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.
Every day, Japanese author Haruki Murakami writes and runs, each on a set schedule with set goals. Most of this essay collection is ostensibly about running, but when Murakami talks about the discipline involved with marathon training he’s also talking about the discipline involved with writing, so that reading about his stretches and his Hokkaido ultramarathon provides insight into a disciplined creative mind. He also recounts his transition from jazz club-owning twentysomething to focused writer, and the entire book forms a quiet, unpretentious reflection on what it means to pursue a skill—even if you don’t like sports.
This 600-page tome from the McSweeney’s journal packs a hard punch—not just because of how much they’ve crammed inside, but because the writing is straight-up good. There’s a comics section, a play starring three cavemen, an account of a NASCAR weekend by a man who knows nothing about racing, a list of facts about Spokane, Washington, two stories based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s notebooks, and a scattering of 20-minute fiction. Extra points go to the fine design: the dustjacket folds out into a poster and the bonus materials include a box of postcards and colorful booklets.
In general, I enjoy collections (short stories or essays) less than novels because the act of repeatedly beginning anew is less fulfilling than starting a single story and following it to the end. That said, 2013 was a good year for essays, and Strayed’s selections are astute. My favorite ones (about a tour through a Nazi storehouse, a highway serial killer cold case from the 1980s, and a new mother watching her neighbor’s infant through a crossed baby monitor signal) hit hard, with raw, succinct power. There are some losers here, but the good ones far outweigh the bad.
I love Nick Hornby’s Stuff I’ve Been Reading column (which he’s written on and off for The Believer since the 2000s, and perhaps will again when the magazine finally makes its return??) because he talks about books like a real person, avoids pretentious review-speak, and jokes about how Americans don’t understand British football. Though this review collection’s in the same vein as his others, I missed the more stylized jacket flaps and the book excerpts that came with the first two collections, which made finding new books for my own towering To-Read stack that much easier.
I like David Sedaris’s writing because it’s funny, easy to read, and poignant, and most things I like satisfy at least two of these. His latest collection is mostly essays with a few fiction monologues thrown in (the best of which, “I Brake for Traditional Marriage,” features a disoriented right-winger who murders his family and wants to grow a mustache like Yosemite Sam’s), but I enjoyed it slightly less than his earlier work because most of the essays (about, say, losing your passport or picking up highway trash) feel less zany. It still earns a solid four Kafkas, though.
Where I Got It
Christmas Gift, 2015.
David Sedaris’s Website
David Sedaris Reads 50 Shades of Grey (video)
Nick Hornby writes with down-to-earth honesty, and this second collection of Stuff I’ve Been Reading essays (which partially inspired this book blog) for The Believer is no exception. Its most poignant moment comes in the preface, where he encourages people to actually read books they enjoy and to not read certain books just because they seem important: “Please, if you’re reading a book that’s killing you, put it down and read something else, just as you would reach for the remote if you weren’t enjoying a TV program.” Books should be fun, so let’s keep them that way.
Where I Got It
Christmas gift, 2014, along with Nick Hornby’s two other collections of book essays (one of which still remains in the stack…).
Housekeeping vs. The Dirt at McSweeney’s
Nick Hornby’s Website