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Central Asia: the Making of a Booklist

March 4, 2010

Allie left me a comment asking how I find the books on Sunday that made me so excited I decided to devote a whole post to it:

I have a question for you. How do you research what you are going to read? You read so diversely and read so many authors and books that I have never heard of; do you have a system?

Oh, Allie. You do not know the monster that you have unleashed. I *love* to research. Some might say, I’m a little too into research.* In fact, my college gave out an award every year to the senior who had made best use of library resources on a research project.* Guess who won it the year I graduated? Oh yeah.*

The short answer would be: yes, I do have a system. Most of my reads come from the lists that I create for challenges (which have gotten longer and longer with each passing year, lol). I typically spend anywhere from 1-3 hours creating these lists (that includes all the formatting stuff so I can share them with you).*

For the long answer, well, I realised that the best way would be to create a booklist, talking you through the whole process! And for my topic, I picked the most central part of Central Asia: the ‘Stans and Mongolia. Why that bit? Mainly because I know nothing about their literature, could stand to know more about their history, and I’ve never researched it before. Oh, and Uzbek food is delicious.*

So, last year I only read one fiction book set in Central Asia: Blue Sky by the Mongolian author Galsin Tschinag. I popped over to Amazon, and looked up that title. Then, I looked at both the ‘similar books’ that they suggested, and scrolled down to see if any of the So You’d Like To… or Listmania options sounded helpful. This list sounded like a good bet, and even though most of the list is about Turkey, it did bring up one possible lead: Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford (nonfic). This in turn led me (thanks to the ‘Customers Also Bought’ feature) Hearing Birds Fly by Louisa Waugh (nonfic). Then I found another neat-sounding travelogue about Mongolia: Eagle Dreams by Stephen Bodio. All that was fine, but a) I want to make sure I have more than just Mongolia on the list and b) these are all books by Western authors, which I’m not usually as excited about. So in this case, Amazon wasn’t being a great help (in the past, on less obscure topics, it’s been an incredible resource).

Time to move to my library’s catalogue*! First, I looked up Blue Sky. Then, I clicked on the ‘Catalog Record’ tab, which shows me all of the subjects that the book is filed under. One was ‘Mongolia — Fiction,’ so I clicked on it. This brought up 11 titles, of which I found the following interesting: Wolf Totem by Rong Jiang (this is a Chinese bestseller that I’d vaguely heard of before-it’s set in inner Mongolia & is about wolves and Communism and the effect of Han Chinese on the region), I Rode a Horse of Milk White Jade by Diane Wilson (a YA novel about horses set in 1400s Mongolia…I then looked up the author and found out she’s Californian), and The Shadow Walker by Mike Walters (a mystery novel set in modern-day Ulan Bataar by a British author). Ok, so I don’t actually have any Mongolian authors yet, but I wanted to take check out the other countries before worrying more about that.

I vaguely remembered reading about a book that had to do with how apples originated in Kazakhstan. Back to Amazon, where a quick search brought me to Apples are From Kazakhstan by Christopher Robbins (a nonfic travelogue). Clicking on the ‘Kazakhstan’ subject on Amazon’s site wasn’t particularly helpful, although it did bring up Inside Central Asia by Dilip Hiro, which sounds really interesting to me, since I’m an international relations junkie. Going back to my library’s catalogue, doing a ‘Kazakhstan’ subject search brings up a few titles (including Borat. Sigh). The most interesting of these to me is The Silent Steppe by Mukhamet Shaikhemtov, since it’s a memoir by a Kazakhi. I return to Amazon to look it up, and it sounds good! I also check out When God Looked the Other Way by Wesley Adamczyk, which is a memoir by a Polish author whose family was exiled to Kazakhstan under USSR. It would certainly provide a different viewpoint, rounding out my reading list. I’m briefly curious about Chasing the Sea, which looks to be another travelogue, but then I remember how strongly I disliked the author (Tom Bissell’s) short story collection God Lives in St. Petersburg and dismiss it. Finally, I see a photography/coffee table book entitled The Soul of Kazakhstan, and the catalogue record shows that the essays are by Alma Kunanbay. That sounds like it has potential!

Still not finding many native authors. But I do a similar catalogue search for Uzbekistan, bringing up The Dancer from Khiva, a memoir by Uzbek woman Bibish…the summary makes it sound a bit sketchy though. Land Beyond the River by Monica Whitlock sounds helpful and interesting, even though it is another nonfiction book by a Westerner. I’m beginning to sense a theme here! Still, I optimistically do searches for Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. I turn up one memoir by John Kropf, a US State Department official, who served in the latter, Unknown Sands. Looking that title up on Amazon leads me to an interesting sounding Peace Corps memoir: Chai Budesh? Anyone for Tea? by Joan Heron.*

So, at this point, I feel like my ‘Nonfiction by Westerns’ limit has been reached. I’m on the hunt for some fiction, or any authors who are actually from the region. Time to turn to Google! A simple ‘literature central asia’ search brings me to a Salon article. I note Chingiz Aitmatov and am disappointed that he’s the only native author mentioned. Skimming this article turns up a few more names: Mamadali Mahmudov, Alishir Ibadinov, Tolongon Kasimbekov, Azize Caferzade, and Ilyas Esenberlin. I’m crossing my fingers that I’ll be able to ILL at least one or two of these. Hamid Ismailov’s The Railway sounds interesting, although the webpage is frustratingly uninformative.

Finally, I pop over to Library Thing to do a Central Asia tag search. I am reminded of a book I actually have on my shelves (and haven’t yet read): Jihad by Ahmed Rashid. I find that the most popular title of Aitmatov is The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years.

At this point, I’m getting a bit cranky. And concerned that I’ll end up with no fiction, and thus not be able to publish this post! So I open WorldCat, which I can access for free thanks to my library, to begin looking up the author names that I have. First up: Chingiz Aitmatov, and I’m happy to see that several of his novels are available at libraries close to mine!* I also have semi-good luck with The Railway by Hamid Ismailov; some libraries in California have it, so I might be able to get it. Unfortunately, the other authors are all too obscure-they’re available in Russian, but not in libraries near me.

In one last ditch effort before just accepting that my list will be Western-author and nonfiction heavy, I decide to visit Three Percent and Words Without Borders. While both of these sites are excellent sources for anyone interested in translated works, in this case, I come up empty.

Since this post has become ridiculously long, and because I’m out of bright ideas, it’s time to just list the books I’ve discovered. But if anyone has any fiction suggestions, I’d love to hear them! So here’s the final product, and what normally would pretty much be its own post…

Fiction Books about the ‘Stans and Mongolia:

Nonfiction Books about the ‘Stans and Mongolia:

I hope that all of this was helpful to you! I chose a kind of obscure subject this time, which definitely made things harder, but I still ended up with quite a few books that sound really interesting. I always love making book lists, so if you have a topic you’d like to see me make a list on, just ask! When I’m making them for my own reference, I don’t include books I’ve already read, but if I’m making it for someone else, I suppose I should. lol So, do y’all have systems for finding books to read? Are they more or less involved than mine?


Footnote One: For example, when I was trying to decide between my top 2 college choices, I took each of their catalogues and planned out which classes I would take for all four years. My randomly assigned advisor during First Year Orientation week was a bit taken aback when he saw my colour coded plans.

Footnote Two: AND it came with a $200 check! Exciting, right?!

Footnote Three: In the interest of full disclosure, since I was doing a year-long honors project, I had a reference librarian ‘assigned’ to me (he really had all the social science students, but whatever) at the beginning of the year. He was brand-new, and young, and incredibly hot. This might or might not have influenced my decision to meet with him regularly. ;)

Footnote Four: I usually watch movies while I’m researching. For example, I’m watching The Skeleton Key right now. I lurve that movie…it’s my style of horror (not gorey, just creepy), it’s set in New Orleans & the Bayou, and it has not only the adorable Kate Hudson but also Gena Rowlands, who I aspire to be like when I grown up, and Peter Sarsgaard, who is such an amazing actor. Y’all should rent it if you haven’t seen it before.

Footnote Five: Seriously. Moscow has this great Uzbek place on Arbat that I went to at least four times during my 11 days there. And I devoted a significant amount of time in Krasnodar to trying to find an Uzbek place. Although, I’m heard that most of Central Asia subsists on horse meat and yak’s milk. So perhaps it’s just Uzbek restaurants abroad that are so magical?

Footnote Six: And if your library catalogue sucks, you can always use mine to look things up! Of course, you couldn’t borrow things but better than nothing.

Footnote Seven: I planned to join the Peace Corps after college, and was assigned to francophone sub-saharan Africa, but didn’t get my medical clearance. I’ve had a thing for RPCV memoirs ever since! And maybe one day, when I’ve retired, and I’ve had my fibro under control for decades, I’ll manage to join anyway.

Footnote Eight: Whenever I try to ILL (interlibrary loan) something, I make sure there’s at least a few copies in my state. Otherwise, I figure the chances decrease the further away the available books are.

73 Comments leave one →
  1. March 4, 2010 11:55 am

    Wow, what an interesting glimpse into your process. I love making book lists too, although my process isn’t nearly as involved as yours. Still, I think I will borrow a few of your tips. My lists are mainly on specific subjects/sub-sub-genres. I have found Wikipedia to be a big help. There are a lot of book lists already compiled there, some on fairly obscure topics. I also use Lists of Bests to organize my lists and check off what I’ve read. You meet a lot of other list obsessives there too, and they usually have good suggestions.

    • March 4, 2010 11:01 pm

      I use Wikipedia quite a bit too! Did I forget to mention it? Whoops-I did a couple searches, but nothing really came up. I feel like I would get waaaay too addiced to a website called Lists of Bests!

  2. March 4, 2010 12:00 pm

    Wow. Talk about detailed!

    I’m not nearly this thorough when searching for books to read myself, but I did do all of this while working on my final projects and theses in college.

    PS – I noticed you went to college in the Midwest. It sounds as if you’re describing a school near where I live. Where did you attend college?

  3. farmlanebooks permalink
    March 4, 2010 12:03 pm

    I love researching lists too! I do a similar thing to you, but often search the Amazons of other countries too. I find that customers in Cananda, the US and the UK buy very different ‘similar purchases’ I also use keyword searches on Amazon to find books on a specific subject. You found an interesting list of books there!

    • March 4, 2010 11:35 pm

      That’s clever! I’ll be trying that out next time. :D

  4. March 4, 2010 12:12 pm

    Eva, you’re the coolest. ‘Nuff said. :D

  5. March 4, 2010 12:46 pm

    Eva, you are just so amazing and so organised. Perhaps I should let you find my books for my trip state by state around America, as I would then know I had a thorough search done.

    By the way, love The Skeleton Key. I so didn’t expect the ending.

    • March 4, 2010 11:35 pm

      Aww-thanks Vivienne! All 50 states would be a lot of work! And isn’t Skeleton Key awesome?!

  6. March 4, 2010 12:51 pm

    This is a slightly hilarious but mostly fabulous post :-) I am all about the Amazon recommendations, on book pages or in the “Recommended for You” page. I sometimes will just scroll there, and add books to my wishlist. I think I have honed Amazon fairly well so that I am interested in many of its recommendations to me.

    Your research system seems much like one I would follow if I were to read in-depth on one particular subject, in that it’s all about one thing leading to another and taking it as far as possible! I don’t think this is a geeky post at all :-P OBVIOUSLY if I would employ the same system, it is the epitome of cool.

    • March 4, 2010 11:36 pm

      I thought about not publishing it, worrying that it was ridiculously over the top. But oh well! :) hehe @ epitome of cool

      (Some of my lists, I’ve gotten even MORE obsessive over. But let’s not talk about that.)

  7. March 4, 2010 1:00 pm

    Really interesting look into your process, Eva. Once again I have to say…you are my hero! ;-)

    • March 4, 2010 11:37 pm

      Awesome, because that’s one of the ones I definitely want to try to get ahold of! Thanks for the compliment. :)

  8. March 4, 2010 1:15 pm

    Wow, I’m no where near as organized as you. I do use Amazon, google and words without borders if I’m searching for international literature. Our library search function is very poor you can only search if you know the author or the title, they don’t have other tags.
    I tried to read The Railway and only got half way through, hope if you borrow it from the library you have more luck.

    • March 4, 2010 11:37 pm

      Your library searches would drive me insane! That’s too bad to hear about The Railway.

  9. March 4, 2010 1:44 pm

    Wow, great insight into your process! I also love to research to an obsessive degree, but have never done it with book selections. Generally I find I have so much I already own and hear about on blogs that I would just be overwhelmed! Definitely going to keep your methods in mind if I do decide to read a more focused subject, and now I know how you discover so many awesome books!

    • March 4, 2010 11:38 pm

      Thanks Meghan! :) I hear you…I figure my lists are really for my whole lifetime, so that helps keep me from being overwhelmed. I could definitely just read from all the great blogger recs I get though!

  10. March 4, 2010 1:48 pm

    Really interesting to hear about your research process! Does your library subscribe to databases like NoveList or Fiction Connection? Do you ever use them? (as a librarian, I want to see databases that tax dollars pay for USED!). Thanks for sharing your list making journey!

    • March 4, 2010 11:38 pm

      Thanks Becker! You know, I didn’t know about databases, but now I’ve checked and they do have NoveList. I believe I’m in love too. :D

  11. March 4, 2010 2:07 pm

    You are a research freak, I love that :D Researching for papers is always my favorite part of the process, although I don´t go to these lengths for fun reading. That´s mostly because of the never-ending tbr list (oh yeah, the books you mentioned in this post filled two post-its!).

    • March 4, 2010 11:39 pm

      LOL Oh the TBR list! Mine is ridiculously long too.

  12. March 4, 2010 3:11 pm

    Most interesting and has given me some good tips to follow. I love researching and making book lists but I’m not as thorough as you are.

    Thank you!

  13. March 4, 2010 3:41 pm

    I am so glad I asked that question! What an awesome post!

    I like researching as well, but you go so in depth. No wonder you always come up with such wonderful books and lists. Thank you for sharing!

    I may ask you for some help in the future.

    • March 4, 2010 11:49 pm

      lol-Did I answer your question thoroughly enough? ;) More than happy to help whenever you need it!

      • March 5, 2010 8:47 pm

        You sure did! But I loved it! People approach books in so many different ways and I find it fascinating to see how people choose their books. :) Thank you!

  14. March 4, 2010 4:41 pm

    Wow, Eva. What an awesome system. You should do this kind of thing for a living – people get paid a lot to research things like this. You could do it for a writer of some sort … or a lawyer. Or a detective. haha! You’d be awesome at it. :D

    • March 4, 2010 11:49 pm

      If only I’d gotten a practical degree….I did consider law school, since all the research & memorisation bits sounded so awesome. But then looked at daily life of a lawyer and decided it wasn’t for me.

  15. March 4, 2010 5:25 pm

    This is such a GOOD post Eva. It’s informative and useful and unique and charming all at the same time. I love getting as glimpse into any kind of process (I think that’s the journalist in me, always being nosey about how things work), so reading this was really fun. I’m not a huge book list person, but this makes me want to start!

  16. March 4, 2010 5:30 pm

    Um this is amazing. You are amazing.

  17. March 4, 2010 5:52 pm

    I just knew you were secretly a librarian at heart! (and where were all those young, hot male librarians when I was in library school?)

    Love your explanation of your process here – but along with Becker, I wonder whether you use databases such as NoveList through your library. They can be quite useful!

    • March 4, 2010 11:51 pm

      I seriously considered library school, since all the research & internet stuff sounded right up my alley! But I wanted a job I could move around the world, and librarian didn’t seem to quite fit that bill. So instead I’m an amateur librarian!

      HUGE thanks to you and Becker for introducing me to NoveList. It is SO awesome.

  18. March 4, 2010 5:53 pm

    That’s so awesome to see how you go about choosing books. And, it explains why your lists are so thorough and wonderful. However, I truly wish you felt better so you didn’t have so much time available. Does that make sense? Thanks for giving us a peek at a wonderful process!

    • March 4, 2010 11:55 pm

      That does make sense! ;) Although, honestly, list making is how I relax, so even if I had a job I’d probably still curl up with a movie & my laptop at least once a month. LOL

  19. March 4, 2010 7:58 pm

    I love making book lists. Actually, I love making any kind of list (I did the same thing when choosing a University, listing all the classes I would/could take over the four years) but book ones are the best. Anticipating what to read is almost as pleasurable as the reading itself. I now feel quite inspired to make up some new themed lists of my own!

    • March 4, 2010 11:56 pm

      >>Anticipating what to read is almost as pleasurable as the reading itself.

      Completely agree!

  20. March 4, 2010 8:21 pm

    Gotta love those young hot librarians. There used to be one here that worked at the Julia Morgan Collection at CalPoly..I think that he is why I kept changing majors.

    Your system sounds complicated, but I like complicated.

    P.S. Did you see Gena Rowlands on NCIS the other night?

    • March 4, 2010 11:56 pm

      LOL…he didn’t arrive until my senior year. Which was kinda fun, since I got to ‘show him the ropes’ to campus in a sense, but if he’d been there all four years, I’d have visited the library even more. hehe

      I don’t watch NCIS, but I’m sad that I missed Rowlands!

  21. March 4, 2010 9:18 pm

    This was such a wonderfully helpful post! Thanks for all these insights. I’ve often wondered how you find all the books you read. Actually, sometimes I’ll just come to your blog and look for your lists if I’m looking for a specific sort of book. Very helpful.

    • March 4, 2010 11:57 pm

      That’s awesome! I’ve been thinking of adding a category called ‘Book Lists’ so that all of the lists I’ve made are in one place. I could even make it a directory of sorts, so people could see the topics. Do you think that’d be helpful, and would one be more helpful than the other?

  22. Mome Rath permalink
    March 4, 2010 9:29 pm

    And here I am thinking that the easiest way to get book lists for world literature is just to check book blogs like yours! Seriously, you do put a lot of great effort into finding books from around the world. Thanks for posting the tools you use to find them!
    Incidentally, I agree with Shannon that Wikipedia has been very helpful. There are culture or literature pages for many countries that can send me off in new directions with local authors I hadn’t heard of before.

    • March 4, 2010 11:58 pm

      As I told Shannon, I’m not sure why I didn’t include Wikipedia! I’ve definitely used it in the past, and I do like how their are SO many authors mentioned. I’m glad my post helped you out. :)

  23. candletea permalink
    March 5, 2010 2:38 am

    Wow, you are very organised when searching for books. I am a lot more random: I actually go around bookblogs finding books I’d like to read and then when it comes to non-fiction or scholarly books I actually like to look at courses that centre around the topic I have in mind and look up their booklist, if it is possible to do so. Then again, I haven’t been doing a lot of topical-book challenges. I think your manner of researching them might work out well for me, thanks for sharing..

    • March 8, 2010 10:46 pm

      Your style sounds good too! :) I look at uni syllabuses on occasion, but I’ve found that often times they reference obscure books my library doesn’t have, which just makes me grumpy. lol

  24. March 5, 2010 6:13 am

    I love this! I am definitely going to use your methods for some of my lists, I hadn’t heard of some of those (Three Percent, Words Without Borders). Very impressed with your researching skills, and so jealous of your hot librarian – my school, unfortunately, never had one of those!

  25. March 5, 2010 8:47 am

    I’ve never turned my research skills to making up my book lists, partly because I tend to rely on whatever’s already on my shelves (which are plentiful and full of odd and unusual things, I might add). But I will say that before I had kids, I had a job that often called for a lot of research on various topics and I loved everything about it. I don’t know that I’d ever be able to go back to work now because I don’t know how anything I could do would ever measure up to that job. Just don’t tell my husband I said that as he has high hopes I wil one day start contributing to the bank account again. ;-)

    • March 8, 2010 10:47 pm

      lol! I’d love a job that was all about researching. :) I like reading from the library & saving the TBR books on my shelves for a rainy day, when I move somewhere without an excellent library. I know that’s a bit irrational though.

  26. Alex permalink
    March 5, 2010 8:48 am

    Eva, this is great! I’m doing a Trans-Siberian this summer and am planning to put together a nice list about Russia, Mongolia and China. This post was a great place to start, thanks!

    • March 8, 2010 10:48 pm

      I’m glad it helped you! :) Have fun in Russia!

  27. March 5, 2010 10:45 am

    Eva, I loved this post! Disclaimer: I’m a librarian :)
    Really, I appreciate the way you share a real world example of following different trails in order to research a topic. Worldcat is amazing, isn’t it? I bounce back and forth between using the freely available version and my library’s subscription (for ILL purposes).
    Good job! Woo-hoo for research nerds!

  28. March 5, 2010 11:22 am

    Thanks for the informative post, Eva! What great finds! I just wanted to add that one of the sites I use for searching sometimes (for eg when doing my Reading the World Challenge list) is The Complete Review.

    • March 8, 2010 10:48 pm

      Thanks for the suggestion-I haven’t heard of that site!

  29. March 5, 2010 8:24 pm

    I liked your footnote about planning all four years of college courses out at two different colleges, because I did the exact same thing! I was a bit annoyed on senior day when I visited the colleges met with the advisors, because I was more familiar with the courses than they were! I’ve been in love with college catalogues since my mom gave me one for OU when I was just in seventh grade. I obsessed over that thing and didn’t even consider going to school there later! (I went for a small mid-western liberal arts college myself as well.) I loved the rest of your post as well, but it was nice to learn someone else did the same thing! That’s one of the best things I’ve discovered about book blogging – there really are other people like me out there! :)

    • March 8, 2010 10:50 pm

      lol! Yes, Viriginia, there are other nerds. ;)

  30. March 6, 2010 9:24 am

    I’m a big researcher too! I also like to look at reviews and book lists that are not from book bloggers — need to keep my horizons wide.

    Did you read the Khan series by Conn Iggulden? I’ve listened to the first two and am hoping to get to the third one this summer. A quick bit of research has led me to believe that these are fairly accurate. I’ve really enjoyed them. (reviewed them on the blog, but don’t feel obligated to investigate)

    • March 8, 2010 10:51 pm

      No-I haven’t. Are they historical fiction? Maybe I’ll pick them up once I’ve read the Genghis Khan book. THanks for the suggestion, and I’m off to read your review of hte first one. :)

  31. March 6, 2010 2:12 pm

    This is so interesting! My process for finding books is much more haphazard than this, but I’d kind of like to get more organized about it. Honestly, right now I get a lot of my book ideas from you! You read so much and so many interesting things. Now I know how you find all those interesting things!

  32. iselldreams permalink
    March 8, 2010 2:05 am

    Hi Eva,
    This post was quite informative and interesting as well, thnx for sharing.
    Being a Turkish, i already read some of the books in your list without any plan as they were just “forced-reads” at high school, and i can say all the books by Chingiz Aitmatov are really delicious. I can also suggest the books by Elif Shafak.
    Have a Good Read,

    • March 8, 2010 9:48 pm

      I just finished The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak and really, really enjoyed it.

    • March 8, 2010 10:52 pm

      I’m glad to hear good things about AItmatov! Shafak has been on my radar for awhile; it sounds like I should get to him sooner rather than later. :) I’ll have to do a Turkey reading list soon…

      • March 9, 2010 8:24 am

        Note that Shafak is a woman… (I looked her up when I did a lookalike cover post about The Bastard of Istanbul!)

      • March 10, 2010 4:23 am

        *blush* #evafail

        Non-Western names are so tricky! Oddly enough, I’m always doing the opposite w/ Chinese authors…thinking that they’re women and then finding out that they’re actually men.

  33. March 8, 2010 3:47 pm

    I love this peek into your brain, Eva! It’s inspiring too. I love making lists as well, but have never thought to do something quite this in-depth.

    Oh and I loved The Skeleton Key too, although it’s really creepy!

    • March 8, 2010 10:53 pm

      Isn’t Skeleton Key awesome?! Definitely creepy! I love psychologically creep movies though. :D


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