The Same Old Story, by Ivan Goncharov

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The Same Old Story

I used to joke that prozac, if invented before 1800, would have wiped out the entire Romantic movement. After reading Ivan Goncharov’s serio-comic novel, The Same Old Story (translated by Stephen Pearl), I’m more convinced than ever than Romantics (even if they produced great art) could have used a little therapy. Originally published in 1848, The Same Old Story, tells the tale of naive and Romantic Alexander Aduyev and his highly practice uncle, Pyotr, as they clash on how to live the best life and how to love.

Alexander has been spoiled all his life. His mother and servants have always attended to his every need. His mother in particular and his first love, Sophia, praised his writing to the skies. But when he moves to St. Petersburg from the country to do something with his life, Alexander suddenly learns that life is a lot more difficult when people insist on not living up to his expectations—mostly informed by Greek epics and Romantic poetry.

His only ally in St. Petersburg is his uncle, whose personality is almost the complete opposite of Alexander’s. Pyotr believes in keeping a steady head, planning for the future, and working his way up the table of ranks. Most of The Same Old Story is written in dialog between the two men as they argue back and forth about what love and life should be. Unlike the dialog in, say, War and Peace, the two make jokes and tease to lighten the mood every now and then while they philosophize. Still, Alexander falls in and out of depression with his changes of fortune, and these can get a little wearying.

The Same Old Story covers eight years in Alexander’s life as he (sort of) grows up and learns to leave some of his high expectations behind. We get to see him fall in love only to have his heart broken, then have another woman fall more deeply in love with him than he was prepared for. We watch him as he realizes that he doesn’t have the talent to become an instant literary phenomenon or the patience to earn acclaim the hard way. But was also get to see Alexander’s effect on his uncle, who slowly realizes, that love, happiness, and emotion can make life worth living.

I enjoyed The Same Old Story. It was kind of refreshing to read a contemporary of the late Romantics take potshots at their overwrought displays of emotion. Not only that, but I was happy to discover that there are other funny Russian writers apart from Gogol and Teffi.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 30 March 2017.

This week on the bookish internet

  • Father Columba Stewart joins the ranks of the badass librarians by helping to save manuscripts from ISIS. (The Atlantic)
  • Daniel Pollack-Pelzner writes about the latest wave of Shakespeare revisionism. (The New Yorker)
  • Tirzah Price shares what she learned after being gifted a set of bookplates. (Book Riot)
  • Librarians are taking a stand against fake news and Trump. (The Guardian)
    • Of course, we’ve always been against fake news, but I have never seen so many syllabi and plans for classes by librarians to teach people how to recognize when they’re being manipulated by media.
  • On the fun side of things, Spencer Althouse rounded up literary tattoos from across the internet for our delectation. (Buzzfeed)

The Blizzard, by Vladimir Sorokin

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The Blizzard

Platon Ilich Garin has a mission. He must get a vaccine to Dolgoye to stop an epidemic. But there’s a blizzard. And he’s stuck in a town with no way to get to Dolgoye. And the epidemic is a zombie virus. This kind of set up is what I’ve come to expect from Vladimir Sorokin. The Blizzard (translated by Jamey Gambrell) just keeps piling on the weird until things get downright surreal.

Platon Ilich does eventually find a way out of town. He gets a ride on the bread deliverer’s sled—which is powered by horses so small it takes fifty of them to pull the sled. The rest of the book is a small saga, in which Platon Ilich and Crouper make their way to Dolgoye. As the blizzard gets worse and worse, they have numerous accidents in the sled, crash into a giant, encounter a foul-mouthed baker, and more. With each page, things get stranger and stranger.  Platon Ilich, however, keeps pushing on with his mission.

I’m not sure when The Blizzard is set except that its some time in the future and somewhere in Russia. The lack of details (apart from those about the tiny horses and such) gives the book a timeless, fable-like quality. The lack of details about the setting and world outside of the snow and epidemic also kept me grounded in what Platon Ilich and Crouper were up to as they battled the elements. This book is like the weirdest take on the on the serum run to Nome anyone has ever cooked up.

The Gargoyle Hunters, by John Freeman Gill

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The Gargoyle Hunters

1974 is a hard year for Griffin Watts. His parents have split up and they argue over money when they do see each other. He’s growing up with little guidance in a chaotic household. Plus, there’s a girl he likes, but Griffin has no idea how to be with girls. In The Gargoyle Hunters, a coming-of-age novel by John Freeman Gill, Griffin gets a hard lesson in hanging on to the past as he works with his father to save New York City’s architectural heritage from neglect and urban renewal.

Griffin is 13 in the summer of 1974. He’s young enough that he still does what his parents tell him (mostly), but is starting to get old enough to wonder if what his parents tell him to do is really the right thing. Near the beginning of The Gargoyle Hunters, Griffin is pressed into service by his father to “salvage” terra cotta sculptures and other decorations from New York’s remaining Gothic Revival, Beaux Arts, and Art Deco buildings. To get closer to his father, Griffin soaks up his father’s stories about New York history and architecture.

At first, working with his father is a thrill. They bond over the history of the city and the dangerous lengths they have to go to save architectural ornaments. But their expeditions always take place at night and many have some element of breaking and entering about them. Before too long, Griffin begins to see that his father’s salvage business is an obsession. Meanwhile, Griffin has to contend with his regular life as a thirteen year old with girls, teenaged humiliation, a distant mother, poorly thought out pranks, and just trying to figure out who he is as a person while the city of New York goes through its worst financial crisis.

I was initially drawn to The Gargoyle Hunters because of the architectural salvage. I love older buildings’ elegance and detail. When I visit places like Chicago, Seattle, Salt Lake City, and Vancouver, I like to wander around and gawk at the details on hundred year old buildings. Newer, plainer architecture doesn’t appeal to me. Architectural nostalgia, I found, is the backbone for this book. We can’t go back to the past, none of us. What we can do is remember what came before, preserve the best parts, but keep in mind that the future is ahead of us like a lot ready for a new building. After all, all of the great cities are buried on layers of history that never really go away.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 21 March 2017.

The Girl from Rawblood, by Catriona Ward

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The Girl from Rawblood

Some families describe their histories as haunted due to wars, famines, and other traumas. But in Catriona Ward’s The Girl from Rawblood, the family is genuinely haunted. The Villarcas of Rawblood have all died young and horribly after getting married. Consequently, Iris, the youngest and last of the Villarcas, has grown up isolated to protect her from the family curse. Even though she follows her father’s rules (most of the time), the curse might be coming for her anyway.

The first part of The Girl from Rawblood switches back and forth between Iris in the early twentieth century and Charles Danforth in the 1880s. It isn’t clear what the connection between the two is until much later, except that they are both tied up with the terrible, shocking history of the Villarcas of Rawblood. (We learn that history in bits and pieces until the second half of the book.) We see Iris’s father, Alonso try to teach her to control her emotions, impressing upon her the danger of becoming friends with outsiders. Meanwhile, Charles works with a much younger Alonso to try and find a cure for the curse, which Alonso suspects might be a kind of congenital madness. It isn’t until much later that we learn of the family ghost, a bald woman with terrible scars who scares people to death, always referred to as her (with italics).

In the second half of the book, Ward takes us back into the family history and the deaths of previous Villarcas and Hopewells (the original owners of Rawblood). If each new generation wasn’t so very stubborn about how they will be the one to break the curse and find happiness in love, marriage, and family, they would have died out long ago. And yet, every time, they try to find a way to avoid her. The first half of the book might lead you to believe that Alonso is right and that there is a hereditary mental illness in the family. The second half, however, makes it clear that the Villarcas are genuinely haunted.

I admit that I found the first half of The Girl from Rawblood a little slow. Iris’ chapters are written in the present tense, which bothered me, and I found Charles a bit priggish. (Also, the vivisection scenes were very hard for me to get through.) But the second half was captivating. The Villarcas go through tragedy after tragedy, but they still keep falling in love and trying to thwart fate. This book is clearly a horror story, and yet, there’s a note of hope and redemption underneath all the of the violence. I also loved the spectacular conclusion of this book. It was worth it for me to keep reading just to get to that ending.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 7 March 2017.

This fortnight on the bookish internet

  • Peter Derk has many theories about why grammar nazis drive us nuts. (LitReactor)
  • Zoe Dickinson shares her joy at meeting other bookish folk in her bookstore. (Book Riot)
  • Rivka Galchen and Benjamin Moser ponder two classic books that have been misunderstood. (New York Times)
  • Bookstores in major cities are hosting the Resistance. (New York Times)
  • George Sandeman reports on a major book heist in London. (The Guardian)
  • Would you pay £100 to visit this St. Petersburg Library for four hours? (The Guardian)
  • Trisha Brown makes a case against “women’s fiction” as a genre label. (Book Riot)

The Wages of Sin, by Kaite Welsh

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The Wages of Sin

It seems like everything is against Sarah Gilchrist in The Wages of Sin, by Kaite Welsh. She’s enrolled in one of the first classes of women in the University of Edinburgh’s medical school, so she faces harassment by the male students and staff. Because of an incident in her past, she is shunned by several of the female students. Her aunt and uncle—the only members of her family currently speaking to her—are pious, traditional people who want to marry Sarah off as quickly as possible. As if this wasn’t enough to cope with, a patient Sarah sees at the clinic where she volunteers turns up dead in the University’s anatomy lab the next day. Sarah, being the determined young woman she is, dives right into the mystery.

I would have been hooked by The Wages of Sin even if it hadn’t been a mystery. I am a sucker for medical history and this book plunged me right into the thick of it by dropping me into Sarah Gilchrist’s head as she tries to overcome her trepidation in the anatomy lab. We spend a day with Sarah as she braves school and the free clinic—with its testy, unwashed patients—before the main action kicks off. At the clinic, we meet Lucy, a young prostitute who begs the doctor to give her an abortion (which was illegal at the time). The next day, Sarah gets a nasty shock when she recognizes Lucy on the anatomy lab table. Sarah begins to ask questions in places that are entirely unsuitable for a young lady of her status and reputation because she knows that no one else will. In Edinburgh of the 1890s, no one seems to miss one more prostitute.

While Sarah tries to manage school and her relatives, she digs deeper and deeper into Lucy’s life. Unfortunately for her, she often charges down blind alleys and makes enemies along the way. One of those enemies, her very own professor Merchiston, fascinates her in a way that readers of romance novels will recognize—though Sarah resists and the plot doesn’t make it easy for her to get past her first impressions of the man. Sarah’s blunders make the story that much more believable for me; I distrust amateur detectives who are too confident and capable on their first case.

The only thing I did have a problem with in this genuinely engrossing novel was the ending. I felt the solution to the mystery came too soon and didn’t make much sense considering where Sarah had spent her efforts. I can forgive this because I really enjoyed Sarah and Merchiston’s characters. (This is also a debut novel and I expect a few hiccups in a debut.) The ending of The Wages of Sin makes it clear that more adventures are in store for Sarah and the professor. I look forward to seeing them again in future novels.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 7 March 2017.

The Princess Bride, by William Goldman

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The Princess Bride

Even though I’ve seen the movie a dozen times, it wasn’t until last week that I picked up The Princess Bride, by William Goldman. I needed something purely escapist (because I live in America and am a frustrated liberal and I read the news) to read and I couldn’t think of anything better than this book. Fortunately, the magic of The Princess Bride still works even if you already know the story back to front.

To summarize for those who haven’t seen the movie or read the book, The Princess Bride is Buttercup, the most beautiful woman in the world (once she learned to use soap). After her true love dies, she agrees to marry the prince of Florin—but he wants to use her to start a war with the country over the water. A few months before the wedding, Buttercup is kidnapped by hired criminals, then re-kidnapped by a mysterious man in black. The man in black is Buttercup’s true love, returned from the sea, and the rest of the book is them trying to escape from the evil prince. Parts of the book reminded me strongly of Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda because it never gets too deep. There’s just enough plausibility to keep the plot afloat and offer plenty of opportunities for fighting and derring-do.

Because I’ve seen the movie so many times, I had the actors’ voices in my head as I read the familiar dialogue. (This isn’t a bad thing. As far as I’m concerned, Mandy Patinkin, Cary Elwes, and Andre the Giant were the perfect people to play their characters.) Most of The Princess Bride (the book) made it into the movie; some bits of dialogue were taken verbatim. What the book provided was a bit more background about Florin and some of the characters, as well as a lot more of the frame narrative. I read the thirtieth anniversary edition, which has an extended introduction and a chapter of a planned-but-abandoned sequel. In it, Goldman (as a character) talks about the making of the book and the movie (which is biographical, as far as I can tell), but also about the origins of The Princess Bride as written by S. Morgenstern, a Florinese author, and how Goldman came to “translate” and “abridge” it. I think some readers will find Goldman (the character) a little tedious and whiny, but I kind of enjoyed his metafictional playing around.

I highly recommend this book for readers who need to disappear into a story for a few hours.

Mister Memory, by Marcus Sedgwick

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Mister Memory

Most of us wish we had better memories. It would be nice not to blank on names and dates when under pressure. But I don’t think any of us would want a memory as perfect as Marcel Despres’. In Marcus Sedgwick’s Mister Memory, Marcel remembers everything from the time he was born (even before if we can believe him). He gets lost in Proustian reveries that can last for hours as details remind him of other memories which remind him of something else entirely. He’s even managed to turn his memory into a career. Unfortunately for Marcel, his memory regularly forces him to relive the moment when he shot his wife and killed her.

We meet Marcel shortly after the day he shot his wife. There’s no question about what happened. He caught his wife with her lover and shot her with the gun they had just bought. Marcel admits it to the police who show up. But instead of shipping him off to Devil’s Island, the local prefect of police decides to send him to Les Invalides, a Parisian mental asylum. His doctor is fascinated and keeps testing Marcel to see just how extensive Marcel’s memory is and how it works—and we start to see his memory as a curse.

Meanwhile, an inspector who can’t let Marcel’s case go keeps asking questions. First, the questions are about why Marcel was sent to Les Invalides instead of the prison colony. Then he asks about Marcel’s wife and her past. More and more loose threads appear and it turns out that the case of the man with the perfect memory, who can remember every moment of his wife’s shooting, is a lot more complicated than anyone realized.

When I first started Mister Memory, I was interested in the character Sedgwick created. I got lost with Marcel in his memories of life in turn-of-the-twentieth-century France. But what really hooked me were the spectacular twists that started coming about halfway through the book. This is one of the best plotted books I’ve read in a while.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 7 March 2017.

Blitzed, by Norman Ohler

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Blitzed

As a reader of nonfiction, I tend to return to the same subjects over and over again: Victorian social histories, the European theater of World War II, war crimes, and weird medical history. These are pretty broad territories, but narrow in the grand scheme of things. What I like about nonfiction in these areas is that each bit of new information the historians dig up fills in the picture a little more. I thought about this a lot while reading Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich, by Norman Ohler (translated by Shuan Whiteside). Historians keep coming back to Hitler’s life, searching for a reason why he committed his terrible crimes, how he suckered an entire nation into following him. Hitler is the great evil and we want to understand. Ohler’s book on Nazi drug use goes a long way to explaining the irrationality of Hitler’s behavior during the war. I was fascinated.

Ohler dug into federal archives in Germany, the American National Archives, and German medical articles to trace the history of the use of drugs like Pervitin (an early methamphetamine), Eukodol (which contains the same active ingredient as oxycontin), cocaine, and other experimental drugs cooked up by German researchers in the early Twentieth century. Ohler points out that in the 1920s and early 1930s, the Nazis had strict ideas about sobriety—primarily as a response to the decadence of the Weimar republic. But as Hitler moved closer to war, those ideas started to fade away. The Wehrmacht, Kriegsmarine, and Luftwaffe were all issued Pervitin in massive quantities to fuel massive territory grabs between 1939 and 1941. Wehrmacht soldiers were reported to go 72 hours without sleep on this highly addictive drug during the invasion of France.

All of this is very interesting, but what most grabbed my attention was Ohler’s descriptions of the relationship between Hitler and his personal physician, Theodore Morell, and Hitler’s constant use of drugs. Morell built his reputation on supplying vitamins and hormones to patients, which appealed to Hitler’s vegetarianism. Also, Morell somehow managed to relieve Hitler’s stress and diet induced bloating. Hitler trusted him so much that he never dismissed the doctor, even when the cures started to lose their effectiveness. Thanks to Ohler’s deciphering of Morell’s poorly written notes in the US National Archives, he learned that Morell started dosing Hitler with Eukodol in 1943.

Eukodol was a popular Weimar drug that induced euphoria, allowing users to float away into fantasy. After Claus von Stauffenberg tried to assassinate Hitler, the dictator was tried with cocaine for pain from ruptured ear drums. For the rest of his life, Hitler would take Eukodol, cocaine, and various bizarre medications for Morell every other day or even daily. Throughout the war, Hitler held as much control over the armed forces as he could, making frequent seemingly inexplicable mistakes when ordering halts and marches. Drug use, especially of something like Eukodol, would do much to explain why Hitler constantly ignored reality and sent his troops into disaster, approved hair-brained schemes, and held on so long in the fact of immanent defeat.

Blitzed is a brilliant piece of historical work, but I did have one problem with Ohler’s writing. Occasionally, he tries to recreate moments in Hitler, Morell, and Göring’s lives that cannot be backed up with evidence. Ohler is much better when he thoroughly documents the medical science, Morell’s notes on Hitler, and other primary sources. I tended to skim the paragraphs with the recreated vignettes to get back to the history. Other than this irritation, I was hooked all the way through and I think it answers quite a few questions that have been unanswered for decades.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 7 March 2017.