oncoming war, his escape to an Uzbek collective farm, a second escape to a reconnaissance unit in the Red Army, a brief career in the Communist Party, a third escape to Paris in search of an openly Jewish life – and, of course, a tale of apple theft.
Art and art history
Art lovers will have much to celebrate this year when it comes to books on Russian and Soviet visual traditions. Though they include a significant smattering of much-lauded European men, these books also open their pages to women artists, contemporary photographers, and African-American actors and models who changed the way Russian speakers looked at the world around them.
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Ivan Lindsay and Rena Lavery, Soviet Women and Their Art: The Spirit of Equality. Unicorn Publishing Group, February 2019.
Edited by a group of prominent art dealers, this collection walks its readers through Soviet women’s art from the avant-garde movements of the early 20th century through the rise of Nonconformism and the Soviet Union’s collapse. Along with over 200 pages of contextualizing essays, this volume includes 100 color plates.
Vincent Antonin Lépinay, Art of Memories: Curating at the Hermitage. Columbia University Press, April 2019.
This study from an accomplished academic makes two major intellectual moves. The book treats Russia’s State Hermitage Museum as a laboratory of curation and conservation rather than an elaborate display case. At the same time, it probes the tension between the Hermitage’s need to protect itself from the outside world and its impetus to join a global art community. What emerges is a unique account of how art history is made.
Yevgeniy Fiks, The Wayland Rudd Collection. Ugly Duckling Presse, Fall 2019.
Representations of Africans and African-Americans pervaded state propaganda, the performing arts, and civil rights activism in the USSR. As many readers might expect but few mainstream English speakers know, those representations were a highly complex mixed bag. For this book, Yevgeniy Fiks invited contemporary artists and writers to respond to 200 Soviet images in his collection with either essays or new artworks. To anchor their responses, Fiks puts a particular focus on Wayland Rudd, an African-American actor who lived in the Soviet Union for 20 years, acting and modeling for images like these along the way.
Evgeny Berezner, Irina Tchmereva, and Wendy Watriss, Contemporary Russian Photography. Schilt Publishing, September 2019.
This gorgeous collection compiled by key figures in the Russian photography scene stretches for 360 pages. It begins with the Khrushchev thaw and tracks the evolution of Russian photography through the present day within a clean, minimalist design. By all appearances, these shocking yet insightful images will be a treat for any art lover.
Igor Golomstock, A Ransomed Dissident: A Life in Art under the Soviets. Translated by Sara Jolly and Boris Dralyuk; afterward by Robert Chandler. I.B. Tauris, January 2019.
Golomstock’s early childhood education came from the profanity-filled expanses of the gulag system, in which his mother worked as a doctor. Nonetheless, he became a leading art historian in the Soviet Union — until the state demanded that he pay more than 25 years’ salary for the right to leave the country. These memoirs, which offer an inside look at elite institutions from the Pushkin Museum to the BBC, are in the hands of capable translators.
John J. Curley, Global Art and the Cold War. Laurence King, January 2019.
This book is the first ever attempt to synthesize art history around the world as it developed during the Cold War. Drawing on more than 100 artworks, Curley argues that a focus on tensions between American abstraction and Soviet realism shuts out a global range of nuanced visuals that express diverse political and social perspectives.
Vladimir Mayakovsky and Vera Terekhina, ROSTA Windows. Schilt Publishing, December 2019.
Yes, this is the Vladimir Mayakovsky. Best known as a brash avant-garde poet, he joined a group of Soviet artists and writers to create a new genre of satirical propaganda posters that were named ROSTA windows after the Russian Telegraphic Agency where the artists worked. This collection brings together approximately 200 posters that are preserved today in Moscow’s Mayakovsky Museum.
Mikhail Piotrovsky, The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg: Director’s Choice. Scala Arts Publishers, July 2019.
Mikhail Piotrovsky has directed St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum for almost 30 years. Here, he has filled 80 pages with personal favorites from the museum’s collection with the aim of making them accessible to a broad readership. What more is there to say? This book is for anyone looking for a skillfully curated look at classic European art from the Renaissance to the Dutch Golden Age to Impressionism.
On literature and philosophy
While many of the books on this list demonstrate by example that Russian literature is not limited to the bearded greats of the 19th century, it is another matter to see the broader scope of Russian letters described explicitly. This mix of biographies, memoirs, criticism, and reading guides is targeted in large part toward popular audiences but will certainly find scholars among its readers as well. This year’s haul is notable for highlighting truly charismatic figures that classic translations of Russian literature often (unfairly) overlook.
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Edythe Haber, Teffi: A Life of Letters and of Laughter. I.B. Tauris, September 2018.
This book may have been published last year, but thanks to its January 10 American release, I simply had to include it. Teffi, one of the most beloved Russian writers of the 20th century, has been making readers laugh themselves to tears for decades, but this book is the first biography of this literary star in any language. Thanks to Haber’s extremely meticulous research on Teffi’s encounters with Tolstoy, Rasputin, and others, English speakers can finally get a glimpse into a remarkable life. Thanks to translators like Robert Chandler, they can also begin reading Teffi’s oeuvre in English translation.
Robert Zaretsky, Catherine & Diderot: The Empress, the Philosopher, and the Fate of the Enlightenment. Harvard University Press, February 2019.
Zaretsky takes Denis Diderot’s four-month visit to the court of Catherine the Great as a starting point for examining the lives of both figures along with the cross-cultural connections that shaped both Russian history and Enlightenment-era political philosophy. The first book-length study of the encounter between these two thinkers is based on an expansive archive of primary sources.
Vladislav Khodasevich, Necropolis. Translated by Sarah Vitali. Columbia University Press (Russian Library), May 2019.
The central players of the so-called Silver Age of Russian literature began their careers at the turn of the century before being tossed headlong into war and revolution. The lives they created read in many retellings like a Greek myth crossed with an explosive celebrity gossip column. Vladislav Khodasevich, who outlived many of his contemporaries, catalogued those lives as they ended one by one. Vitali, an emerging translator and scholar, has done readers a service by bringing these unusual memoirs into English.
Brian Boeck, Stalin’s Scribe: Literature, Ambition, and Survival: The Life of Mikhail Sholokhov. Pegasus Books, February 2019.
This seems to be the year of groundbreaking literary biographies. Mikhail Sholokhov was the author of an epic novel that emerged in English as Quiet Flows the Don, which earned him the Nobel Prize in 1965. This is the first English-language biography of the well-known writer, but his most famous work is not its focus. Instead, Boeck uses new archival materials to examine how Sholokhov rose through the Soviet elite and still managed to survive its purges, even earning personal protection from Stalin himself.
Marietta Chudakova, Mikhail Bulgakov: The Life and Times. Translator not listed. Glagoslav Publications, April 2019.
Marietta Chudakova is one of the world’s best-regarded experts on Soviet literature in general and on the author of The Master and Margarita in particular. Here, she brings her lifelong engagement with Bulgakov’s work to bear in English for the first time, and readers are unlikely to find the same shade of dedication and scholarly diligence in English-language writing about Russian literature.
Global Russian Cultures. Edited by Kevin M. F. Platt. University of Wisconsin Press, January 2019.
As the previews you are currently reading collectively demonstrate, there is no one Russian culture and no one place where Russian culture resides. This volume brings top scholars together to examine Russian art and thought in Russia, Central Asia, Israel, and North America as well as on the Internet, among other places. The result is a highly contemporary series of essays on how and why Russian culture moves that likely contains both challenging analyses and entertaining anecdotes.
Nataliya Dolinina, Page by Page through War and Peace. Translated by Michael Denner and Victoria Juharyan. Tolstoy Studies Journal, November 2019.
This book will be published by a scholarly journal, but it is not a scholarly work. Instead, it is a companion intended for first-time readers of Tolstoy’s 1000-plus-page classic. As Dolinina walks readers through the highs and lows of that reading adventure, she offers both cultural background Tolstoy may have neglected to explain and encouragement for those times when readers may want to throw War and Peace out the nearest window. Denner and Juharyan, who are both experienced guides for students of Russian literature in the U.S., should be fitting translators for this volume.
On classical music
Russian music has found such a welcoming adoptive home in the Anglophone world that Americans celebrate both Christmas and Independence Day by listening to Tchaikovsky. These books pick up on that global level of interest and take it in both reliable and entirely new directions. They make an excellent starting point for readers who have heard the big names but want to think beyond them: this category includes a novel that turns the Shostakovich era into an international thriller as well as a biography of a violinist who crashed through glass ceilings to change modern classical music.
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Auguste Corteau, Sixteen. Translator not listed. Etruscan Press, February 2019.
Thomas Wolf, The Nightingale’s Sonata: The Musical Odyssey of Lea Luboshutz. Pegasus Books, June 2019.
Lea Luboshutz was one of the world’s very first internationally recognized women violinists and a founding faculty member of the prestigious Curtis Institute. Before she gained fame, however, she was a young Jewish girl from Odessa. Here, the violinist’s grandson offers classical music fans the first biography of Luboshutz and weaves in brief solos by Pablo Casals, Lev Tolstoy, and others.
Nadine Meisner, Marius Petipa: The Emperor’s Ballet Master. Oxford University Press, June 2019.
The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and Don Quixote are still massively popular, but this is the first English-language biography of their choreographer. Meisner uses this opportunity to illustrate the development of ballet throughout the nineteenth century and beyond with extensive research and newly published photographs. This book, which promises readable court intrigues alongside historical context, will shed light on an artist without whom Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and much else in modern dance would never have developed.
Stephen Johnson, How Shostakovich Changed My Mind. Notting Hill Editions (NYRB), May 2019.
Johnson means this title literally. The BBC music broadcaster has found solace in Shostakovich’s music during his struggle with bipolar disorder, and his book explores the intersection of music and mental illness from both scientific and philosophical angles. As Johnson asks why the most disconsolate music can often be the most consoling, he turns to academic experts as well as members of the orchestra that played Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony during the devastating Siege of Leningrad.
John Suchet, Tchaikovsky: The Man Revealed. Pegasus Books, June 2019.
Suchet was a well-regarded British television reporter before he turned his voice toward classical music. Now the presenter of Classic FM’s English morning program, he is the author of recent biographies of Verdi and the Strauss family. This biography of Tchaikovsky may read more vividly and smoothly than some of its counterparts that are already on the market.
Now in paperback
I’m certainly not the only one who waits for paperback editions to read major hits at a more accessible price. This final handful of books is limited to just a few bestsellers that are already available but will be published in new editions or reach U.S. bookstores this year. They are listed chronologically in the order of their planned publication dates.
- Boris Akunin, The State Counsellor: A Fandorin Mystery and The Coronation: A Fandorin Mystery. Translated by Andrew Bromfield. Grove Atlantic, February 2019. U.S. releases.
- Tatyana Tolstaya, Aetherial Worlds. Translated by Anya Migdal. Vintage, February 2019. Paperback release.
- Eugene Vodolazkin, Solovyov and Larionov. Translated by Lisa C Hayden. Oneworld Publications, May 2019. U.S. release.
- Michael McFaul, From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May 2019. Paperback release.
- Keith Gessen, A Terrible Country: A Novel. Penguin Books, July 2019. Paperback release.
- Gay Propaganda: Russian Love Stories / Пропаганда гомосексуализма в России. Истории любви. Edited by Masha Gessen and Joseph Huff-Hannon; introduction by Garry Kasparov. OR Books, September 2019. Second edition.
Many thanks to Fiona Sheppard and Sarah Cuthbertson of the Historical Novel Society as well as Olga Zilberbourg, Maxim D. Shrayer, Marian Schwartz, Alex Moshkin, Dmitry Manin, Hilary Lynd, Jim Kates, Victoria Juharyan, Lisa Hayden, and Shelley Fairweather-Vega for their excellent recommendations. Many thanks to Lydia Zoells and Caleb DeLorme as well for providing logistical support.
Image credits: Graywolf Press; Zephyr Press; Oneworld Publications; New Vessel Press; New York Review Books; Farrar, Straus, and Giroux; Columbia University Press; Dalkey Archive Press; Glagoslav; G.P. Putnam's Sons; Grand Central Publishing; Little, Brown, and Company; Dead Reckoning; Simon & Schuster; Alfred A. Knopf; Penguin Press; Mariner Books; Thomas Dunne Books; I.B. Tauris; Random House; W.W. Norton & Company; Duke University Press; Dover Publications; Haymarket Books; Nobrow Press; Unicorn Publishing Group; Harvard University Press; Etruscan Press; Pegasus Books.
Disclaimers: Knopf provided a review copy of Disappearing Earth during a celebratory lunch; Oneworld provided a review copy of Zuleikha.