The Idiot by Elif Batuman

Title: The Idiot
Author: Elif Batuman
Genre: Fiction

Rating: 5 / 5


I picked this up for the Tournament of Books; it’s one of three “campus novels” that may earn a spot in the brackets. Even though I haven’t read the others, I’m kind of hoping this one will win.


The story is told in the first person by Selin, a freshman at Harvard and the daughter of immigrants. It’s 1995 and email is this cool new thing that you can only access from certain computers. What is the “story”? There isn’t one, so much. It’s one of those books that gets accused of not having a plot. I never hold plotlessness against books if there are other things to keep my interest, and in this case there’s definitely enough to like.

This book was hilarious. I was surprised and not expecting it. Books rarely make me laugh, but this one kept me chucking the whole way through. And, it’s smart. It’s one of those books where “nothing happens,” but really, so much is happening, and it just ends up representing life better than neat endings or even tidy stories. I found one part of it to drag, but for other readers, this section was their favorite bit; and, really, if it was dragging along for me, it definitely was for the narrator too. Sometimes I like it when authors do things like that, sometimes I don’t; overall, I think it worked really well in this book.

Not everyone is going to like this one, but some people (like me) are going to love it. It’s kind of made me want to study literature, read more about how it works, get a strong background in “the canon” or whatever. I love any book that makes me so curious.

Other reviewers’ thoughts that I enjoyed:
“The Baggy Monster,” by Evan Kindley
“No Fool,” by Molly Fischer


Almost three months since my last entry, and since then SO MUCH has happened. I’ve continued to read my books through it all (over 60 finished last year, and already read 8 books this year), but I haven’t really been reviewing. It’s understandable it would get shoved to the side, but it’s also too bad in a way, since I do like to record my thoughts on the books I read.

Last year, my “challenge” was to only read the books I was drawn to. I had a good start, but stopped tracking my progress so well on the blog. I did try to keep it up, reading only books that I was drawn to, and was pretty successful in doing that, although perhaps there were too many books that didn’t fit that description that I ended up reading (mainly these were books that friends lent me; I can’t turn down a book borrowing offer from a friend because it means even if I didn’t love it, I get to talk to someone about it). Sometimes my radar led me astray, though usually not too badly. And one of my very favorite (possibly my actual favorite) book of the year was a book I felt drawn more than any other to–The French Lieutenant’s Woman. I was doing the dishes, and unbidden came the thought “You should read The French Lieutenant’s Woman.” It seemed completely random; the last time I’d heard the book mentioned was probably ~2 years ago, at least. But I got a copy out from the library a couple days after that thought occurred to me and I couldn’t be happier I followed up on that because it turns out it was amazing!

I’d really like to continue to up the quality of books I read. It seems that the more I read, the less impressed I am with the reading material. I used to give most books 4 or 5 stars, but lately it seems like 3 or even 2 stars is getting to be a much more common rating for me. This year, I’m going to keep trying to read the books that call to me. But, I also want to find reviewers, critics, awards, and websites that align with my taste. So I’m going to spend a chunk of time after reading each book reading reviews and trying to find ones that match what I think. Then, I want to start to follow those recommendations and see what happens. I know that ultimately, you don’t know until you read it, but I think I could maybe do with some quality control.

In line with this goal, I’m giving the Tournament of Books a shot this year. My plan is to read all the selections this year, even if it takes me until December. I like that there will be a built-in discussion on the website, and I’ll get to see whether or not their selections match my taste. I already had like seven of their books on my to-read list, so I figured, why not read them and then the others to boot? So far, it hasn’t been going great–I’ve read two, neither of which had been on my to-read list already, and one was a 3 star and one was a 2. I’m actually thinking of redoing my rating system, at least for the blog, since ironically it’s the 2 star book I would recommend over the 3 star.

Anyway, I’m in the middle of a move right now so we’ll see if I can actually get better about reviewing books on here. I would really like to, but I won’t lie–I have so many other things I need to prioritize right now.

The Grip of It by Jac Jemc

Title: The Grip of It
Author: Jac Jemc
Genre: Fiction

Rating: 3.75-4 / 5


Why I picked it up: I saw it on Lithub, I think, and I was interested in the cover and when I read the blurb it was basically like “couple moves into haunted house” and I was like “ok yes.” Didn’t hurt that it was published by FSG. It’s true that they don’t really publish my favorite books, but the books I’ve read that are put out by them are consistently compelling and worthwhile.

What it’s about: A couple moves into a haunted house! Or, well, maybe, I don’t know…isn’t that usually how it goes with a haunted house tale?

What I liked: I really like Jemc’s writing. Some of the descriptions are beautiful as well as creepy. This novel is like…a mood. Very atmospheric. The narration switches back and forth between chapters from wife to husband, although it’s not always super clear at first who’s talking. That can be a little disorienting (because it’s usually just back and forth but sometimes it seems like one gets two in a row) and adds to the confusion that the characters themselves are experiencing. It’s great at creating its tension, which is kind of a constant low-level and pervasive thing and it reminded me of “weird fiction” I’ve read (like Southern Reach). That tension combined with the great writing made the whole novel feel hypnotic.

What I didn’t like: I thought the resolution was “just okay.” It was in keeping with the rest of the book, which is a plus, and it wasn’t bad, but with a book like this a great ending can really bump up the rating.

Overall / recommended: I said in my intro that FSG consistently publishes compelling and worthwhile books. This one is no exception. This would be a great time of year to read this unsettling book.


Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler

Title: Shotgun Lovesongs
Author: Nickolas Butler
Genre: Fiction

Rating: 2-2.5 / 5


Why I picked it up: I was trying to find something to read to Peter. This was in my school library, I heard good things, so I texted him a picture of the jacket copy and he okayed it to try. We made it through like 10 pages of the first chapter before he wanted to throw the towel in. I didn’t really have anything else lined up for reading for myself so I just continued it.

What it’s about: A small town in Wisconsin. A bunch of dudes, and one chick. One of them (one of the dudes) is a cool famous singer. Other of the dudes are rich pricks, poor farmers, or recovering alcoholic(?) former rodeo stars who are treated like simpletons by their friends.

What I liked: I guess…the drama? That’s kind of what kept me going. Also, you can tell Butler loves Wisconsin, and it kind of made me miss the Midwest a bit, as well as my own dwindling and financially declining small hometown. Small towns are awesome. You kind of get a feel for that in this book, and it was a high point.

What I didn’t like: Kind of contrived and reminded me kind of chick lit. It seemed kind of high on sensationalism and certain specific events and kind of low on real character development and depth. That’s not always a bad thing and it can be fun and make for an enjoyable read. But I wasn’t really in the mood for it, I guess. I think I was just expecting something more.

Overall / recommended: This is a light read with some family/friend drama (it’s pretty good). It’s mainly focused on male friendship and is set in the “heartland” and feels pretty white American. It is good at what it does, and if those things sound appealing to you, you will probably really like it. I think I would have liked it better if I’d been in the mood for that.