Apples Are from Kazakhstan: The Land That Disappeared

Greetings from Almaty, Kazakhstan! I apologize for the radio silence as of late. I’ve been traveling for almost two weeks now and just got to Almaty following a 36-hour train ride from Urumqi, China. This is the first solid internet connection I’ve had in a while, so it’s been hard to post reviews. So far, the trip as been exhausting but exciting, and although I’ll only be here for about 12 hours, I can tell you Almaty is gorgeous. I arrived at sunrise and the first things I saw were the snow-covered mountains looming over the city.

Apples are from Kazakhstan by Christopher RobbinsDuring a conversation on a flight, Christopher Robbins learned that his American seatmate was traveling to Kazakhstan to marry a woman he’d met online. The stranger went on and on about this country that few people know much about (other than it being where Borat is from). Robbins was intrigued by this country’s contributions to the world, but the one tidbit that stuck with him was, “apples are from Kazakhstan.” Robbins went on about his business, but after that, Kazakhstan kept calling to him. Finally, he decided to travel there and write a book about the country.

Kazakhstan is a former Soviet territory that is huge: four times the size of Texas. Parts of the country seem inhospitable to life — descriptions of the windy winters on the steppe sound particularly terrifying — yet nomadic Kazakhs lived and worked there for centuries before the Soviet Union moved to wipe them out. Communist Russia also sent a large number of its enemies to brutal gulags in Kazakhstan, and often sent intellectuals into exile there as well; Trotsky was sent into exile there for a period, as was Dostoevsky (partially inspiring Crime and Punishment). Vast areas of land have suffered irreparable environmental damage since then: the Aral Sea is quickly disappearing, and citizens in many areas are still suffering the effects of fallout from nuclear testing. The country has suffered quite a number of dark periods in its history.

Yet the country also has an amazing history of culture, ingenuity, and perseverance. Robbins manages to capture a large scope of this. He was granted incredible access throughout the writing of this book, traveling all over the country to talk to everyone from average citizens to scholars. He was even granted unprecedented access to travel with and interview President Nazarbayev, through which he gained access to areas of Kazakhstan that would otherwise have been off-limits.

His end result is one of the most fascinating and entertaining travelogues I’ve ever read. It’s part memoir, part history book. It includes the requisite foreigner-in-a-new-land experiences (in a non-gross/offensive way; this is something I’m always wary of in travel books), but what I really loved about it was how deeply Robbins dove into Kazakhstan’s political, economic, and social history but still kept everything extremely readable and accessible. Even though the book was published in 2008, I’ve seen some relevant major news stories in the past couple of months that still relate to this book, such as the desperate situation of the Aral Sea and the recent mass die-off of one-third to one-half of the saiga population. It’s given me a lot to think about for my travels. And, of course, one of my goals is to find an aport apple.

Quickies: Unrequited & Choose Your Shot

Unrequited: Women and Romantic ObsessionBook cover: Unrequited by Lisa A. Phillips by Lisa A. Phillips

Publisher/Year: Harper, 2015
Format: ARC
Pages: 304
Source: Publisher

What it is: Part memoir, part investigation, Phillips explores the role of obsessive love in women’s lives. She begins with her own story: many years ago she fell hard for someone, was rejected, and kept pursuing him. She ended up sneaking into his apartment complex early in the morning and was shocked that he remained locked behind his door with a baseball bat, ready to call 911. Phillips examines how she, an educated and confident person, could have done that. She also looks at case studies and interviews other women who have done similar things and closely examines the gender-based double standards: former NASA astronaut Lisa Nowak, for instance, became a comedic punchline in 2007; male stalkers, on the other hand, are universally feared and considered dangerous. Women who go through life pining over an unrequited love are pathetic and desperate, whereas men suffering from unrequited love are at the heart of many pieces of classic literature. Towards the end of the book, Phillips also looks at the positive sides of unrequited love.

Why I read it: It sounded like really interesting subject matter, and I was curious how the subject of stalkers would be handled.

What I thought: There are a lot of complexities to this subject, and Phillips does a great job of exploring the different angles. Some parts dragged a bit, but overall, I appreciated the historical context and the way she teased out the double standards. I also like that she split her own story up, interspersing each stage of her romantic obsession into relevant chapters. It’s really interesting how common unrequited love among women is; most women will experience it at some point in their lives (although not everyone will act on it).


Choose Your Shot: An Interactive Erotic AdventureBook cover: Choose Your Shot by Christine d'Abo by Christine d’Abo

Publisher/Year: Carina Press, 2013
Format: eBook
Pages: 208
Source: Purchase

What it is: This is the fifth and final book in d’Abo’s Long Shots series. I haven’t read the other four books, but they all revolve around a BDSM club called Mavericks, which apparently burned down at some point before Book 5. In this particular book, Mavericks has now reopened for business, and Tegan, one of the regulars, is back for its opening night. Each chapter ends with different options and lets you choose what kind of sexytimes Tegan will have.

Why I read it: To examine the book’s structure and see if “choose your adventure” books worked better in eBook form. (Like, for real. I’ve been toying an idea for a writing project of my own for about a year now.)

What I thought: This is the second “choose your adventure” type book I’ve read. The other one was a romance with hook-ups; this is straight up erotica. In theory it’s a neat idea, but I’ve yet to see it executed in a non-cheesy way. The options just feel too paint-by-numbers. And I know this is erotica and not a romance novel, so it’s more about sex than plot, but when you have so many options, the already weak plot gets stretched way too thin.

Lifted by the Great Nothing

Book cover: Lifted by the Great Nothing by Karim DimechkieAll his life, Max has struggled to piece together what little he knows of his mother. Shortly after he was born, his mother and all of his extended family were killed amidst political turmoil in Beirut, Lebanon. His father, Rasheed, managed to find a way to flee the country with his infant son and rebuild a life in the United States. Rasheed — now Reed — was determined to become a fully assimilated American and give his son everything he needed to be happy and successful. Since Max was too young to remember his mother, he clings to any bit of information Reed proffers; as Max grows more curious about his heritage, Reed remained steadfastly evasive.

Max and his father are best friends — try as they might, neither of them quite fit in — and Max often cares for his father when his debilitating bouts of depression hit. But as Max grows older, their friendship becomes strained, and once Max reaches his teenage years, their relationship is almost nonexistent. Then, when Max turns seventeen, everything changes: he discovers that his father has been lying to him about their past for his entire life. The repercussions of this revelation are shattering for both father and son.

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The Light of the World

Book cover: The Light of the World by Elizabeth AlexanderWhen does this story begin? Elizabeth Alexander muses in the opening of her memoir. She and Ficre Ghebreyesus were the great loves of each other’s lives but all of that was one in an instant when Ficre suddenly died of massive heart failure. And so, she wonders, does this story begin when they met? When they married? When he died?

Alexander —  perhaps most famous for writing “Praise Song for the Day” for President Obama’s first inauguration — contemplates all of these different beginnings. More a celebration of Ficre’s life than an elegy, each chapter feels like a vignette focused on important scenes from their lives. The two met in New York City and had a passionate romance that quickly led to marriage and the birth of their first son; they eventually grew into a family of four. Alexander is originally from Harlem, while Ghebreyesus fled his native home of Eritrea amidst violent upheaval and eventually settled in the United States; they found what they needed — culturally, emotionally, and artistically — in each other. She made her mark as a poet, playwright, and academic, while Ghebreyesus was a well-loved artist (that’s his work on the book cover) and a chef. The loss felt by all who knew him is palpable and acute.

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The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy: A Handbook for Girl Geeks

Book cover: The Fangirl's Guide to the Galaxy by Sam MaggsIn The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy, Sam Maggs offers burgeoning fangirls lots of practical advice on locating “their people,” navigating cons, participating in geek fandoms, and finding their feminist voice. In between chapters are interviews with successful women whose fangirl backgrounds have now turned into geek-oriented careers. It’s a book that skews towards the younger crowd: though Maggs and her interviewees are clear that a fangirl can be any age, a lot of the book is intro-level basic and is probably best suited for tweens and the younger end of the young adult spectrum.

The good thing about this book is that one can skip around to suit their needs. The beginning of the book talks about different fandoms and the labels for their geeky devotees; there are the big ones that people are already probably familiar with — Star Trek, Dr. Who, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter — but the list of fandoms goes on and on (yet is by no means exhaustive). Most people could probably read through it and find something that relates to them. (Apparently, I’ve been a devout member of The Unsullied — Game of Thrones — all this time without even realizing it. Don’t even get me started on social media during/after the Red Wedding.)

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