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The Idiot

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When I was 18, I was pretty sure I knew everything. Selin, the protagonist of Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, has the opposite problem. She’s a freshman at Harvard, and she’s overwhelmed by all she doesn’t know. She doesn’t know where her life is going, really, she doesn’t know what classes she wants to take, she’s not sure how to help the students she’s been assigned as a part of her volunteer work doing adult education. She can’t even figure out how to fall asleep regularly, adding exhaustion on top of her confusion. She kind of drifts along, and one of the places she drifts is into a beginner Russian class, where she meets two people that change her life.

One is Svetlana, an immigrant from the former Yugoslavia, who decides she’s going to become Selin’s friend and does so with aplomb, quickly becoming the dominant force in Selin’s social life. The other is Ivan, a senior from Hungary, who becomes Selin’s conversation partner for Russian class, and correspondence partner over the then-new medium of email outside of class in English. Their conversation gradually turns into them spending time together, and Selin develops an intense crush on him. Even after she learns he has a girlfriend (and while he’s giving her very mixed signals), she takes up an opportunity to teach English in Hungary over the summer in the hopes of getting to spend time with him.

This book has a very passive central figure. Selin’s unsureness about virtually everything means that she mostly reacts to the world around her instead of being proactive. This makes her simultaneously very relatable (who hasn’t felt paralyzed with indecision, especially in a new situation?) and quite frustrating. If you’ve ever lived through the experience of having feelings for someone who wasn’t quite sure what they wanted, you find yourself wanting to reach through the pages and shake her by the shoulders while telling her that this isn’t going to end well. But you also know there’s no way to learn that lesson except living through it, because you probably ignored the person who shook you by the shoulders and tried to warn you off.

Batuman is an incredible writer…I highlighted so many things on my Kindle that she wrote that just seemed to perfectly capture the essence of being young and lost and desperately self-conscious. And she creates a very real, sympathetic-even-as-she’s-irritating character in Selin. The plot structure, though, could have used some work. While she’s at school, the book meanders along slowly and had a hard time holding my interest despite the lovely prose. Once she gets to Hungary, however, and starts interacting with host families and students, the book gets much livelier and there were several moments that were actually laugh-out-loud funny. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the portion of the book that takes place at Harvard, but I enjoyed the last quarter-or-so so much more. I wish Batuman had figured out a way to disperse some of that levity more equally throughout the book, because it’s like 3/4 a good book and 1/4 a really good book. As is, though, I’d recommend this book, to recent-ish college grads in particular (I feel like if I were too much older than I am now, I’d be too annoyed by Selin to really enjoy what it had to offer).

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When I was in Prague a couple of years ago, I was struck by how completely foreign the language (and alphabet) was. Yes, you’re probably saying ‘Duh’ but despite attempts, I came away with no more Czech than I started with (i.e. zero). Nothing stuck. Even things as simple as recognising the name of the train station near to where we were staying – I simply couldn’t find a way of retaining any of it.

I was reminded of that feeling of absolute foreignness when I read Elif Batuman’s oddball novel, The Idiot.

The Idiot focuses on Selin, in her first year at Harvard (it’s set in the mid-nineties, so expect enjoyable details such as the wonder of email, and the jumpy delivery of music via a Discman). Selin is the daughter of Turkish immigrants, and with the hope of becoming a writer, she takes classes in linguistics and Russian. But despite Selin’s close observance of everything happening around her, university life is a foreign language in itself, and one that baffles Selin.

"In a black room with orange lights and pounding Spanish music we stood in a big circle dancing. It reminded me of preschool, when you had to stand in a circle and clap your hands. I began to intuit dimly why people drank when they went dancing, and it occurred to me for the first time that maybe the reason preschool had felt the way it had was that one had to go through it all sober."

The story centres around Selin’s relationships with her roommates; her confident and extroverted Serbian friend, Svetlana; and the person she’s infatuated with, Ivan, a Hungarian maths major.

"It was a mystery to me how Svetlana generated so many opinions. Any piece of information seemed to produce an opinion on contact. Meanwhile, I went from class to class, read hundreds, thousands of pages of the distilled ideas of the great thinkers of human history, and nothing happened."

Batuman writes as Selin sees and thinks – with an immense amount of detail. It makes for a curious reading experience – the detail was mesmerising in parts, superfluous in others. Toward halfway, I questioned whether long descriptions of Selin’s Russian class, her conversations with Svetlana, or the thinking behind buying a poster of Albert Einstein, contributed to driving the story forward. But, just as my patience was wearing thin, Selin travels to Hungary for a summer placement as an English teacher, and the story picks up pace. In fact, Selin in Hungary had my full attention (perhaps because her experience reminded me of my own time as an exchange student in Germany, when I would be taken to places or shown things that to this day I still can’t explain).

"At noon every day, everyone went home except for me and Róbert, whose mother was the school principal. Róbert and I went into a large but windowless supply closet where, surrounded by rolled-up maps and projector screens and slide carousels, we sat at a wooden desk and were served lunch by the school cook, Vilmos, who wore a white apron and a chef’s hat… We addressed these meals with dedication, industry, and few words… At first it seemed strange to me to go into a supply closet every day with a fourteen-year-old boy and eat a three-course meal, but soon I came to view it as part of the natural course of things."

There’s probably lots I missed in this book in terms of theme and style, simply because I’m not familiar Russian literature (and even then, I’m making assumptions on the basis that Batuman has borrowed her title from Dostoevsky). I did enjoy the dead-pan humour; and Batuman’s ability to take an ordinary situation (Selin falling for the accomplished maths major, who strings her along in a way that will feel all-too-familiar to many readers) and make it feel new. And the ending? Insightful!

I received my copy of The Idiot from the publisher, Penguin Press, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

3.5/5 Hmmm… how to score a book that was intensely boring in parts and wildly entertaining in other parts….?

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This is a wonderful book and would definitely recommend. It is full of useful information and the writing was beautiful.

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The first 300 or so pages would merit a solid 4 star rating (at least) in my opinion, its just the ending that I real can't get behind. I see in the acknowledgment that the first part was written in 2001-ish, meaning that this portion likely underwent the most editing/revising, which is maybe why I appreciate it more than the rest, the end just feels completely rushed and of sync with the rest of the novel.

Maybe its the academic in me but I really enjoyed 1995-ish Harvard, this was also the setting that was most developed. Europe (France and Hungary) I felt was a little underdeveloped, as well its inhabitants.

There isn't terribly much going on in regards to 'plot', but Batuman makes the first 300 pages, where very little happens, very enjoyable and what some might call 'compulsively readable'. All in all I think Batuman has a great 'voice' and I look forward to reading more of her work.

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A recent online test by Time magazine has been flying around the internet — it uses rules outlined in President Trump’s proposed immigration reform to determine if you, the test-taker, would be approved for a visa under Trump’s RAISE Act. The minimum score is 30 points, and the desirable qualities toward those points include youth, higher education, and deep pockets. Isn’t that all of us? Not so. (This writer scored a 28.)

Even the 2016 Nobel Laureate in literature, Svetlana Alexievich — honored “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time” — is apparently not good enough for this country under Trump’s plan. Unless, of course, the Belarusian writer who spends most of her time collecting oral histories about what life was like pre- and post-Soviet Union has $1.35 million to invest. Then this administration would be willing to overlook her dabbling in the dark, low-yielding arts of the humanities.

Apparently, it doesn’t matter if you’ve dedicated your life to “trying to understand why suffering cannot be converted to freedom” if you also cannot convert that thought into currency.

But enough about real people. What about 2017’s fictional recent arrivals? How would they fare in this test? I looked at three debut novels published this year that feature fictional immigrant newcomers, and took the liberty to fill out the test for them to see how they’d do.

The Idiot by Elif Batuman
Score 28
Applicant: Selin’s Parents
Origin: Turkey
Status: Ineligible

In the times when e-mail is a new shiny thing, Selin, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, tries to survive her first year at Harvard. This cunning, engrossing novel is filled with delightful conundrums that made me many times put the book down so that I could consider — for example, what is the structural equivalency between a tissue box and a book? Batuman writes, “Both consisted of slips of white paper in a cardboard case; yet — and this was ironic — there was very little functional equivalence, especially if the book wasn’t yours.” This is also a story of freshman love, and all freshman things that eventually also fade and are lost in the transition of growing up.

Immigration Test Notes: Selin’s parents are educated, and though they warrant a check in the box marking a foreign master’s degree in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (worth a whopping 8 points), in the end it was not enough. Probably because their lack of a Nobel prize. Sad!

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This was not the book I expected. I assumed based off the author's previous work that it would have more to do with Russian/Slavic literature with the title The Idiot.

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This is a book that will hold onto you for a while afterward. I don't tend to enjoy books that are light on plot, but this was an entertaining read that felt absurdist at times, and very real at others. The writing is fantastic, and there are laugh-out-loud scenes peppered throughout the book. For me, the predominant undercurrent was the awkwardness of being a smart and earnest girl in college. It reminded me of all the newness the world had to offer and all the mistakes/ fumbles I took until I understood who I was in the world. And it felt good to watch someone else make a lot of similar mistakes along the way, with amusing results.

This would be a great book to give a precocious and intellectual young adult who is heading off to college, someone who longs for their college days of pondering the world and running after lost cause loves, someone who likes a contemporary novel and is ok with little to no plot.

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"The Idiot" is a book that takes you on a journey, a quiet journey, immersed in deep thought.
The plot centers around Selin, a daughter of Turkish immigrants, raised in NJ. It is 1995 and she is beginning her freshman year at Harvard. She develops a crush on an older mathematics student from Hungary. Their relationship unfolds via email, allowing them to communicate more freely than in person.
This is not your typical coming-of-age story. Selin's emotional life is deep-seated in philosophy and painstaking analysis. Yet, Batuman infuses a wry, delightful sense of humor throughout the story.
It moves at its own slow pace. I was sorry for Selin's struggle in pushing for a meaningful outcome of her love story but, upon finishing the book I was glad to have waited.

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I was just bored with this book. I'm not quite sure where anything was going or if the story was moving along, so I eventually stopped reading it.

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A book that is perfect for the Mellenial generation.

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The description pulled me in, but the entire second half of the book dragged. It was very hard to stay interested and get through. I felt bad because this was a book I really wanted to like, but I couldn't even make it to the end.

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An extraordinary intellectual journey, following Selin's freshman year at Harvard while trying to put order through words into the new reality. Although it has classical literary references, including Russian literature, it succeeds to create an unique new voice which I would love to read more and more about in the next years.

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When this was good, it was great. Batuman really captures that sort of lostness you feel when you think everyone has this life thing figured out but you have no idea. However, there were so many moments when I felt bored and like it was dragging. So as a reading experience it felt uneven.

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Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for an Advanced Reader Copy in exchange for an honest review. The writing was excellent, I loved the timeline of the story (I was also in college at this time). The pace was a bit too slow, and the general plot was difficult to ascertain. Otherwise, good read.

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When I put The Idiot on my to be read list, I believed that it was going to be a quirky novel with cultural interests. It is somewhat quirky but Selin's Turkish heritage plays little part in the story and the only references to Turkish culture are about the language. Selin has just started her freshman year at Harvard and tries to make friends while navigating the strange academic environment. In a Russian class, she meets Svetlana and the pair become friends while she begins a friendship with Ivan through an email exchange. Even though the emails coming from Ivan are strange, Selin begins to fall in love with Ivan, even though he already has a girlfriend and is planning on attending graduate school in California a year later.

I couldn't wrap my head around this book. There were some funny parts in it and I would say that Batuman has a gift for satire. Where I fault the book is that it moves so slowly, one can't enjoy the satire. This reads like a college student's journal, filled with every unimportant detail of her day. There are too many descriptions of things that have nothing to do with the story and don't move it along. The characters were pretty flat and stereotypical but it does add to the satire so it didn't bother me. The story had potential but it didn't go anywhere. It was simply too slow for me to enjoy.

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I am kicking myself for waiting so long to read this story. This novel was a home run for me, even though it is hard to describe the "point" of this story. I guess not every novel has to have an Epic Event or a Grand Moment in order to be a great book.
Selin is one of my favorite literary characters in years, maybe ever. She is naive, impressionable and vulnerable, and yet has the confidence to know her own limits. She is open to new ideas while not being swayed by others' opinions, willing to contribute her considerable thoughts to debates and discussions. She is forever putting herself in new and unfamiliar territory, able to adapt to new surroundings at school and abroad. She isn't perfect: she was too often crippled by stubbornness, too shy sometimes to speak her mind, and uncomfortably self-deprecating. But, she is also compassionate, intelligent, and curious. How sad that finding a nuanced character like her is so outside the norm (a commentary on my reading choices?) and how lucky I am to have found this novel.
Now, after singing Selin's praises, I will say that I found some of the other characters confusing at best and off-putting. Ivan will forever be a mystery. Svetlana is so narcissistic I struggled to find her more than a one-note contrast to Selin.
Spoiler ahead: I have to say, my favorite part of the story is that Selin and Ivan remain very close without an awkward kiss/tear-stained rehashing/tortured goodbye.
I very much enjoyed this novel. Ms. Batuman is very talented and I will be waiting eagerly for her next book.

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The Idiot is the coming of age story of Selin, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, as she moves from her home in New Jersey to begin her freshman year at Harvard in 1995. Brilliant and outstanding as a high school student, Selin finds herself thrown into a group of multicultural and multilingual characters as broad as the cast of a Russian novel – in fact, this book owes a debt to Russian literature in many ways, including the Dostoyevsky title.

Selin is aimless and almost ambivalent about her future, and she signs up for classes almost at random. Her focus is on linguistics, although she quickly loses her faith in the power of language to truly communicate. In her introductory Russian language class, Selin becomes friends with Serbian student Svetlana, who seems to inherently understand the social conventions of university in ways that Selin cannot. She also meets Ivan, a math major from Hungary – she falls for his depth of character, but their entire relationship may be based on the misunderstandings of the English language.

In 1995, there is no social media, and email is brand new. Selin and Ivan begin to communicate through email almost by accident, and she obsesses over their thrilling correspondence – the kind of conversations that are filled with so much intense meaning when you’re a teenager, but in reality they are mostly nonsense. Ivan’s thoughts are new and mysterious to Selin, but in real life, she is mostly speechless in his presence – especially when he talks about his elusive girlfriend. Meanwhile, the students act out an unrequited love story in Russian class, which takes on new meaning for Selin.

Selin’s constant narration of seemingly random events are very evocative of the absurdity of Russian literature. Her naïve observations of the world around her are deadpan and dry, unintentionally hilarious. The description of every small detail of Selin’s daily life distracts from the forward motion of the plot, but I think that’s the point – her use of language subverts the traditional plot, and shows us how complicated communication can become. Selin’s inner world is so charming and clever, I never wanted it to end. Without the surprising amount of detail, the novel could have easily been much shorter than its 450-page count, but I could have kept reading much longer. However, I don’t think that will be the case for everyone – the writing style is divisive, and readers will either love or hate The Idiot.

At the end of the school year, Ivan arranges for Selin to teach English in several small Hungarian villages, while he stays in Budapest. Selin first travels to Paris with Svetlana, which makes life in the villages seem even more absurd. She continues to explore her experiences of first love, and she is filled with as much confusion as exhilaration when she meets with Ivan. Their relationship is unconventional, rejecting the usual young adult romance tropes in clever and unexpected ways.

Throughout her journey, Selin continues to explore the complications of communication, especially as language starts to seem so arbitrary to her. Ending up in Turkey, Selin begins to lose faith in the narrative of her own life. She learns, as we all eventually do, that there is no overarching plot to life – it isn’t a Russian novel, except for the fact that it is unexpected and absurd.

It’s hard to explain why I loved this novel so much, but Selin’s rich inner world just resonated with me. Batuman is certainly an author to watch, and I will likely be purchasing this, and any other novel, that she writes.

I received this book from Penguin Press and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Some of the writing was good, but most of the book was rather boring to me. Perhaps it would have more meaning for someone college-age.

I didn't hate it - but for me, it was 'just ok'.

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Did not finish. I found the characters really pretentious. naive and unlikaable. Not enough plot to hold my attention.

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