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.
During 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.
Unrequited: Women and Romantic Obsession by Lisa A. Phillips
Publisher/Year: Harper, 2015
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 Adventure by Christine d’Abo
Publisher/Year: Carina Press, 2013
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.
When 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.
In 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.)
During Nonfiction November, I came across a recommendation of David Sax’s last book, The Tastemakers: Why We’re Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed Up with Fondue on Paper Breathers‘s blog. It had all the markers of something I thought I’d like, so I decided to listen to it on audiobook during a recent road trip. As I suspected, I ended up loving the book.
The Tastemakers explores food trends of the last few decades. David Sax begins the book by exploring the recent cupcake trend. It seems that everywhere you look there’s a cupcake store, even where I live in South Texas. Gone are the days of the humble cupcake. Gourmet cupcakes, cupcake bakeries, cupcake blogs, and cupcake cookbooks now abound, and we have Sex and the City to thank (see also: Manolo Blahniks, rabbit vibrators, and Cosmos). It’s an intriguing and accessible way to open the book; you’d have to be living under a rock to not know how popular cupcakes are.