In her debut, New Yorker contributor and n+1 fan favorite Batuman turns lit-crit on its head with a cheeky, guided tour through her own literary scholarship.
The academy wasn’t always the author’s life calling; rather, the “six-foot-tall first-generation Turkish woman” dreamed of writing her novels. But fate—and her mother’s copy of Anna Karenina—intervened, leading to a series of adventures delving deep into Babel, Tolstoy, Chekhov and other such notables. Part travelogue, part anthropological study and part meditation on literature, her essays take readers into the strange corners of her academic journey, including the ice palaces of St. Petersburg, the streets of Samarkand, Uzbekistan, where bakeries are signified by a flat loaf of bread literally nailed to the doors, and a literary convention in suburban California. Fans of popular Russian writers will delight in the Tolstoy chapter, in which Batuman finds herself at a convention of scholars, investigating a possible murder on the grounds of Tolstoy’s ancestral home. The chapter evolves like a real-life, esoteric version of the board game Clue. The author’s dissection of a Stanford Babel convention—her first essay ever published—is biting and thoroughly entertaining. The longest and most engrossing chapters focus on her bizarre foray into Central Asia, where she seeks a link between her Turkish heritage and the Russian literature she has come to adore, deeply testing the bonds of a romantic relationship along the way. The essays are arranged almost haphazardly, with the Samarkand summer broken into three parts interspersed with other essays, but that only adds to the book’s quirky charm.
By the end of this refreshingly modern take on literature, Batuman feels like a friend, and her essays like the remarkably well-constructed, analytical, eye-opening e-mails you always wanted that friend to send.