I don’t know why this keeps happening, but I go months without writing a book review for print, then I write a couple — and they both run on the same day. Go figure. It happened again today, with my review of Without A Paddle by Warren Richey in today’s Miami Herald and my review of The Possessed by Elif Batuman in Solares Hill (only available these days as part of the Sunday Key West Citizen). Both are nonfiction and both are memoirs. I liked both books very much, though I came at them quite differently, which makes sense because they are very different.
Without A Paddle is the story of a midlife crisis, reached at age 50 when journalist Warren Richey is divorced and unsure about his purpose on the planet. He’s got a promising new relationship and a son he loves deeply but his life has taken an unexpected turn. He falls for a sea kayak (purchased in what sounds a lot like Florida Bay Outfitters to me — that’s where we bought our kayaks!). Anyway he soon becomes part of a group of expedition kayak and sailboat racers called the WaterTribe that does these crazy cross-Everglades and other races — and eventually what’s called the Ultimate Florida Challenge, circumnavigating the state by water, with no mechanical power, and a 40 mile portage between rivers across the top. This is not my idea of a good time, but Richey pulls it off and he pulls the book off, too. I had some trouble in the beginning with the short chapters jumping around but I came to like and appreciate it.
Whereas, I loved The Possessed right from the get-go. I think Batuman is, essentially, more my kind of writer — very funny and acerbic without being nasty. She’s also appreciative and realistic about the people she’s writing about. Batuman started out as a grad student in linguistics and Russian literature, and goes down some serious academic rabbit holes but maintains a real world perspective — at least enough of a perspective that she can write about that world in a way normal humans can understand. Yes, it’s true, I am bitter about academic writing — especially in the humanities — making itself unintelligible to the rest of us. Because if they’re not shedding a wider light on human culture for the world, what exactly is the point? But I digress. Batuman’s book covers a lot of territory, from an Isaac Babel conference at Stanford to a conference at the Tolstoy estate to a summer in Samarkand studying Uzbek that sounds far more entertaining to read about than to experience. But I didn’t mind the jumping around a bit — for one thing, the sections were whole, not short. And Batuman is a terrific writer. Both highly recommended. Without A Paddle: 3 1/2 stars, The Possessed: 4 stars.