The Idiot by Elif Batuman

Writing: 5 Plot: 3 Characters:4

Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction
Women’s prize for fiction short list

New words (to me):
– Amphibrach – a metrical foot consisting of a stressed syllable between two unstressed syllables or (in Greek and Latin) a long syllable between two short syllables.
– Stomatologist – One who practices oral medicine (at the interface between medicine and dentistry).

Simultaneously poetic and cerebral, this is an extended and (perhaps unintentionally) comic coming-of-age story that follows Selin, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, through her first year as a Harvard student. Her thoughts and experiences are meticulously analyzed and comically documented as she takes classes, meets new people, tutors locals, and goes to Hungary to teach English in a small village over the summer. The text considers the perspectives of several foreign students — for example, her best friend Svetlana is from Belgrade and Selin has a book-long infatuation with Ivan, a mathematician from Hungary. While she takes Russian, we are exposed to Russian culture as perceived via primer texts, and part two of the book is a hilarious travelog of her summer experiences in Paris, Turkey, Budapest, and the Hungarian countryside. Selin’s take on things is fascinating — her observations are honest and get to the root of the experience.

The novel is full of intellectual quirkiness: a class visit to a display of E.O. Wilson’s “favorite” million ants; a discussion of aesthetic vs ethical principles; lots of comparative linguistics such as the similarities between Turkish and Hungarian (both agglutinative, have vowel harmony, no grammatical gender) and the use of the miş suffix in Turkish (something that states the degree of subjectivity in what was said). That is just the tip of the iceberg — I loved her commentary on what she was learning and how it was taught — a far cry from the party oriented “college fiction” I was expecting!

This book documents Selin’s development through the year. She is excessively self-aware and says of herself, “The eternal pauper in the great marketplace of ideas and of the world, I had nothing to teach anyone. I didn’t have anything anyone wanted.” While one reviewer called her “young and stupid,” I think he missed the point completely. She is a social innocent for whom interactions are difficult. She tries to use her intellect to make sense of the irrational word of social discourse and the observations and commentary are hysterical.

The writing is wonderful. Although I wouldn’t bill this as a comedy, I kept laughing out loud. Batuman has this ability to swerve the sentence or phrase half way such that the ending is a jolt that makes you laugh in surprise. This pattern was writ large with the ending (which I will not give away) — similarly abrupt and surprising.

Some favorite lines:

“I said I was easy to entertain. Bojana said it was clear I had never spent five weeks in an Eastern European village.”

“The sky looked like a load of glowing grayish laundry that someone had washed with a red shirt.”

“Is there any way to escape the triviality dungeon of conversations?”

A great read if you’re in the mood for a long ponder (my usual state).

 

The Lost For Words Bookshop by Stephanie Butland

Thank you to St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley for an early review copy of The Lost for Words Bookshop by Stephanie Butland, which will publish June 19, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.

Writing: 5 Plot: 4 Characters: 5+

Welcome to the spiky interior world of Loveday Cardew. By turns comic, powerful, uplifting, and literary, this book about books and the people who love them made me one happy clam.

Loveday has worked in the Lost For Words bookshop in York (England) for 15 years. Her network of tattoos is a compendium of significant first lines from favorite novels — I was hooked right there. By the way, the first line of this book? — “A book is a match in the smoking second between strike and flame.” Not bad!

She works for Archie — the rich, eccentric, and larger than life (in more ways than one) bookstore owner who feels that “good relationships are more important than being able to see your feet.” Through the accidental recovery of a Liverpool Poet book, she meets Nathan — a cravat wearing poet who daylights as a magician. Nathan teaches her that you can “write a different story for yourself” — both in terms of the future and the impact you allow from the past.

The book is simultaneously a tender love story, a positive recovery tale, and a foray into the literary world. There is no catalog of horrors, but we do follow the trajectory of a woman who is establishing her own life in the wake of a tragic childhood event. I appreciate that this event is not painted in black and white — there is a realistic complexity to understanding how things happened the way they did and what she can do to become a fully realized human being. Here is a hint — performance poetry has an unexpected role to play!

A great comic style. As an example, when admitting that used book stores have to pulp the extras, Loveday says: “Five million copies of The Da Vinci Code were published in 2003. How many of them does the world still need fifteen years later? A lot less than five million.” (FYI, personally, I might suggest “a lot less than five” — not a huge fan).

Some of my favorite lines:

“She seemed the type who went through her days tutting like a pneumatic disapproval machine.”

“Nathan came over and the nearer he got the more I wanted to run, and cry, and touch him, and blurt, and hide, and kiss him and generally behave as though Barbara Cartland had just sneezed me out.” Love the comic ending on a sentence that was hurling into heavy-duty romance territory!

“It felt as though his words, rather than heading out into the air, were falling off the edge of his lower lip, drooping into my hair, and sliding down the side of my head and into my ear.”

Top recommendation!

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Bardo – (in Tibetan Buddhism) a state of existence between death and rebirth, varying in length according to a person’s conduct in life and manner of, or age at, death.

I can’t use my standard Writing / Plot / Characters rating scheme as this novel simply doesn’t fit within those parameters!

The death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie, on April 20th, 1862, is the precipitating event around which the novel unfolds. The unique storytelling style combines quotes from historical sources (often in conflict with each other) with descriptions of and conversations between the ghosts who inhabit the “Bardo” of the title. This Bardo is manifest within the graveyard into which Willie Lincoln’s body has been interred.

Willie’s death occurs at a critical juncture within Lincoln’s presidency. The civil war has begun and has already incurred a great loss of life. The interplay between the real world and the confusing swirl of ghostly presences finds a center in Lincoln himself as he grieves for his boy in the cemetery and tries to find the resolve to continue his approach to the war. The ghosts vary in age, gender, race, and life time period. Each has been distilled to an essence with a unique presentation and obsession. These are riveting reductions — reminiscent of Hemingway’s famous six word story: “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.”

A fascinating view of history and a strangely compelling style — I enjoyed this far more than I expected. It really is the masterpiece everyone says it is (which is hard for me to admit as I don’t like agreeing with “everyone”!).

The Little French Bistro by Nina George

Writing: 4 Characters: 5 Plot: 4.5

A sensuous novel in the literal sense of the word. 60-year old Marianne is leading a drab, grey, existence when she slips away from the tour group in Paris (and her cold, unfeeling, husband of 41 years) with the intention of sliding into the Seine and letting it all go. Instead, her world appears to burst into color as she follows a pull towards a very different life in the small seaside village of Kerdruc in Brittany.

The book hovers on the line between literary fiction and romance: the language, character and relationship development, and the depth of details are literary; the tales of love at first sight, unrequited love lasting for decades, and makeovers that transform women into goddesses are pure romance. To be fair, the literary does outweigh the romance and I love the fact that those falling in love, rediscovering love, and staying in love for decades are of all ages.

The luscious prose delights in describing the natural world — the vistas, the sounds, the smells. The tone of the book is one of wonder — communing with nature through the senses and resonating with the beauty in the world. A magic thread keeps pulling her forward to the place that feels like home as soon as she arrives — a painted tile, a scrawny cat in the rain, a group of nuns. An added surprise — threads of Breton folklore permeate the story. Did you know the original settlers in Brittany were Celts? I did not.

This is a book of magical coincidences and love in all of its myriad forms. On the whole, I enjoyed reading it — I fell in love with the characters and it was difficult to put down — but don’t expect anything practical or even plausible. It’s just a lovely exploration of the way we wish the world could be.

 

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

Writing: 5 Plot: 4 Characters: 4+

On New York’s Lower East Side in 1969, four siblings seek a psychic who is rumored to be able to tell you the exact date of your death. Ranging from 1978 – 2010, the rest of this captivating book takes us through the lives of each of these children as they live their lives in the shadow of this knowledge.

I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, it really is the tour de force claimed on the book jacket. The scope is huge, and the detailed descriptions of everything from primate-based aging research to the world of magicians to the gay scene in San Francisco in the 80s are incredibly impressive.

On the other hand, I found the book depressing. These are not happy people and their life stories are full of tragedy, guilt, and angst. In some ways this book reminds me of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (which I could not finish). Beautiful writing, intricate stories with believable characters and captivating twists — and yet the main character is a f*** up who squanders every opportunity to make something of his life. Similarly, The Immortalists is more of a cautionary tale of how not to live, rather than a story of personal growth or redemption. (*** tiny spoiler alert — one character does manage to learn the lesson, but this comes in the final pages and too late for anyone else ***).

Overall an absorbing book — excellent writing, in depth characters, and vivid depictions of a wide variety of times and places. I read the 300+ quickly and didn’t want to put it down; however, I was not happy while I was reading (I had to read an uplifting children’s book before bed so I wouldn’t wake up in a bad mood). If you read with your head, prepare to be fascinated; if you read with your heart, prepare to mope. While the overall message is life affirming — embrace life and spend your time living rather than focusing on how to forestall death — that lesson comes too late for most of our poor characters.