Book Notes: Richard Russo’s Elsewhere¬†

I’m not into the memoir genre but I’ll read anything by Russo, so I devoured his memoir Elsewhere like a total maniac. God, he’s a good writer. I massively loved the book. 

The story Russo tells, however, is deeply disturbing because his insight into the events of his life is beyond superficial. Elsewhere is the story of relentless emotional abuse the writer’s mother subjected him to and – much more inexcusably – his wife and daughters. One of the daughters went crazy as a result, but not even that helped Russo wake up to what was happening. 

The memoir was written years after the abusive stinkbomb of a mother had kicked the shitbucket, but Russo was still writing from the place of guilt for not having been a more convenient, accommodating victim. The saddest part of the book is when he demeans his work as a writer in order to exalt a long-dead freak of a momma. 

Folks, I’m from the USSR, right? I’ve seen so many stories of parents cannibalizing their children’s lives but even I have never encountered anything quite as bad as Russo’s case. By the end of the book, it was literally painful to read, especially in the part where Russo describes his daughter going from a luminously happy, confident woman to an anxiety-ridden mental case. (She’s been diagnosed, so please don’t think it’s my characterization of her state.) 

It’s like, gosh, if you want to be eaten alive by mommy, good for you, but then try not to procreate, at least. 

Still love Russo as a writer, though. 

Insight into Yourself

You can no more gain insight into your own psyche than you can perform a root canal or a surgery on yourself. It sucks but it’s true. 

Smart, highly educated people with rich vocabularies, however, are very good at constructing narratives that, to them, sound like insight into the recesses of their subconscious. These narratives are a mechanism the psyche uses to protect itself from insight and from the subsequent need to change familiar patterns of self-destruction.

“I know all about my problems,” they exclaim. “But knowing and understanding why I’m this way isn’t helping!”

It’s clear to everybody who observes them that they know dick but you can’t force people to get better if they are so invested into getting worse. 

This is a prequel to a review of a book by Richard Russo that I just read, just in case anybody thinks I’m referring to them. 


Very few people can be effective popularizers of academic research. You need to have a particular personality type plus the interest to be able to do it. Who’s there in my field, for instance, who’s managing to do it? Me, Jonathan, and I can’t even think of anybody else. Z is more of a personal growth type of blogger than academic popularizer. 

Most of academics are aware that only a narrow circle of colleagues will even know about their work. And it’s tough because so much effort and study goes into it, yet the audience is minuscule. One would think they’d be glad that somebody is bringing their stuff to the attention of readers who’d never have heard their name otherwise. I’ll literally weep with joy if somebody ridicules or tears apart my academic books on a popular blog read by normal people who are not in my discipline. 

Instead of feeling glad, though, people get huffy because the way I write for regular, non-academic readers is different from the manner in which academic reviews are written. Bugs me as much as the darn medievalists who always moan that I simplify their field too much. 

On Reading

A beautiful quote from Russo:

Most people are trapped in a solitary existence, a life circumscribed by want and failures of imagination, limitations from which readers are exempt.

I pretty much stopped buying digital books after Klara was born and went back to buying paper books. I want her to have the kind of childhood where she can come up to a bookcase, pull out a random book, and discover the world through it. And then pull out another, and another, and so on. 

My Crabby Article

And on top of everything, I just had an article accepted for publication less than a month after submitting. It’s my most. . . erm, adventurous article. I was very unsure it would be wanted by anybody, and here it is, accepted on a first try. 

And yes, it’s a very crabby article. I hated the novel in question and wanted to unburden myself. 

Bad Words 

Another reason I enjoyed this trip is that I didn’t have to self-censor and could use my full vocabulary in English. I make an effort to avoid using words like “meretricious, castigate, pastiche, laudatory, etc” back where I live. The reason I self-edit is not that I suspect people there of not knowing these words but, rather, because nobody expects a person with an accent to have a rich vocabulary. 

The more tactful folks just stare at me like I’m a trained monkey who suddenly started reciting Shakespeare. The more direct ones actually ask, “How come you know the word precipitous?” It’s tiresome, and I prefer to avoid these situations altogether.