Wheeler is impressively well read in Russia’s literary golden age, but her pocket biographies could better blend with her...

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MUD AND STARS

TRAVELS IN RUSSIA WITH PUSHKIN, TOLSTOY, AND OTHER GENIUSES OF THE GOLDEN AGE

The veteran British travel writer roams around Russia, inspired by some of its most storied writers.

In the introduction to this adventurous but not always cohesive book, Wheeler (Access All Areas: Selected Writings 1990-2010, 2011, etc.) notes that she aspires to show how Russian literary titans like Dostoyevsky, Pushkin, and Tolstoy spoke both to their time and to present-day Russia. However, in most of the pages that follow, she’s not engaging in socio-literary criticism so much as using those authors to lend gravitas to her efforts to grasp the country’s current melancholic mood. Near Pushkin’s ancestral home, she met a man boozily complaining about Putin; a chapter ostensibly about Dostoyevsky detours into her struggles learning Russian, nearly getting mugged at a St. Petersburg train station, and meeting some couch-surfing youths. Wheeler notes that her Russian teacher adores Turgenev but never explains why; a trip to the Caucasus to walk in Lermontov’s footsteps leads to some digressive grousing about the country’s poor preparation for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi and sour conclusion that “being Russian has always been miserable.” This rhetorical disconnect is especially unfortunate because the text sings when Wheeler thoughtfully weaves her chosen writers with her travels. In Ivan Goncharov’s 1859 novel, Oblomov, she finds a Bartleby-esque symbol of the national character, particularly in his hometown in Russia’s far eastern region, where there are now “dozens of sets of traffic lights, many of which work.” Wheeler’s admiring visit to Tolstoy’s estate thoughtfully captures the author’s mordant mood and his hypocrisies—e.g., his churchy pronouncements about austerity belied more than a dozen illegitimate children). More often, though, the book is best appreciated as light travelogue bolstered with some literary history.

Wheeler is impressively well read in Russia’s literary golden age, but her pocket biographies could better blend with her excursions.

Pub Date: Nov. 5, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-5247-4801-2

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: Aug. 4, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

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An engrossing memoir as well as a lively treatise on what extraordinary grace under extraordinary pressure looks like.

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BECOMING

The former first lady opens up about her early life, her journey to the White House, and the eight history-making years that followed.

It’s not surprising that Obama grew up a rambunctious kid with a stubborn streak and an “I’ll show you” attitude. After all, it takes a special kind of moxie to survive being the first African-American FLOTUS—and not only survive, but thrive. For eight years, we witnessed the adversity the first family had to face, and now we get to read what it was really like growing up in a working-class family on Chicago’s South Side and ending up at the world’s most famous address. As the author amply shows, her can-do attitude was daunted at times by racism, leaving her wondering if she was good enough. Nevertheless, she persisted, graduating from Chicago’s first magnet high school, Princeton, and Harvard Law School, and pursuing careers in law and the nonprofit world. With her characteristic candor and dry wit, she recounts the story of her fateful meeting with her future husband. Once they were officially a couple, her feelings for him turned into a “toppling blast of lust, gratitude, fulfillment, wonder.” But for someone with a “natural resistance to chaos,” being the wife of an ambitious politician was no small feat, and becoming a mother along the way added another layer of complexity. Throw a presidential campaign into the mix, and even the most assured woman could begin to crack under the pressure. Later, adjusting to life in the White House was a formidable challenge for the self-described “control freak”—not to mention the difficulty of sparing their daughters the ugly side of politics and preserving their privacy as much as possible. Through it all, Obama remained determined to serve with grace and help others through initiatives like the White House garden and her campaign to fight childhood obesity. And even though she deems herself “not a political person,” she shares frank thoughts about the 2016 election.

An engrossing memoir as well as a lively treatise on what extraordinary grace under extraordinary pressure looks like.

Pub Date: Nov. 13, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5247-6313-8

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 30, 2018

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The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...

NIGHT

Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

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