March 1st, 2014

Michael Totten on Ukraine / Russia / Crimea

My friend Michael Totten reminds us that he wrote about Crimea in his 2009 book Where the West Ends:
Crimea is in Ukraine, but it isn’t Ukrainian. This part of the country really is Russian. By this point I had learned the alphabet well enough that I could read, so I knew the gigantic words “Автономной Республики Крым” announced to all visitors at the border that Crimea is an autonomous republic.

Crimea has its own flag. It hosts the Russian navy’s Black Sea fleet. It defiantly refuses to place itself within the Ukrainian time zone. Though it’s dead south of Kiev, it uses the more easterly Moscow time zone instead. It doesn’t have its own national anthem, but I heard the Russian national anthem playing loudly on the boardwalk of Yalta. ...

What Moscow cares about in Crimea very much is Sevastopol. That’s where Russia’s Black Sea fleet makes its home. Neither Sean nor I dared take any photographs of it, not even discreetly from the car as we drove past. It’s not a good idea to take pictures of military installations anywhere in the world, especially not Russian military installations.

When the Soviet Union cracked up and Ukraine declared independence, Russia initially refused to cede Sevastopol and Crimea at all and only later relented when it signed the Peace and Friendship treaty with Kiev. Moscow need not worry overly much. Its fleet’s lease won’t run out until 2042. And if Ukraine tries to revoke it, Russia will almost certainly seize it by force, most likely to cheers and applause by locals who would feel liberated. Ukraine barely holds onto the Crimea oblast as it is, and on even numbered days I can’t help but wonder how long even that is going to last.


It's not every day I get to read a young-adult fantasy novel that's set about 2 miles from my house.

Wildwood takes place in the stretch of Forest Park that runs up along the Willamette River, beside Linnton ("the Industrial Wastes") and across from St. Johns. The real-life Wildwood Trail runs through this area. Pittock Mansion figures prominently in the story.

So, I'll admit the "local color" angle appealed to me. And it's probably not surprising that the Powell's reviews skewed higher than the Amazon reviews of the book (4.8 to 3.9 stars, respectively, out of 5).

With all that out of the way, I'll tell you what I thought about the book. First of all, in all ruthless honesty, I didn't find it as un-put-downable as I had hoped. At least, not at first. I have to agree with some of the critical comments that found the writing weak and the characters unbelievable. At first. But it grew on me.

Now here's what I loved about the book. At its core, 'Wildwood' is the story of a girl's struggle to make sense of her own existence. The plot hinges on Prue's horrifying discovery about her own origin - and her determination to claim her own destiny regardless. Few of us, I think, came into the world under ideal circumstances. How many of us were born as a result of an unplanned pregnancy, or infidelity, or to parents who were incompatible, or to mothers who had been advised against childbearing? Perhaps the younger generation especially can relate to this - I don't know. But I know I can.

Prue seems strangely complacent - dry-eyed, almost indifferent - after her little brother's abduction, at first anyway. But she grows into the role of big sister - and that's a story worth reading in itself.

The setting in contemporary Portland leaves lots of room for 'Portlandia'-style satire, and here the book doesn't disappoint. Prue's family are distinctly New Agey. And - contrary to the views of one longwinded commenter on Amazon - the book is not anti-Judeo-Christian. It's true that meditation is presented in a positive light, but the hipster mother is scarcely a role model - and still less the earth-worshipping, psychotic Governess.

In fact, the one portrayal of 'conventional' religion in the book is of Curtis' Jewishness. (His experience with Passover wine is explicitly mentioned on p. 77.) Curtis begins the story along more or less stereotypical lines as the clumsy, nerdy Jewish boy, but he assumes the mantle of Hebrew tradition in fine form, first defiantly rejecting pagan child sacrifice, and then joining a revolution.

So I'm giving 'Wildwood' five stars. I'm not blind to the book's stylistic weaknesses, but I am more intrigued by its possibilities. I'm looking forward to reading Under Wildwood and Wildwood Imperium next.

PS - This post is just about the story, so I haven't said anything about Carson Ellis' illustrations, but they are magnificent. I desperately want a poster of her picture of Prue crossing the 'Ghost Bridge' (St Johns Bridge).