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I first became aware of Elif Batuman's book almost seven years ago when I saw it suddenly appear (mistakenly?) next to Tolstoy on the Fiction shelf at B&N. A few years later at another bookstore I saw it shelved next to Dostoevsky. At first I was a bit irritated. I figured it was a bit of shelving incompetence. What kind of people were these bookstores hiring these days? Later, however, I softened. I actually began to feel this was a form of NINJA (Sambo?) marketing. Perhaps, it wasn't accidentally placed there. Who actually peruses Literary Criticism/Literary Memoir sections these days? Perhaps, the placement in the Fiction section next to BIG Russian authors wasn't a mistake after all. It actually jammed the book into my craw; dropped it into my radar.
How to describe the book? It isn't exactly a memoir and isn't exactly literary criticism. It reads like a hyper-caffeinated, precocious literary/travel diary for an introspective writer/academic fascinated by the granular context surrounding Russian novels. Batuman isn't just interested in the text. She wants to shoot Chekhov's gun and lay on some train tracks in St. Petersburg. She wants the genealogy and the genetic profile of these novels and stories. Toward the end of her academic career (and her book) it isn't just fetish items and places she is obsessed with. She isn't just finding the context and the clues surrounding Russian novels, the novels have become part of her life. Her last essays seem to reflect the power of Russian novels to invade the cold spaces in our brain, break the chains of reality, bleed into our relationships, our dreams, our motives.
For the most part, I dug this book. The center essays were a bit uneven, however. So, I can't claim this is close to a perfect book. But it is unique, fascinating, and well-written. Batuman has a way with prose. As a 6 foot tall, Turkish woman, her perspective on everything is biologically unique, but it is her talent at writing that makes this book, this precocious journal, this love story to Russian lit worth the time and cost.
9 of 12 people found this review helpful
In a nutshell, this book is too much about the author and too little about Russian books. Though she travels to exotic locales -- Hungary, Samarkand -- the author's life is just not that interesting. The parts about the Russian books are good, but there's too much extraneous stuff between them.
With editing, this would have made a great New Yorker article. Then again, perhaps that was its original incarnation and someone made the ill-fated decision to expand it into a book. I'm too uninterested to care. I'm done with this book.