Either/Or by Elif Batuman

This sequel needs a sequel.

“Was this the decisive moment of my life? It felt as if the gap that had dogged me all my days was knitting together before my eyes—so that, from this point on, my life would be as coherent and meaningful as my favorite books. At the same time, I had a powerful sense of having escaped something: of having finally stepped outside the script.”

In Either/Or we are reunited with Selin as she continues to navigate the trials and tribulations of adulthood. Now a sophomore student at Harvard, Selin has plenty to keep her occupied: her studies inspire her to question the choices she and others have made, the direction of her life, the meaning of love, sex, and connection, the limitations of language, and, of course, her relationship with Ivan, the Hungarian student whose mind remains to Selin, and by extension us, as unreadable as ever. Did she care for her at all?

There was something abstract and gentle about the experience of being ignored—a feeling of being spared, a known impossibility of anything happening—that was consonant with my understanding of love.

Selin’s propensity for long asides is as present as ever and I loved losing myself in her inner monologue. Her long acts of introspections do often come across as navel-gazing (curiously enough the narrative itself mentions navel-gazing), but I never felt bored or annoyed by it. If anything, Selin’s solipsistic inclination for self-interrogation made her all the more realistic. That she refers to books, music, films, and authors to make sense of herself and others results in a deeply intratextual narrative that will definitely appeal to literary students. While Selin isn’t wholly enamoured by academia, we can see how her studies and the books she reads inform the way she understands her world and those who populate it. She often draws parallels between her own life and those of historical and fictional figures. Some of the authors/artists/etc. she mentions include: Kazuo Ishiguro, Fiona Apple, Charles Baudelaire, Pushkin, Shakespeare, André Breton, and of course, Soren Kierkegaard’s Either/Or.

“There was something about crying so much, the way it made my body so limp and hot and shuddering, that made me feel closer to sex. Maybe there was a line where sex and total sadness touched—one of those surprising borders that turned out to exist, like the one between Italy and Slovenia. Music, too, was adjacent. It was like Trieste, which was Italian and Slovenian and also somehow Austrian.”

Of course, at times these books and figures only add further confusion, so Selin is unsure whether she’s idealizing herself and others so that her life can resemble those she encounters in fiction. More often than not knowledge fails her, so she’s unable to decipher not only the motivations of others but her own true feelings.
Her writerly aspirations too preoccupy her and so do the changes that come about in her life. Selin’s intense friendship and rivalry with ​​Svetlana is threatened when the latter finds a boyfriend. Her roommates too have plenty of things that keep them occupied so Selin finds herself going to parties where she meets less than ideal men. Yet even as Selin forms sexual relationships with them, she longs for Ivan and obsesses over what his infrequent emails leave unsaid.

“It seemed to me that the elements whirling around me in my own life were also somehow held in place by Ivan’s absence, or were there because of him—to counterbalance a void.”

Either/Or shares the same structure with The Idiot so we follow Selin month by month during her academic year before tagging alongside her as she once again goes abroad for the summer. In Turkey she finds herself forming unexpected connections but remains somewhat remote to them.

Sardonic and adroit Either/Or makes for a fantastic read. While Selin does change over the course of her sophomore year, she also remains very much herself. She can be reserved and slightly baffling at times, and yet she’s also capable of making some very insightful or relatable comments. She’s intelligent, somewhat naive, and has a penchant for overthinking and obsessing over minor things. Her deadpan sense of humor and little idiosyncrasies make her character really pop out of the page. I could definitely relate to her many many uncertainties, as well as her fixation with understanding the person who never seemed to reciprocate her feelings.

The one that started “Days like this, I don’t know what to do with myself” made me feel certain that I had spent my whole life not knowing what to do with myself—all day, and all night. “I wander the halls . . .” That was exactly it: not the streets, like a flâneur, but the halls. Oh, I knew just which halls.

As I mentioned already over the course of her second year at Harvard Selin grows into a more self-assured person while also remaining strangely static. Her mental meanderings often included reflections on things such as desirability, belonging, love, heartbreak, self-fulfilment, choice & chance, and I found her perspective on these things deeply compelling. At times her mind is preoccupied with mundane thoughts, at times she loses herself in philosophical and existentialist questions about human nature.
Batuman’s inclusion of the minutiae of her protagonist’s life (such as inserting a tampon: “I tried again to put in a tampon. ABSOLUTELY NO FUCKING WAY.”) made Selin’s reality at Harvard all the more vivid. I could easily envision the different environments she occupies, as well as the people who inhabit those places. This combined with the mumblecore dialogues and Selin’s recursive inner monologue, which borders on being a stream of consciousness, give Either/Or quality of hyperrealism. That is, even when confronted with moments of surreality or scenes of a comedic nature, I believed completely in what I was reading. A sense of 90s nostalgia permeates her story which adds to the narrative’s overall atmosphere and aesthetic.

“It was the golden time of year. Every day the leaves grew brighter, the air sharper, the grass more brilliant. The sunsets seemed to expand and melt and stretch for hours, and the brick façades glowed pink, and everything blue got bluer. How many perfect autumns did a person get? Why did I seem always to be in the wrong place, listening to the wrong music?”

I loved this novel so thoroughly that I was sad to reach its inevitable conclusion. I hope with all my heart that Batuman will write a third instalment where we will follow Selin during her third year at Harvard.
If you enjoyed The Idiot chances us you will, like me, love this even more (perhaps because batuman is expanding on the ‘universe’ she already established). If you are a fan of the young-alienated-women subgenre you should definitely consider picking these series up.

My eternal gratitude to the publisher for providing me with an arc.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

The Idiot by Elif Batuman

When you heard -miş, you knew that you had been invoked in your absence—not just you but your hypocrisy, cowardice, and lack of generosity. Every time I heard it, I felt caught out.

Equal parts cerebral and droll, The Idiot relates the humdrum tribulations of a Turkish-American Harvard freshman. Set in the mid-nineties The Idiot provides an incredibly immersive reading experience that will not appeal to those looking for a more story-driven read. Selin’s narrative lacks momentum, her daily interactions, however peculiar, often serve no real plot function, adding little to her story. Yet, the author’s commitment to commit even the most prosaic of Selin’s thoughts or encounters adds a dimension of realism to her novel. The Idiot is very much characterised by seemingly endless digressions. Selin’s inner monologue often verges on being a stream-of-consciousness, as her mind flutters from thought to thought, often losing herself in asides or navel-gazing. While Selin is certainly naive, she does possess a certain awareness of her own limitations and shortcomings. The first half of the novel recounts her first year at university. Like many other disoriented heroines, aside from her vague aspirations of becoming a writer, Selin is unsure of what she wants to study, let alone who she is or wants to be. At Harvard, she takes classes on literature but seems dissatisfied by the way her professor teaches this subject (her criticism towards academia certainly resonated with me here) and seems to find her Russian class far more interesting. This is partly due to Ivan. He’s Hungarian, a few years older than her, and a mathematics student. Rather by chance, the two begin an email correspondence, one that is full of existential angst or studenty speculations about the meaning of x or y. Their virtual rapport doesn’t translate well in real life and when in the proximity of one another they often are unable to clearly express their ideas or feelings. Selin’s narrative is very much concerned with (mis)communication. Her mind grows increasingly preoccupied with language from its limitations to its potential.
In the latter half of the novel Selin, persuaded by Ivan, spends her summer teaching ESL classes in Hungary. Here she has to confront the possibility that she may have been idealising her and Ivan’s will-they-won’t-they relationship.
The dialogues within this novel ring incredibly true to life. They have this mumblecoreesque quality—awkward pauses, recursiveness, mishearing—that made those scenes come to life. The characters populating the narrative—Ivan, Svetlana, Selin’s roommates and the other ESL teachers—also came across as realistic. While some of their idiosyncrasies are certainly played up for laughs, that the author was able to capture in such minute detail the particular way in which they express themselves made them all the more vivid. At times Selin’s interactions with others do stray into absurdist territories but I found that more often than not I could definitely relate to her more eccentric conversations.
Selin’s narrative is certainly adroit. Interspersed throughout her narration are many literary references as well as detailed descriptions or accounts of whatever other subject she is discussing or thinking about. I found the conversations around West/East to be particularly entertaining. In spite of her supposed ‘idiocy’ Selin makes for a sharp-eyed narrator. Her insights into human behaviour and the academic world, as well as her exploration of the possibilities and failures of language, struck me as being both shrewd and funny.
While we do read of Selin’s innermost feelings Elif Batuman keeps us at a remove from her. In this way, she emphasises the alienation, loneliness, unease, Selin herself experiences throughout the novel. While the title does seem to be a nod at Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel, Selin has little in common with Prince Myshkin. If anything, Batuman seems to have a Flaubertian preoccupation with failure. In a manner not too dissimilar from Emma Bovary, Selin’s longing to be with Ivan seemed to be less a result of love than her desire to experience that which she has read in so many books.
Under different hands The Idiot could have been a dull affair. It is Batuman’s deadpan humor and naturalistic storytelling that make The Idiot into a worthwhile read. The novel’s latter half was slightly less enjoyable than the first but I was still for the most part absorbed by Selin’s voice. Her passivity may rub people the wrong way but I found the myriad of uncertainties plaguing her to make all the more believable. If you liked Susan Choi’s My Education you might want to give this a shot.


my rating: ★★★¾

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Mister Impossible by Maggie Stiefvater

“Your Boyfriend Called, He Thinks You’ve Joined a Cult, Please Advise.”

Mister Impossible may be Stiefvater’s trickiest novel. I inhaled it in just a day and part of me knows that I need to re-read in order to truly absorb everything that went down. This is the kind of novel that leaves you feeling pretty devastated. It seemed like nothing and everything was happening. Plot-wise, well…Ronan, Hennessy, and Bryde go galavanting across Virginia while committing ecoterrorist acts. Sort of.

Ronan and Hennessy are pretty chaotic characters who have a predilection for self-destructive behaviours and self-loathing (a great combo). Ronan’s chapters in Mister Impossible are particularly elusive and hella unreliable. I read somewhere that Stiefvater’s said that this trilogy was about the stories we tell ourselves and ouch…that is exactly what we are getting in Mister Impossible. This was as intense as The Dream Thieves but far more brutal. Things don’t get better, people don’t always learn from their mistakes or know how to break away from vicious cycles…I don’t know, this has me rambling already. Ronan is such a conflicted (and conflicting) character and I found myself wanting to shake him because he does and says some really fucked up shit and whisk him away from Bryde and anyone else who hurts/messes with him.
Declan, Jordan, and Matthew’s chapters were welcome respites. Matthew is struggling to adjust to the fact that he is a dream and is understandably sick of being treated like a child by Declan. I really liked how Jordan and Declan’s relationship developed, their scenes were truly a salve to my weary soul. Their chemistry, their light banter, their art talk. I just loved them together.

The narrative is very much about self-divide, art, forgery, reality vs dreams, miscommunication (or even 0 communication), loneliness, chronic illness, and not so great coping mechanisms. A sense of unease permeates the narrative, Ronan’s chapters were especially anxiety inducing.

The writing was Stiefvater-levels of clever (funny, exhilarating, surreal, fairytalesque), the pacing was relentless (even if nothing seems to happen…tis’ a mystery how she does it), and the characters are as compelling as they are frustrating (Ronan, please, stop breaking my heart).

SPOILERS
And that ending,wtfStiefvater, who told you to go all Fight Club/Mr. Robot on us?

my rating: ★★★★

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Ghosts of Harvard by Francesca Serritella — book review


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“It’s supposed to be a time when you’re about to embark on your adult life, but for many young people, that springboard looks more like a precipice.”

Ghosts of Harvard is a patchwork of a novel. While the summary seems to promise more of thriller/academia type of book (I personally would not recommend this to those who enjoy campus novels or dark academia), what we do get is a mishmash of genres and storylines: to start with we have a moving family drama that examines the realities of caring for someone with a mental illness, then we head into the supernatural combined with the type of amateur investigation that is all the rage in domestic thrillers (someone you know has done something bad), before culminating in a melodramatic final act.

Francesca Serritella strikingly renders the setting of Harvard. Sadly however her protagonist’s investigation into her brother’s time there takes the centre-stage, so that Cadence’s studies and interactions with other students receive limited attention only. Nevertheless Serritella certainly knows Harvard, and she demonstrates her knowledge of its history, architecture, and traditions in a very compelling and evocative way.
After her brother’s suicide Cadence is obviously overwhelmed. Eric was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia while studying at Harvard so Cadence does feel to a certain extent haunted. Hoping that being at Harvard will somehow bring her closer to her brother, she soon begins to suspect that her brother was hiding something. As she becomes obsessed with her brother’s past, she begins to hear ‘voices’. What follows is a story that has the trappings of most domestic thrillers, the only difference being the academic backdrop.

The third person narration distances us from Cadence, so that much of her personality remains unseen. We know of her troubled relationship with her mother but we never truly delve into Cadence’s sense of self. She makes many nonsensical decisions for ‘plot’ reasons, and I can’t say that she ever did or said anything remotely remarkable or moving. Perhaps I would have sympathised more with her if she had at any point had an introspective moment. She briefly questions herself only when she’s worried that the voices she’s hearing are a figment of her imagination or a sign that she too may suffer from schizophrenia. She forms superficial friendships with her roommates and a guy who shares one of her classes, but for the most part she only comes into contact with individuals who are directly connected to her brother and his secret. Speaking of Eric’s friends, it was weird that Cadence only speaks to his best friend once. Although Cadence grows close to one of her brother’s peers, I never believed that she cared for the ‘living’ people she encounters at Harvard. She becomes somewhat chummy with the three ghosts who keep talking to her in her head, and who unsurprisingly help her in her investigation.
Throughout the course of Cadence’s ‘investigation’ we get snippets from her past that focus on her family life and her bond with Eric. These were easily my favourite parts of the novel. These scenes, although painful, possessed a genuine quality that made them much more poignant that the ones that take place at Harvard.

“Simple narratives were easier to tell, to teach, to understand, to remember. The lie endures for generations, while the truth dies with its victims. But what were the consequences?”

Serritella’s writing was absorbing and I generally enjoyed her reflections on family, mental health, grief, and Harvard’s history.
While part of me was happy that the novel didn’t drag on the ‘are the voice real or not’, ultimately I wasn’t all that taken by the novel’s execution: it veers into exaggerated territories that are punctuated by flashy twists. What could have been a compassionate exploration of grief and of loving someone who suffers from a mental illness is weighed down by unnecessary thriller-esque melodrama. The supernatural element would have been a lot more ‘haunting’ if it hadn’t been so cheesily predictable. While I appreciated the novel’s commentary on academia/educational institutions, and the nuanced portrayal of Eric’s mental illness as well as the realistic depiction of the stigma and discrimination against mental health, I was underwhelmed by the storyline and finale.

Specific plot points/scenes that were unconvincing/clichéd:

➜ The prologue. I’m tired of these prologues that ‘tease’ a possible death that is to come. The novel’s first chapters were compelling enough that they did not require such a gimmicky opening.

➜ Cadence’s first interaction with her roommate was jarring: “I’m Ranjoo, do you hate me already?”
“Only for those abs.” Who says that? Maybe if we had a better grasp of Cadence’s personality I could have believed that she would say something alongs these lines.

(view spoiler)

➜ Nikos. (view spoiler)

➜ The ghosts. (view spoiler)

➜ Prokop. (view spoiler)

➜ Eric. (view spoiler)

➜ The chapters would often end on these would be cliffhangers.(view spoiler)

➜ Lee. (view spoiler)

➜ The epilogue (view spoiler)

All in all I can’t say that I disliked Ghosts of Harvard but there were many elements within the narrative that lessened my overall reading experience and opinion of the book.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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Call Down the Hawk by Maggie Stiefvater — book review

Okay, I loved it even more this second time around.

This book is full of Stiefvaterisms (in the best possible way).

“This is going to be a story about the Lynch brothers.”

The very first line of Call Dawn the Hawk echoes that of a fairy tale and Maggie Stiefvater demonstrates just how impressive a storyteller she is throughout the course of her novel. There are many elements of her writing style that seem to mirror those of a fairy tale: she employs repetition and recurring motifs, ‘truth’ and ‘naming’ shape both the narrative and the characters, the words and images she uses have a certain significance. Stiefvater pays incredible attention to word she uses and to the way that certain phrases sound. Her use of repetition also gives a unique rhythm to her story. Yet her style doesn’t solely emulate that of a traditional fairy tale as she injects her prose with a good dose of modern aesthetics.

“This was stupid. Ronan was no hero, but he knew fucking right from fucking wrong.”

Call Dawn the Hawk stars one of my all time favourite ‘fictional’ characters: Ronan Lynch. Although he has somewhat ‘calmed’ down, most of what he feels and does is still undeniably Ronan-ish. It was tough seeing him struggle so much: he feels left behind by Adam (who is in college) and Gansey (who has taken a year off and is travelling alongside Blue). The ‘nighwash’ limits his movements, so much so that spending a night outside of the Barns can have quite destructive results.

“Ronan, with his dangerous dreams, sleeping some-place other than the Barns or Declan’s town house? Dubious. Moving someplace other than the Barns or Declan’s town house? Never.”

Stiefvater does a brilliant job in fleshing out Declan’s character. He had a rather limited role in The Raven Cycle so it was refreshing to see more of what goes on underneath his deceptively ‘bland’ exterior.

“He just didn’t think. For one second of one minute of the day, he didn’t run the probabilities and worst-case scenarios and possibilities and consequences. For one second of one minute of the day, he just let himself feel.”

I always liked Matthew’s character in the previous books. His innocence and happy-go-lucky attitude make a change from the other characters’ (especially his older brothers) more angsty personal arcs. It would be lovely to see him getting his own chapters in the next instalment of this series.
Scenes featuring the Lynch brothers are guaranteed to entertain. Their relationship is definitely…complicated…but also utterly compelling. Declan and Ronan clash so often but it is clear that they deeply care for one another (even if they have no idea how to expresses their love).
Surprisingly less complicated is Ronan’s relationship with Adam. It’s definitely not all roses and sunshine but we could definitely see how strong and mature their bond has become.

“They hugged, hard. It was shocking to hold him. The truth of him was right there beneath Ronan’s hands, and it still seemed impossible. He smelled like the leather of the thrift store jacket and the woodsmoke he’d ridden through to get here. Things had been the same for so long, and now everything was different, and it was harder to keep up than Ronan had thought.”

Stiefvater also does a great job in introducing us to new characters. It took me a while to warm up to them (this is partly due to the ambiguousness which surrounds them) but I soon became fond of them. Jordan and Hennessy are wonderful addition to this series. They each have their own distinctive personality and their bond was surprisingly complex. Jordan interacts in particular with Declan and I was surprised by how much I liked their banter. Hennessy and Ronan instead share the same mercurial personality so it was equally interesting to see them interact with one another.
The first time I read this Carmen Farooq-Lane’s chapters weren’t my favourite ones, but, upon a second reading I found myself really loving them.

“This was, she told herself, the business of the end of the world.”

Although at its bare bones the plot is rather formulaic (we have chapters following each individual character until slowly their paths converge) Stiefvater shakes this classic storyline up (people with powers + a mysterious government agency that wants to eradicate them + possibly the end of the world). She gives us some incredible sequences, brilliant dialogues, confusing dreamfuckery, the mysterious ‘Bryce’, and, of course, a cast of unforgettable characters.

Stiefvater has really honed her writing style. I loved the way she often mythicises her characters, so that they almost appear as if they are the protagonist of some myth or ballad. I also found the recurring imagery and symbols within this novel to be incredibly effective. They created a unique atmosphere and worked well with the rhythm of her language.
Stiefvater also portrays different types of faith with great realism. Learning of the various character’s beliefs, convictions, and general outlooks made them all the more believable. Interspersed throughout the narrative there are many compelling discussions and observations regarding art (from painting techniques to the lives or works of certain artists).
The pacing of this novel is pretty furious. Lots of things happen, each chapter furthers the plot (characters come across someone or certain information that contributes to their overall storyline).
The first time I read this I gave it 4.5 stars but upon a second reading I found myself 100% invested in everything that was happening. I loved it.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel. I felt ‘emotionally’ involved and I found myself simultaneously wanting to read it all in one gulp and also never wanting it to end.

my rating: ★★★★

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