Fat Books & Thin Women


So many exciting things!
July 18, 2012, 5:19 pm
Filed under: Blog Stuff | Tags: , ,

Hello, internet! Time to make my excuses, yet again, for my long absence from book reviewing. It’s a good one this time: I was in Turkey! (This trip was, I admit, surrounded by a few weeks of pure laziness, blog-wise.) That beautiful country I have been dreaming of visiting ever since I was in kindergarten, wearing my snazzy grandmother-provided Turkey-bought necklace and bracelet set. This was such a fun trip, and I should eventually get around to writing it up on my other blog, but there’s so much to cover that I would not be surprised if that post takes until December to write. (No surprise to long-time readers of this blog – I know there are a few of you, counting my parents – who have been watching my plummeting post counts.) Two days on a boat, swimming laps around the boat, getting off the boat to buy ice cream, swimming some more, followed by two days of sea legs… “conquering” my fear of heights with a balloon ride over Cappadocia and, get this(!), an emergency landing that I SURVIVED, a number of expensive sites in Istanbul, lots of old tombs, hitting my head about three times a day, and lots of good food.

Balloon ride!

Bookishly speaking, I finished A Dance with Dragons while on the trip, and no real thoughts on it except…GRRM, how many more of my favorite characters can you kill? I don’t want to say anything more about this because I know everyone who hasn’t finished the five completed books in the series is either currently reading them or planning to read them. At this point, I’m so used to my favorites dying that they only warrant a brief jaw drop…nothing like the Red Wedding scene which, OH MY GOD.

It’s less than two weeks now until I return to the States, so I’m too excited to do much reading – but lots and lots of movies. Maybe I can learn to be a film critic? Expect things to step up a bit once I’m in the America, because my father was kind enough to go the library and reserve a list of books I’d sent him. So, prepare for: Etgar Keret! Nathan Englander! Chad Harbach! Jo Nesbo! Tom Piccirilli! My brain feels like it’s about to explode right now, so off for a coffee and a question: What have you all been up to? Are you as excited (or, sometimes, terrified) for this summer* as I am?

* In my mind, summer starts when I am sitting on the Jersey Shore…so August.

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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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#Longreads : Paul Theroux’s “The Lesson of My Life”
September 28, 2011, 5:50 pm
Filed under: Favorite Longreads | Tags: , , , ,

Check back every Wednesday for a link to a new longread. Your thoughts on this week’s read, and suggestions for future articles and essays, are always welcome!

Paul Theroux’s “The Lesson of My Life” is a wide-ranging piece about his experience in the Peace Corps, an encounter with Obama and his hopes for the presidency, the differences between travel and sightseeing, and the ways technology has changed the Peace Corps experience. Theroux’s article isn’t worth reading just by the people considering joining Peace Corps, which is how I think a lot of Peace Corps-centered pieces are viewed, but for anyone attempting to better define why it is important, why it is necessary, to do this sort of work in the first place.

Theroux hits on a couple things that have troubled me during my service. First, internet is so pervasive now that the opportunity to truly “escape” has vanished. Nearly everyone in Macedonia, not just American volunteers, has the internet in their homes, and Peace Corps has changed to such a degree that it’s nearly impossible to function without the internet. During the five or six months I didn’t have internet (either because I was training, or waiting for my internet to be installed at my house, or because I left the router plugged in during a thunderstorm) I missed countless emails from Peace Corps staffers and co-workers in my school, the sort of emails that I needed to see to do my job. But this sort of technology, as Theroux points out, fundamentally changes the Peace Corps by making it possible for volunteers to retreat to the comfort of phone calls with family on a bad day. Over the past few months, which have at times felt crushing (failed projects at school, strained relations with my school’s administration due to the failed project, a need to reclaim my privacy), I’ve been guilty of this.

Theroux also writes of one of the differences between travel with an organization like the Peace Corps and the sort of sightseeing that ends in description of what people do not have: “Out of a guilty, grotesque, almost boasting self-consciousness, these wealthy visitors enumerate the insufficiencies. That’s because they don’t stay very long.” This is something I saw when I was at home, and it was something I kowtowed to when I did presentations on my Peace Corps service, because it’s not just what the visitors see but what the non-visitors want to hear that influences how we describe our travel. People do not want to hear that I’m still awed by how close families here are, how generous the people are, and how much more secure in people’s honesty I often feel here than I do in America (leave your phone in a cab in Macedonia and the driver will call you and tell you which gas station attendant he is leaving the phone with; leave your phone in a cab in America and you’re buying a new one the next day); they want to hear about girls being married when they are sixteen years old and children being taken out of school after the eighth grade, and women doing everything for the men of the family, down to getting them glasses of water when they call for them. These things are true, but as Theroux writes, they do not describe the whole of the experience.

With what sometimes feels like endless criticism of Peace Corps and the work volunteers do (see: in a bar recently, an American traveling through the Balkans describing the Foreign Service: “Look at me, look at me, I’m an American and I’m here to show you I’m a nice person” [exactly what we do in the Peace Corps], so many articles and tv shows over the last year about rape in the Peace Corps, poor agency response to volunteer problems, and reasons why Peace Corps is a poor “aid organization”), Theroux’s essay, which is in part a summation of his time in Africa and in part a defense of the necessary work behind this sort of travel, is a fine response to those who tear apart the Peace Corps without an understanding of the organization or the value of its volunteers’ efforts.

Travel—not sightseeing, but real encounters with real people—has never mattered more in helping us to see how we’re crowding a blighted planet, how interdependent we are.

Read Paul Theroux’s “The Lesson of My Life”

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Review: Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love

Eat, Pray, Love is probably one of those books that’s easier to dislike in theory than in fact. So many things about Gilbert’s journey – the idea of travel as a means to finding oneself rather than experiencing a different culture, “cherry picking” bits and pieces of different religions, embarking on a journey of self-discovery financed by a publishing house – offend me, but she has a likable enough voice that most of these offenses became less grating to me as I read her memoir.

Her writing is funny enough, at times, but she swerves between treating subjects with a pleasant and light humor to going all purple-y about God and the universe and the way she experiences the world around her. The relative percentage of say, funny vs. over-the-top prose, changes drastically from section to section, so that in some ways this felt like three books to me, or at least three “novella-ish” memoirs linked because they happened to occur within the span of one year.

The first section of Gilbert’s memoir, about her travels in Italy, was by far my favorite. As a person who for a year and a half has not eaten real Italian food (I make a mean tomato sauce out of the tomatoes which are fifty cents a kilo in summer, but that is one tomato sauce out of a year and a half of being offered spaghetti with mayonnaise), I wanted Gilbert to spend another two hundred pages telling me about all the pizza she ate and wine she drank.

Second we’ve got four months at an ashram. As an atheist with not even the slightest inclination towards “spirituality,” I found Gilbert’s prose here to be too much – I am pretty sure my mouth was hanging open all through the second part of the book, me whispering, “No! People really write things like this?”

And I don’t want to say that what I experienced that Thursday afternoon in India was indescribable, even though it was. I’ll try to explain anyway. Simply put, I got pulled through the wormhole of the Absolute, and in that rush I suddenly understood the workings of the universe completely. I left my body, I left the room, I left the planet, I stepped through time and I entered the void. I was inside the void, but I also was the void and I was looking at the void, all at the same time. The void was a place of limitless peace and wisdom. The void was conscious and it was intelligent. The void was God, which means that I was inside God. But not in a gross, physical way – not like I was Liz Gilbert stuck inside a chunk of God’s thigh muscle. I just was part of God. In addition to being God. I was both a tiny piece of the universe and exactly the same size as the universe. (199)

Gilbert is still meditating and thinking on God when she hits Bali in the third and final section of the book, but here it’s not so much and it’s coupled with her meeting and falling in love with a Brazilian, Felipe. (My googling revealed, unfortunately, that he does not look like Javier Bardem.)

That I’m in the Peace Corps influences my reading of this book. Whatever you claim when you’re applying, most people try to join Peace Corps as much to “discover themselves” as to “help people,” so I can’t be too critical of Gilbert’s decision to travel solely as a means of self-discovery. There is something about travel or life abroad that we seem to universally agree acts as a positive agent of change, and while you can’t leave your problems behind you in the states you can at least hope that at the end of ….. (whatever, a year traveling the world, two years in the Peace Corps) you’ll return home a better person.

This is a cheap way of summarizing my reading of the book, though, so today we’ll be getting some outsider opinions. Right now (well, I wrote this on Sunday – so “right now” on Sunday) I am in my friend Joany’s apartment sitting next to my friend Jackie, a former Peace Corps volunteer who moved to Greece to, as Gilbert puts it, “idle at the traffic light” with her Greek boyfriend (who from the back looks suspiciously like her Macedonian language instructor from Peace Corps training). Jackie is, I think, uniquely qualified to comment on Gilbert’s book because, you know, she lives in Greece with a Greek boyfriend.

Me: Jackie, what are your thoughts on this book?

Jackie: (makes thoughtful noises) Elizabeth Gilbert is a narcissist. But I kind of like it, because I’m one too. Maybe anyone who’s on a journey of self-discovery is slightly narcissistic.

Joany: No…. (lays down)

Jackie: (laughs, picks at beaded cord on sweatpants) I have mixed feelings about the message it sends to women, because it says if I just indulge myself and find my spiritual center, I’ll be rewarded with a man at the end.

Joany: You guys are making me not want to read this book.

Jackie: Joany, who recently embarked on page one.

(long pause)

Jackie: But then I also find myself, at times, really relating.

And that’s about it, I guess. Countless aspects of the book are offensive, but enough of me relates to Gilbert and wonders if whether, by “finding myself,” I’ll be able to meet the man of dreams (Javier Bardem, apparently) that I can’t bash the book as much as I did before reading it. Living abroad, though, isn’t always as simple as Gilbert makes it appear, and I worry that readers will think, for one, the being rewarded with a man bit, and for two, that life abroad is a cure-all for all your problems. It’s not. Elizabeth Gilbert may have finished her year of travel a changed woman, but for most of us… we will be exactly the same person at the end of our travels as we were at the beginning, albeit with a few more stamps in our passports.

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