Into the Woods with Ruth Ware

As a crime fiction reviewer, I’ve often had to say, “Sorry, I haven’t read it” when people ask me about a new book.  The reasons can vary.  I might be swamped with review copies.  I might not have been in the mood for that particular book after sampling it.  Or I might be wary of the publicity blitz around the book since I’ve seen so many crime novels over-hyped by publishers and been disappointed when they turn out clichéd or badly written.

But then it’s a wonderful surprise to pick up a book with thousands of reviews on Amazon and Goodreads and discover that it truly lives up to the promotional material.  This past week I finally caught up with Ruth Ware’s gripping debut In a Dark, Dark Wood.

After an enigmatic brief prologue, the book opens in a hospital with Leonora, a heroine who can’t remember how she got there but has hands sticky with blood.  Something horrible has clearly happened.  Is she a murderer?  She’s desperate to regain her memory and for much of the book that struggle is a dark, dark thread.

How did she end up in the hospital?  Well, because she should have said no to a bizarre invitation.  Leonora, a crime writer herself, has led a solitary life for a decade after university for undisclosed reasons but readers know they’ll find out and will surely hope there’s high drama involved.  The invitation breaks into her solitude: it’s for what the English call “a hen party” and Americans call a bachelorette party.  Weirdly, she hasn’t been invited to the wedding itself and it takes some coaxing from a friend of hers and the bride’s to say “yes.”

The party is hours from London, very remote, in a big, isolated, ugly ultra-modern house.  Though it’s not haunted, it has far too many large, un-curtained windows and is surrounded by bleak forest.  Everything about it is oppressive, creepy, and exposed.  Tensions soon rise among the motley group of partiers and what seems at first to be an Agatha Christie homage turns violent and bloody.

In the second half of the novel we learn what drove her and her bride-to-be friend apart and while some of the revelations aren’t as surprising as you might wish, they fall into place with a satisfying way.  Ware is deft at building tension, evocatively describing people and places, and the book is explosive in many ways.  It’s also intriguing to read about a crime novelist caught up in a series of mysteries, a woman who might be a murderer herself.  And a woman who by all rights should have been far more wary and suspicious from the start.  When you read a Christie novel, a great deal is revealed in dialogue and readers of this novel should pay close attention to what characters say if they want to figure out what’s really going on in this taut, enticing novel.

Lev Raphael has reviewed for The Washington Post, The Detroit Free Press and other newspapers and public radio stations.  He’s the author of ten Nick Hoffman mysteries.

“The Favor” Needed More Suspense

The husband and wife team who write as Nicci French are acclaimed as “masters of psychological suspense” and their latest, The Favor, has the short chapters we expect from suspense novels.  But “masters”?  A major secret is pretty obvious from the prologue onward, and that drains a lot of energy from the over-long, over-crowded story.

Jude is a London doctor whose ex-boyfriend Liam re-enters her life after eleven years and asks for a favor he won’t explain.  Liam wants her to take his car and drive to a rural cottage, use his credit card en route and not her own, then meet him when he arrives later by train.  The favor has to be kept absolutely secret, and  Liam will only tell her what’s going on when he gets there.

She says yes.  And why?  Because after the two of them survived a car accident as teenagers, his life turned out badly while hers was a relative success, so she feels guilty.  That’s supposedly it.  But it doesn’t quite add up, and if you read the prologue carefully, you’ll guess what her real reason is, something the authors reveal about two hundred pages into the book.

Liam is murdered and having said “yes” to his request gets Jude involved in a police investigation where she’s a prime suspect and the detective sounds more like a therapist than an investigator.  When it’s exposed, Jude also has to explain her bizarre behavior to her fiancé, her parents, Liam’s parents, Liam’s unsavory friends and Liam’s lover in a round of cringe-worthy encounters.  

She plunges more deeply into the mystery of what Liam was up to when she discovers he’s made her one of the executors of his will and she agrees because “for whatever bizarre reason, he had chosen her for this task.”  Well, that’s just half the story: she has a profound reason to agree, something that would make almost anyone feel indebted and we can guess way too early.

Liam’s financial affairs were a total mess and people keep telling her to back off, but she doesn’t.  She feels so helpless and trapped, though, that it’s hard to believe she could help anyone as a doctor. Jude is the kind of heroine who viewers would yell at when she’s on a TV or movie screen: “Don’t do it!”  Though she’s supposed to be a competent doctor, she seems clueless and lacks agency, and the authors at times seem to be indulging in what crime fiction fans call “femjep.”

Jude lets herself be repeatedly insulted and these interactions are annoying–more seriously, she doesn’t seem much interested in who might have killed Liam until after p. 300.

Despite its flaws and extraneous detail, the book has some good lines in it.  Like this one when she heads home after a long shift at her hospital and feels a migraine coming on: “Jude held her migraine at bay all the way home, pushing her bike for the last mile as if a moment of clumsiness might tip the pain over like a scalding liquid.”

Migraine sufferers might of course wonder why she chose to ride her bike instead of taking an Uber….

Lev Raphael is the former crime fiction reviewer for The Detroit Free Press and has also reviewed for The Washington Post and a handful of public radio stations.  He’s the author of ten Nick Hoffman mysteries.

 

 

Oscar Wilde Would Have Loved TikTok

I fell in love with Oscar Wilde’s plays and short stories in college and felt inspired as a young writer by his wit and keen sense of paradox.  I’ve seen performances and films of his plays many times and had the good fortune to attend a Wilde Festival at Stratford, Ontario where the original 4-act version of his dazzling The Importance of Being Earnest was performed.  I even met his grandson, which seemed like a something out of a movie.

But it wasn’t until reading Nicholas’s fascinating The Invention of Oscar Wilder, that I came to see the famous playwright as a precursor of today’s Influencers and other social media stars.

Wilde lived very large.  As the author elegantly puts it, “His whole life was a provocation.  And in his personal appearance, behavior, and wit, he turned himself into a mythic figure in his own lifetime while obliging his fellow Victorians to rethink the things they held dearest.”

With care and precision, Kupar explains how Wilde cultivated his aesthetic image by unconventional clothing, witty conversation, and making connections. He was a first-class scholar at Oxford and a first-class networker once he moved to London.  He reached out to famous actors like Sarah Bernhardt and writers by publishing sonnets in their honor–and they befriended him. He assiduously made the rounds of London salons hosted by celebrities and aristocrats, impressing almost everyone by his charm and bon mots, intriguing them by his unconventional masculinity.  Wilde also cut a swathe through Parisian salons too–though some writers found his take on being a man unsettling.

He became friends with John Singer Sargent and James McNeil Whistler, with whom he eventually fell out–a soured relationship that yielded great copy.

Inside of a few years, and before his run of hit plays, Wilde lectured many dozens of times in the U.S. and Great Britain, sometimes twice a day.  But Wilde was often more interesting for his presence than in what he had to say about art or “the house beautiful” or anything else.  He was an immediate target for satirists in print and on the stage via Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience, which he instinctively knew was a sign of his notoriety.

Wilde gave as much attention to his hair and clothes as any Real Housewife and in effect made himself a work of art.  So it’s fascinating to follow his career as poet, lecturer, art critic, editor, short story writer, then playwright–and finally a pariah for “gross indecency” with other men and a cruel prison sentence.

Likewise, exploring his long fascination with living and writing about a double life in coded ways is deeply enjoyable with Kupar as your guide. This book is a fine introduction to Wilde’s life, his work and his ground-breaking queer persona if you aren’t acquainted with them–and a pleasurable deep dive if you are.

And by the way–Oscar Wilde is one of the most widely misquoted authors on the Internet, with observations of all kinds attributed to him that he never wrote or said.  But he did say “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

Lev Raphael is the author of 27 books in genres from memoir to mystery as well as hundreds of stories, essays, book reviews and blogs.  He taught creative writing at Michigan State University and currently mentors, coaches, and edits writers at writewithoutborders.com.

One Clique to Rule Them All…and in the Bullshit Bind Them

 

If you’ve ever wondered how someone as goofy as Boris Johnson got to be  prime minister of the UK, Chums by Simon Kuper is the book you need to read. Short, sharp and devastatingly insightful, it explains how a tiny clique of posh and semi-posh conservative aristocrats and wannabe aristos have ruled Britain on and off since 1945.

They almost uniformly attended Eton where they learned both public speaking and self-presentation as an art.  Charm, cutting wit and discoursing on subjects about which they were ignorant (or close)–and their privileged backgrounds–proved a gateway to Oxford.  Once there, they continued to be focused on style over substance.

Playing student politics in surprisingly byzantine ways prepared them for positions in Parliament and government (sometimes by way of journalism), positions which they believed they deserved.  After all, hadn’t their class historically been in charge?  More than one felt that entering Westminster was “coming home.”

Boris Johnson seems like the apotheosis of this trend, with his endless blather, his comic hesitations, and his “shambolic” hair:  a rumpled Bertie Wooster. Oxford was his dress rehearsal: In a setting that emphasized and rewarded eccentricity, he was glib, clever, entertaining–“an unthreatening funny man.”

Did he and his ilk stand for anything?  Power for themselves and a fantasy of Britain when it ruled he world or seemed to.

Brexit was something they cooked up as students and young men well before they actually had any power, and their well-documented deception and fakery around the vote to remain or stay in Europe has changed history.

For the “Brexiteers,” Brexit was the grand cause [they] had lacked all their political careers.  It would give them a chance to live in interesting times, as their ancestors had.  It would raise the tediously low stakes of British politics.  It would be a glorious romantic act, like the Charge of the Light Brigade, only with less personal risk.”

Chums is a ruthless, penetrating, and very funny indictment of a tiny class of Britons who show no sign of letting go of power no matter how hapless or wrong their policies are.  They believed, in the words of author Anne Applebaum “that is was still possible for Britain to make the rules–whether the rules of trade, of economics, of foreign policy–if only their leaders would take the bull by the horns, take the bit between the teeth, if only they would just do it.”

The clichés are deliberate mockery of a caste that has done irreparable harm to Britain and its citizens.  While some of the names might be unfamiliar to American readers, the dynamics of contempt and wanton disregard for the public good while aiding the wealthy should feel very familiar. 

Listening to the latest Oxonian PM, Liz Truss, try to explain her new economic moves that have sent shock waves through the UK and beyond, I’m reminded of lines from The Maltese Falcon.  Humphrey Bogart asks Mary Astor “Was there any truth at all in that yarn?”  Her reply:  “Some…  Not very much.”

Lev Raphael has reviewed books for The Washington Post, The Detroit Free Press, Jerusalem Report and several public radio stations in Michigan.

Sarah Perry’s Debut Novel is Wonderfully Bizarre

 

It’s a blistering summer in London after months of drought. Birds are dying in the street and people are fleeing the city for anyplace cooler. One of them is bookseller John Cole whose business has either collapsed or never been successful from the beginning. 

Unable to bear the heat, Cole leaves London, but he forgets his directions to his brother’s seaside home, has no GPS, gets lost and ends up at a house that is so creepy it might as well be haunted.

That house is dilapidated and inhabited by a motley assortment of people who could be refugees from the drought or former patients of a mental institution–or both.  One of them is obsessed by the possible collapse of a nearby dam and inspects it nude at midnight, another is a pastor who has lost his faith in God–or so he says.  Then there’s the mystery woman whom Cole instantly loathes and someone else who tries corrupting the pastor as if it’s a game.  Everyone there seems to see the world and themselves askew–or have some kind of secret.

The house is filled with strange rooms, strange packages, and these strange people, but the strangest of all is probably the man writing about his experiences among them: Cole.

Wandering from his abandoned car, he’s been cheerfully greeted as if he was expected but soon realizes that everyone’s mistaking him for someone with a similar name. Questions proliferate: What was the peculiar assemblage waiting for? Why does Cole continue to pretend to be someone else? Why not go back to his car and drive home?  What’s causing his crippling migraines? Does he really have a stutter and memory problems? Or is he actually mentally unstable?  Can we believe anything he says or is he hallucinating?  After all, when he comes upon the house that seems hidden in the woods, he says “It seemed to me the most real and solid thing I’d ever seen, and at the same time only a trick of my sight in the heat.”  Cole keeps referencing the heat and his exhaustion as if they’re inimical and malignant forces bent on torturing him.

The author has said she’s delighted that the book raises so many questions and has so many possible interpretations. 

This eerie, hypnotic novel is not as large in scope as Perry’s later books Melmoth and The Essex Serpent, but it’s just as captivating. And she’s as masterful a creepy story teller as Patrica Highsmith and Stephen King, both of whom seem to be just around the corner on every page.  It’s a gripping, haunting puzzle, mixing mystery and surrealism in beautiful proportions.

Lev Raphael has reviewed for the Detroit Free Press, The Washington Post and three Michigan public radio stations, one of which hosted his author interview show.

The Most Famous Woman You Never Heard Of

According to the author of this fascinating biography, the three most talked-about women in the 18th century were Catherine the Great, Marie Antoinette and Elizabeth Chudleigh.

Who was she?  A luxury-loving, experience-hungry Englishwoman who was dubbed the “Duchess-Countess” because of having married a duke and an earl.  Rising “from obscure West Country gentry” and though her finances were sometimes uncertain, she eventually moved in the highest circles of London society, was a royal maid of honor–and a bigamist. 

Though her impulsive and rocky first marriage was mostly a marriage in name only, it was never legally ended when she married one of England’s richest men, The Duke of Kingston.  She eventually stood trial for bigamy, complicated by complex legal maneuvering over what she inherited from her second husband.  Where there’s a will, there’s a fray. . . .

Chudleigh’s bigamy trial when she was in her fifties was an international sensation and in England it even overshadowed the growing war with the colonies.  As described in vivid detail, it had all the ceremony and magnetism of a coronation, given how rare it was for a peeress to be on trial in Parliament.  One newspaper reported “Imagination can hardy picture a more solemn, august, and at the same time brilliant appearance, than the court in Westminster Hall.” That trial wasn’t the end of her legal troubles, and readers will be fascinated by them as well as by her taking root in Russia of all places–for a while anyway.

The book offers dazzling and sometimes bizarre insight into a world of stupefying luxury: weird do’s and don’t for those who served royalty, mammoth dinners for a cast of thousands, lavish country and city homes decorated at an unbelievable cost, clothes and jewels worth millions.  It was all part of a highly rarefied lifestyle as decorous on the surface as a minuet, but treacherous if one made a misstep.

In 18th century England, Elizabeth Chudleigh almost always managed to dance that real and figurative dance with envious grace, style, and panache.  She wasn’t just beautiful and decorative: she was smart, educated, multilingual, charming, a wonderful conversationalist, intensely charismatic.  And as famous and controversial as any Kardashian today.

It’s too bad nobody recorded her conversation the way Boswell preserved Samuel Johnson’s bon mots and observations to make them a part of history.  We hear her letters crying for help at various points but don’t get to hear her at her most relaxed and impressive.

She was a woman of great appetites, loved commissioning new homes, loved doing a Grand Tour in Europe when that was still a man’s prerogative.  She was way ahead of her time in making sure she had good publicity–or trying to.  And of course the brightness of her star earned her plenty of detractors and even enemies.  Some of the best moments in this book are the sour comments about her in letters and diaries–you almost feel you’re reading trolls on a Twitter feed.  Their criticism is often sexist but sometimes legitimate as she was impetuous, impulsive and her plans sometimes led to “drama and debacle.”

At one point when she fled England for Rome, where the pope was a supporter, “as far as the locals were concerned, the voluptuous, peculiar, emotional Elizabeth was…a one-woman carnival.” Her travels here and there across Europe, especially when she was ill, are sometimes beyond belief and the author milks them for every juicy detail.  

The book is so filled with so much richness, however, that at times you might feel overwhelmed by names, banquets, vendettas, scandals, legal actions, and above all titles of nobility. It also seems a stretch for the author to keep speculating about whether Chudleigh suffered from borderline personality.

Duchess and Countess Elizabeth Chudleigh lived amazingly large, had amazing adventures, misadventures, famous friends and allies–and famous detractors.  She was a figure of admiration and emulation, and the focus of a unique trial.  This bountiful biography is the perfect material for a miniseries–not least for the grotesque Dickensian frenzy that erupted when Chudleigh died in Paris right before the French Revolution.

Lev Raphael’s first love as an English major was literature of the 18th century.  He is the author of twenty-seven books in many genres and has taught creative writing at Michigan State University where his  literary papers were purchased by Special Archives at MSU’s library.

How James Bond Saved Britain

Have you been wondering who the next James Bond will be after Daniel Craig?  James Norton?  Idris Elba?  Theo James?  The maddening possibilities include Richard Madden, who’s the same height as beefy Daniel Craig, and the slighter and somewhat shorter Tom Holland.  Lots of women have been suggested too, actors like Ruth Negga, Lily James, Emilia Clarke, Claire Foy, Charlize Theron and Thandiwe Newton among others.

Have you exhausted yourself re-watching every single Bond movie with every single Bond?  Even the less-than-stellar films? 

Well, there’s a great book to engross and entertain you till the revelation of the New Bond is vouchsafed to eager theatergoers and streamers: Simon Winder’s hilarious The Man Who Saved Britain.  It’s my second read and I have to report that when I first had this marvelous book in my hands, I was on an author tour across the U.S. and startled passengers on planes and in airports because I kept laughing aloud at his wit.  Luckily this time around, I’m at home and can only alarm my dogs.

Part memoir, part geopolitical analysis, part literary survey, part history, part standup routine, the book explores the role of the wildly popular Bond books in the 1950’s and 60’s a time when Britain was exhausted by WWII, broke,  and losing the empire that had given it a feeling of being a world class power.  Early on in that period, Britain lacked food and fuel and despite having won the war, there was a widespread feeling that the country was a beggar at what was becoming an American feast (with Europe seated below the salt). 

Winder notes that the Bond novels’ “entire purpose can be seen as carrying forward the certainties many felt about the war into the disorienting bitterness of an ever more impotent Britain.” Winder pursues his own purpose of entertaining and skewering through sardonic humor and metaphors:

“The British governments of the 1950s now give out an overwhelming sense of weariness.  This was less true at the time because there was such a hail of events that they appeared quite busy, but it was only the seemingly busy behaviour of a corpse being dragged around by dogs.”

“James Bond can exist only because he is British.  No other country has developed an ideology over so many years that makes ever other nation so available, so pitiful and funny.  This has come from either ruling them or attacking them at various points.”

Bond’s creator Ian Fleming had an intelligence background, was part of the British elite, and created a tough hero who could save the world, or most of it, single-handedly. 

“As the 1960s progressed, Bond’s ability to maim and kill foreigners became a great consolation to millions of embittered and confused people whose traditional world picture had changed with alarming speed.  Bond in fact became in the 1960s pretty much the only British national capable of damaging anybody at all.”

Among many fine distinctions, Winder points out that the novels are far less gadget-focused than the movies and not nearly as flashy, but enough of them make for good, quick and dirty reads.  

And Bond in the novels isn’t as promiscuous as he is in the films, though the view of sex demonstrates what Winder calls “the male fantasy of a permanent, never-aging present in which an infinity of girls from around the world could be sampled in the manner of cigars.”

Winder is a deft analyst of every aspect of the books and the films, some of which he’s seen dozens of times.  So there’s something to ponder, deplore or laugh about on almost every page thanks to a dazzling, chatty, very British raconteur. The Man Who Saved Britain is a must-read for Bond fans and a superb window into a time when Britain was very different than it is today, though lingering animus towards Europe and general griping about its place in the world seem a flame that hasn’t died.

Lev Raphael is the author of 27 books including 10 crime novels.  He has taught creative writing at Michigan State University and Regents College in London.

(Full disclosure: Winder was one of my editors at St. Martin’s Press in New York thirty years ago and when I first found this book I didn’t know that he was also a writer, a comic, and a Bond aficionado living in London)

𝘿𝙖𝙧𝙠 𝙊𝙗𝙟𝙚𝙘𝙩𝙨 is a Solid Police Procedural

Soon after a body is found at a bizarre and brutal murder scene in London, we discover what the title of this police procedural refers to.  The dark objects are the “overturned and sometimes overlooked” things at a murder that may explain what happened.

However, one of the objects laid out in ritual fashion near the victim is anything but overlooked.  In fact, it’s a blaring message.  This object is a book about how to “read” murder scenes, written by Laughton Rees, the police commissioner’s long-estranged daughter.  Rees is a criminologist with “almost preternatural abilities to observe, process, and recall information.” In her university lectures, she only uses cold cases or solved cases, but she’s pulled into investigating this murder case at an ultra-chic, multi-million-pound home because of that book.

The discovery of her book opens up a whirlpool of grief and misery because years ago, her father led a high-profile investigation whose suspect ended up killing her mother.  And she saw it happen.  Rees blames her father, rejected all his offers of connection and has become obsessive compulsive to cope with her trauma.  She’s a deeply sympathetic character because it seems that her dark past “always catches up with her and swallows her whole, no matter how fast or how fast or how far she runs from it.”

Rees’s “partner” in the investigation is the resonantly-named inspector Tannahill Khan, but he’s not nearly as interesting as her or the sleazy reporter, Brian Slade, who will do anything to get a story with long legs into the tabloid he writes for.

The book’s strength is the detailed and fascinating police work and the focus on Rees’s suffering and attempts to stay stable, though a few things get in the way, including the slow pace.

It seems obligatory these days that any major figure in a mystery or TV crime series is the parent of a troubled teenager and Dark Objects checks off that box in spades. 

The writing could also have been more polished to avoid various kinds of repetition and lines like this one: “Tannahill watches, his brain trying to catch up with what just happened.” Then there’s the awkward and unattractive mix of fonts and spacing at various points. 

None of that truly damages the book and the fault lies with the editing and design, not the author.  A bigger issue is the trick ending with a wildly unbelievable confession. 

All the same, filled with biting social commentary, Dark Objects has enough for police procedural fans to enjoy on a few hot summer nights.

Lev Raphael was the long-time crime fiction reviewer for The Detroit Free Press and is the author of ten crime novels.

Crime Writer C.S. Harris Gets the Regency Right

Critics lavished Bridgerton with praise for supposedly making the Regency relevant to a modern audience–as if that had never been done before.

But without gross anachronisms or improbable plot lines, C.S. Harris has been writing a dazzling world-class mystery series since 2005 that couldn’t be more relevant to our time.

The Regency she offers us has plenty in common with the American world we’ve recently been living in.  There’s a vast gulf between rich and poor; intolerance and hypocrisy among the powerful; a war that’s lasted for decades; grievous childhood poverty; a skewed judicial system; xenophobia; a sexist culture suppressing women’s opportunities; widespread and rampant violence. Oh yes, and a seriously disturbed head of state.  Sound familiar?

Her touchstone for all this reality and relevance is a nobleman, Viscount Sebastian St. Cyr.  He’s no superhero, but he’s a strong, determined man with a troubled past who invariably finds trouble when it doesn’t find him.  A  freelance crime solver, he has access to the high and mighty through family and marriage connections, and the rest of London through myriad contacts across its many different social classes.  There’s little he can’t discover, sooner or later.

His case in What the Devil Knows, based on a true crime, involves unbelievably brutal murders that defy understanding and shake even a man like him who’s seen the horrors of war.  A wanton killer who has even slaughtered infants and their mothers seems to be at loose again in London and St. Cyr can’t help but worry about his wife and young son as he scours the city for clues.

From lavish parlors filled with exquisite rosewood furniture and ballrooms crowded with London’s most powerful men to alleys filled with rotting fish heads, we follow the indefatigable sleuth interviewing English citizens high and low.  Harris excels at giving readers entree into a world beyond the rich and powerful, but one filled with myriad professions including bakers, maids, sailors, rag pickers, brewers, cooks, tavern keepers, seamen, night watchmen, landladies, vicars, valets, prostitutes, drivers, thieves.

On the home front, Harris writes about St. Cyr and his wife Hero with deep sympathy, but she’s never maudlin.  The details of their daily life and the lives of everyone around them ring with authenticity.  That warmth makes the extreme violence St. Cyr faces more terrible, violence that might for some readers conjure up recent attacks on peaceful demonstrators and the 1/6 assault on the Capitol.

She doesn’t indulge in foolishness like the hokey duel in Bridgerton that totally ignored the strict rules of that ritual.  Harris respects the past and has brought it to life in book after book with prose that’s smooth and seductive.  She’s one of the most evocative writers in crime fiction today.  She makes you smell the nasty, ever-present London fog; hear the creak of wheels over cobblestones or the whinny of horses sensing danger; treasure the tender warmth of candlelight; dread the footfall of a robber.

In What the Devil Knows, you won’t feel mired in the bonbon-eating Lifestyles of the Rich and Vapid, but you’ll relish a world where people do more than just live for the next scandal sheet.  Many of them are desperately trying to make a living, and since this is a crime novel, some are just trying to stay alive.

Lev Raphael has reviewed for the Detroit Free Press, the Washington Post and other publications as well as several public radio stations.

 

 

Review: The Real Russia

Russia has been in the news most recently for the war in Ukraine and previously in terms of election interference or climate change.  But information about what the country is really like doesn’t seem to interest journalists or their editors.

Luckily for us, Russian-born TV producer Peter Pomerantsev has done a deep dive about his experience making documentaries there and meeting people ranging from aspiring small town models to obscenely powerful oligarchs.  Nothing is True and Everything Is Possible examines a country that shifts like a kaleidoscope on steroids as its leaders stealthily fight for global supremacy and tens of billions of dollars illegally slosh through its economy in often unchartable ways.  A country that seems to have lost its mind in the rush to grab wealth wherever it can.

One thing you can count on with today’s Russia is insane impermanence, especially in Moscow. The city itself is in a perpetual paroxysm of building and rebuilding, and the author’s descriptions of those changes are so memorable. “Whole swathes of town are demolished in fits of self-destruction, wastelands abandoned for years and for no apparent reason, skyscrapers erupting before there are any roads leading to them and then left empty in the dirty snow.”

This re-invention frenzy dwarfs anything that Americans have experienced. People become wealthy there with the speed of light and for “its new heroes, life is just one glittering masquerade, where every role and any position or belief is mutable.”   The whole book captures the bizarre reality that has taken hold of Russia and squeezed it dry, while making some people so desperate to feel positive that they’re hypnotized by TV charlatans and self-help cult leaders.

Corruption and bribery rule in every sphere of life, whether getting a driver’s license or snagging exemptions from being drafted into the army.  That’s simply how things get done.  But one of the most egregious examples is the Sochi Olympics.  Those games cost tens of billions more than the previous Olympics–the extra money just drifted away.

That’s what seems to happen across the country with one venture after another, and much of that money has been buying real estate, soccer teams, fabulous art, and companies in London and all across Europe.  Rapacious, dangerously charming Russians seem to have colonized that city, appearing as brash arrivistes but slowly becoming “classy” and moving on from plush city addresses to country estates.

Deep Russian paranoia is stoked by state-controlled media that makes Fox TV seem as anodyne as a chirpy Hallmark greeting card. Against an apocalyptic backdrop, it constantly warns viewers against “Gay-Europa,” Western fascists and the CIA infesting Ukraine, Western plans for genocide against Russia, and “American-sponsored fascists crucifying Russian children on the squares of Ukrainian towns.”

That media machine has produced weeping women who testified to those appalling horrors.  Of course they were fake. It’s all fake news meant to keep the government in power and hide the reality of corruption so widespread that you can’t say it permeates the state. It is the state.

The author notes that the Kremlin “has finally mastered the art of fusing reality TV and authoritarianism to keep the great, 140-million-strong population entertained, distracted, constantly exposed to geopolitical nightmares, which if repeated enough times can become infectious.”

You have to wonder if this is a warning to readers that the same thing could happen in Western countries, perhaps with less drama and less notice–because who could imagine it possible?

Lev Raphael  has reviewed for The Washington Post, The Detroit Free Press and many other media outlets since the mid-1990s.