Natalie Plahuta’s Questus Librus

The clues are the titles of the works and sources; the crossword answers are how I accessed the sources.


  • Anne Bradstreet’s “The Author to her Book”: Link on
  • Life is Strange: I played at a friend’s house on his PS4
  • “Visual Culture and the Word in Poe’s The Man of the Crowd”: Under “Resources” on Sakai
  • Herman Melville’s Pierre; Or the Ambiguities: Davis Library
  • The OA: Netflix
  • Russian Doll: Netflix
  • Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus: Audible
  • Fitz-James O’Brien’s “Our Young Authors – Melville”: Under “Resources” on Sakai
  • Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd”: Link on
  • Brian Reed’s S-Town:
  • Stranger Than Fiction script: Under “Resources” on Sakai
  • Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Under “Resources” on Sakai
  • Stallybrass’ “Books and Scrolls”: Under “Resources” on Sakai
  • Johns’ The Nature of the Book: Under “Resources” on Sakai

Natalie Plahuta’s Review of S-Town

It is hard to know what to expect from a “nonfiction audio novel,” as the idea in itself is novel. I expected something strange to occur, but the fact that all of the events and characters were a reality made the story seem almost stranger than fiction. What kind of person actually practices fire gilding? Who would want a dead man’s nipple piercings? Whose idea of church is getting tattoos and subjecting oneself to various forms of pain? The people investigated in the podcast series S-Town were so strange, so unbelievable that for the first three episodes, I thought I was listening to an extremely realistic and detailed fiction podcast. Brian Reed does a fantastic job of weaving together a story from a series of interviews that leaves listeners questioning reality. The already precarious establishment of reality is made even more uncertain by the constant gossip of the Woodstock citizens, portraying various conflicting realities with no clear resolution of the truth.

Another aspect of the podcast that leaves listeners questioning is the numerous changes in genre. S-Town starts out as a true crime podcast, investigating the potential cover-up of a murder, brought to Brian Reed’s attention by John B. McLemore. However, the story seemingly comes to a dead end when it is discovered that no one even died in the first place. The story shifts considerably when John B., an important character in the original investigation as Reed’s informant and host, commits suicide. In the episode following John B.’s suicide, the narrative seems to become that of a treasure hunt; everyone is in search of the gold about which John B. constantly bragged. However, this narrative seems to fade into a character study of John B., shifting genres without warning. Each genre is interesting in its own right, but the constant shifting makes the organization of the podcast seem messy. I understand that Reed had to work with what content and information he had, as S-Town is a work of nonfiction, but seeing as he didn’t compile the information into a storyline until after he had finished his investigation, he could have organized the timeline and genre with more care, in a way that would have been less confusing to readers.

Furthermore, there is a lack of prestige at the end of the podcast series, leaving listeners thinking what’s the point? Reed spends four episodes investigating the life of one man, but does not seem to reach any hard conclusions about who John B. was.  Instead, Reed chooses to conclude with a description of John B.’s ancestors, explaining how John B. achieved ownership of his land. Although this historical background does not offer a hard conclusion regarding John B.’s character, it does provide context for the McLemore family and the town of Bloody Bibb. John B.’s great-grandfather, Jesse Miller, was a gang leader and extortionist, accruing land via threats and stealing from his neighbors, allowing him to pass down a considerable inheritance to his son, Brooks. Brooks then passed the land down to Mary Grace, who birthed John Brooks McLemore. The realization that Jesse Miller became one of the wealthiest men in Woodstock via extortion, even as far back as the 1890s, suddenly makes the epithet “Shit Town” seem very appropriate. The listener realizes that John B.’s cynicism may not have been entirely unfounded, for even Woodstock’s greatest critic was the product of the crime and sin that he so despised in the town. However, this is the closest that Brian Reed ever gets to including a prestige.

I did appreciate Reed’s inclusion of excerpts from John B.’s manifestos, as it provided more insight into the mystery of a man that still could not be fully explained after four episodes of description. The manifestos made John B. seem both more complex and more relatable due to his constantly changing and conflicting worldview. In some of his manifestos, John B. would lament the descent of humanity, while in others he would express a deeply profound appreciation for nature. These excerpts help to explain why Reed could not formulate an explicit conclusion regarding John B.; he was too complex a person to tie up with a neat little bow. I also appreciated Reed’s mention of three particular short stories (John B.’s bedtime stories), as they helped provide insight on John B. via simile (John B. is like Emily in “A Rose for Emily,” or John B. is like Mathilde from “The Necklace”). Since John B. is indescribable, it is easier for listeners to understand him in relation to literary characters. After all, John B. is grand and outlandish, as any great literary character should be. I also like that this literary theme continues in the podcast’s closing theme song, “A Rose for Emily” by The Zombies. This song acts as a final reinforcement of John B.’s peculiarity and enigmatic ways.

Despite how entertaining S-Town is, there were definitely some morally questionable decisions made during its creation. Throughout the podcast, Tyler told Reed about several crimes he committed, but Reed did not report Tyler to the police, nor did Reed try to stop Tyler when Tyler told him that he was going to steal from the McLemore estate. In one instance, Tyler told Reed how he held a man at gunpoint and considered cutting off his fingers. This is a violent crime that definitely should have been reported to the police, but Reed did nothing. Another aspect of Reed’s reporting that was immoral was the fact that he outed John B.’s sexuality to the world. John B. never came out as a gay man to the public during his lifetime, nor did he give Reed permission to reveal his sexuality. Reed ignored John B.’s right to privacy to the point that the entirety of episode six was dedicated to exploring John B.’s sexuality. Also, I do not know that Reed actually had permission to share excerpts from John B.’s manifestos. If he did not have permission, then that is another ethical violation. All of these ethical violations, as well as others not mentioned, have led to a lawsuit posed against Brian Reed.

Despite the messy genre organization and even messier ethics involved in the reporting of S-Town, the podcast is still entertaining, informative, and worth the listen. However, I think the series deserves a trigger warning due to its mentions of depression and suicide, as well as its inappropriate language, including racial and misogynistic slurs.

Natalie Plahuta’s Review of The Night Circus

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is a beautiful book full of delightful, whimsical imagery that will transport readers and listeners to another world, rich with magic. The descriptions of the smells of circus foods or Marco’s cologne, the appearances of the different circus tents or of Marco’s illusions, the sounds of children laughing or of bystanders screaming during Herr Friedrick Thiessen’s murder, the tastes of chocolate mice and other circus treats, and the feel of Marco and Celia when they touch each other all enhance The Night Circus into something almost tangible. Due to the acuity of the imagery, readers and listeners can imagine standing in every circus tent or attending Chandresh’s parties. This experience is especially augmented during the second person perspective passages. Listening to the audiobook version of The Night Circus may be more accommodating for readers who want to place themselves in the story’s various settings, as they can close their eyes and imagine every image, sound, smell, taste, and texture as the narrator describes each scene. Jim Dale does a spectacular job of narrating the novel, using different voices for each character and developing their individual personalities.

The plot of The Night Circus is decent enough as well, though it does occasionally fall flat. A competition between two magicians who must top each other’s illusions is intriguing, but the intrigue is subverted by the rule that the two may not sabotage each other, turning what could have been a heated duel into the most passive competition ever. The readers and listeners also learn very little about the two magicians who instigated the competition, Hector and Alexander. Although this lack of information successfully contributes to their mysterious characterizations, their deeper motives for initiating the competition and betting with children’s lives are not shared, thereby preventing the competition from holding a deeper meaning or impact with the readers and listeners. However, the contrast between the two styles of magic portrayed in the novel is well done. Celia is a physical manipulator, and she has a much more chaotic style than Marco. Meanwhile, Marco manipulates the minds of those around him, having a much more reserved and covert style of magic. The contrasts of these two styles complement each other, which may be why Celia and Marco become attracted to each other, as well as why the two have so much trouble ending each other.

Another part of The Night Circus that falls flat is the romance, which is unfortunately a major focus of the novel. Celia and Marco barely speak to each other before they develop feelings for each other, making the romance seem phony and ungrounded. However, the lack of development in the romance department can partially be forgiven if the readers and listeners buy into the insinuated soul mate dynamic. Celia and Marco are bound to their magical game by rings, and are therefore bound to each other. It is almost as if they are married from the very beginning, the rings becoming a symbol of their love, as well as a symbol of the competition. Celia even glances at the scar her ring left when she turns down a proposal, saying that she is already married. Tsukiko is also said to have fallen in love with her opponent, making love seem like a side effect of the game. Therefore, although the love is somewhat baseless, Morgenstern comes up with an excuse by making those destined to destroy each other destined to fall in love.

The Night Circus is a good book, not a great book, but readers should certainly give it a try, if for no other reason than to experience the imagery which Morgenstern has so gracefully explicated. If readers and listeners want a book that will take them to places they never imagined, this is the book for them. If readers and listeners want to experience the beautiful, this book will not disappoint. With a decent plot and exemplary imagery, The Night Circus is a delight, potent in its ability to distract readers and listeners from the real world.

Natalie Plahuta’s Book Review of “Pierre, or The Ambiguities” by Herman Melville

Herman Melville’s Pierre, or The Ambiguities is both too slow and too fast all at once. There are times when Melville uses twenty pages to describe a rock, but the entire conclusion spans less than ten measly pages. Due to Melville’s many random asides, which hold no greater significance in the story, the book spans 427 pages, when only 150 of those pages were necessary, possibly 200 if I’m being generous. Due to the book’s length, it is obviously not meant to be read in one sitting. In fact, it shouldn’t be read at all. This is the type of book that you put on your shelf as an ornament to make yourself look smarter. In fact, you must be a genius if you read Pierre and understood all of Melville’s philosophical madness, since it doesn’t make any goddamn sense, so keeping the book on your shelf would certainly make you look smarter…or insane.

Furthermore, the hero of the novel is not likeable. He is naive and meek, and despite the fact that he is portrayed to be a boy genius, he makes very unsound decisions. For example, if you had an illegitimate sister whom you wanted to care for, but could not tell your mother, would your solution be to marry her? No! I should think not! Would you then tell your mother about this shotgun wedding, knowing that she would disapprove, without having a backup plan or substantial savings in the very likely instance that she kicks you out of her house? I would sure hope not! It is not even until the last chapter of the novel that Pierre finally begins to doubt the validity of Isabel’s story. On top of an unappealing protagonist, there does not seem to be a clear moral of the novel, other than “don’t marry your sister,” which should have been obvious. Bravo, Melville! You really outdid yourself on that one!

One part of the book that would have been entertaining for its satire, if not written by Melville, is the part in which Melville describes how rapidly print media was expanding and how anyone could become either an author or a publisher. Melville includes a satirical advertisement by a former tailor which states that their fabrics, excuse me, bindings are the best in town, also including some other phrases to express how analogous clothing and books are. This part of the book does an excellent job of expressing the free for all that was print media during Melville’s time. However, since the book was written by Melville, the satire spans approximately 125 pages, despite the fact that print media is not the central plot or focus of the novel. Therefore, Melville’s rant mid-book seems like a tantrum thrown in response to the bad reviews he received for Moby Dick.

Many critics of Melville’s time thought he was crazy when he wrote Pierre. If so, then his insanity is contagious, as reading this book nearly drove me insane. Trust me, SparkNotes will be a better friend to you than this book.