Lena Dunham, Emily Dickinson, and Jean Rhys

I was determined to post a “stop-and-jot” (a speedy post) about Elizabeth Strout’s new collection of stories, Anything Is Possible.  Well, I posted something, but it is very wishy-washy, because, even  though I  disliked the book, I (a) wanted to be fair, and (b) I was aware that  reviewers at Goodreads, The New York Times, and Washington Post are ecstatic.

So it’s pointless to post about a book you dislike, unless you wickedly enjoy writing a hatchet-job.

To make up for the lack of inspiration on that post,  here are three literary links.

Lena Dunham

1. Lena Dunham, author of the memoir Not That Kind of Girl and creator, star, and writer of the late TV series Girls, is always in trouble for saying what she thinks.  The Guardian reports that her latest joke about abortion incited much internet indignation.

…Most recently, Dunham was the subject of a media furore after an episode of her podcast Women of the Hour, in which she joked: “I still haven’t had an abortion, but I wish I had.” During the episode, Dunham had been talking about how women like her still internalise stigma about abortion; she later apologised, calling the joke “distasteful” – but the renewed vitriol from all corners of the internet had become increasingly difficult to ignore.

From the perspective of a longtime NARAL volunteer, I wonder:  when will we be allowed to admit we’re  pro-abortion? We’ve used the pro-choice euphemism for years,  but politicians are  yanking reproductive rights out of our hands.

And now that the “Girls” series is over should I watch it on DVD? I do recommend Dunham’s memoir:  she is an extremely talented writer.

Emily Dickinson

2. Emily Dickinson fans:  we can now rent her room at the Emily Dickinson Museum for $100 an hour!  I’m not quite sure I’d want to, but it is thrilling to know I can make a reservation if I go to Amherst.  Harriet Staff at The Poetry Foundation writes,

At Jezebel, Anya Jaremko-Greenwold reports on a recent development at the Emily Dickinson Museum: visitors can now rent Emily Dickinson’s bedroom. The reservation costs $100 an hour, and yes, you must leave the door open, lest pervs “drop trou,” as Jaremko-Greenwold writes. But for more upstanding citizens, the rental affords a unique opportunity to write in the spot where Dickinson penned her much-revered verse. No word yet on how the notoriously reclusive author would feel about this; Jaremko-Greenwold explains, “By the time she reached forty, Dickinson hid from houseguests she had previously received, and attended to the outside world only in her garden and her verse.”

3. At the TLS, you can read a review of  The Collected Short Stories of Jean Rhys. (Penguin).   Guess what? I just found an old copy at the Planned Parenthood Book Sale!

Gwendoline Riley writes,

Jean Rhys’s gift was singular, fugitive, volatile – as was she, which made for a fitful literary career. But it was a long and productive one, too. There are fifty-one stories here, bringing together three collections – The Left Bank (1927), Tigers Are Better-Looking (1968), and Sleep It Off, Lady (1976) – with five uncollected tales. This volume first appeared in the United States in 1987, but this is the first time it has been published in the UK.

Elizabeth Strout’s Anything Is Possible

I am a fan of Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout’s gorgeous, lyrical novel My Name Is Lucy Barton, which was a finalist for last year’s Baileys Women’s Prize and the Man Booker Prize. Lucy, a successful writer in New York, looks back at an illness that ended in reconciliation with her estranged mother.   Hospitalized for a life-threatening infection after surgery, Lucy lay there musing on her impoverished childhood in a small town in Illinois, and then her mother unexpectedly came to stay for a week.

I looked forward to Strout’s new collection of linked short stories, Anything Is Possible, set in Lucy Barton’s hometown, Amgash, Illinois.  I was hugely disappointed.

The links between the stories are clever, but Strout’s mix of lyricism, realism, and sentimentality can be jarring.  Strout tells the stories of Lucy’s old friends and acquaintances, and in general she tells them very well. Unfortunately, I couldn’t believe in the characters.  And  the opening story, “The Sign,” is a strange combination of wrenching drama and syrupy prose.

In “The Sign,” the protagonist, Tommy Guptill, is too good to be true.  He worked for 30 years as a school janitor after he lost his sheep farm in a fire, and has no regrets about losing the farm and raising his children in humble circumstances.

Is anybody as saintly as Tommy?  In the following passage, he remembers his Christian revelation during the fire.

But he had felt that night, while his wife kept the children over by the road—he had rushed them from the house when he saw the barn was on fire—as he watched the enormous flames flying into the nighttime sky, then heard the terrible screaming sounds of the cows as they died, he had felt many things, but it was just as the roof of his house crashed in, fell into the house itself, right into their bedrooms and the living room below with all the photos of the children and his parents, as he saw this happen he had felt—undeniably—what he could only think was the presence of God, and he understood why angels had always been portrayed as having wings, because there had been a sensation of that—of a rushing sound, or not even a sound, and then it was as though God, who had no face, but was God, pressed up against him and conveyed to him without words—so briefly, so fleetingly—some message that Tommy understood to be: It’s all right, Tommy. And then Tommy had understood that it was all right.

I want to love this well-written book, and yet…

Elizabeth Strout

Tommy is a good Samaritan.  When he sees Lucy’s new book in the bookstore display, he remembers her as a girl, and decides to visit Lucy’s brother, Pete, a frightened, middle-aged man who works at odd jobs. Pete accuses Tommy of visiting “to torture” him.  After Tommy calms him down, Pete confesses that his father burned down Tommy’s farm.  (The fire happened after Tommy caught Mr. Barton masturbating behind the barn.) Tommy tells Pete no one knows for sure about the fire, and resolves to visit Pete more often.

It’s part Faulkner’s Snopes, part Kent Haruf, and a lot of Hallmark special!

The other stories are more structurally solid, but the characterization is often unconvincing.  In “Windmills,” Patty Nicely, a high school counselor, is excited to see Lucy on TV promoting her book.  She tells her husband Lucy looks “nice”.

“I didn’t know them, since I was in school in Hanston, but they were the kids that people would say, Oh, cooties!, and run away from,” she explained to her husband.

Patty  used to be popular  in high school, but she always hated making out with the boys.  Now she is very fat, partly from antidepressants, and her marriage was asexual.  At school, during a counseling session,  Lucy Barton’s poor-trashy niece, Lila Lane, jeers at Patty’s kindness and calls her “Fatty Patty.” Patty is stung,  but doesn’t bear a grudge:  remembering the town’s unkindness to Lucy, she schedules another session and explains that Lila, with her high grades and scores, can get a scholarship (and escape Amgash like her aunt).

Most of the stories are very slight.  In “Mississippi Mary,” Angelina visits her 78-year-old mother in Italy. Mary left her husband to live with  her younger Italian boyfriend four years ago.  Eventually, Angelina feels compassion and reconciles with her mother.   In “The Hit-Thumb Theory,” Charlie’s prostitute girlfriend tells him she needs $10,000 to pay off her son’s drug dealer.  He realizes that she never loved him, and ends up spending the night watching TV in a bed and breakfast.  In “Dottie’s Bed & Breakfast,” an unhappy doctor’s wife confides in Dottie, the owner of bed and a breakfast, and then turns on her and snubs her when Dottie does not respond as she wants her to.  But Dottie holds her own.

The best story , “Sister,” centers on Lucy’s first visit in seventeen years to Amgash. She is giving a reading in Chicago, and arranges to visit her brother Pete the next day.  Touchingly,  Pete attempts to clean the house, and even buys a new rug, but their sister Vicky refuses to have anything to do with Lucy.  Everything goes fine until Vicky arrives after all:  she sneers at Lucy, mocks her Youtbe videos about writing “true sentences,” and then tells stories of ther mother’s abuse: their mother once forced Vicky to  kneel down and eat liver out of the toilet.    Lucy has an anxiety attack.  First, she denies that any of the abuse happened.  Then she loses control.

Lucy looked at the ceiling, then she began to shake her hands as if she had just washed them and there was no towel. “I can’t stand it,” she said. “Oh God help me. I can’t stand it, I can’t stand it, I can’t—”

And she can’t stay another minute, despite good intentions.  Is staying a way the only path to building a life?  In Lucy’s case, yes.

Some of you will love this book.  I did not.  But it is a good weekend read.

Dystopia and the Planned Parenthood Book Sale

Last week the Iowa House passed a bill canceling funding for Planned Parenthood.  The Des Moines Register reports,

The bill calls for Iowa’s Department of Human Services to discontinue the federal Medicaid family planning network waiver, foregoing about $3 million in federal funding. Instead, the state will use about $3.3 million to recreate its own family planning network so that it can prohibit the funding of clinics that provide abortions.

Very depressing news: a bunch of political yahoos legislating a women’s reproductive dystopia on an overpopulated planet. As we will not be moving to Mars after all, despite the pulp science fiction dreams of the ’50s, which didn’t turn out so well in Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, access to information about birth control (not just “family planning”) and abortion might slow population growth and extend human life on a ravaged Earth. Why not pass a law requiring birth control and limiting the number of children each woman can have? No, of course I don’t support such a law, but it is no more absurd than canceling funding for Planned Parenthood. Seriously, rich women will continue to find good health care and abortions, while the middle-class and lower-income women pay the price. Back to the ’50s, honey, in an apron!

Well, on a lighter note, we went to the Planned Parenthood Book Sale, which is held twice a year on the Iowa State Fairgrounds.  And so we did something to support women’s health.

We didn’t go on the first day, and the tables were picked over by the time we got there.  But we enjoyed ourselves, and came home with many books.

The classics were picked-over, but I did find a copy of Trollope’s La Vendee, John Updike’s Bech Is Back, and The Collected Stories of Jean Rhys.

Because the books on the tables were thinned, I spotted more contemporary fiction than usual.  Many people have recommended Claire Messud so  I picked up The Emperor’s Children and The Woman Upstairs. And I was thrilled find Jayne Anne Phillips’ MotherKind (2000), a novel that tells the story of a woman caring for her dying mother and giving birth to her first child.  Phillips truly is a great American writer.  So many don’t hold up, but she gets better and better.

I love Fay Weldon, and should never have weeded her books, because I now have an urge to reread them.  I was pleased to find Leader of the Band.  Isabel Huggan is a Canadian writer:  I actually reviewed The Elizabeth Stories in the ’80s and have a vague idea of having been very kind.  So will it be as good as I thought or said?    (I shall find out.)  Steve Erickson’s Rubicon Beach is described as “part science fiction, part surrealist love story, part political fable.”  Sounds like my thing.

You can’t go wrong with Ellen Gilchrist, a stunning Southern writer who won the National Book Award for her collection of stories,  Victory over Japan.  I found another Fay Weldon, Chalcot Crescent, published by Europat.  And of course there’s the Jean Rhys.  In the background of this pic on the right are three mass market science fiction books, Samuel R. Delany’s The Fall of the Towers, John Wyndham’s Rebirth, and Joan D. Vinge’s Dreamfall.  I know these authors but not these particular books.

I used to be a fan of Ted Mooney and suspect I may have read Traffic and Laughter,  but I picked it up for $1.  Ellen Currie was very popular and well-reviewed in the ’80s but this book does look a little dated.  We shall see.  We all read and loved Ursula Hegi’s lyrical novel, Stones from the River, which was an Oprah selection, but I missed this 2007 novel and it looks very good indeed.

It’s fair to say we had a good day at the sale.

Notes from the Stacks: Rereading Habits & Rituals

The reference room in the “new addition” of the old public library, circa 1963

The library was a sanctuary, rather like the Drones Club in P.G. Wodehouse, minus the leather chairs and drinks.

It was a mile from our house.  It was a Carnegie library with an ugly brown brick addition,  built in 1963 and known as “the new addition” for almost 20 years, until the library moved across the street in 1981.

The “new addition”of the public library

The library was a  place to hang out.  My friends and I went there after school.  I was too chatty  to be a favorite of taciturn Miss W., the librarian who is now an Iowa City legend, but I loved her collection of books, and repeatedly checked out The Enchanted Castle, the Betsy-Tacy books, Elizabeth Goudge’s novels,  and all of Eleanor Estes and Elizabeth Enright.  My mother  “did not care for” Miss W:  they  had clashed over her refusal to order the Nancy Drew books, which Miss W. told my mother were “badly-written.” My mother said that, badly-written or not, my friends and I read them, and they were very expensive.

My mother was ahead of her time.  Was she a legend?  No, she was a housewife.  Nowadays librarians order series books, doing whatever it takes to get kids to read, and my hometown library stocks Nancy Drew.  And you know what?  I have reread a few Nancy Drew books, and they are not bad at all.

I have always been a big rereader.  I love rereading Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle  (I bought a copy in a thrift shop, and my husband once read it to me when I was very sick), Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop (the first book I checked out on my adult card),  anything Victorian, Mary Stewart’s Gothics,  and  my favorite, Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

But I don’t enjoy rereading children’s books.  It took me a record two years to reread The Enchanted Castle–a chapter every month or two–because I now prefer Nesbit’s realistic novels to her fantasies.  In my twenties I  sold my collection of hardcover E. Nesbit books with illustrations by H. R. Millar.  Foolish, foolish, foolish!

We all return to favorite books occasionally.  A recent essay in the TLS, “Déjà lu” by David Collard, got me thinking about rereading habits. Collard says that, since coming across a New York Times piece on rerading by Verlynn Klinkenborg, he has borrowed the idea that rereading is “a refuge.” Some of his favorite books to reread are The Otterbury Incident, The Land of Green Ginger, Alice Through the Looking-glass, Dickens, Cyril Connolly’s The Rock Pool., and Moby-Dick.  But some, he says, do not hold up.

I must have read around fifty novels a year for the past forty years (and other books, of course), amounting to about 2,000 works of fiction. Some stand up well on re-reading; others do not; Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, for instance, which I once thought wonderful and now find unreadable. Some novels I’ve read twice, a handful many times and one in particular more than any other.

I reread The Alexandria Quartet a few years ago, and it is rather weird, but I still enjoyed. In fact, reading about his rereading, even though he didn’t like it, makes me want to reread it.

These are first editions. I wish I had these…

Almost anything can spur a rereading. I recently got out my copy of Marjorie Kinnan Rawling’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Yearling (1939), the story of a boy who raises a deer as a pet. We were watching Everwood, a charming TV show in which widowed neurosurgeon Andy Brown (Treat Williams) moves from New York to Everwood, CO, with his children to start a new life and opens a free family medicine clinic. They come home one day to find a deer has broken in and is nibbling on the garbage:  Andy and his son take a trek through the wilderness to return it to the wild.  (It is not a happy father-son trek.)

My husband did not believe the deer would  eat out of Ephraim’s hands.

“Didn’t you  read The Yearling?”

No, they did not read it in Catholic school.

This book is nightmarishly sad, and I hated it as a child. The hero Jody, a young boy, lives in the backwoods of Florida. The fawn, Flag,  is motherless because Jody’s father Penny was bitten by a snake and Jody shot the doe because they needed the deer liver as an antidote–or something!  The fawn is like a dog, so sweet.  But you know animal stories.  They’re tragic.

I still find the dense dialect a bit ridiculous, so I probably will just skim.

Jody said, “You shore kin figger what a creetur will do.”

“You belong to figger.  A wild creetur’s quicker’n a man and a heap stronger.  What’s a man got that a bear ain’t got?  A mite more sense. He cain’t out-run a bear, but he’s a sorry hunter if he cain’t out-study him.”

Well, it is far from my favorite reread.  But am I missing something?  It won the Pulitzer.  Why did they like this in 1939?

What books do you like to reread?

Erika Carter’s Lucky You

“What if we’re just idiot robots, with no souls, being controlled by some outside force? What if we’re just, like, medicated zombies?”
—Erika Carter’s Lucky You

Erika Carter’s debut novel, Lucky You, is very strange.

Three young women live chaotically in Fayetteville, Arkansas. They have sex with country singers, unfaithful husbands, and nutty environmental cult leaders. All have substance abuse problems.  Ellie drinks herself into oblivion, Rachel smokes weed, and unstable Chloe joins in.

It’s Valley of the Dolls in the Ozarks.

Though as racy a read as Valley of the Dolls, Erika Carter’s debut novel is well-crafted and often exquisite.  Carter has more in common stylistically with Mary Gaitskill, the prima donna of dysfunction, than with the potboiler writer, Jacqueline Susann.

Nonetheless, when I tell you that Carter’s character Chloe, who has trichotillomania (hair-pulling disorder), seems the least self-destructive of her three heroines, you may wonder, as I did, why one reviewer considered this novel “charming.”

Carter is in control of her harrowing narrative, and her graceful writing seems effortless as she switches points-of-view so we can see the three heroines inside-out. We’re supposed to get the idea that their inability to find good jobs makes them passive, but I don’t buy it. (When have liberal arts students ever found good jobs?)  Ellie and Rachel are recent graduates of the University of Arkansas, and Chloe dropped out before graduating.   Ellie and Chloe are waitresses at the Viceroy, a sleazy bar, and Rachel also worked there before she and her boyfriend moved to the Ozarks.

The book starts and ends with beautiful Ellie, who majored in English and still reads haiku.  But she watches TV all day and drinks while she waits  for her country musician boyfriend Jim to come back from touring in Texas.  After a while it’s clear he isn’t coming back.

The novel begins with gorgeous, wryly humorously writing. I love the repetition, the anaphora, and the vivid images.

An ice storm just knocked the electricity out, like the weatherman said it would–but did she listen?  She didn’t listen.  She didn’t prepare.  She had flashlights with dead batteries, candles but no matches.  A fireplace full of plants.

Erika Carter

In a way, this is Ellie all over.  She has a wry sense of humor, but doesn’t channel it as a saving grace. She drinks so much that she’s barely conscious.  When she’s walking down the icy street alone after a night drinking at a bar, she’s not adverse to letting three black guys pick her up and inviting them to her apartment for shots and sex. In fact, she’s so drunk that she thinks there are four of them. And she doesn’t remember the sex until she finds the empty box of condoms under her bed.

Chloe, another waitress at the Viceroy, hates Ellie, who confides in her about Jim. It seems to Chloe, who is going bald from her disorder, that Ellie has everything.  Chloe is   in danger, as far as her mental health goes:  she doesn’t mind the repetitive work at the bar, but lives next door to a noisy fraternity, where the obnoxious boys have loud parties and do unspeakable things, such as spray-paint a cat and it dies.  And she has no relationships.  After Ellie disappears (she moves to Bentonville without telling anyone and has S/M sex with her boss), Chloe and Jim become friends, and then live together.  But Jim tours a lot.  Chloe is alone.

Rachel claims she and  her boyfriend Autry are saving the environment by living in his parents’ house in the Ozarks, where they never flush the toilet, and though they aren’t very good gardeners and are incapable of living off the land,  she invites her friends to live with them.  Eventually, Ellie and Chloe are so down-and-out they move in.  And autocratic Autry demands they stay together for a year so he can write a book about living off the grid.

Well, things don’t go very well.  And I kept wanting to say, Get out now!

In a way this is a coming-of-age novel:  a late coming-of-age novel.  I do recommend this book–it is a lightning-fast read–but I wonder:  why so many talented young women writing about self-destructive heroines?  There’s Emma Kline’s The Girls, Natasha Stagg’s Surveys, Catherine Lacey’s Nobody Is Ever Missing.

I prescribe for these young writers a strong dose of Dorothy Richardson, Erica Jong, Margaret Drabble, and Doris Lessing.

P.S.  Fayetteville is a lovely university town.  I once bought a straw safari hat at a bridal shop there!

The Complete Edition of Trollope’s The Duke’s Children & Three Literary Links

Are you a Trollope fan?  Do you prefer his long, rambling novels to his shorter books? Do you wonder why The Duke’s Children, the sixth book in the Palliser series, is shorter than the other five?

Well, it was an editing problem.  Charles Dickens Jr., editor of the periodical All Year Round, thought the book too long, so Trollope cut 65,000 words.  But the good news for Trollope fans is that Steven Amarnick, a scholar, with  a team of researchers,  restored the original text from the manuscript in the Yale library

The complete edition is available from two publishers.  In 2015, The Folio Society published the complete edition in  two volumes ($330), ” and this month Everyman Library published a less expensive hardcover ($27.50).

Do we need a “complete edition of The Duke’s Children? I love Trollope’s long books:  the longer the better.   But the shorter version has  been around since 1880, so isn’t that the actual book?  (I had the same feeling when it turned out Raymond Carver wasn’t a minimalist: it’s just that Gordon Lish cut out all the words.)

In 2015, Adam Gopnik mentioned the Folio Society complete edition of The Duke’s Children in an essay on Trollope at  The New Yorker: 

Much matter that had been cut by Trollope for practical reasons has been restored, but the truth is that the editing does not actually change the contents significantly. Trollope is not a sentence-by-sentence writer, or even a scene-by-scene writer; really, he is a character-by-character writer. We finish his books with portraits of people, and a few sentences added or subtracted don’t alter our feelings about the book.

The Trollope group on Yahoo (trollope@yahoogroups.com) is interested in the affordable new Everyman complete edition.  They plan tentatively to discuss the complete Everyman edition in November.  Clinton Hall writes,

If we decide as a group to read this revised novel after we complete our readings of the three novels on our to-read list, we would start the read about early November, by which time there will possibly be used copies available for less at Abebooks and other online retail outlets.

But in the meantime I do hope at least a few of us on our list will read the book independently in the next month or so and then pass on their recommendations to Natalie or me, or to the list itself, as to whether they think it would be a worthwhile group read on list this year.

AND NOW FOR THREE LITERARY LINKS.

1 At the Tea and Tattle podcast, Jane Austen fans and other readers will enjoy a  conversation between novelists Diana Birchall, the author of Mr. Darcy’s Dilemma, and Janet Todd, author of A Man of Genius.  These two witty writers discuss how and when they began reading Jane Austen, how they became friends at the first Jane Austen conference (of about nine people!) in the ’80s, and what inspired them to write novels expanding or reworking Jane Austen’s novels.

2 At the TLS, in a review entitled “Shivering in Stockings,” Caroline Franklin takes issue with Shelley DeWees’ new book, Not Just Jane: Rediscovering seven amazing women writers who transformed British literature.

She writes,

It seems that collective amnesia at HarperCollins has wiped a whole generation of enthusiastic feminist scholarship from its ken. Do they think that American universities still teach a 1950s canon, dictated by Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel (1957) or A. D. McKillop’s The Early Masters of English Prose Fiction (1956)? DeWees is young, so perhaps does not remember those Virago reprints (utterly necessary before e-texts and Google books) of classic but out-of-print fiction by women, or Dale Spender’s polemic Mothers of the Novel: 100 good women authors before Jane Austen (1986) and the Pandora Press series it introduced. Yet approving quotations from those same feminist pioneers, Professors Janet Todd and Amanda Foreman, for example, enhance the HarperCollins publicity. Indeed, DeWees’s endnotes attest to her not only knowing but drawing on and synthesizing the spadework that has already been done over the past thirty years.

What I like about Franklin’s contentious approach is that she talks about other books about women’s lit.  What I don’t like?  I can just see men going “RAH–Cat Fight!”  (You would be surprised at how many times I have heard those words, usually about something on a TV show, not in the TLS.)

3. And there is a fascinating article at The Barnes and Noble Review about science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany, winner of four Nebulas and two Hugos and the Lambda award twice.  T. W. O’Brien writes,

Delany grew up in Harlem, back when it was the epicenter of black culture in America. He has described having had one set of friends on the streets of Harlem, and a completely different set of friends at Dalton, the private, primarily white school he attended on New York City’s Upper East Side. He went on to the Bronx High School of Science, then to City College of New York. But he dropped out of college after only one semester to write (at age 19) his first novel, The Jewels of Aptor (recently reissued with two other early Delany novels under the title A B C: Three Short Novels). He also married the poet Marilyn Hacker in 1961. Between 1962 and 1968, he published a total of nine sci-fi novels and a number of short works, including his four Nebula Award winners, Babel-17, The Einstein Intersection, “Aye, and Gomorrah”, and “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones” (which also won the Hugo Award, and is one of my favorite SF story titles of all time).

 

Elif Batuman’s The Idiot

Elif Batuman is on my radar. I enjoyed her entertaining bibliomemoir about her fascination with Russian literature, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them.

And her debut novel, The Idiot, is charming and very, very funny. It charts the coming of age of Selin, a freshman at Harvard who is the daughter of Turkish immigrants (she was raised in New Jersey). Harvard, as she describes it, is just so weird: if  you went to a state university,  Batuman’s intellectual but naive virgin heroine will make you chuckle—she is very smart but we were worldly in comparison!

The narrator, Selin, a nerdish freshman, is baffled by the underpinnings of language in context: she is perplexed by the discourse of her eccentric roommates, the nuances of e-mail (which is new in 1995), and the intentions of Ivan, a charming Hungarian student, who sends her intense e-mails.  Does he like her?

Elif Batuman

The culture of Harvard is very demanding:  when  Selin learns that everyone applies and interviews for seminars, she tentatively sets out on a quest.   After many rejections she is accepted in a nonfiction film seminar,  because, she believes, the professor had an even worse cold than she did during the interview. And then there’s her art studio class, “Constructed Worlds,” in which Gary, a visiting artist, incites them to visit museums and demand to see what’s not on display. (Turns out what’s not on display isn’t interesting.)

But it is verbal language that most interests Selin: she takes  linguistics, Russian, and a disappointing course in the 19th-century novel and the city in Russia, England, and France.

She likes Russian very much, but the  textbook tells the eerie story of a character named Nina who travels to Siberia in search of an engineer who disappears. They enact the stories in class, but what do they mean?

As for  literature classes, Selin says,

I wasn’t interested in society, or ancient people’s money troubles. I wanted to know what books really meant. That was how my mother and I had always talked about literature. “I need you to read this, too,” she would say, handing me a New Yorker story in which an unhappily married man had to get a rabies shot, “so you can tell me what it really means.” She believed, and I did, too, that every story had a central meaning. You could get that meaning, or you could miss it completely.

Her professor talks about the inadequacies of translation (there is a lot of Balzac), and reads to them from Russian and French, but she doesn’t understand a word. During the question periods at the end of class, he claims he cannot understand the students’ dumbest, most obvious questions. Selin observes, ”The breakdown of communication was very depressing to me.”

In many ways, the novel is about the breakdown of communication. Ivan already has a girlfriend, but he also more or less dates Selin, and what DOES he mean?  Ivan will be in Hungary for a short time during the summer and he suggests she might enjoy teaching English in a Hungarian village.   She jumps at the chance.  But it is not what she expected–she gets along with her host families, but never has a moment alone.  And does she see Ivan?  Hardly ever.

The book is beautifully-written, and my only criticism is that the college parts go on a little too long.  I was fascinated by her teaching experience in Hungary.  But it all dovetails, and  If you like college novels, this is great summer read. Warning: Batuman’s Harvard is nothing like the Vassar of Mary McCarthy’s The Group, the Radcliffe of Alice Adams’ Superior Women, or the University of Michigan of Marge Piercy’s Braided Lives.  She has her own voice, and her own ideas.

Batuman’s Harvard is very different from Marge Piercy’s University of Michigan.