Wish You Were Here by Jodi Picoult
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I have a love/hate relationship with Jodi Picoult. When I read Leaving Time a few years ago, I was thoroughly impressed with her writing... until the novel's big plot twist. Great writers leave breadcrumbs throughout their novels - subtle hints and clues that a clever reader can catch, digest, and use to interpret the unexpected narrative twists that have been embedded within a novel. However, with Leaving Time, Picoult didn't "earn" the big twist that upends the novel's plot. For me, at least, the book was spoiled by the author "pulling out the rug" from beneath her readers, something that left a sour taste in my mouth. Since then, I've been wary of Picoult's writing (especially after learning that another one of her novels, House Rules , promoted the debunked theory that vaccines cause autism). So, it was with some trepidation that I agreed to read Wish You Were Here with my book club. Once again, Ms. Picoult has left me a bit torn as a reader. Is the novel lovingly and eloquently crafted? Undoubtedly. Does the author "earn" her plot twist this time? That's open for debate.
In Wish You Were Here, an up-and-coming Sotheby's art dealer, Diana O'Toole, faces some pretty momentous life changes: an impending proposal from her surgeon boyfriend, a father who prematurely passed away after an accident, an absent mother who struggles with Alzheimer's, a high-pressure job in the art world, an expensive planned trip to the Galápagos Islands, and (last, but certainly not least) the COVID pandemic that throws her meticulously plotted life into turmoil. Without giving away too much, I will say that there is one heck of a plot twist about 2/3 of the way through the book - the kind that calls into question almost everything that you've read up to that point. If only for that reason, I have a feeling that M. Night Shyamalan would enthusiastically give Ms. Picoult two thumbs up for this novel.
So, what can I reveal about Wish You Were Here without ruining its big twist? It's probably safe to say that the book tackles the COVID pandemic in a timely, thoughtful manner. Diana's fiancée, Finn, works in a New York hospital during the early days of the 2020 shutdown, and we see the trauma and PTSD of the experience through his eyes. But Picoult's novel is more than just a quick cash-in on our shared global tragedy; rather, it's an attempt to find some semblance of meaning and purpose during an era of malady and malaise. Our protagonist, Diana, is a thoughtful, reflective narrator, someone whose interpersonal relationships are grounded in reality. Even when the novel broaches surrealist topics (again, I'm trying really hard to avoid spoilers!), Picoult tackles the trials and tribulations of her characters in a tender, eloquent fashion. While lesser writers might paint absent mothers, dead fathers, unfaithful lovers, and/or arrogant art dealers with the kind of broad brush strokes that reduce them to two-dimensional caricatures, Picoult brings a graceful sensitivity to even her most prickly creations. As she reminds us at one point, "Nobody’s all good or all bad. They just get painted that way."
Ultimately, Wish You Were Here is a novel about evolution and adaptation - not just of animals in the Galápagos, but of the human spirit. As Diana weathers her way through the seemingly insurmountable hurricane of the COVID pandemic, we watch her grow and change in ways that might seem unexpected. It's a novel about creation and recreation, incarnation and reincarnation, discovery and rediscovery. So, while Picoult might not have hit a homerun with this latest release, Wish You Were Here has redeemed her - at least a little bit - in my eyes. Clearly, Ms. Picoult is adapting and evolving like a literary finch in the Galápagos Islands. Charles Darwin would be proud.
View all my reviews
I have a longstanding love-hate relationship with photography. As someone who grew up without a lot of financial resources, I could never afford to buy a camera. So, when my more financially secure friends would show off their flashy devices, I was always a little jealous and envious. Up until I got an iPhone in 2009, I was relegated to cheapie disposable cameras that would only handle one roll of film. You know the kind: 27 photos with no depth of field and a teeny-tiny viewfinder. It was pretty pathetic.
The iPhone changed all of that for me. When I bought my first Apple smartphone almost a decade and a half ago, I suddenly had an unlimited number of photographs with a variety of editing tools at my disposal. No more one-time-use camera for me! Suddenly, I could take pictures of anything anywhere at any time. After a lifetime without anything vaguely resembling a real camera, this was a revelation to me. Over the ensuing years, I took thousands of photos: my family, pets, concerts, vacations, collectibles... I thoroughly enjoyed taking these pictures of my mild-mannered life for posterity's sake.
When social media hit big (first with Friendster, then MySpace, then Facebook), I suddenly had an audience - albeit a small one - for my photography adventures. I held out on joining Facebook until 2010 and didn't take the plunge into Instagram until late 2011. For the first few years, I pretty much ignored my Instagram account, only posting pictures intermittently for photo contests and a handful of memorable moments. In 2015, however, after I taught a few AP English lessons on photography, visual rhetoric, and tone, I started posting more actively and consistently on Instagram. In the last seven years, I've gone from 14 posts to almost 700 on my main account (@farfromkansas); I also opened up a few other accounts for creative projects (@buenalibrary, @notsosilentlibrarian, and @briarroseramblers, etc.). During that time, I began to experiment more with filters, camera angles, portrait mode, depth of field, and a variety of other simple techniques.
About half a year ago, I finally took the plunge and bought a REAL camera: a Sony Alpha a7R IV Mirrorless Digital Camera w/Sony FE 24-70mm f/2.8 GM Lens. It cost a pretty penny (much more than just about anything else I've purchased in my entire life), but I was lucky enough to receive some inheritance money after my father passed away. It was a "feel better about your dead dad" vanity purchase. I have a feeling that my dad would have appreciated the use of his money. Since early 2022, I've been learning a lot - and I mean A LOT - about photography. Luckily for me, I had a few built-in advisors: Emmet Cullen, Amanda Graves, Eddie Raburn, and a few other friends/acquaintances. Using their guidance and expertise, I purchased a "forever" camera that should last me a lifetime.
So, what have I learned this year, as I've started using a real camera? Here are a few tips:
The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Despite my eager hopes, Sarah Perry's The Essex Serpent is decidedly not a supernatural horror novel about a giant winged snake terrorizing the British countryside. Alas, Perry's book shares more serpentine DNA with Charles Dickens than Stephen King. Instead of a suspenseful supernatural story, The Essex Serpent is a slow-burning work of literary fiction that examines the muddy, complicated intersection of science and faith, friendship and love. If you enjoy Victorian literature, star-crossed lovers, and the subtleties of stuffy British settings, this might be more up your (cobblestone) alley.
As she alternates between the Essex countryside and London cityscape, Perry provides a colorful cast of outcasts and misfits. However, the core of the novel revolves around Cora Seaborne: a young widow who finds herself liberated by the death of her older, controlling husband. Cora, a devout fan of science and nature, finds herself drawn to the sleepy seaside town of Aldwinter, where a minister and his family informally adopt Cora and her entourage. This vicar, Will Ransome, is an atypical pastor: while he clearly tends after his sheep (literally, in fact, during one scene), he also finds himself inexplicably drawn to the unpredictable Cora. Meanwhile, Will's ailing wife, Stella, seems intent on bringing her husband and Cora closer together. Along the way, Perry also includes a variety of subplots, including a doctor who pines after Cora, a rich man who pines after Cora's maidservant, and the maidservant who pines after social justice. Oh, what a tangled web (or murky serpent's nest?) we weave when we slither through the British marshland and dingy streets of London! Mixed metaphors aside, the fact remains: things get complicated.
I have to admit, it took me a long time to get into The Essex Serpent. For the first 100+ pages, Perry's book wanders and winds through several seemingly unconnected storylines, leaving the reader without much of a solid thread to follow. Where is this book going? I repeatedly wondered to myself. Like a child lost in the foggy marsh of the British coastline, many readers will undoubtedly meander through chapter after chapter of passable prose until stumbling upon a profound passage or plot point.
Perry is strongest when she subverts expectations - which she does frequently throughout the novel. What you expect to happen from the cliched conventions of Victorian literature rarely comes to fruition. Young lovers don't always stay in love, but old lovers do. The dying don't always die, but the healthy sometimes barely escape death. The wise act foolishly, and the foolish grow wiser through their lived experiences. It's unique enough to differentiate The Essex Serpent from many of its lesser peers. However, while I admire Perry's attempt to break free from tried-and-true tropes, it's not enough for me to overlook the frequently dull pacing of the book.
While I can't say that I enjoyed reading The Essex Serpent, the novel is clearly a complex, well-crafted study of the British experience in Victorian England. Will I ever read this novel again? The answer is a resounding no. Will I recommend it to others? Only if they enjoy tea, crumpets, and novels that flicker through the night like candles in a dusty window.
View all my reviews
The Stand by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Once upon a time, way back in the 1990s, I picked up Stephen King's original, "abridged" version of The Stand . At the time, it all seemed so far-fetched: a global pandemic that rages out of control and ends up claiming millions of lives? What fantastical science fiction! Imagine my surprise when, several decades later, a global pandemic raged out of control and claimed millions of lives. It turns out that Stephen King, the spine-tingling storyteller of the supernatural, was something of a prophet - the Nostradamus of the 1980s, as it were.
Though I kept the unabridged version of The Stand on my "TBR" list for many years, COVID inspired me to finally tackle this behemoth of a book. I realize that it's morbid to read a novel about a deadly pandemic while in the middle of a deadly pandemic, but my macabre sensibilities prevailed over my good taste. And, after almost exactly two years of off-and-on-again reading, I finally finished all 1,141 pages of King's magnum opus. Needless to say, it feels like I just finished a never-ending literary marathon. With that analogy in mind, crossing the finish line simultaneously feels like a relief and a reward.
For those not in the know, The Stand is essentially three books wrapped in one: a cautionary science-fiction tale about the outbreak of a government-manufactured virus, a quasi-realistic yarn about rebuilding civilization in a post-apocalyptic world, and a supernatural story involving the immortal battle of good and evil. With its vaguely Christian overtones (most obviously represented in the angelic figure of Mother Abagail and the devilishly vicious Randall Flagg), the novel details the never-ending conflict of God and the Devil - the polar extremes that exact their gravitational pull on the mild-mannered citizens of the United States. Though Mother Abagail fails dangerously close to the "Magical Negro" trope, she is the purest, holiest figure in the novel. Hopefully, King's intentions were not to dehumanize; however, I won't speak to his complex, complicated motivations. In any case, this super-sized novel tackles some big themes, including government malfeasance, the temptation of evil, and the triumph of the human spirit. Unsurprisingly, for an ambitious novel of this scale, the book is not a literary grand slam: King falters periodically, with majestic moments of poetic glory frequently overshadowed by his bloated storytelling.
While I'm normally a fan of the "director's cut" with movies and books, I think it's safe to say that King would have benefitted from an artful editor. Although The Stand is impressive with its epic ambition, the story gets bogged down in too many subplots and convoluted characters. Did we really need a chapter about The Trashcan Man and The Kid traversing the desert and spending a night in a motel room? In my opinion: NO. Though I admire King's dedication to crafting a narrative of this scope, reading The Stand became incredibly tedious - insurmountably so, it seemed at times. As I mentioned previously, reading through the 1,141 pages of the book often felt like a never-ending marathon. In this case, I would've settled for a half-marathon and been happy.
That's not to say, however, that The Stand is without merit. Undeniably, King captures the suffering, grief, and tenacity of survivors - something even more relatable because of our recent experiences with the coronavirus. There are passages threaded throughout the novel that ring of true beauty and poetry; likewise, several conversations (particularly between Glen Bateman and Stu Redman) raise thoughtful - perhaps even profound - philosophical questions. Not too shabby for a book about the end of the world.
Recent trends in literary fiction have widened the gates for science fiction and horror in ways that would have been unfathomable in the past. Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven is a prime example of a sci-fi novel that brilliantly tackles apocalyptic settings with the luminescence of well-crafted poetry and insightful prose. Sadly, The Stand pales in comparison to such works. Perhaps, it's unfair to compare King's novel with Station Eleven: although Mandel's book is vastly superior, the kernel of her novel owes a sizable debt to King. However, Station Eleven succeeds in capturing the struggles of three-dimensional characters caught in the surreal storm of unthinkable events, creating a literary masterpiece in the process. It's in this fashion that Mandel surpasses King: although certain characters in The Stand are imbued with thoughtful, three-dimensional portrayals, others (especially the women in the story) are less effectively crafted. By comparison, Kirsten Raymonde and Jeevan Chaudhary (let alone Arthur Leander, Miranda Carroll, and Tyler Leander) have been carefully wrought in ways that Frannie Goldsmith and Harold Lauder are not. And don't even get me started on the Trash Can Man. While King is clearly a visionary, sometimes he overlooks the forest of his characters for the trees of his plot points. That's truly a pity.
Mark Twain once said that “A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” By that definition, The Stand is indisputably a classic piece of literature. Although I do feel a sense of accomplishment after completing a Herculean undertaking like reading this novel, I also recognize that King's magnum opus is a marathon that I didn't need to tackle. That might sound like sacrilege to the King-obsessives out there, but it's true. For the casual King fans out there, I only have one piece of advice: skip the book and watch the TV series, instead. Stephen King is, undoubtedly, one of the most impressive, prodigious writers of his - or any other - generation. As flawed and imperfect as The Stand might be, it's still a historic achievement worth celebrating. Hopefully, other readers won't wait until the next pandemic to give it a shot.
View all my reviews
Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I originally picked up Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West as part of my deep dive into the "Weird Western" genre. Although there aren't supernatural figures, per se, in McCarthy's novel, Blood Meridian is one of the goriest, most horrifying novels I've ever read. As much as the horror genre is synonymous with Stephen King and the paranormal, Cormac McCarthy proves in this novel that nothing is more cruel, vicious, or malevolent than mankind.
Blood Meridian is less of a straightforward narrative than a free-flowing treatise on trauma. The novel loosely follows the (mis)adventures of "the kid" - our antihero protagonist who teams up with a band of malicious marauders in the wild, wild west. Make no mistake, though: this isn't the winsome, whitewashed western of Woody, Bullseye, and Jessie. McCarthy's central mission in Blood Meridian is to illustrate (in explicit detail) the violence that permeated the American landscape of the 1800s. Callous cruelty abounds, with rampant racism and vicious acts of dehumanizing violence that would put any Marvel supervillain to shame. The first half of the novel is essentially a nonstop bloodbath of biblical proportions, with the historical Glanton gang rampaging through the southwest states and into the fringes of Mexico. Bloodshed ensues.
So. Much. Bloodshed.
Threaded throughout the pages of death and dismemberment is an eloquent, philosophical core that attempts to elevate Blood Meridian to literary heights. The book echoes several other "great American novels," most notably Moby-Dick or, the Whale and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn . "The kid" shares some literary DNA with Huck, another orphaned young man with a deformed conscience; one of Glanton's mercenaries, the malicious Judge Holden, eventually emerges as the "white whale" of McCarthy's tale, haunting "the kid" from town to town like an unholy ghost made corporeal through his trail of scalped corpses. Though the only other Cormac McCarthy novel that I've read is No Country for Old Men , I think it's safe to assume that McCarthy ascribes to the Charles Bukowski/Chuck Palahniuk school of ambiguous, amoral antiheroes. These authors are less interested in tidy, tightly constructed story arcs than in messy, maddening narratives with frayed loose ends. In McCarthy's eyes, it's less important to tie up your novel with a bow than to blow it to pieces with a howitzer cannon.
It's hard to say that I "enjoyed" reading Blood Meridian, because only a sociopath (like Judge Holden, for example) would find amusement in the gory series of events transpiring in McCarthy's novel. At one point, Holden states that "War is God" - and most of the book's characters worship at this altar of altercation. That being said, McCarthy's prose can be incredibly insightful, thought-provoking, and piercing; in some ways, Blood Meridian is more a philosophical reflection on war, violence, and (im)morality than an adventure novel set in the wild west. While McCarthy periodically draws upon references to vampires, exorcisms, ghost armies, and primordial gods, these allusions are used to describe something even more frightening: human nature.
View all my reviews
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Isabel Wilkerson's Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents should be required reading for all high school and college students. Although America has found itself in the throes of racial division since the nation's inception, Caste is simultaneously a timely and timeless examination of where we are as a country and how we arrived here. Over the course of her brilliant book, Wilkerson threads a thorough narrative of our nation in a heartbreaking, illuminating tapestry of American history. Caste is nothing short of a masterpiece, and I only hope that it sparks the millions of hard conversations we need to enact positive social change.
With her expertly (and exhaustively) researched book, Wilkerson examines slavery and its chilling legacy of brutality in the United States - ultimately culminating in the racial division that plagues us today. Wilkerson's central thesis is that America's racial hierarchy is simply the European incarnation of India's caste system: layers of social status arbitrarily ascribed to cross-sections of the population. Circling between histories of India, America, and Nazi Germany, Wilkerson recounts the tragic history of racism and subjugation in the United States and abroad. Whereas India's caste system is based on the belief that ancestral names and occupations reflect one's position in the social order, America's own caste system is derived from a perceived value in one's skin tone. Since 1619, American soil has been host to generations of discrimination and violence that have dehumanized both perpetrator and victim, erecting invisible barriers between America's diverse populations. Caste is one writer's valiant attempt to battle that inhumane inheritance.
In the opening chapters of Caste, Wilkerson cleverly compares America to an architectural structure plagued by preexisting damage that threatens to destroy the entire edifice: "we in the developed world are like homeowners who inherited a house on a piece of land that is beautiful on the outside, but whose soil is unstable loam and rock, heaving and contracting over generations, cracks patched but the deeper ruptures waved away for decades, centuries even." With her sophisticated, insightful prose, Wilkerson discusses how racism is not a simple choice of the individual; rather, racism is a societal structure that conditions us to view each other with suspicion and disgust based on a few insignificant strands of DNA. Not to to minimize the gravity of Wilkerson's book, but it does share a thematic helix with Avenue Q's "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" - "Look around and you will find, / No one's really color-blind." The first step towards battling racism is to recognize that we all harbor (consciously or subconsciously) racist beliefs and ideas that have been inculcated through multitudinous signs, symbols, and signifiers broadcast into our brains via millions of interactions and observations. Like it or not, society has programmed us with faulty, manipulative code; it's our job to seek out the biased bugs in the script and combat them with wisdom and self-awareness. Unfortunately, as Wilkerson reminds us, it's a lifelong battle: "America is an old house," she writes. "We can never declare the work over."
In many ways, Caste is a "hard" book to read: the detailed descriptions of cruelty and violence (including in-depth discussion of lynchings, beatings, rape, and abuse) are horrifying. Likewise, the emotional challenge of facing one's own preexisting prejudices can be psychologically taxing. However, it's only through a clinical self-evaluation of our reflections that we can begin the acts of attrition that will lead us towards humility and healing. The first step to repairing the damage is to investigate its origins, and Wilkerson thoughtfully quotes Albert Einstein on the subject of racism: "If the majority knew the root of this evil, then the road to its cure would not be long." Sadly, as long as people fail to learn about the roots of racism, it will only prolong the path towards equality.
As Wilkerson states in the book's epilogue, "We are responsible for our own ignorance or, with time and openhearted enlightenment, our own wisdom." Despite the fact that society has brainwashed us and shaped us like unwilling clay, we can educate ourselves (with help from brilliant minds like Isabel Wilkerson) and assert our own agency. We have a duty to combat these programmed prejudices, in order to improve the world for subsequent generations. However, the author also reminds us that "unless people are willing to transcend their fears, endure discomfort and derision, suffer the scorn of loved ones and neighbors and co-workers and friends, fall into disfavor of perhaps everyone they know, face exclusion and even banishment, it would be numerically impossible, humanly impossible" to stand up against injustice. It's high time for us to do the hard work of improving the world. We should count ourselves lucky that we have Isabel Wilkerson to inspire us with her words.
View all my reviews
Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Taylor Jenkins Reid's Daisy Jones & The Six is a captivating, enthralling novel about 1970s rock 'n' roll, written by a talented author who has no idea how rock bands, collaborative songwriting, and music careers actually work. In short, it's a beautiful, ambitious rollercoaster of a novel that is maddening in its musical inaccuracies. Like a halfway-brilliant rock album that contains a variety of throwaway tracks (Fleetwood Mac's Mirage, anyone?), Daisy Jones & the Six is a hybrid of hell-raising highs and lackluster lows - a respectable attempt to grab the golden ring of literary greatness, even as it falls short of its aspirations.
In many ways, Daisy Jones & the Six is a love letter to classic rock, specifically to Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac. It's clear from reading this novel that Reid adores Stevie Nicks and company (perhaps to the point of obsessiveness), and the book oftentimes feels like Fleetwood Mac fan fiction. It's all here: egos, rivalries, jealousy, infidelity, smashed instruments, trashed hotel rooms, houseboats, unplanned pregnancies, and SNL afterparties. And, of course, sex and drugs. Soooooooo many drugs. Reid basically provides a pharmaceutical crash course for her readers, tempered with her earnest discussions of sobriety and sober living. It's not incidental that Rolling Stone called Fleetwood Mac "the lovingest, fightingest, druggingest band of the '70s." And Reid tries really hard to evoke that sentiment with Daisy Jones & the Six.
Like VH1's Behind the Music docu-series, Daisy Jones & the Six is structured in an oral history format: the story is told almost entirely by the members of the band, their families, rock critics, sound engineers, photographers, and the like. Daisy Jones is unapologetically modeled after Stevie Nicks; consequently, the Six's leader, Billy Dunne, serves as a Lindsey Buckingham avatar. Apart from these well-developed figureheads (and Billy's tortured wife, Camila), most of Reid's characters are two-dimensional caricatures of rock star excess; every tried-and-true rock star trope that you can imagine (from tourbus shenanigans to reluctant rehab) finds its way into this novel. The most cartoonish figure is the band's drummer, Warren - who is intended to provide comic relief, but undermines the artistry of Reid's novel by uttering predictable platitudes about rock stardom. When she shoots for the lowest common denominator, Reid reminds us that she still has a lot to learn about capturing authentic human experiences.
Despite these missteps, however, Taylor Jenkins Reid clearly understands the complexities of the human heart and the longings of imperfect, unfulfilled love. The aching conveyed by various characters (most notably Billy and Daisy, but also Camile, Graham, and Karen at other points in the novel) cuts to the quick. Though I haven't read any of Reid's other novels, I'm willing to bet that she's a master of star-crossed circumstances, a chronicler of love lost and almost-found. That being said, the "will-they-or-won't-they" nature of Billy and Daisy's relationship feels forced at times, as if the author hasn't earned the heartache that her readers are supposed to feel for these characters. Nevertheless, readers will salivate over these fictionalized superstar romances, eagerly plowing through the novel's various twists and turns - especially a third-act revelation that helps illuminate the "writing" of the book-within-a-book that comprises the core of Daisy Jones & the Six.
Fans of rock trivia will appreciate the subtle nods to real-life historical moments: the scene in which Daisy records in the vocal booth while wrapped in a blanket is taken almost line-for-line from Stevie Nicks's experience tracking "Gold Dust Woman" while battling a head cold. Likewise, the provocative photoshoot for the Aurora album cover is a callback to Linda Ronstadt's Hasten Down the Wind. It's in subtler moments like these that Reid works her true magic, illuminating the behind-the-scenes cogs of the rockstar machine (when she gets them right, of course). These rock 'n' roll Easter eggs can provide amusing fodder for rock obsessives (like yours truly), while endearing Reid to her readers.
The novel's conclusion, while bittersweet, offers just the right amount of hope in the darkness - a hint of "young stars" shining through the darkened sheets of despair and loss. In the end, Daisy Jones & the Six is a sprawling, sometimes-brilliant rock 'n' roll mockumentary, a breezy beachside read for fans of rock music and doomed romances. Just make sure that you have Stevie Nicks and Fleetwood Mac playing in the background: that soundtrack will make all the difference for mildly invested readers. Alas, if This is Spinal Tap - a true rock 'n' roll mockumentary masterpiece - can "go to 11," it's a shame that Daisy Jones only goes to a Six.
View all my reviews
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles is a book so brilliant and well-crafted that it borders on tedious. Over the course of its 512 pages, Towles stuffs in a textbook's worth of history lessons, examining the many changes that Russia underwent during the 1920s through the 1950s. Simultaneously, he refocuses the lens away from major power players into the lives of the everyday citizens who populate Stalin's era. Our guide through this historical drama is Count Alexander Rostov, a nobleman sentenced to "house arrest" in the (formerly) glamorous Metropol hotel. Like a rich man living in quarantine, Rostov must find a sense of meaning in his now monotonous life - a Herculean endeavor for a gentleman so accustomed to luxurious travel and uninhibited activity. Through the Count's eyes, we see history unfurling through one dramatic event after another. Even more effectively, Moscow's readers are also privy to the psychological, emotional, and spiritual development of a fallen aristocrat.
First and foremost, this novel is a love letter to Russian literature. Taking his cues from Tolstoy and other Russian writers, Towles crafts a sweeping epic that vacillates between the personal and the global, the micro and the macro. Incorporating politics, history, literature, music, and culinary arts, Towles establishes himself as a veritable encyclopedia; the author has no difficulty oscillating from the world of wine and fine dining to the realm of political persecution. It's a testament to the author's encyclopedic knowledge that none of it feels forced or orchestrated; rather, the Count is a truly believable benefactor and tour guide through the novel's multitudinous pages.
A Gentleman in Moscow encapsulates a very specific era in world history: the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and the national transition into communism. Like George Orwell before him, Towles casts a suspicious eye on the Russian leaders who heralded a new age in international politics. But this is no Animal Farm . Whereas Orwell focuses almost exclusively on the political headlines and transitions of power that rocked the world, Towles is more concerned with the effects of the Russian Revolution on its citizens. That psychological insight is a powerful tool in the author's arsenal that translates the political into the personal and the global into the local.
It's clear that Towles has a deep, abiding love of Russian literature and its complicated tropes. He draws upon his literary predecessors throughout A Gentleman in Moscow, even going so far as to quote whole sections of Dostoevsky's personal letters. In one passage, Towles gently jests about the tendency of Russian authors to use several different names/nicknames for the same character... and then proceeds to do the same with his own characters. It's a clever sleight of hand that reminds the reader just how well-versed, knowledgeable, and insightful Towles can be. The author has clearly done his homework, delving deeply into Dostoevsky, Chekhov, and Gogol (amongst others) - and sprinkling frequent allusions to these writers throughout the many, many pages of his novel.
As the Count finds love, laughter, and life within the claustrophobic walls of the Metropol, the reader gets swept up in the daily doldrums and monthly meanderings of our protagonist. Along the way we encounter some unique, singular characters: a once-and-future movie star who rides the precarious waves of fame, a precocious young girl with a penchant for asking questions, a maître d’ who once juggled knives in the circus, a military officer obsessed with Humphrey Bogart films, and a meddling hotel manager with a vitriolic vendetta. These figures (and more) who populate the halls of the Metropol are cleverly crafted, thoughtfully imagined, and brilliantly realized.
At times, though, A Gentleman in Moscow drags and sputters with self-involved sections that fail to keep the reader engaged. Perhaps that is the author's intent: we read through chapter after chapter of drudgery and daily minutiae... until the story ultimately coalesces into a meditation on aging and adulthood. All the while, Towles drops breadcrumbs for his reader, circling back to metaphors, symbols, and motifs until the novel's thrilling conclusion. So, while reading A Gentleman in Moscow might feel like being trapped inside a stunning literary hotel, you can't ask for better company during the long haul through the decades of the story.
With Russia once again making international headlines, A Gentleman in Moscow has become even more relevant than when it was published in 2019. One can only hope that the 21st-century counterparts of Count Alexander Rostov are able to escape their claustrophobic confines and find freedom in their hearts - like the protagonist of Towles' enchanting tale.
View all my reviews
Yours Cruelly, Elvira: Memoirs of the Mistress of the Dark by Cassandra Peterson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
SPOILER ALERT (*but not really*): Elvira, that voluptuous Vampira-influenced vixen... doesn't actually exist. The raven-clad horror hostess that we know and love is a fictional character created by Cassandra Peterson and her collaborators. If you're expecting zombies, vampires, or werewolves in Yours Cruelly, Elvira: Memoirs of the Mistress of the Dark , you might want to look elsewhere. If, however, you're in the mood for something less supernatural (although there are some real-life monsters and haunted houses in the book), this might be the macabre memoir for you.
Peterson's autobiography begins with a brief summation of the day Cassandra - or "Sanni," as she's nicknamed - applied for the "horror hostess" position that made her (in)famous. Immediately afterwards, the self-proclaimed "Mistress of the Dark" flashes back in time with reflections on her humble origins. Born in Kansas to working-class parents, her life started unassumingly: her father was a salesman and her mother was a homemaker. However, when Cassandra was a toddler, she accidentally spilled boiling water on herself, resulting in third-degree burns covering 1/3 of her body. Poor little Cassandra wasn't expected to live, but - like some petite superhero - she miraculously recovered. It seems uncanny that such a physically scarred young girl would later become a horror icon, as if her affinity for monstrous outcasts stemmed from her own feelings of post-traumatic insecurity and isolation. Ironically, a girl who felt so disfigured and scarred from this trauma eventually develops into a successful rock groupie before ultimately becoming a modern-day sex symbol.
Though Peterson's burned body could, by itself, be seen as a the defining trauma of her young life, this wasn't the last excruciating experience that she would encounter: Yours Cruelly addresses issues of child abuse, sexual harassment, sexual assault, addiction, and spousal abuse (among other topics) in its pages. As Peterson details in the early sections of the memoir, her mother was an abusive narcissist who left her daughters psychologically scarred and troubled. Even as her body healed from the burns that scarred her skin, Cassandra spent decades unraveling the psychological torture she endured in her youth. It's a heartbreakingly realistic twist from an actress best known for lighthearted fantasy.
It's impossible to discuss Yours Cruelly without mentioning the many, many celebrity sightings in the book. At times, Yours Cruelly comes across as a never-ending cavalcade of crushes, namedropping encounters, and/or make-out sessions. And, of course, there's sex.
Lots of sex. And I mean *LOTS* of sex.
In Peterson's memoir, the only things that go "bump" in the night are promiscuous paramours. A small, incomplete list of romantic encounters includes the following famous folks: Jimmy Page, Eric Burden, Tom Jones, Jon Voight, Robert DeNiro, and (*wait for it*) Elvis Presley. Ms. Peterson has crossed paths with some fascinating historical figures in her seventy years, but her tongue-tied experiences with her idols come across as refreshingly earnest and endearing. When the scarred little girl who once obsessed over Vincent Price eventually becomes friends with the raspy-voiced horror icon, the reader shares Cassandra's wide-eyed wonder. In many ways, Peterson is just as star-struck by celebrities as her legion of fans are awed by her. Those moments serve as sweet reminders that the author, despite her own decades-long fame, has more in common with the general public than one might otherwise assume.
What's arguably the most fascinating aspect of Cassandra's romantic sojourns, however, is that this boy-crazy vixen eventually finds true love... with a woman. Reading about Peterson's struggles as she comes to grips with her sexuality is simultaneously heartbreaking and inspiring. Although she initially balks at this chance for true love because of her heteronormative history, Cassandra ultimately finds lasting happiness with her life partner, "T," after accepting that their love breaks the binary shackles of heterosexuality. If a woman in the later half of her life can finally find her "happily ever after," then there is hope for the rest of us ghouls and goblins.
Despite her inauspicious origins, Cassandra Peterson ultimately finds peace and happiness through a lifetime of healing and reflection. In the same way that Peterson left behind her *literally* haunted home, Briarcliff, the actress also leaves behind the ghosts of trauma that have haunted her entire life. Like a horror movie "final girl," Peterson overcomes her horrific experiences and lives to see another day. That alone makes this an inspiring affirmation of the human spirit.
Yours Cruelly isn't for everyone, and the divisive responses to the book's release are testament to that. With memoirs, it can be difficult to distinguish the artistry of the storytelling from the larger-than-life exploits of the famous storyteller. But, while Peterson lacks the poetry of Frank McCourt, her many Hollywood adventures (not to mention harrowing hardships) make this memoir a fascinating read - and a delightful excursion from the horrors of the real world. While it's sometimes challenging for the general public to distinguish the character "Elvira" from the actress who portrays her, this memoir of irreverent, mischievous exploits and observations (coupled with Peterson's signature wry sense of humor) establishes the author as a figure much more complicated - and worthy of love - than her raven-clad alter-ego. As the book closes, the Mistress of the Dark reminds us that, as much as the character of Elvira loves the shadows, there is a light of hope still to be found in even the darkest of days.
View all my reviews
Anxious People by Fredrik Backman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
In turns blunt and brilliant, hilarious and heartbreaking, Anxious People is an absolute revelation. Having read A Man Called Ove a few years ago, I anticipated a similar sensibility for Fredrik Backman's Anxious People... and I was not disappointed. While covering very different ground than A Man Called Ove, Anxious People radiates with Backman's signature wry humor and piercing insight, introducing a diverse cast of complex characters thrust into an absurd scenario: a bank robbery gone awry. Over the course of the novel, these characters become (in the words of one protagonist) the "Worst. Hostages. Ever." Saying much more than that would ruin the many surprises that Backman has in store for his readers.
Imagine a Peter Sellers film directed by Paul Thomas Anderson with a script by John Green, and you might have a slight glimpse of what's in store for you. That kind of combustible comedy (with cutting satire interwoven throughout) is exactly the kind of unpredictable narrative that Backman has crafted. Somehow, Anxious People manages to pack a potent punch while subverting expectations all along the way. The novel begins with a bank robbery, but the book twists and turns and contorts into a much broader rumination on life, love, loss, grieving, parenting, and mental health. As Backman proclaims to his readers, human beings are frequently best described as "idiots" - but those self-same "idiots" are often simply misguided, wounded creatures trying to navigate the complex waterways of life. It's no accident that the architectural structure of a bridge plays a pivotal role in several scenes: so much of Backman's story forces characters to bridge the gaping chasms that divide them. Along the way, readers also get to make their way across the tenuous, rickety platforms that connect characters - but Anxious People repeatedly reminds us that teetering on the ledge is never the solution to life's cruelties.
I don't want to spew out too much plot summary, however, because so much of this novel's genius relies upon subverting the expectations of readers and avoiding tried-and-true (albeit tedious and tired) tropes of storytelling. At one point, Backman makes an offhand reference to the definitive "twist-ending" film, The Sixth Sense... and then immediately pulls off a narrative trick worthy of M. Night Shyamalan himself. It's a clever and calculated move, an impressive flex of the muscles that will undoubtedly inspire many readers to thumb through previous chapters to search for breadcrumbs. Fortunately for them, there's a literary feast scattered throughout these pages.
It's rare that I give any novel a five-star rating (it's the elitist English teacher in me), but Anxious People absolutely deserves such potent praise. The flawless juxtaposition of silly and serious, heartfelt and humbling, makes Backman's novel a unique piece of literature. In the end, this life-affirming novel will make you laugh, cry, and experience every emotion in-between - sometimes, even, within the confines of a single page.
View all my reviews