Fat Books & Thin Women


Review: Susan Cain’s Quiet
August 13, 2013, 8:24 pm
Filed under: Book Reviews, Literary Fiction | Tags: , , , , , ,

quiet

As the sort of person who regularly cancels on dates, happy hours, even running club, because I’d rather sit on my sofa reading and recovering from the stresses of a day surrounded by people in an open-plan office, I expected to love Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Besides being an introvert, I appreciate affirmation that my way is the best way, and was looking forward to 270 pages of hearing about how great I am and also how I can make everyone else realize how great I am.

I got that, sort of. Cain makes a convincing case for the strengths introverts bring to both professional and social situations, and while doing so strives to “normalize” introversion. If 30% of us are introverts, as she writes, isn’t it time for America (despite its extrovert ideal) to embrace us? This was kind of what I wanted: a manifesto on how great I am, and on why my unique skillset/need for quiet space/horror of parties should be valued in a professional setting. Instead, I got a short trip to a Tony Robbins seminar and some meanderings around the science of introversion, ultimately leaving me with the sense that it’s great to be an introvert as long as you work for, and are in a relationship with, someone willing to adjust his or her expectations to suit your personality type.

Was I bringing wildly unrealistic expectations into this reading? Yes, of course I was. I fess up. That doesn’t change, though, that Cain’s book doesn’t quite live up to its promise, in large part because halfway through she loses the thread and shifts into explorations of sensitive types, breaking down relationship communication styles, and how to raise an introverted child. These are interesting in their own way – there were moments in the final chapter, “How to Cultivate Quiet Kids in a World That Can’t Hear Them”, that made me (a) want to cry, (b) appreciate that my parents were pretty cool with me hanging out by myself, reading and writing, and (c) want to hug all the teachers who didn’t force me into dreaded group work – but they read as diversions from the earlier thrust of Quiet, with its focus on introverts in professional settings. What’s more, as an introvert who is decidedly not sensitive, I was thrown by the link Cain attempts to draw between introversion and extreme sensitivity – the sensitivity issue belongs in an article or book of its own, rather than being hidden in the middle of this one.

There are things to appreciate about Quiet, though, and in the interest of time and getting back into this whole book reviewing thing, I list them here:

  1. The introvert quiz on pages 13-14. Thanks to this quiz, I’ve learned that I’m a 16/20 on the introvert scale – just where I would expect to be. I should here note, however, that no one has ever described me as “mellow” and that people never “tell me that I’m a good listener,” although I do carry the introvert’s fear of small talk. It’s online, if you’re curious.
  2. Kagan’s study on “arm-thrashing infants.” Good to know that we’re pretty much set as introverts or extroverts from birth!
  3. All of Chapter 3, on the rise of Groupthink and why groupwork is not all it’s made out to be. As someone who is never able to muster my creative powers during group sessions, or able to think quickly enough to participate in some blah-blah-blah discussion, it’s great to learn that I’m totally correct in thinking that groupwork is the worst. Thank you, Susan Cain, for that: now just please convince corporate America of this.
  4. Parts of Cain’s chapter on acting extroverted are fantastic. As you might guess based on the 30% introvert rate she mentions throughout the book, there are a lot of introverts-in-disguise wandering around – we just manage to put our introversion in the backseat until we’re done with the important work. It never occurred to me, though, that there would be any conflict surrounding this effort to act extroverted, to in essence “pass” as an extrovert. Interesting stuff.

The gist? Don’t read this book if you want concrete advice on how to better succeed as an introvert in America. Do read this book if you want to know that there are others out there just as opposed to groupwork, open-plan offices, all events with more than three attendees, and spending a Friday night anywhere but your own living room, as you are.



Review: Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers
November 20, 2012, 1:37 am
Filed under: Book Reviews, Literary Fiction | Tags: , , , , , ,

The conceit behind Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers is fantastic: the long-awaited Rapture finally comes, decimating lives and families not only because of the sudden disappearance of so many people, but because the people who are left behind are so often the ones who had held some expectation of being raptured themselves. The religious are left to grapple with the meaning of an event that is commonly thought of as “the rapture” but that doesn’t match their own conceptions of what that event should be, while others focus their concerns more on the day-to-day of life without a husband, a child, or in the case of one woman, her entire family.

Perotta doesn’t get too far into the details of the event, the Sudden Departure, which sort of works within the confines of this novel. In other areas, that vagueness becomes frustrating, as some of Perotta’s characters seem more markers of a character type than real people. The Leftovers is a loosely plotted novel with more of a focus on the courses of characters’ lives (or more correctly, in some cases, their emotional lives) than on the political or social events that follow the Sudden Departure. The downside of this is that the social, largely religious, movements Perotta describes, often seem too vaguely realized to warrant serious consideration on the readers’ part. The prophet Holy Wayne, the Guilty Remnant cult, the Barefoot People who in reaction to the rapture devote themselves to the pursuit of pleasure, read more as devices for moving characters’ lives than as actual, explicable, movements.

If there’s one thing Perotta gets right here, it’s the sense of a transitional moment. His characters, by and large, are trying to figure out their lives after they have been so rudely disrupted by the disappearance of loves ones, either to the Sudden Event itself or to the emerging groups like the Guilty Remnant cult, which requires not only that its members stop speaking, but that they cut off ties to their former lives – with the only exceptions coming when they appear to haunt, in a sense, their former families on a holiday.

Perotta’s prose is fairly unadorned and makes for easy reading, and works best with his youngest characters, where he can most easily display that sense of transition. There’s Jill, daughter of the mayor of Mapleton, the town where the novel finds its center, who is dealing with the loss of her mother to the Guilty Remnant and her brother to the prophet Holy Wayne, and whose attempts to find herself are the typical teenager moves of drastic haircuts and ill-advised friendships and romantic pursuits. Her brother, Tom, who drops out of school to follow Holy Wayne, and who then becomes infatuated with one of the prophet’s teenaged wives, spends much of the novel with no clear sense of his direction after the prophet’s fall from grace. The fumbling efforts of Perotta’s teenaged characters to find themselves following the Sudden Departure are believable precisely because they so closely mirror what these characters would be going through anyway. Given the shock of the disappearance of huge numbers of Mapleton’s residents, there’s no real question that the students at the local high school would feel unmoored, a loss of any clear direction in the face of the fact that so many lives were abruptly disappeared.

With the older characters, though, the lack of detail regarding either the event or the underpinnings of the religious movements that spring up in its wake, undermines the plotting. It’s not that it’s hard to believe that an adult’s life wouldn’t be disrupted when she saw her family, or the family of a friend, vanish, but that because the novel is so closely tied to Mapleton there is no real sense of scope. What makes the disappearances these men and women are dealing with different than the deaths of family members in a car accident, the loss of a spouse to an infidelity, a child who moves away and cuts off contact with the family? Perotta’s explanation of the Sudden Departure may be enough for the reader’s understanding, but it is not enough to illuminate so much of what comes later in the novel:

And then it happened. The biblical prophecy came true, or at least partly true. People disappeared, millions of them at the same time, all over the world. This wasn’t some ancient rumor – a dead man coming back to life during the Roman Empire – or a dusty homegrown legend, Joseph Smith unearthing golden tablets in upstate New York, conversing with an angel. This was real. The Rapture happened in her own hometown, to her best friend’s daughter, among others, while Laurie herself was in the house. God’s intrusion into her life couldn’t have been any clearer if He’d addressed her from a burning azalea. (2)

And that is about as clear an explanation of the event as Perotta will ever offer. This lack of detail places The Leftovers into a particular camp of cross-genre writing which treats the sci-fi-ish event at its heart as a jumping-off point rather than as an event worthy of explanation in its own right. I’m not going to deny having a certain fondness for this breed of writing, but its potential for failure becomes so evident in The Leftovers: that by failing to ever explain the Sudden Departure, or even to fully explore why it has such an overwhelming impact on lives not directly touched by the event, Perotta weakens the event that should be structuring and holding together his novel.

The Leftovers, at end, is a fun book, but it’s hard not to finish it with a sense of mild disappointment. Perotta closes with a sense of hope and movement, the idea that people might find a way to move past the event into restructured lives, but with so little exploration of why this event has had such an outsize impact on the social and religious structure of this town – even accepting that such changes are the obvious outcome of such an event – it’s hard to care too much about these characters and their vaguely explored reactions to the event. The Leftovers reads more like a thought experiment than like a fully-fledged novel, with an appealing plot device withering thanks to Perrotta’s apparent assumption that such a device might stand on its own, with no real development or explanation required over the course of the novel’s 350 pages.

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Review: Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles

Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles is another entrant in the seemingly endless string of YA dystopian and apocalyptic novels parading their way across bookshelves recently. It’s been a few months since I’ve read any, because there is such a bleak sameness to so many of these novels. Apart from The Hunger Games, which in the third novel delves into the politics of Panem, there’s rarely any exploration of the dystopian world or system beyond what it does to the lives of one character and her friends and family; the dystopias are always created by humans, with the strong suggestion being that there are, then, people who may fix the system; and they end on notes of hope, so different from the uncertainty of the final words of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Many of the most advertised dystopian novels are really “dystopia-lite.” There’s Megan McCafferty’s Bumped, in which a virus causes people to become infertile once they’re out of their teens, so that teenagers become responsible for the survival of the human race; but most serious questions raised by this premise are brushed away in favor of questions of style and insipid teenage conversation, with the Serious Religious Issues treated more as an accessory than a real issue. Slightly heavier is Lauren Oliver’s Delirium, in which love is treated as disease; but though Oliver here suggests a brutal regime, and shows a willingness to imprison or kill off her characters for the greater good, there is throughout the novel a sense that the dystopia is already crumbling, that there is more hope for her characters than a true dystopia could provide.

Enter, then, The Age of Miracles, which happily avoids so many of the problems with YA dystopian literature by placing its characters in an apocalyptic, rather than dystopian world – a world that, by its very definition, has severe limitations in the Hope department. Walker shows us the infancy of a newly apocalyptic world, tracking what these changes and uncertainties do to people, rather than presenting (as so many of the earlier mentioned YA dystopians do) a world that, seemingly so far past saving, is finding new possibilities and hopes.

The world of this novel is changing rapidly for reasons that no one can explain or understand. As The Age of Miracles opens, days are growing longer for no readily apparent reason. Julia, the narrator, is a girl who can sense no change in her world, who even after learning that the earth’s rotation has slowed can sense nothing wrong in her world, or begin to understand why one day, which feels like the day before it and the day before that, is so different from all others. As she writes,

I was eleven years old in the suburbs. My best friend was standing beside me. I could spot not a single object out of place or amiss.

Walker never offers a real explanation for what is happening to the world, which seems fitting given the age of the narrator and the nature of the catastrophe. That the world is slowing, every day, doesn’t make sense, but also doesn’t need to, given that it serves simply as a device to force humanity into a situation from which there is no escape. At first many people attempt to ignore the changes in the length of days (Julia’s mother is the only member of her family who seems to grasp the seriousness of the problem, though her declamations are treated more with rolled eyes than sympathy), and America manages to stay in sync with the new days. School and workdays are pushed back, and Julia begins each morning by the TV, waiting for the school’s starting time to be announced. Julia’s father reassures her that this problem, whatever its source, will be fixed soon enough:

“I want you to think how smart humans are,” he said. “Think of everything humans have ever invented. Rocket ships, computers, artificial hearts. We solve problems, you know? We always solve the big problems. We do.”

Of course, this is one problem that can’t be solved, and that’s where The Age of Miracles finds much of its strength. Walker asks not how her characters can fight back against an unjust society, but how they learn to live with the fact that their world is falling apart around them. Although Julia’s father tells his daughter that humans always solve the big problems, Walker creates a world in which the biggest problem can’t be solved – in which humans have to, instead, answer the smaller ones, like how to grow food as the days become so long that Clock Time is totally disjointed from night and day, and how to deal with the temperature changes that result from 72 hours of light followed by 72 hours of dark.

Julia’s concerns are those of any 11-year-old girl, though, so that while this is an apocalyptic novel it is, just as much, a coming-of-age story. When the family of her best friend Hanna, a Mormon, moves to Utah, Julia is left in a social environment she cannot navigate without her friend. The absence of a true 24-hour day doesn’t free Julia from the cruelties of her peers or from the weight of her first crush or from her uncertainty over what to say about the dying mother of that crush, or from her confusion over what to do when she sees her father in the house of a neighbor who used to be Julia’s piano teacher. For all the ways in which life has stopped, with birds falling from the sky and plants refusing to grow, Walker shows us that life also continues, in much the way it always has. And rather than offering her readers a world of unmitigated horror, in which all characters realize what they’re facing, Walker writes of the thrill that disaster can hold, especially for a pre-teen girl like Julia.

We were girls in sandals and sundresses, boys in board shorts and surf shirts. We were growing up in a retiree’s dream – 330 days of sunshine each year – and so we celebrated whenever it rained. Catastrophe, too, like bad weather, was provoking in all of us an uneasy excitement and verve.

Unlike the authors of so many other YA novels, Walker doesn’t offer false hope to her readers. Whatever Julia’s father says early in the novel, no member of Julia’s family seems to truly expect things to improve. They know things will change, but only expect those changes to be for the worse. What Walker does, really, is to take the nightmares of being eleven years old – the way that other people can make decisions (to move, to have another child, to divorce) that change your entire world, with nothing you can do to return things to the way they used to be – and write them on the scale of the world as a whole. In following Julia’s attempts to grow up in a world that offers no certainties, Walker has written a novel that is often bleak, but just as often finds moments that are much the same in Julia’s dying world as in the world of the reliable, 24-hour day. The Age of Miracles finds its best moments in these intersections of the apocalyptic and the mundane; and taking all these moments together, the novel is a happy proof that there are writers eager to test and play with the conventions of both the popular dystopian or apocalyptic novels and coming-of-age stories.

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Review: Ismail Kadare’s The Palace of Dreams

Many of Ismail Kadare’s novels take place in a sort of dreamscape, a land between the real world and the world in which myths are taken to be real, in which dreams and stories have a direct influence on daily life. In Spring Flowers, Spring Frost (which I have not reviewed – this is one I need to reread before discussing) Kadare moves so far into this mythical middle world that it’s hard to gain your bearing as a reader in the short novel. The Palace of Dreams, though explicitly dealing with dreams and myth, is better-grounded in an understandable world, making it a more welcoming novel than Spring Flowers.

The palace referred to in the novel’s title stands during the Ottoman empire, for the purpose of evaluating the dreams of the empire. Branches of the palace collect the dreams and send them on to the Palace of Dreams, where they make their way through the labyrinthine bureaucracy of sorters and analysts who attempt to find some meaning or hint of the future in the collected dreams. One dream each week is passed on to the sultan; this is the Master Dream, and is taken to be the most important and impactful dream of the past week.

Kadare follows a new employee of the palace as he struggles to make his way through the palace, which is both physically and mentally labyrinthine. Mark-Alem is a member of a well-known noble family that has a storied history with dreams, having frequently been the victim of the cryptic analyses of dreams. In following Mark-Alem, and showing not only how the dreams of the empire touch his family, but how he rises at unprecedented speed through the palace’s ranks, Kadare shows us a sort of everyman. Although Mark-Alem rises to a high position within the bureaucracy, he rarely seems to understand his own interactions with the empire.

As with so many of Kadare’s books, this novel speaks clearly to the time of Enver Hoxha’s regime in Albania. Here, though, Kadare never overreaches or overstresses the links between the old world he writes about and Hoxha’s regime (as he did in The Pyramid, where ties between the pyramid-building Egyptians and Enver Hoxha’s scheme to build thousands of concrete bunkers around the Albanian countryside were so nakedly pointed out that it was hard to feel Kadare fully trusted his readers), and the Palace as a mental and physical space suggests rather than demands that we use this story as a means of considering the dehumanizing effects of power.

Where Kadare really shines in The Palace of Dreams is in the bureaucratic stylings of the Palace. He nails everything about this, from the way Mark-Alem gets lost in the building even as he receives promotions, to the way that most employees have little sense of what work others in the building do, to the way Mark-Alem appears set up for failure but somehow stumbles through this incomprehensible system. Just see his first day on the job, when Mark-Alem’s boss offers vague instructions on his task, suggesting not only that he has little real idea of what his employees do, but that each dream makes countless directionless loops around the Palace before finally being deemed important or filed away in the basement.

“This is your first file. It contains a group of dreams that arrived on October nineteenth. Read them very carefully, but whatever you do don’t be hasty. If you think there’s the slightest chance that a dream might have been fabricated, leave it where it is and don’t be in too much of a hurry to remove it. After you there’ll be another sorter, or, to give him his proper title, a second inspector, and he’ll check what you’ve done and correct any errors. Then there’s another inspector to check up on him, and so on. In fact, all the people you see in this room are doing just that. So good luck!”

He stayed there another few seconds looking at Mark-Alem, then turned around and left. Mark-Alem was momentarily rooted to the spot, then slowly, trying not to make any noise, he edged the chair back a little, slid between it and the table, and, still very cautiously, sat down. (31)

In The Palace of Dreams, Kadare’s spare prose is the perfect counterweight to the ineffable subject matter. The novel at times verges on farce, as inspectors and interpreters in the Palace struggle to find some meaning in that which may have no meaning, looking to the lives of the dreamers and to past dreams for help in deciphering the images placed in their file. When it shifts from farce to tragedy – when we, and Mark-Alem, see the impact these dreams, and their interpretations, can have on a life – Kadare keeps the novel so tightly tied to the dream descriptions that reality itself begins to shift into a sort of dreamscape. The Palace of Dreams is a gorgeous imagining of the attempt to impose reality upon dreams, and dreams upon reality.

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Review: Ismail Kadare’s The Siege

Ismail Kadare’s The Siege is not, strictly speaking, a historical novel, but it does give a broad sense of life, and life during war, during the time of the Ottoman Empire. As with Kadare’s other novels, The Siege takes place in his native Albania; and, more specifically, is set at an unnamed citadel belonging to Skanderbeg (an ethnic Albanian member of the Ottoman army, who left Islam in favor of Christianity, and the Turks for the Albanians). Strange though it may sound to say that this novel, which has no narrative thrust other than that of shifting levels of despair, succeeds because of its plotting, The Siege works because there is a tension to the story even as we suspect that it will lead to no real conclusion. Kadare sometimes gives in to an excess of dreaminess in his writing, but here keeps that tendency in check in favor of describing the council meetings and varied attempts to break the citadel’s defenses, and following the lives of those members of the Ottoman army waiting out their lives beyond the walls of the citadel.

The Siege is told largely from the view of the Ottomans, with short – two-page – narratives inserted between chapters, describing the Ottomans’ latest actions from the view of an Albanian inside the citadel. This means much description of the minutia of siege warfare, from deciding which soldiers to send over first, to when to pull back, to how the successes and failures of an attack can change the careers of the men making the decisions. This may sound dull, but Kadare is pitch-perfect in this novel, giving his characters the space to battle over their preferred strategies, and thereby giving the reader a chance to, as it were, join the negotiations. In focusing not only on the details of the siege, but on the decision-making process, Kadare also offers an extensive exploration of the idea of power, and of what influences the men fighting this battle.

There are few characters who maintain their role throughout the novel – who aren’t sentenced to death, or demoted to the lowest ranks of the army, for a loss, an accident, or a wrong decision – but even those who do maintain their position (most notably the pasha – the army’s leader – and Çelebi, the chronicler assigned to turn the siege into myth) are keenly aware of their precarious position and the odds that they will lose their power far more quickly than they gained it. When assigning punishments, decreeing that men should go “down below” to dig a tunnel underneath the citadel, the pasha recognizes not only that he holds these men’s fate in his hands, but that someone else holds his:

He hastily initialled the sentences but added in the margin, “Send below”. As he scrawled those words, which meant “to the tunnel”, he felt the well-known sensation of the powerful of the earth who can cast another man into the abyss. The idea that his own fate was also in the hands of another did not hold him back, but, on the contrary, put fresh energy into his view. He had long known that the world is but a pyramid of power, and the loser would always be the man who gives up the exercise of his own power before the other. (124)

Kadare also explores the minor, and often failed, assertions of power the men make, their attempts to break into the Pasha’s inner circle where they can be heard with the other top men of the army. In Kadare’s vision, even the secretary recording these meetings is seeking opportunities to declare his own strength:

The Pasha had spoken. In the utter silence that ensued all that could be heard was the scratching of the secretary’s quill as he put down on paper everything that had been said. They were all accustomed to this sound which was always identical, whether the words being transcribed were sharp or smooth, scorpion bites or soft summer wind. Those among the council members who were familiar with administrative accounts realised that the secretary was making his quill squeal more than was necessary. To judge by the serious face he made at such times, it wasn’t hard to guess that these silent pauses in which his pen scratching was the overriding sound gave him his sole opportunity in life to assert his own importance. Once someone started talking again, his very presence would be forgotten. (201)

There’s a sense of the forgettable to the events of this novel. As anyone with a rough understanding of the history of the Ottoman empire can guess, this siege won’t be successful; it is nothing more than a footnote in history, months of war that are of note only as a part of the tide that will eventually overwhelm the Albanian defenders. The scribe who spends so much time observing soldiers and battles for the account he will eventually write is confronted not only with the question of whether this will be read and remembered, but by the fact that what he records is not really the truth. Throughout the novel, men make note of the things the scribe won’t write in his chronicle – the aspects of warfare that are so wholly ugly they’ll find no place in the glorious chronicle of this siege.

Kadare perfectly captures the deadening effects of war, how its horrors become commonplace; the political machinations that go into decisions down to the level of what soldiers should be eating; how power is claimed and used and, in time, lost; and the circular nature of war, the way that one army will so easily replace the last. By showing so much of the siege through the chronicler’s eyes, Kadare also questions how memory is shaped, and what aspects of war will be remembered, and which should be remembered. The Siege is a remarkable novel, one worth repeated visits for its unsentimental look at mythmaking and the nature of war.

“In the raging storm of battle the crocodiles charged the ramparts again and again, but fate…” It was a hard sentence to finish off, and he had a headache. He was tempted to write “…did not smile on them”, but “smile” seemed the wrong word here. How could there be any smiles in the midst of such horrible butchery? He put his quill down and stared pensively at the pages he had written in a hand now weakened by age. One day, they would constitute the sole remains of all this blood spilled beneath a burning sky, of those thousands of dreadful wounds, of the roar of the cannon, of the yellow dust of forced marches, of the unending, nightmarish ebb and flow of assailants beneath the castle walls, of men clambering up ladders under showers of hot pitch and arrows, falling to the ground below, then clambering up again alongside comrades who don’t even recognise you because you are already disfigured by your injuries. Those pages were going to be the sole trace of the soldiers’ tanned hides, of these innumerable skins on which sharp metal, sulphur, pitch and oil had drawn monstrous shapes which, when the war was over, would go on living their own lives. To cap it all, these pages would also be the sole remnants of the myriad tents which, when they were dismantled, as they would be in a few weeks’ time, would leave thousands of marks on a wide empty space, looking as if it had been trampled by a huge herd of bizarre animals. Then, next spring, grass would grow on the plain: millions of blades of grass, utterly indifferent to what had gone on there, with no knowledge of all that can happen in this world. (294)

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Review: Robert Carver’s The Accursed Mountains: Journeys in Albania

Questions I am struggling with as I begin reviewing Robert Carver’s The Accursed Mountains: Journeys in Albania:

What is the point of reviewing/eviscerating a little-known (and now out-of-print) book about a little-known country?

Should I even bother reviewing the book, or just launch my attack on people (see: Greg Mortensen) labeling their Awesome Stories “non-fiction” because they know that only a handful of people will be able to see through their bullshit?

Should I address everything that is stomach-turning about this book (see: the author’s sexism*, wishful thinking/dramatics, and lack of respect and understanding about Albanian culture; that huge and basic errors in the Albanian printed within show that Carver did not collaborate with Albanians even to get the damn phrases right) or just the big ones?

Really, after listing those things out I realize that there is nothing I want to say about this book that I can hold back from saying, even though exactly zero (0) of my readers will ever lay hands on Carver’s masterwork. As someone who has lived in the Balkans, it’s absolutely clear to me that Carver’s travelogue is as much a product of his imagination and the spy thrillers he reads as anything that actually happens around here; and my suspicions about this work leave me feeling nearly as unsettled as I did after I finished reading Three Cups of Tea with the sense that Mortensen had managed to pull one over on every person who had never worked in foreign aid.

So, where to start. Carver visits Albania in 1996, just five years after the fall of Communism and shortly before the 1997 collapse of the pyramid schemes that many Albanians had invested their life savings in. Although the book’s title refers to the Accursed Mountains of the country’s north, Carver spends more of his three months in Albania in the south and in the country’s capital, Tirana, lending the book a slightly unbalanced feel.

Carver makes some astute observations about the Albanian character and, in particular, about what the easy availability of Western foreign aid has done to the country. He describes Albanians as “Westernized but not Western” (26), which is about the best way I can think of describing the Balkans today – many people listen to American music, watch American films, dress in American styles, but maintain a very Albanian mindset. Carver makes some good points, as well, about what Communism followed by foreign aid has done to the local initiative, writing that “nothing would ever be done to clean up and rebuild the country, because that was always and would always be ‘someone else’s’ job” (26).

It’s unfortunate, then, that the things Carver gets right about the country are so outweighed by what he gets horribly, and seemingly purposely, wrong. Carver doesn’t take a single bus journey that doesn’t involve numerous stops to pay off local policemen and/or bandits. Within a hundred pages of the book’s start, the writer is convinced that people are plotting to kill him at every turn. Given that Albania had been home to Peace Corps Volunteers since 1992 (and Peace Corps doesn’t place its volunteers in countries where Americans are regularly hunted down by wily locals), it’s only logical to conclude that Carver’s conviction that so many Albanians were out to harm him is the result of either an unbalanced mind or a desire to sell more copies by dramatizing the story a bit. Probably the latter, since the lead-in to the sixth chapter of The Accursed Mountains is, “The first attempt to murder and rob me was a hopelessly amateur affair” (88). This attitude of paranoia pervades the remaining 250 pages of the book.

That Carver chooses to show Albanians in such a light is offensive precisely because it is a country that is known by so few. To color an entire nation as being populated by thieves, rapists, and murderers, as Carver does, is an irresponsible act. It’s one that’s all the more upsetting for the moments in which Carver reveals himself to have known so little Albanian during his travels, and to have done so little fact-checking while writing his book, that he was not even able to get correct something as simple as asking for a coffee “without sugar.” (He writes “ska sheker.” It should be “pa sheqer.” Literally, the first thing I learned to say in Albanian.) And yet, to most readers of The Accursed Mountains, Carver’s word would be taken as good as fact, just as so many readers believed what Greg Mortensen laid out in Three Cups of Tea. Maybe the impact wasn’t as wide-ranging here as with Three Cups – Carver, after all, didn’t find a way to make millions via a charity playing off the goodwill of his readers – but it’s upsetting nonetheless to think of an author twisting his story in order, presumably, to sell more books.

What else does Carver get wrong? The biggest fault is probably when he writes about the Kanun of Lek Dukagjini. The Kanun is a code of law that Albanians in the northern mountains used to govern themselves – I wrote about it a while back in relation to an article about blood feuds. The Kanun of Lek Dukagjini is just one example of these law codes, and the best known. Carver seems unaware that there are other Kanuns, and makes the further error of writing about all Albanian society, northern and southern, in light of the Kanun. If Carver had spent even a few weeks reading about Albania, he would have known that his entire chapter on the Kanun deserved to be cut.

For all the times that publishers have been criticized for not fact-checking anything they publish (is this an exaggeration? I don’t have a fact checker to tell me), they’re going to continue printing books like The Accursed Mountains that are full of factual errors and offer a false picture of something most people will never experience for themselves. I guess the unfortunate conclusion is that we have to approach all these books with caution and suspicion, an awareness of the limitations of our own knowledge, and an awareness that the author in some cases may be seeking to sell books rather than offer something close to the truth. Which, frankly, sucks.

* Further offenses, that as a woman I feel I can’t leave off without mentioning, come in the form of Carver’s sexism. The man appears incapable of describing a woman other than by the size of her breasts; he seems to view women as nothing more than a pair of legs with a pair of breasts attached at the top. See:

Prominent, unavoidably so, were also a pair of splendid, gauze-enveloped breasts which fully deserved to be declared national monuments in their own right. I didn’t dare ask ‘Falso or vero?‘, although it did cross my mind. (154)

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Review: Edith Durham’s High Albania

Edith Durham was a British traveler of the early twentieth century who focused much of her travel and writing on Albania. At the time, the West knew little about Albania – the country was largely unexplored. In her travelogue, High Albania, Durham notes at times the gross inaccuracy of the maps she’s traveling with, giving some sense of just how unknown the region was.

Durham occasionally delves into anthropology, but High Albania is a book best read as the travel diary of a woman in love with the Albanian people. There’s some discomfort here for a reader visiting the book over a hundred years after it was first written, as Durham frequently offers cringe-worthy statements about the childlike nature of the Albanians, or broad criticisms of the Muslims she encounters on her travels. (Though she never goes as far as the Christian Albanians, who claim you can always tell when a Muslim is in the room by the stench.) But read with a sense of the time at which it was written, and a knowledge of Durham’s unabashed love for Albanians – that other famous female chronicler of the Balkans, Rebecca West, criticized Durham for returning home “with a pet Balkan people established in their hearts as suffering and innocent, eternally the massacree and never the massacrer” – this is a stunning glimpse at Northern Albania just before the first World War.

I usually keep my reviews out of the realm of the personal, but in the case of High Albania I’m not sure there’s a way to do so, or even a reason to try. One of the things I most loved about Durham’s writing was that it highlighted so many of the things I felt and experienced when I lived in Macedonia, over a hundred years after she made the trip she writes about in this book. There is something awing about getting a glimpse of the continuity of a regional culture, and to see that for all the aspects of life that have changed in Northern Albania (and also in Western Macedonia – I’m extrapolating, because although there a number of real distinctions between the Albanian cultures and religions in the two countries, and between Macedonian Muslims and Albanian Muslims, there are also a lot of commonalities, broadly speaking) there are many that are just the same. When Durham eats at a sofra, for instance, I was drawn back to my first time eating at a sofra with my host family in Debar, and to some of the traditions they explained over the two years I lived with them.

The women brought warm water in an ibrik and soap, and a clean towel for each. We washed our hands, the sofra was spread with the men’s dinner. We squatted round (I am always classed with the buck-herd) and the women withdrew to a respectful distance.

The soup, fowl, eggs, and milk were excellent. We ate with wooden ladles from a common platter. The Kastrati took the breast-bone of the fowl and held it against the light, scrutinised its markings, and declared it foretold no evil to this house – which was very polite of him.

[…]

We washed our hands and rose from the sofra. The women hurried up and carried the remains to the other end of the room, where they devoured them. (64)

Edith Durham

High Albania is composed of moments like this. There’s no real organizing principle evident behind Durham’s writing; at points, there is even a jumpiness to the text that suggests a direct transcription of notes she made while traveling. Durham’s shifting from describing travel conditions to a blood feud (one of her main focuses as she writes) to a traditional story gives us a vivid portrait of Albanian life. That Durham chose not to attempt better organization was actually one of my favorite aspects of the book, as the crush of information about all aspects of Albanian life so closely mirrors the actual experience of moving to a new country and attempting to assimilate cultural traditions and history and habits all at one moment.

In recounting traditional stories, Durham also offers a glimpse of the sort of favorite stories that will rarely show up in a history book, and that highlights some aspects of the Albanian character that we might otherwise miss. She includes perhaps five or ten stories of a few pages each in High Albania, but there are also briefer examples of this type of story – here’s one.

The tribesmen love a joke. It is usually a tale of a successful swindle. Thus: A man bought a donkey at the bazar and led it away. Two thieves followed him. One slipped the halter from the donkey, and went off with it. The other put the halter on his own head, and followed the man. When the first thief had had time to escape with the donkey, the second began to pull and groan. The astonished man looked back, and found the donkey gone and a man in its place. “Where is my donkey?” he asked. “Alas!” cried the thief, “I am that luckless being. A wicked magician turned me into a donkey for fifteen years. The time has just come to an end. I have nothing, and know not where to go.” The kind man then released him, and gave him some money. (212)

As Durham writes, the idea of the trickster is such a common one in Balkan stories – it is these characters, in fact, who are the “heroes” of the story. In the despairing way in which they speak of the Turkish government, and of the possibility of having greater rule and fewer blood feuds in the Northern region, there is a sense of why this tale of the swindle is such a central one in Albanian culture. For a group of people so removed from government, who may have heard of the great workings of the West or the Ottoman Empire but saw no evidence of them in their own lives, for people who might work hard every day but have their lives changed by one instance of good or bad luck, the notion of a man tricking his way into a better situation must have been an apt one. Durham does a fantastic job of pointing the reader to this, and to so many other factors influencing the lifestyles and mindsets of the Albanians she meets.

High Albania is a great read for anyone into old-timey travelogues, the Balkans, or casual anthropology. I may well write more about this work, but no fears – anything more in-depth will find its proper place on my other blog, where I probably should be writing about all my research reading to start with. (But hey! It’s my blog, I make the rules around here!)

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