Elif Batuman is a grad student in Russian literature, and these essays are about her adventures. Aside from some dense portions related to the actual Russian literature, this book moves, due in no small part to Batuman’s dry, quick-witted humor that pokes fun at everyone from the Uzbek landlord who feeds her from an ant-covered jam jar to the elderly professor who literally shits his pants. The real gems, however, are Batuman’s introduction on why she avoided creative writing (reminiscent of her essay “Get a Real Degree”) and her reflections on grad student obsessions—both pointed commentaries on academia.
Things I learned from reading/rereading these four stories:
- In the original tale, Aladdin, far from being a purehearted street rat, is an “idle, careless” boy who through the adventure of the lamp becomes a responsible, skilled adult man.
- The forty thieves dismember Ali Baba’s greedy brother into four separate pieces so that the local cobbler has to sew him back together, which is badass.
- The Sinbad stories are kind of repetitive, and made me want to watch the Ray Harryhausen films.
- Like in all good stories, servant girls are always more clever than their masters.
Like every Tom Robbins novel, this one starts out with a chaotic bang: a large-scrotumed talking tanuki parachutes into nineteenth century Japan to drink sake and sleep with girls; meanwhile a band of ex-GIs in southeast Asia panics when their drug-smuggling comrade gets caught in the act. Robbins takes a while to tie his scattered opening together, but when he does, the plot feels surprisingly coherent. We also go along with his writing because it’s devilishly funny and wittily intelligent as we fall into his bizarre world where we never quite know what’s coming, but feel okay with that.
Where I Got It
From a friend in spring 2015 who thought my writing reminded him of Tom Robbins’s. He gave me this one along with Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates, which I read last year before I started this book blog.