#questusreviewus: A Review of S-Town, by Emily Nottingham

S-Town, a podcast created and produced by Brian Reed, begins as a true-crime investigation into an alleged murder cover-up in the small town of Woodstock, Alabama. Then, it unexpectedly evolves into a study on the remarkable life of John B. McLemore. At first glance, John B’s life may not seem remarkable. He lived on the same property in a small town for his entire life, taking care of his aging mother, a pack of stray dogs, and his maze. However, throughout the podcast Reed reveals John B’s incredible genius, perplexing ambiguity, and his alarming awareness of the deprivation of humanity. All this was tucked away in one man, hidden on his estate in Bibb County.

I can’t say that I enjoyed S-Town the way that one might enjoy a romantic-comedy or a fiction novel, but I can say it intrigued me. I was hooked the entire time, following Reed throughout Woodstock on his quest to uncover the corruption that John B. obsessively lamented. I think this podcast is so engaging because it is raw, gritty, and honest. At the end, I wasn’t sure if I should side with Rita or Tyler. I was conflicted because each person had both legitimate arguments and suspicious holes in their stories. I think this is what Reed wanted. He wanted it to be difficult to choose a side because this is a real story from the real world, where things aren’t black and white. In real life, we choose sides subjectively, based on our personal loyalties or inclinations. Here, in Woodstock, Alabama, I held no loyalties to either Tyler or Rita, and I was faced with the reality that life is messy and complicated. Even if readers are desperately hoping for the truth to be uncovered, the gold to be found, or the bad guy to be thrown into prison; well, that’s just not real life.

The most astounding feature of the podcast is John B. himself. At first, I couldn’t believe this man existed. A man who cared so deeply about dogs and roses, who poured so much energy into a maze in his backyard, yet also had the intellectual brilliance to understand mathematical theories and environmental science beyond the average man’s capacity. There are several things that unsettled me regarding John B, such as his perplexing misogynistic and racist remarks despite his indignation over the oppression of minorities. I was also disturbed by his fanatical, almost apocalyptic rantings about the end of the world, climate change, and the overall degradation of society. Then, there were also suggestions of possible mental illness and even mercury poisoning that concerned me. I wasn’t sure if I could entirely trust John B. due to the multiple accusations of mental instability, but I was definitely impressed and moved by the story of his life.

There are several journalistic elements of the podcast that troubled me. I think Reed crossed the boundary between what can and can’t be shared. He was a friend to John B, and I fear the intimacy and friendship they shared gave Reed a sense of entitlement to John B’s narrative that complicated Reed’s role as an objective journalist. He viewed the town according to John B’s pessimistic lens, and he suggested information and details about John B’s life that he might not have felt comfortable sharing if he wasn’t so close to John B. For example, he shared information about a sexual relationship John B. disclosed to him in confidence, asking him to turn off the recorder before he told to story. Reed explains the story anyways, justifying this choice for two reasons: “John was very clear that he did not believe in God or an afterlife. So John, in his own view, is worm dirt now, unaffected by this. And lastly, what John disclosed, and where it led me after he died, helped me understand him so much more. And I think trying to understand another person is a worthwhile thing to do” (Brian Reed, Chapter 6, S-Town). While it is a worthwhile endeavor to try to understand another person, it is not a worthwhile endeavor to disclose their private, personal statements to the entire world without their permission. John B. did not make the decision to share his queer identity with the world, even if Reed thinks John B. would be okay with it. Besides, it’s rather insensitive to refer to John B as “worm dirt”, even if Reed thinks this is how he would have described himself. Reed took liberties as a friend of John B, allowing his friendship to justify decisions regarding privacy and release of information. Instead, he should have approached these decisions objectively, treating John B. as any other story subject with enduring rights to privacy.

Despite my concern over Reed’s questionable journalistic ethics, I think everyone should listen to S-Town because it moved me, and wasn’t that John B’s goal all along? He wanted people to see corruption and care about it, at least enough to do something about it. He was horrified by the disturbing apathy of society in his little town, but unfortunately this exists in every society across the world. John B. invited Reed to investigate and expose the corruption of Woodstock because he wanted someone to care. Listening to S-Town made me want to do better. It made me want to be kinder and to take action when I witness wrongdoing. For this reason, I think S-Town was a successful endeavor. It enabled John B. to accomplish in death what he couldn’t do in life: to expose corruption and motivate people to fix it.

A Review of The Night Circus by Emily Nottingham #questusreviewus

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is a fantastic, magical adventure into a fictional world where magicians walk the streets everyday, unbeknownst to mere mortals, twisting and crafting the world around them as they please. In particular, two magicians, Celia Bowen and Marco Alisdair, are picked as opponents in a magical competition in which only one can survive. Of course, they fall in love with each other, because what kind of fantasy novel would be complete without star-crossed lovers? The venue of their competition, or the “game board”, is Le Cirque de Rêves, or the Circus of Dreams. It’s full of wonders beyond comprehension; a vast maze of illusions, acts that defy odds, and tents full of enchanting gardens and experiences. As the competition intensifies and the two lovers pine for one another, the circus darkens and risks certain destruction, leaving Marco and Celia struggling to find a way to save each other, the circus, and everyone in it.

I loved The Night Circus because Morgenstern beautifully crafts a rich, detailed world. Each sentence curls delicately into the next, pulling you so deeply into the Circus of Dreams that you forget it’s a fictional world. I could practically smell the caramel, taste the buttery, salty popcorn, and hear the crackle of a bonfire burning into the night. The imagery and sensory details packed into each paragraph are astounding. The story takes you across the world, from ancient cities in Europe to new cities in America, embellishing each location with magical visions beyond your wildest dreams. The scenes that occur in the circus were my favorite. In particular, I loved the descriptions of the ice garden and Widget’s tent. Widget’s tent is described as a long room, filled with jars, bottles, and boxes. Each box or bottle encapsulates a memory. Merely opening a box could release sounds and scents symbolic of a beautiful memory, like a day at the beach or Christmas morning. If you’re on the fence about reading this book, I recommend flipping through the novel to the chapter “Bedtime Stories”, which describes Bailey’s experience in Widget’s tent as he opens various bottles and jars. It won’t spoil the plot for you, but it will give you a delicious taste of what the rest of the novel is like, and trust me, you’ll be hungry for more!

While I enjoyed the rich, beautiful imagery, I found the substance of the plot lacking. There were several plot holes that left me scratching my head as I finished the novel. Why are Mr. A.H. and Hector Bowen forcing magicians to compete? What’s the purpose of this competition? Also, while Marco and Celia’s love story is sweet, I found it lackluster. While I could describe in detail the sights, sounds, and smells of the circus, I cannot for the life of me explain why Marco and Celia love each other. Their love story was shallow, lacking compelling details that would’ve been useful in raising the stakes even higher in their treacherous competition. I was also confused by the inclusion of Tara’s death. How did this impact the story? Did she accidentally step in front of the train, or was it suicide? I think suicide is too complicated and tragic to gloss over or slide into a story without explanation. While on the topic of death, I was confused by the murder of Friedrich Thiessen as well. Morgenstern implies that Chandresh was aiming for Mr. A.H. and that he sidestepped, allowing it to hit Friedrich instead. Why didn’t anyone further investigate his death? Didn’t anyone want to know who killed him? The same goes for Tara; why didn’t anyone further investigate her death? SO. MANY. QUESTIONS.

One final note: I would suggest physically reading the novel rather than using an audiobook. The narrative is nonlinear; it jumps from multiple perspectives, times, and places. While the audiobook wasn’t a bad experience, I would have preferred to read the story instead so that I could flip back to confusing spots and keep track of the change of perspective. Overall, I loved the story and I would highly recommend for a fun, entertaining read (or listen!).

Review of Pierre; or the Ambiguities- E.N.

“There are some strange summer mornings in the country…” (Melville, 1)

Well, no duh Pierre. Every morning is a strange morning when you call your mother your sister and have an oddly close relationship with her that’s not characteristic of a mother-son or sister-brother dynamic in any way, shape, or form.

I wish I could say that I liked Pierre because it was written by such a renowned American author, but honestly, it was a struggle to get through it. The novel consists of page after page of insane ramblings sprinkled with philosophical questioning and debate. Pierre is a spoiled brat with incestuous tendencies that make it quite difficult for me to pity him, even when he’s disowned by his family, sent to the city penniless, and forced to live with a weird cult in the city.

The title of this book shouldn’t be “Pierre; or the Ambiguities”. It should be “Pierre; or the Village Idiot”. What kind of person thinks the solution to all of their problems is to marry their illegitimate sister? On the (only) upside, the language of the novel is beautiful. Unfortunately, this wasn’t enough to make me enjoy the novel. It’s like Melville thought “Hmm, this is a good sentence. Here’s another good sentence. Let me write for pages and pages about emotions that don’t really relate that much to the plot line because they sound really good”. You get a few good classic Melville sentences here and there, but you really have to look for them, and frankly, it’s not worth the effort. Melville’s use of free indirect discourse is quite sophisticated, dipping into the psyche of Pierre and revealing his inner thoughts and feelings. It’s a shame that this technique is wasted on the convoluted ponderings of Pierre’s mind. He finds depth in a tower of rocks in the wood, yet he fails to see the problematic moral dilemma of marrying his sister.

If you want to tumble deep down a rabbit hole of incest, fainting, gasping, sitting in trees, dreaming about rocks, and screaming at sewing circles: well, this is the book for you! Enjoy!

Beginning lines of the book taken from: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/34970/34970-h/34970-h.htm#BOOK_I