Archives for posts with tag: books
18668081

Waiting for the Electricity by Christina Nichol (image from GoodReads)

Nichol, Christina. Waiting for the Electricity: A Novel. New York, NY: Overlook, 2015. Print.

I read this on my flight from Georgia to the US, and in some ways it was the right choice for the circumstances. Slims Achmed Makashvili is a Batumeli in 2002, who believes that life could be better, and asks Hillary Clinton for help and advice. He is chosen for a US Government exchange program and visits America, but gets deported back to Georgia. Then (as those who know Georgian history will know) comes the Rose Revolution, and things change.

I was struck both by Nichol’s deep understanding of Georgia, and some very VERY basic mistakes in Georgian language, geography, and culture. I just couldn’t square this disparity in my mind. That said, though I certainly know a lot about Georgia, I haven’t lived in Batumi (I’ve visited multiple times, and have friends who’ve lived there, though); I don’t know any of the Adjaran dialect of Georgian; and I didn’t visit Georgia before the Rose Revolution. These facts could explain many of the things that don’t feel right to me, though not all of them. I’ve never been particularly good at suspension of disbelief, but I’m not sure if that applies to things like spelling and the location of Borjomi. This is probably something that would not even register to the vast majority of people interested in the book, even those who also read my blog, so  I can’t say it’s a deal-breaker.  I also found Slims’ frequent letters to Hillary hard to read…it’s just too soon. I’m usually a character-driven reader, and I didn’t particularly connect to any of the characters in Waiting for the Electricity, which probably made me less of a fan.

This wasn’t the right book for me right now, but there isn’t anything off-putting about it. Despite my quibbles, it was OK. I’d like to hear what others think, and see if they connected more.

Readers, have you read this? Thoughts?

Two (Relatively) Recent Mainstream Novels about the Armenian Genocide: The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak and Orhan’s Inheritance by Aline Ohanesian

I’ve recently read two novels about the Armenian genocide and its rippling effects on the Turkish and Armenian families who witnessed it. One of these novels was written by a Turk, the other by an Armenian (though both the writers have global biographies). The writing styles and literary genres of the books were different, as were (obviously) the plots, but nonetheless there were undeniable similarities between the two books. Both were powerful and compelling reads. While The Bastard of Istanbul had a dreamy feel to it, Orhan’s Inheritance was more of a page-turner. Both are recommended, though the different styles are likely to appeal to different readers.

98920

The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak (image from GoodReads)

Shafak, Elif. The Bastard of Istanbul: A Novel. London: Penguin, 2007. Print.

Availability: Available in the US and UK, both physical and e-book editions; English editions for sale in Georgia at Biblus bookshops.

The Bastard of Istanbul tells the story of the many generations of the Kazanci family, particularly the women including their youngest member, Asya (most of the men have mysteriously or tragically died). Entwined with this family’s saga is Armanoush and her family’s own tale. Armanoush is an Armenian-American who decides to secretly visit her grandmother’s home city of Istanbul as a way to better understand her Armenian heritage. She contacts her stepfather Mustafa’s family, the Kazancis, and she and Asya become friends despite Armanoush’s (and her online community’s) skepticism of Turks. Asya’s mystical Auntie Banu becomes curious about the truth of the Armenian genocide and consults her djinn to show her the truth of Armanoush’s family…and later to reveal her own family’s secrets. A family emergency in America leads Armanoush’s mother and step-father to come to Istanbul, the stepfather’s first visit in 20 years, where Auntie Banu’s knowledge brings old events to a head, leading to shocking events that permanently change both families.

I particularly liked the structure of this book–with each chapter titled with the name of an ingredient that is used in Mustafa’s favorite food, ashure. The titular ingredient of each chapter also make an appearance within the chapter, and a recipe for ashure is provided in the latter part of the book. This dish even plays an important role in the plot. Other foods are also described in mouth-watering detail. This is very much a novel for foodies.

The author Elif Shafak was put on trial for “denigrating Turkishness” because of this book. If you like reading as a way of fighting the power, this novel is a great choice.

Orhan4_pg2-HCjkt.indd

Orhan’s Inheritance by Aline Ohanesian (image from GoodReads)

Ohanesian, Aline. Orhan’s Inheritance: A Novel. Chapel Hill: Algonquin, 2015. Kindle e-book.

Availability: Available in the US (physical and e-book) and UK (physical book); English editions for sale in Georgia at Biblus bookshops

Orhan’s Inheritance made many lists of the best books of 2015, which is where I first heard of it. Like The Bastard of Istanbul, the novel features a multi-generational Turkish family, though unlike the Kazanci family, the Turkoglu family is oddly lacking in women. When the family’s patriarch, the title character Orhan’s grandfather, passes away, his will leaves the family home in the village to an Armenian woman no one has ever heard of. Orhan travels to an Armenian retirement home in California, where he meets his grandfather’s surprise heir, Seda Melkonian, and ultimately learns her story which gives him the explanation as to why his grandfather has left the house to her.

Much more of the action of this novel is set in the past as Seda’s story is told. Her story is, unsurprisingly, quite upsetting, but Ohanesian’s writing is compelling, and I wanted to get through the tragedies to find out how Seda lived and learn the mystery of why she inherited the house and how she came to be living in California.

One thing I particularly liked in this book was the interactions between the characters from different ethnic groups, both in the past and in the present. All the characters had flaws, and many were prejudiced against other ethnicities, but in the end the main characters were all people and recognized the human core in others, even when they disagreed. In this way, Ohanesian makes an argument for tolerance, even when the past cannot be forgotten.

Heretics and Colonizers (image from GoodReads)

Heretics and Colonizers: Forging Russia’s Empire in the South Caucasus by Nicholas B. Breyfogle* 

Breyfogle, Nicholas B. Heretics and Colonizers: Forging Russia’s Empire in the South Caucasus. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2005. Print.

Availability: Available in the US and UK in physical editions; formerly available at Prospero’s, but currently out of stock. Check your local academic library.

Let me begin by saying that this book is a little different from most of the others I have reviewed here. This is a true academic work, not a non-fiction book for the general public, and it assumes a certain amount of background knowledge. Since I have a solid background in the history of the region, I had HEARD of Dukhobors, but I was coming into this book without much specific background information, and I found it fascinating. The writing is interesting and accessible–not the snooze-fest that sometimes plagues academic writing. The research explores the Dukhobors, Molokans, and Subbotniks (sometimes referred to in English as Spirit-Wrestlers, Milk-Drinkers, and Sabbatarians respectively) in the South Caucasus. These religious sects were composed of ethnic Russians, but they were not Russian Orthodox, presenting a challenge to the traditional idea of Russian nationality. Some were exiled and others chose to move to the South Caucasus, where the regime thought they would be less likely to spread their “heretical” beliefs to other Russians, but they could be of use spreading Russianness to other areas of the empire. The tsarist regime’s treatment of the sectarians and their legal status was in near constant flux. In some ways and at some times, the sectarians achieved great successes in their new homes, while the (spoiler alert) Dukhobor Movement and weapons burning resulted in retaliation and exile/immigration for many of the Dukhobors.

This was one of those books that raised a lot of questions for me and encouraged me to look up some more information and learn more. I’d be interested in reading a biography of “Queen” Lukeria Kalmykova, for example, and I’m very interested to find out what’s going on with those who remained in Georgia at the end of the time frame covered in the book. (I asked a Georgian friend, and his reply was “Yeah, there are Dukhobors in Kakheti and Molokans on Aghmashenebeli Avenue. They’re still Russians. I don’t know about Subbotniks.”)

This book is perhaps not something with widespread popular appeal, but if you are curious about the topic I strongly recommend that you read it.

*I studied under Professor Breyfogle, so you may consider me biased. I don’t think knowing him changed my opinion of the book, but it did encourage me to read it, which I probably wouldn’t have otherwise.

Flight from the USSR (Image from GoodReads)

Flight from the U.S.S.R. / ჯინსების თაობა (“Jeans Generation”) by Dato Turashvili  

Turashvili, Dato. Flight from the USSR. Trans. Maya Kiasashvili. Tbilisi: Sulakauri Publishing, 2008. Print.

Availability: Easily available in almost any book or souvenir shop in Georgia, in Georgian, English, or Russian. US/UK editions to be released February 2016.

The story of a group of young Soviet Georgians who just can’t take it anymore so they decide to hijack an airplane and defect to the West. This historical fiction novel is more on the historical side (per my quick Google research), and most of the fictionalization lies in giving personality and dialogue to the historical personages. The story was initially written as a play in 2001, while Shevardnadze (who makes an unflattering cameo in the novel version) was still in power. That was certainly a brave act of artistic resistance. The novel version of the story was published in 2008, though the play remains popular (but I haven’t seen it yet). US and UK versions of the novel are slated to be published in February 2016.

When I decided to start reading this, I didn’t realize how timely my choice of reading material was–I began just after the Paris attacks, and therefore the idea of terrorism was at the forefront of my mind while reading it. One of the main themes of the book is the oft-quoted idea that the difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter is where you stand, and that the line between good and evil is not always clear-cut. The hijackers’ actions are not defended–everyone admits that engaging in terrorism is wrong, but they are all portrayed as sympathetic characters who are just trying to make the world better. As the novel tells it, the casualties of the hijacking were inflicted by the authorities, while the hijackers shared water with the passengers trapped aboard the aircraft. This brings into focus the harshness of life under the late-Soviet regime, and the upside-down reality that the terrorists took more care of citizens than did the officials whose duty was, theoretically, to protect them. The novel engages with the philosophical questions of violence, freedom, and the connection between the two. To me, Turashvili didn’t answer these questions; rather, he created an environment suitable for the reader to ponder them.

Though the book has a philosophical side, it remains a quick and enjoyable read. The action is fast-paced, and the prose is concise and readable. At under 200 pages, it’s also a quick read. Kiasashvili’s translation was quite good; it maintained a readable and colloquial style. The one real problem I found with this book was that the proofreading was terrible (/non-existent)! It was riddled with typos–some of them comically awkward (“shedding teats in the cemetery”) and some just bizarre (a Russian letter inserted in the middle of an English word). Note to Georgian publishing companies–I (and I’m sure plenty of other ex-pats) would be happy to check for typos in exchange for some lari. These errors prevented me from fully engaging with the book and immersing myself in it. I assume that the forthcoming US and UK editions of the book will fix these problems, making the book much more readable. I can’t speak to the quality of the Russian translation.

One last point to make is that the Georgian editions of the book (Georgian, English, and Russian) are published by Sulakauri Publishing, who have been in the news recently for an ad featuring a Hitler impersonator, which many feel is in poor taste. You may want to keep this in mind when deciding if you would like to purchase the book.

My Grandmother (Image from GoodReads)

My Grandmother
(Image from GoodReads)

My Grandmother: A Memoir by Fethiye Çetin 

Çetin, Fethiye. My Grandmother: A Memoir. Trans. Maureen Freely. London: Verso, 2008. Print.

Availability: Available in the US and UK, both physical and ebook editions; originally published in Turkish, and translated into many other languages.

I’m publishing this post today as April 24, 2015 is the 100-year commemoration of the Armenian Genocide (It’s also my birthday, so…yeah). This memoir was significant as the first book in Turkey to break the silence surrounding the Armenian Genocide. Because of the intended audience, the story shies away from discussing the politics or the big picture, and focuses on one woman’s life and stories. Fethiye Çetin’s grandmother, our main character, lived as a formidable Turkish housewife and materfamilias, but she had hidden her Armenian identity and past, and only revealed it to her granddaughter late in life. Çetin discusses her own reactions to her grandmother’s revelations: the challenge she felt to her Turkish identity, and her confusion over how such tragedies could square with her view of Islam. She also mentions her distant American cousin’s similarly tumultuous reaction to meeting her, a relative who identified as Turkish, and his feelings on the complicated situation. “All my life I’ve been afraid of Turks. I nurtured a deep hatred of them. Their denial has made things even worse. Then I found out that you were part of our family but Turkish at the same time.” (p. 113). This quotation captures what I think is the real message of the book. Though it’s a book about the Armenian Genocide, it’s more a book advocating love over hate, and illustrating that ethnicity is not so important as humanity. (Çetin is a lawyer and human rights advocate in addition to memoirist, so this squares with what I imagine to be her goals). Çetin’s love for her grandmother glows through every word. This makes reading about an incredibly difficult topic so much easier. The writing style is simple and clear, the right choice for this kind of book and message. It’s a relatively easy read (in terms of skill, not emotion): I finished it in an afternoon. Recommended, particularly as a first source on the Armenian Genocide.

Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon

Chabon, Michael. Gentlemen of the Road. New York: Del Rey, 2007. Print.

Availability: Published in US ($14), UK (£12), and international ($7.99) editions. Also available as an eBook ($8.74/£3.99). Definitely a few copies floating around Tbilisi.

Although this book came out in 2007, I have only heard buzz about it just this year. I’m always up for a fun novel about the region, so when a copy found its way to me, I was eager to give it a go.

To be honest, I was a bit disappointed–there was nothing really “Caucasus” in this book (a friend’s reaction was that Chabon has clearly never visited the region). It could have been set anywhere with religious and ethnic diversity: The Middle East, India, Australia, Damar, Tortall… there was nothing particular to the place or evoking the feel of the region in the book, and none of the cultures or religious traditions were fleshed out enough to make them not basically interchangeable.  The characters were meant to be “Jews with Swords” but neither Judaism nor swordplay had too much impact on the plot. I don’t even recall any descriptions of the landscape, which surely a novel about the Caucasus requires! I didn’t find the plot particularly compelling, and there was very little character development; I didn’t connect to a soul. I learned after-the-fact that it was originally published as a serial novel in the NYTimes magazine, which explains a lot. Had I known that before reading, I might have been more forgiving and appreciative. I also detected a case of the author swallowing the thesaurus. I didn’t think the novel was bad, though, just not particularly interesting or exciting to me. It did, however, inspire me to look up Khazaria and the Radanites, giving me a little more historical knowledge of the region.

Verdict: Not bad, but if you’re really interested in adventures in the Caucasus, go read some Lermontov/Pushkin/Tolstoy or one of the other classic novels or travelogues about the region.

The Girl King by Meg Clothier

Clothier, Meg. The Girl King. London: Century, 2011. Print.

Availability: Not published in the US, but available used through many online retailers.  Easily available in the UK.  Sold at Prospero’s Books in Tbilisi (37 GEL. ouch.)

I was intrigued when I heard that someone had written a romance novel about King Tamar (a 12th-Century female ruler of Georgia, referred to in Georgian as თამარ მეფე Tamar Mepe or King Tamar, because she ruled in her own right, and presided over Georgia’s Golden Age).  I’m always interested in reading new books about Georgia, and I enjoy a historical romance novel every now and then.  I immediately added The Girl King to my “To Read” list, but the book isn’t easily available in the US, so I had to wait until I had accumulated some trade credit at Prospero’s in order to buy myself a copy as a souvenir from Georgia and plane reading.  This book was just the right thing for plane reading–light, engaging, and something I could pick up and put down without getting lost, but not so light that I felt my brain draining out through my ears.  Though I’ve primarily seen it characterized as a romance novel, it isn’t a romance novel from the pink section of a bookstore–it’s a novel that features (as many novels do) a relationship as one of the core elements of the plot.  It’s fiction, not romance, so no need to fear for the death of your intellectual reputation if you’d like to read the novel.  I found the writing surprisingly good, and I enjoyed the creative and evocative descriptions that the author used.  I am primarily drawn to books by the characters rather than the plot or style, and while I quite liked the protagonists Tamar and Sos, neither of them grabbed me and made me fall in love with them.  This is my only “complaint” about the book, and the main reason I’m not gushing over it.  The plot was well in line with the sorts of warrior-woman books I loved as a child: Alanna, Crown Duel, and The Blue Sword, but with the added advantage of being set in Georgia and exploring a period of Georgian history that I know little about.

Verdict: a fun, light read–particularly for people interested in Georgia.

Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Montefiore, Simon Sebag. Young Stalin. New York: Vintage, 2008. Print.

Availability: Easy to find!  Available on both amazon.com and amazon.co.uk.  My copy came from a big box bookstore in the Midwest, so I assume it will be in the non-fiction sections of many local bookstores.  In stock at Prospero’s Books in Tbilisi last time I was there.  I’ve noticed Georgian-language translations in many of the bookshops along Rustaveli Avenue.  There seems to be a Russian-language edition in print, as well.

I’ve had this book recommended to me many times, and have been lugging it around for quite a while (thanks for sending it to Georgia, Mom!).  With the end of the school year I’ve had more time to read, and I finally became acquainted with Young Stalin. Overall, I was impressed with the book: it’s well-written, accessible, and is closer to the “brain candy” end of the non-fiction spectrum than most subject matter that grabs my attention.  I was also repeatedly amazed by the extensive research and (occasionally bizarre) sources that Montefiore found (side note: what a cool job!).  Though the book is, obviously, focused on Stalin’s early biography, his activities offer insight into a period of Georgian history (the late Imperial era) that is not often studied, making it difficult to find accessible sources on the period (and as a nerd for this sort of thing, my definition of “accessible” is perhaps a bit broader than most people’s).  If nothing else, I’m now full of Stalin stories to tell while strolling around Old Town and Rustaveli Avenue.  I don’t know the historical geography of Tbilisi well enough to pinpoint all of Stalin’s adventures (I wish the book had contained more detailed maps!), but I have an idea of where the major bank robberies and prison stays took place.

In addition to the lack of a city map, I had one other minor dislike in the book: the poetry.  Contrary to what you might think, I loved that Montefiore chose to include some of Stalin’s (or, more accurately, Soselo’s) poetry to introduce each new section.  However, I’m not much of one for figurative speech: metaphor often goes straight over my head, and my appreciation of poetry comes primarily from its form: I love analyzing poetic meter and rhyme.  The translations chosen for the book focused on the ideas of the poetry, not the music.  Of course I understand that translating poetry isn’t easy (believe me, I’ve tried and stumbled), and I admit that in the context of biography the content takes precedence, but if I had my druthers….

And as a funny aside: on p. 162, Young Stalin in involved in a pirate attack on (boat) Captain Sinkevich.  I assume none of the Captain’s crew or passengers were English-speakers…

As you see, my only criticisms of the book are things I would have done differently, and desires for even more information, and I still found the book both entertaining and highly informative.  I’d initially planned to sell or trade this book when I was done and keep myself in fresh reading material, but I just can’t part with it yet.  If that isn’t a ringing endorsement, I don’t really know what is.

I posted about my initial thoughts on packing before so I thought that now I’ve been here a few weeks I should do some follow-up commentary.  Packing for six months is hard because it’s not really moving, so just bringing everything doesn’t make sense, but I also have to contend with multiple seasons, so packing light is difficult. I used my friend Elise’s Peace Corps packing list as a guide, and I googled some other recommendations of things to bring as well. I packed in a large rolling duffel bag and a regular duffel bag, with a backpack and a very large purse as carry-ons.  When I arrived I thought, “I can’t believe I brought this much stuff,” but not having to contend with doing laundry in a snowstorm has been nice.  For the flight I wore cowboy boots, leggings, a t-shirt dress, a cardigan, a pashmina scarf and my heavy winter coat.

Packing list:

Black skirt and black blazer to wear either as separates or to make a suit

1 long sleeve button blouse

1 short sleeve button blouse

2 pairs black trousers

1 pair black and white wool trousers (very glad I brought these, I wear them all the time…and have now burned a hole in them from the electric heater at school)

1 “fancy” dress

5 skirts that can be dressy or casual depending on top and shoes

2 dresses with sleeves

2 sleeveless dresses

1 sweater dress

2 pairs leggings

1 pair Capri leggings

3 cardigans

8 camisoles

2 sets winter PJs

2 sets summer PJs

One pair jeans

Work-out capris

Yoga pants

2 pairs black tights, 2 pairs colored tights, 1 pair pantyhose

7 long sleeve t-shirts

2 long sleeve t-shirt blouses

5 short sleeve t-shirts

2 plain-colored t-shirts for working out

3 short sleeve t-shirt blouses

Lots of socks and underwear

3 scarves

All the long underwear I own (2 pairs pants, 2 long sleeve shirts,  1 camisole—would have been nice to have more)

Black flats

Sporty Mary-Janes

Trail running shoes

Flip-flops

Slippers (in my carry-on for plane comfort)

2 pairs of gloves

An umbrella

A fleece jacket (have been wearing it constantly)

A swimsuit and a pair of goggles

Quick-dry towel

My stuffed animal (a far better shape than any travel pillow I’ve found)

Boot conditioner

My regular, non-jumbo purse

A selection of DVDs

As many books as I could pack, including one travel book, my Georgian language textbook, and Russian-English and Georgian-English dictionaries

My Kindle

Adapters and chargers

A filtered water bottle

Miscellaneous gifts

I didn’t bring too much by the way of toiletries since the basics are available here.  I did, however, bring 3 and a half bottles of contact solution (not easily available here), dry shampoo (I have good shower access, but it’s still awfully cold), and multi-vitamins and other dietary supplements (calcium in particular is less prevalent in my diet here than in the States).  I brought lots of baby wipes on the suggestion of someone already here, and I’ve found that to be overkill—they’re very easy to find and cheap to purchase.  I did bring the OTC medications that I’m used to–they’re easily available here, but as my doctor advised, when you’re sick you just want what you’re used to and you don’t want to have to go and work for it.

Things I’ve bought in Georgia:
markers and glue
Craft paper
A surge protector
Skinny jeans (that’s definitely the style here, not boot-cut)
swim cap (mandatory for some pools)

I’ve now officially started teaching and have met my colleagues and students.  I’m working in a fairly small school (200 students grades 1-12) with two local English teachers teaching grades 1-6.  My school is the poorest in our town, and many of the students can’t afford to buy their textbooks, but the other students always share with them.  All the students are so excited to learn English that they are literally jumping out of their chairs to answer my questions.  Motivating the students doesn’t seem to be a problem at all, but keeping order in class might be.

Our school has two English classrooms, one very big and the other quite small.  The more senior English teacher has been working with other native-speaker volunteers for years, and with them has received multiple grants to create a more comfortable classroom environment for our students. She has a little English library in the back, lots of decorations on the walls, and fairly good teaching technology.  The other English teacher is fairly new to the school, and hasn’t yet had the time to nest in her classroom as much.  Her room is also much larger.  Though the classrooms are far from barren, they are freezing.  The school is primarily heated by wood ovens, which are great when you’re standing right next to them, but due to the lack of insulation the heat doesn’t reach very far.  It’s normal for teachers and students alike to be wearing their winter coats, hats, and gloves in the classroom.

Though my school is poor, it seems to be a really great learning environment.  The teachers care very much about their students, and want to do as much as they can for them.