Fat Books & Thin Women

Bookish Report from Macedonia
July 28, 2011, 2:54 pm
Filed under: Brief Reviews | Tags: , ,

I’ve been back in Macedonia a few days now. What’s odd to me is that it feels like I never left – it’s like America, all its grocery stores and bookstores and libraries and gyms and running trails, was some awesome dream I had, only I was able to emerge from it with a bag of pretzel M&Ms (just one of many snack foods debuted in my absence!) and minus a few pounds.

All the books I thought I’d come back with, I didn’t come back with. When we got to the airport and found my bag was overweight, all contingency plans (pay a fee or debate which books earned a spot in my backpack) fell apart in the face of (a) crying, (b) trying to explain why I didn’t need a visa to get back in Macedonia. Some of the books I’ve most wanted to read, like The Pale King and Matterhorn, are back in the States so I don’t have to risk leaving them behind in Albania a year from now, and others my dad packed up and mailed to me. You probably still want to know what books I came back with though (right? right?) so lemme tell you: Game of Thrones, Math Review for Standardized Tests, and a new Albanian-English dictionary. Pretty exciting stuff.

The point of this post isn’t just to whine about all the books I failed to pack, or to tell you about all the food I ate (two burritos, Indian, countless fake chicken patties, about five pounds of edamame, roughly twenty bowls of Honey Bunches of Oats), but to sum up some of the books I didn’t write reviews for. Here goes.

Olivia Manning’s The Balkan Trilogy, which I finished just before leaving Macedonia, is a stunning book. The first volume of the trilogy, which I reviewed a few months ago, left me disgusted with most of her characters, who are neither likeable nor easy to read about for a thousand pages, but in the second and third volumes these characters grow a new depth as the war becomes more a part of their lives. I’m looking forward to reading the three novel wrap-up to her six-volume series. Also her School for Love, one of the books that is back in NJ, waiting for me.

After I read The Russian Debutante’s Handbook and Absurdistan I couldn’t say whether I liked or disliked Shteyngart’s writing, which seemed to me a good reason not to seek out Super Sad True Love Story. The library had it on the new book shelf, though, so I read it – and man, am I glad I did, and do I wish I had had time to write a review. Super Sad True Love Story is the first of Shteyngart’s books that I’ve felt adds an amount of heart and depth to his sometimes too-clever writing. I’m not in love with some details of his future world (it’s so easy for company names and other details to devolve into gimmicks) but Lenny Abramov is the first Shteyngart character I haven’t regretted spending a few days with. (Resounding praise, right?)

Although I read Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife before leaving for America, I may still try and get a review out. (Check out the post at What Red Read about how long we wait to review the books we read. I may have left this one too long.) For now, I’m kinda busy “recovering” from jet lag by watching Breaking Bad and reading Game of Thrones…not the worst way to spend a day.

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Book Reviews, Briefly

I don’t know how exactly, because I’ve been putting in some more hours at school and with the family and also watching a lot of Gilmore Girls and handwashing my clothes and baking bread and occasionallky going for a walk, but I’ve been reading a lot lately. I would probably die if I tried to write a blog post about every book I’ve read in the past month or so (and you would die of boredom), but I want to give these books some attention because a few I really liked.

Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire was awesome. Back in college I was just as skilled a bullshitter as I am today, and in one of my lower periods (my sophomore year) I took some stupid classes, including Witchcraft & Magic. The entire football team (minus its star, Ray Rice) was taking this course, and I spent most of my time doodling on my legal pad, telling the football players to shut up, and sneaking out for bathroom breaks. I also watched a few vampire films for a paper, and I’m pretty sure I spent most of Interview with the Vampire sitting on my friend’s floor clutching a warm can of beer trying to hide my freakout.

I was expecting the book to scare me just as much. When I read this I was in a rough place because the dogs on the farm next door to me started barking, nonstop, once the sun went down, and my mouse became really, really loud. I couldn’t sleep through the night as it was, between the dogs and the mouse clattering his way around the pots and pans in my sink, trying to jump into my trash can, and had already started to convince myself that all these sounds equaled someone breaking into my mouse to murder me, so reading Interview with the Vampire seemed like it might be a bad idea. It turned out not to be; Anne Rice does the slow build thing really well. Honestly, not that much happens in this book – you know, there’s Lestat, and Claudia, and some crazy vampire parties, and some even crazier Eastern European vampire zombies, and after Claudia kills Lestat and then you know that he’s coming back I could barely breathe, but most of the book is about Louis being kind of angsty and figuring out what it means to be a vampire. The reason this book is so good is that Anne Rice’s vampires feel a lot of human emotions, even when they don’t manage to identify them as such.

Interview underscored how truly terrible Twilight is. What is wrong with Stephanie Meyer that she took vampires – who are so freaky and sexual and unforgiving – and turned them into glittery-skinned baseball playing teens living in Oregon and swooning over dull high school girls? Yeesh.

Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time is a book that deserves a whole post – but I’m lazy. For one thing, it’s one of the best books of historical reportage I’ve ever read, and for another it’s probably of particular interest to the sort of people who visit my site because it helps give another side to The Grapes of Wrath-y story of the Dust Bowl. I never thought too much about how Steinbeck’s story doesn’t tell the story of the people who stayed behind, only those who left to try and make a better life in California. Egan’s book is suffocating and at times overwhelming; it is impossible to imagine or understand how people managed to live, for years, in places where the ground wasn’t even on the ground any longer. Judging by my own vague understanding of the Dust Bowl, its causes and impact on the lives of people living in it, this is one part of the Great Depression that is often forgotten. But, dear god, the scope of the dust storms Egan writes about, some of the photos – it scared the bejeezus out of me, especially because since the whole problem was created by our own stupidity. It’s heartbreaking to read about what the Dust Bowl looked like – all the awesome grasses and herds of buffalo – before the government encouraged people to settle and farm it.

I’ve been reading some Judy Blume lately. I did all her Fudge books over the summer and briefly forgot that she wrote books for older readers, but I’ve reread Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and Forever recently, both reaffirming my opionion that Judy Blume is the best writer for teens, ever. She never shies away from telling it like it is or from showing the minor uglinesses of her characters.

I’ve also been doing the Elizabeth George thing again. My mom told me to read her as a pretty light author for all my sad, lonely Peace Corps nights, but I wasn’t real into her first book, Payment in Blood. There must’ve been an Elizabeth George fan among the volunteers a few years ago, because almost all her books are in our office’s library in Skopje, so once the memory of my mild dislike for Inspecter Lynley and Sergeant Havers wore off, I started taking the mysteries home. And they get better and better, and I love that it’s a series and I can see how her characters develop and become more likeable (like, Lynley is constantly pining after his ladyfriend – I think they’re going to get married and then she’ll be murdered, or something, but right now we’re still in the swoony “why won’t she just love me back” phase of things).

I tried reading one book of hers, What Came Before He Shot Her, which was just unreadable, full of repulsive and unbelievable characters and dialogue. I started reading it when I was on my way to Egypt/Jordan/Israel over winter break, sitting at a coffee shop in Skopje while I waited three hours for my bus to Delchevo (a town on the opposite side of the country from me, near Bulgaria – we were flying out of Sofia), reading and reading and wondering when the hell Lynley and Havers were going to show up. Only after 70 pages they hadn’t shown up, and I realized that they were only going to show up at the end, and probably peripherally even then, so I quit and borrowed The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest from my friend and read that on my trip. Good, good choice. Last week I mentioned this book to my mother while we were skyping and her reaction was so wonderful – something like “You didn’t finish that, did you? God, it was awful – I read half and then I couldn’t take it anymore.” I felt tricked by the book. I checked it out expecting a Lynley & Havers mystery and instead got some wacky /insulting story about lower-class Jamaican immigrants, which I guess is one downside to writing a mystery series or whatever. If you branch out at all your readers are as likely to feel disappointed and pissed off at you as they are to enjoy “discovering a new world”. At least when John Grisham writes a novel with “pizza” or “Christmas” in the title I can be pretty sure it’s not a legal thriller.

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