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

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. 3, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019


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

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



Well-told and admonitory.

Young-rags-to-mature-riches memoir by broker and motivational speaker Gardner.

Born and raised in the Milwaukee ghetto, the author pulled himself up from considerable disadvantage. He was fatherless, and his adored mother wasn’t always around; once, as a child, he spied her at a family funeral accompanied by a prison guard. When beautiful, evanescent Moms was there, Chris also had to deal with Freddie “I ain’t your goddamn daddy!” Triplett, one of the meanest stepfathers in recent literature. Chris did “the dozens” with the homies, boosted a bit and in the course of youthful adventure was raped. His heroes were Miles Davis, James Brown and Muhammad Ali. Meanwhile, at the behest of Moms, he developed a fondness for reading. He joined the Navy and became a medic (preparing badass Marines for proctology), and a proficient lab technician. Moving up in San Francisco, married and then divorced, he sold medical supplies. He was recruited as a trainee at Dean Witter just around the time he became a homeless single father. All his belongings in a shopping cart, Gardner sometimes slept with his young son at the office (apparently undiscovered by the night cleaning crew). The two also frequently bedded down in a public restroom. After Gardner’s talents were finally appreciated by the firm of Bear Stearns, his American Dream became real. He got the cool duds, hot car and fine ladies so coveted from afar back in the day. He even had a meeting with Nelson Mandela. Through it all, he remained a prideful parent. His own no-daddy blues are gone now.

Well-told and admonitory.

Pub Date: June 1, 2006

ISBN: 0-06-074486-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Amistad/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2006

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