book review – ‘the shadow land’ by elizabeth kostova

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When I was 28, I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). About a year later, at a routine check-up, my lung X-ray showed a cloudiness that concerned my rheumatologist. He immediately referred me to a pulmonologist, fearing that I’d developed lymphoma from my RA treatments. After a series of tests, eventually I had to undergo a lung biopsy. [Skip to the end – not cancer, but sarcoidosis.] As I recovered from the procedure, I read a book I had recently picked up in the sales bin at a local bookstore – The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova. I devoured the book in about a day and a half. I loved her take on the Dracula mythology, which happens to be one of my favorite mythological topics. When I was sent an ARC of her newest novel, The Shadow Land [due out April 11, 2017], by Random House, I could not wait to tear into the text.

Book blurb, from Random House Publishing Group/Ballantine – From the #1 bestselling author of The Historian comes an engrossing novel that spans the past and the present—and unearths the dark secrets of Bulgaria, a beautiful and haunted country. A young American woman, Alexandra Boyd, has traveled to Sofia, Bulgaria, hoping that life abroad will salve the wounds left by the loss of her beloved brother. Soon after arriving in this elegant East European city, however, she helps an elderly couple into a taxi—and realizes too late that she has accidentally kept one of their bags. Inside she finds an ornately carved wooden box engraved with a name: Stoyan Lazarov. Raising the hinged lid, she discovers that she is holding an urn filled with human ashes. As Alexandra sets out to locate the family and return this precious item, she will first have to uncover the secrets of a talented musician who was shattered by oppression—and she will find out all too quickly that this knowledge is fraught with its own danger. Kostova’s new novel is a tale of immense scope that delves into the horrors of a century and traverses the culture and landscape of this mysterious country. Suspenseful and beautifully written, it explores the power of stories, the pull of the past, and the hope and meaning that can sometimes be found in the aftermath of loss.

I will just jump right into this review: I felt the quality of this book fell short of what I’d hoped for, especially after my excitement to have another novel by the author of The Historian. The story is not bad, but it is also not great. The writing certainly is not bad, but it also is not the subtle and tugging language I had expected. I found nothing specific to dislike, but also very little to recommend the book as one people should dedicate time out of their lives to read.

One notable exception: Kostova’s description of music in general, and the playing of a violin in particular, was nearly enough to bring the fictional notes alive in my ears – these several passages were among my favorites in the text, and among the best written in all of the novel.

The most intense scenes in the novel (flashbacks, for the record), often difficult for the writer to craft, were the best written and most powerful sections of the novel. Again, confusion for me as reader, that the more “mundane” moments were not written with equal clarity and beauty. I want a consistent, lovely experience as I read. [That’s the ideal.] A terrible or mediocre experience, acceptable for consistency’s sake. The medley of quality in this text detracted from my experience of the novel – but I will reiterate again, the highs were very good. (Reminding me of The Historian, which was so well written and uniform.)

I did also enjoy the development of characters in this novel, especially the very elderly from the countryside of Bulgaria. They had an honest and genuine feel as characters, nothing contrived. The main two characters, however, sometimes felt forced, as opposed to behaving how they naturally might in any given situation. In fact, the flashbacks and stories throughout the novel resonated much better than the current turns of events in the text.

The ending of the novel also caught my attention – a twist, unexpected but not unbelievable or trite. Very well handled, leaving the reader on a high note as the story slowly comes to a close.

The novel is an odd mix – I like the characters, but never really develop concern for them. The novel is not flat, but also fails to draw the reader into the story in the way a truly great novel does. The suspense of the situation is managed well, but never reaches a level of interactive suspense for the reader. There’s just something missing, a connective dynamic with the text that simply never establishes itself, though most everything about the novel is quite good.

All in all, I would have to say this – The Shadow Land is an enjoyable book, and I would not dissuade anyone from reading it. But The Historian was a far better representation of the author’s ability, and I would recommend that book much more heartily than her new one.

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I wish I could do something good important with the time I have left but I have not managed to do anything good to this point in my life so I figure the chance of changing that now is pretty slim especially considering

I am a sociopath or perhaps a psychopath I am not sure if my particular ailment comes from the genetic lottery which is entirely unfair to everyone alive even if you manage to hit the jackpot or if the sustained beatings about 11 years or belittlings or extreme expectations disappointments took their toll on my under-formed personality and eventually I cracked I have no way to know they say we are the sum total of our parts experiences included so it could be a combo of bum genes and slightly below ideal situations

Emotions are a thing foreign to me I would say the last genuine emotion I engaged was when I was in the eleventh grade which was 20 years ago and even then the emotion was centered entirely on me what I wanted what I thought I needed what I messed up threw away ran away from


So it obviously was not a genuine emotion rather a pouting temper-tantrum feeling sorry for myself but then of course there were many things which happened after that at least could should have elicited emotion high school graduation marriage child #1 college graduation good job child #2 child #3 graduate school child #4 graduate school graduation priesthood child #5 divorce

more specific

If I were to meet an emotion on the street I fear I would have no idea what I was facing I would be the most xenophobic asshole on the street running fearing killing what I neither know nor understand and then after divorce apartment job I had the chance to have what I told myself I had wanted practically since the first big breakup

[Note to friends – please remember that I largely write fiction, so don’t read too much into anything categorized as FICTION on my site. Thanks!]

freedom of expression

“According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, freedom of expression is the right of every individual to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Writing has, for as long as I remember, been a central part of my life. I don’t know what I’d do without it – expressing my feelings and ideas, working through difficult situations (both good and bad), creating, innovating, documenting.

Reading is the same. Knowing I’ve access to anything at any time, and curling up in a chair to devour the written word – this has sustained me for 38+ years. Times when I literally had nothing else, I always had a book.

What happened to the media on Friday places everything at risk. Plenty of others have written important pieces decrying the White House’s decision to exclude media outlets they view as overly critical of Trump. The implications are enormous – suddenly, it’s not okay to express yourself in America any longer. Now, only good news can be allowed. News this new regime approves.

Whether you support the people running this mess of a country or not, you should be sorely vexed. Freedom of the press, freedom of expression, these are two of the hallmarks of any nation that could even begin to call itself free. Suppressing the media means more than just distorting the news (which now we must contend with as a people in a way never before – distortion pressed openly by a regime scared of both people and expression), it means that suppression of free expression in general is quickly on its way.

What happens now to other forms of expression – visual arts, literature, music, film? We see what’s happening to our freedom to demonstrate – 18 states are trying to suppress and criminalize peaceful protests staged by citizens. The White House is attacking protestors with ridiculous accusations and vitriol. This is yet another strike against a free nation. We are sliding swiftly down a slope toward totalitarianism.

Freedom of expression is under attack – what are we, as a citizenry, going to do?

I feel like we’re living in the fictionalized past of another nation – McCarthy-esque, complete with book burnings (bannings), friends turning against friends, families destroying each other, media used to subjugate the populace. What’s happening right under our noses, before our very eyes?

Will my children be able to walk the streets in peaceful demonstration against the acts of their government, as guaranteed by the First Amendment? (“…the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances…”)

Will they have access to honest and researched reporting about what’s happening in their own nation and around the world?

Will they have the freedom to read whatever they choose? Watch movies? Listen to music?

Or will we all stand back and watch as our liberty is taken, our rights trampled, and our country slips into tyranny and oppression?

bathroom bills: what is the debate really about?

Gender norms in Western society* were historically, and in many cases still are, very difficult to navigate for anyone falling outside of the widely defined term “normal.” If a person wished to express style or persona or activities not aligning with their biological gender at birth, they risked backlash including bullying, threats, physical violence, or the loss of job or associates.

Society has slowly moved to the point where individuals who do not exhibit socially defined “gender normative behavior” are beginning to be given the respect and dignity and civil rights that should be shown to everyone.

But this is not happening everywhere. It’s not happening for everyone. In fact, segments of the US population are pushing against equal civil rights for everyone. We shouldn’t be shocked. Saddened, yes, but not shocked. The same type of people fought (and still fight, often) against civil rights for many groups before – African Americans, Native Americans, women, immigrants – and now the LGBTQ community is the target of their anger and activities.

But why? Why are some people so convinced that liberty is for the few (always including themselves)?

/ trans’jendər, tranz’jendər/
denoting or relating to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender does not correspond with their birth sex

The fight against the civil rights of transgender people in America has slid near the forefront of news and minds, especially fueled by the various ‘bathroom bills’ that have been proposed and debated across the country. Now the Trump administration has rescinded protections which were given to transgender children (kids, dependent children) by the Obama administration. One president sought to make sure all members of American society enjoyed the promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” only to have the promise snatched away once again from an entire marginalized group.

I’d like to look at this from a few different angles, a few different quotes imagined by me (though I am sure said by others) to help consider the issue at hand.

“Why am I fighting against others” – What the Opposition Says

The opposition, those specifically fighting against equal access to public restrooms, has a number of points they like to make. The first focuses on transgenderism as a topic, a topic they discount out of hand. You have such nuanced positions as “transgender doesn’t exist,” “those people are mentally ill,” and “those people are perverts.” Just like the homosexual of not too many years ago, today’s transgender community is faced with attacked centered on identity – who they are, at their core, is questioned, scoffed at, derided, and discarded. Whether the opposition tries to use religion, biology, logic, or anecdotal evidence, the end result is the same – like bigots of any era, they deny the full humanity, the identity, of those they want to discriminate against.

The second point of the opposition that I’d like to address, for the purposes of this consideration, deals specifically with the bathroom bills. The argument against access goes something like this – “well, number one, those people are perverts anyway, but we don’t want men dressing up like women and going into women’s bathrooms and sexually assaulting our little girls.” It has been shown in many places, documented with research, that this fear is something that simply does not happen in the real world. This type of distraction is called a red herring – something that misleads or distracts from a relevant or important issue. Opponents of trans rights are using a made up situation as a fear tactic to try and persuade the public to deny the civil rights of an entire group of people.

“School policy is a state’s rights issue” – What the Administration Says

In overturning federal guidelines guaranteeing equal access for all public school students, the Trump administration said “the guidelines were written without due regard for the primary role of the states and local school districts in establishing educational policy.”

Attorney General Sessions said this: “The Department of Justice remains committed to the proper interpretation and enforcement of Title IX and to its protections for all students, including LGBTQ students, from discrimination, bullying, and harassment.”

I am sorry, but that reeks of a lie. It is a lie.

Access to restrooms and disallowing discrimination are not “educational policy,” they are human rights issues. States should not have the freedom to deny basic civil rights to any of their citizens. The actions of yesterday, overturning the Title IX clarification regarding bathroom and locker access, are a tragedy.

Civil rights issues have virtually always had to be solved on the federal level. For the time being, our transgender children, friends, and relatives have lost the protection of the federal government, and will be left to fend for themselves, surrounded by many who are so filled with hate and fear.

“…and now we have lost…” – What Has Been Lost to Our Children

What the Obama administration had put in place was quite simple:

  • public schools had to allow students to use bathrooms and lockers that matched their gender identity,
  • not doing so was a violation of Title IX, which does not allow discrimination based on sex.

In overturning the federal guidelines and Title IX clarifications, transgender students have once again been put into the line of fire. Now schools can decide to assign lockers and bathrooms to the students however they want, even at the risk of falling into absurdity.

When we will figure out, not only as a nation, but as a society, as a planet, that we don’t get to decide how other people live their lives? That we don’t get to define others based on who we are and what we want them to be? That we don’t get to hate and discriminate and cause harm to other human beings for who they are?

/ze-nə-‘fō-bē-ə, zē-/
fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners or of anything that is strange or foreign

*the same may well be said for all societies, but for this point I’ll refer only to what I know by experience

#wejustneedtopee #wearenotthis #transgender #trans #istandwithgavin #LGBTQ #illgowithyou