Saturday, October 30, 2010

Elif Batuman, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, 2010.

I picked up this book after seeing it mentioned first on Salon, and then in more detail on Languagehat at this post and then (having myself nearly finished reading the book) at this post. I can’t say that I would have gravitated toward it otherwise: I don’t know why I needed the persuasion, but that Languagehat post convinced me that I would enjoy the book.

The book is a series of essays. Mostly structured around particular Russian books, each essay reveals a great detail about both Batuman’s life and approach to reading and the alternate universe that is graduate school. Isaac Babel serves as the lens for the first essay; the second, fourth, and sixth essays are built around learning Uzbek in Samarkand. The third essay revolves around a trip to Tolstoy’s estate for a conference (her school offering a $1 000 grant for presenting a paper at a conference, and $2 500 grant for research, Batuman applied for the latter, with a proposal to prove that Tolstoy was murdered: a neat idea, but seen through by her graduate school). The fifth piece uses Lazhechnikov’s House of Ice and visits the recreated Ice Palace. The seventh, which gives the collection its name, is about Dostoevsky’s Demons (formerly translated as The Possesed).

Because of their personal nature, the essays are sometimes meandering and lose focus. The Samarkand sections, likely because they’ve been broken up into three pieces separated by two other essays, feel disconnected from much of the rest of the book. While many of the essays do give the feeling of being almost a travelogue at times, they’re not trying to describe a place or even trips: rather, they’re giving a sense of literature and life. They do feel like pieces for The New Yorker, and her work has been published in those august pages.

There are moments which are quite funny, and others which are pathetic (the realisation of what her language and literature teachers in Samarkand are being paid, compared to the remuneration for the University’s rector and her host, is deeply affecting). Occasionally, those two are combined, as the Tolstoy scholars travel to Chekhov’s house and back to their respective institutions. The description of graduate school rings sadly true, though Batuman finds more humour (even if she does so darkly) than I did in my experiences.

I thoroughly enjoyed the collection. I do agree with Languagehat’s conclusion about the unrelenting focus on the exotic, though I wonder if perhaps that’s how to hold the general public’s attention while writing about books most people are unlikely to read in their lives. I do have a renewed desire to finishing reading Dead Souls one of these years...
Ben Karlin (ed.), Things I’ve Learned From Women Who’ve Dumped Me, 2008.

This book is an anthology of comedic pieces from Andy Richter, Will Forte, David Wain, Stephen Colbert (heavily censored), Dan Savage, AJ Jacobs, Patton Oswalt, and others. The title gives you a good sense of the subject matter: every piece is somehow about break-ups and past relationships. Unsurprisingly, they’re variable in quality and humour. The essays from Savage, Jacobs, and Colbert were my favourites. Savage thanks an ex for helping him to realise his own sexuality; Colbert shares (and his wife censors) a reminiscence of a former lover; Jacobs recalls the woman he wanted to date but never could. Each one writes in his distinctive style and with the clever humour the reader expects.

It’s a book that you can enjoy some essays from, be surprised and perhaps discover comedians in others, while not feeling guilty about skimming over the pieces that don’t hold your attention.
John Green, Maureen Johnson, Lauren Myracle, Let it Snow, 2008.

This collection of three interlinked “holiday romances” is a slight but enjoyable YA piece. All three pieces are fairly conventional in plotting and characterization. I’m not sure if they simply didn’t find enough space, or if the teenage romance genre in which they’re writing precluded surprises. The reader won’t find anything new in the pieces, but they’re an enjoyable enough diversion.

Johnson’s piece, “The Jubilee Express”, traces a holiday journey taken by a young woman following her parents’ arrest: hijinks, train delays, Waffle Houses, and irritatingly absent and just plain irritating boyfriends all serve to advance the plot as she finds unexpected romance. Green’s tale, "A Cheertastic Christmas Miracle", follows three friends trying to get to that same Waffle House, to meet a coworker and the sudden arrival of a cheerleading squad. Love is found in unexpected places. Myracle’s story, "The Patron Saint of Pigs", is the most adventurous of the three stories, following a rather self-absorbed young woman who seeks to make amends after having cheated on her boyfriend.

I picked it up solely because I enjoy Green, and am coming to appreciate Johnson: it’s a divertissement, rather than anything substantial—and I’m clearly not in the target audience for this piece.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

David Rakoff, Half Empty, 2010.

I love Rakoff’s writing. I love the way he uses words, the way his delightfully snarky and snide humour enchant the reader and hide Rakoff’s love of the truth he’s writing about, the way I laugh, the way I want to read slowly so that the book will last longer, the way I hear the words in his soft voice and careful inflections. I love Rakoff’s writing, and that makes it hard to write about it any sort of balanced way.

In ten essays, Rakoff jumps from the trouble with Rent and cupcakes to the disturbing cultural insistence that people remain positive even in extreme adversity, with trips to Epcott, Hollywood, and Utah for good measure. His eye is so attuned to both the quotidian and the extraordinary, and he describes it concisely and movingly: he captures experiences in words in ways that inspire me to write (ironically, given the example I’m about to share). Consider this depiction of what the process of writing is like:
It isn't that I don't sympathize with the lassitude. I understand it all too well. Creativity demands an ability to be with oneself at one's least attractive, that sometimes it's just easier not to do anything. Writing--I can really only speak to writing here--always, always starts out as shit: an infant of monstrous aspect; bawling, ugly, terrible, and it stays terrible for a long, long time (sometimes forever). Unlike cooking, for example, where largely edible, if raw, ingredients are assembled, cut, heated, and otherwise manipulated into something both digestible and palatable, writing is closer to having to reverse-engineer a meal out of rotten food. So truly, if you're already getting laid and have managed to fall in with an attractive and like-minded group without the added indignity of diving face-first into a cesspool every single time you sit down to work, no one understands better than I do why one might not bother. (55)

His metaphors and similes are staggering. He makes an entrepreneur at the Exotic Erotic Ball convention come alive with associations that are at once cliché and fresh: “Decades ago, he would have been a grizzled huckster, an old merchant seaman with fading Polynesian tattoos and missing teeth, producing from his rucksack a cork-stoppered bottle of brown glass. He would whisper of the mysterious contents, a vague pedigree of ground horn, dried animal penis, and the pulverized carapaces of rare insects.”

Rakoff doesn’t write about himself, but he’s present in every essay with an unflinching honesty that makes me want to invite him for dinner (and worry about living up to his standards for both the food and the décor). Describing his response and reaction to his therapist’s death, Rakoff invites one into both the therapy and the hospice room: the emotions are vivid and revealing, necessary and clarifying. My best way of making sense of it is to suggest that Rakoff uses his own life as a prism to reveal the colours that seemed to just be life, refracting the beam to make details come alive so that deeper truths about ourselves can be understood.

Perhaps most helpful and most challenging is the final essay, ‘Another Shoe,’ in which he shares something of his experience with his recent (and ongoing) bout with cancer. He remembers a woman, Brooklyn Mom, with whom he once volunteered, and describes the process of coming to understand what she chose to share about her experience with cancer; he remembers an awkward childhood experience that informs his feelings in the present; of his sense of a lack of larger lessons in the midst of this all-consuming experience. In both his references to movies and books and in the interactions with friends, family, and his own self, Rakoff depicts bleakness and the slight hope that makes continuing possible.

I’m hoping for the next collection of essays. I’m sure I’ll be as effusive again.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Hillary Frank, The View From the Top, 2010.

Enjoyable and sweet, Frank’s latest novel is a multi-vocal exploration of the angst that exists around topics of love, future, and family. Though it stays in third-person narration with a consistent voice, the story jumps in focus from one character to another. Despite their interactions and the inter-related nature of each character’s story, there aren’t clear links between the sections: this stylistic device serves to heighten the feelings of isolation and confusion that are the principal source of unity for the overarching story.

We follow Anabelle, who is about to leave for university from the tourist town in which she’s grown up. She struggles with her relationship with her boyfriend Matt, and her feelings for his best friend Jonah. Matt’s sister Lexi is pining for Anabelle, as is Jonah—but Jonah is also drawn to Matt and Lexi’s mom. At the outskirts of this circle is Tobin, a brilliant cellist who likes Anabelle and is about to leave Normal, ME, to head to conservatory. Tacked on in a way that doesn’t quite succeed is Mary-Tyler, one of the tourists whose parents have a vacation home in Normal: she felt to my reading more of a character like an attendant lord meant to swell a progress, start a scene or two and her sections read as nearly extraneous and fall flat compared to the remainder of the novel.

In describing Frank’s writing of Mary-Tyler, I realised what falls flat for me in with this novel. Despite enjoying it, I found myself distracted by the vital importance of minor characters to the denouement of the plot: we simply don’t know them well enough to be moved, and I felt manipulated in the closing as I read of Anabelle’s father’s crying. This challenge is compounded with the over-easy dismissal of the other characters’ conclusions—Jonah being chased through the fair and Matt heading off to Boston—and the overly neat resolution between Anabelle and Tobin. I found myself disappointed by the conclusion, despite enjoying the book through the rest of my reading of it. I’ve always felt weak conclusions to otherwise strong stories to be an unintentional betrayal of the contract between reader and story-teller, so it’s taken me a few days to sit down to blog about this novel. Ultimately, I’m glad I read it, but didn’t enjoy it nearly so much as I did Better than Running at Night. Frank has a great gift for drawing her readers into her stories. I’m hoping that her next book will leave me as content through its conclusion as through its middle.