Sweet Birthday Baby: A Russian Doll review by Mark Meyer

When I started watching Russian Doll, I wasn’t quite sure if it was my bag. The “Groundhog Day/Christmas Every Day” trope is a story that has been told over and over again (which is kind of funny, given the cyclical nature of the narrative). I also have a very hit/miss relationship with Netflix’s original programming; sure, I loved Stranger Things and the Black Mirror reboot, but other titles like Bird Box and Bright lacked a certain depth that I crave in stories, and the Trailer Park Boys reboot is just bad at this point. That said, I’m glad I persevered, because Russian Doll has a lot of good things going for it.

First off is the story. Adding a second main character into the mix put fresh spin on the looping narrative. As soon as Alan said “It’s ok, I die all the time,” I started taking guesses at what lies outside of Nadia’s routine. I had to know “Do they die at the same time?” “Were they related in a past life?” “Do they have anything in common?” In the end, I was satisfied with the answers I got.

Speaking of the end, the show does a great job of building up to the climax in the final episode. Without spoiling anything, I think the final episode does a fantastic job leading up to the deli scene.

I also enjoyed the aesthetic. The New York Deli and Maxine’s chic high-rise apartment felt fresh, and held a certain mythical quality for a southern boy like myself; it was a glimpse into another world for me. There is enough eye candy, like the gemstone portal that is Maxine’s bathroom door, to keep the scenery from getting stale as we continuously find ourselves in the same spaces.

But I think what really makes the show phenomenal is the characters. The cast is diverse and inclusive, and every character is distinct. Watching Nadia and Alan contrast and butt heads as they work together was wildly entertaining. Nadia’s friends Maxine and Lizzy contrasted riffed well with each other, with Maxine being more boisterous and Lizzy more subdued. The enigmatic Horse, the zany but grounded Ruthie, and even the scummy professor Mike all got my attention. Just like the setting, the characters are deep enough to keep me interested as they return in subsequent loops.

Russian Doll is not without its faults. The episodes leading up to Alan introduction feel drawn out and repetitive. This may have been an artistic decision, to imbue the viewer with the same sense of confusion and repetitive frustration Nadia is experiencing, but I wish they sunk the hook a bit quicker. I also would have like more exposition into Alan’s past. We get some information in conversations, but no flashback scenes like we got with Nadia. I understand why this is left out, since his problems were grounded in the present day, but I still crave a bit more back story. I also found John, Nadia’s ex, to be a bit distracting; he seemed really critical to the plot at points, but gets left out of the climax. These things seem like nuts and bolts that could have been tightened for a better narrative.

To conclude, Russian Doll is quality programming: it may not wow you, but it is an excellent spin on an aging narrative. I think it would be a stellar choice next time you’re fiending for a netflix original.


P.S.: MFW our heroes are separated in the finale

#questusreviewus #505in5 #russiandoll

A Night at the Circus

I think The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is like a splendid cake: A fluffy morsel that feeds the imagination, but not without its flaws.

To begin, this cake used an excellent recipe. The story of the novel’s creation using the novel-writing month piqued my interest. As an audio book, it is fantastically formatted; with each chapter being easily accessible and helpful rewind and speed-up features. I really enjoyed how I could listen on my PC a home, and the bookmark would remember where I stopped when I resumed play on my iPhone.

I think the imagery used throughout the book is the wonderful buttercream frosting that decorates the cake. Vivid descriptions of the clock, the ice garden, and the La’fev estate among other locales painted lucid pictures in my head, building my attachment to the story. Additionally, the descriptions of food and smells in the circus absorbed me into the book in a new way. I never considered the literary value of food before, but the popcorn, coffee, and caramel apples enamored me. I often found myself envying the midnight dinners of the original conspirators. After reading The Night Circus, I plan to explore food writing and food in literature a bit more.

The characters are hit-and-miss for me. Alexander and Hector have an air of mystery around them that makes them enticing to me as a reader. The twins and Bailey are sweet, and their childhood whimsy play along with the circus setting quite well. However, Celia and Marco could have used more development considering they are the main characters. Celia’s anger seemed like it was going to be a deciding factor in the game after reading the chapter where she first wears the ring that binds her, but it seemingly disappeared from the novel before having impact. Marco seemed to lack major development, although I did enjoy the dark bit about how he had been wiping Chandrish’s memory occasionally. As such, these characters are like bright candles: some shine brilliantly while others distract from an otherwise exquisite dessert.

The real question is how does the cake taste? Honestly, it is a bit vanilla. The “love at first sight” and “together forever” tropes that pepper Celia and Marco’s relationship come off as bland. The competition that structures most of the story does not have much flavor. A tablespoon of something sugary, like checkpoints during the competition or more backstory, would have made the competition better for me. Finally, while I like the idea of the circus continuing into modern times, the ending has not left me feeling full.

Vanilla does not necessarily mean bad, just very familiar. This story does not seem to break new ground but is pleasant to listen to (or read, if that is more your thing). The imagery and help prop up the occasionally flimsy characters and plot.

Which cake is it? You decide.

Oh Brother; or, a Review of Melville’s Pierre

While reviewing Pierre; or, the Ambiguities by Herman Melville, I couldn’t help feeling that this novel is like a fridge: I keep opening it but nothing looks good.

To begin on a positive note, I thought the plot was intriguing. Pierre’s ambiguous relationships and romances with the novel’s female (and male) could parallel kept me asking questions, and the dialogue pushed the story in many interesting directions. If there was more action throughout the novel, HBO would already be scripting their adaptation.

I also enjoyed Melville’s attempts at parody and criticism within Pierre.  The novel’s first few books set a scene which mirror many Gothic novels, with their stately settings and archetypal aristocrats. I imagine Melville’s original audience expected the story to play out very differently. Similarly, Pierre’s career as a writer offered an excellent criticism of American print culture of the mid 19th century. For me, it offered excellent context and showed me a world I had never previously considered.

But Melville ultimately tries to do too many things. He want to reinvent the novel while offering his criticism and craft a controversial plot. If he had only tried to accomplish one or two of those things with Pierre, perhaps he would have written something more engaging.

The prose jerks slowly across each page, like a teenager driving a stick shift for the first time. Much of the imagery feels deflated, and the abundant punctuation peppered in every paragraph made navigating the text difficult.

And what an awful ending. almost 500 pages building to an end that tied the novels loose ends up in about 4 pages. After reading for nearly an hour about Pierre’s meditations on the memnon rock, I would have hoped to get in his head a bit more after he commits his crime. Seriously, all that jazz about the memnon rock was seemed extraneous to me as a reader.

Points were deducted because the book was taxing to read and did not leave me feeling satisfied, but ultimately this is better than some other Gothic novels I have read.