The renowned British travel writer takes a tour of contemporary Russia, using its Golden Age writers—from Pushkin to Tolstoy—as guides in a volume that is part history, part sociopolitical commentary, part travelogue.
There are wry observations, astute close-readings, scathing critiques of Putin’s misrule, and numerous impressions on Russian quirks and foibles. Gilding the whole proceedings is Wheeler’s lyrical prose ... We come away from this enthralling book wiser and happier—and with a pang or two of wanderlust.
Wheeler mostly keeps her assessments of Russian literature modest. Rather than trying to match the exuberance and wit of Viv Groskop’s The Anna Karenina Fix: Life Lessons from Russian Literature, she seems to tamp down her arch personality, and as patiently as a cat allows her co-travelers, guides, and hosts to reveal themselves ... Wheeler sometimes seems the intrepid star of a comic travel show ... Wheeler time travels back and forth from present to past. The present, though, is always the more immediate, livelier, more chaotic environment in her book ... She is just as amusing, and illuminating, when describing the meals she encounters on her travels and then tries to recreate at home ... As for Tolstoy, my own favorite, with whom Wheeler concludes her tour, I think she must have been a little weary at Yasnaya Polyana; she stumbles over a few details and lets glibness get the better of her ... Wheeler is wonderful company. I hope Mud and Stars inspires hardy souls to visit these literary sites.
The author offers amusing accounts of Russian living conditions ... As one might expect from an accomplished travel writer, the author is especially interesting as she follows Chekhov on his journey to the island of Sakhalin ... Ms. Wheeler fears that academics will nitpick her discussions of literature and she proudly pronounces herself a generalist, which is all to the good. But is it nitpicking to be irritated at misstatements of basic facts? ... Ms. Wheeler’s love for Russian literature is clear, even when she misreads it. Her attitude toward Russia itself is harder to understand. She writes repeatedly that there is no such thing as Russian culture, since Russia is so diverse. But of course American, Indian and many other cultures are no less diverse. To speak of a national culture is to envisage not uniformity but a specific diversity, different from others in detail and in overall configuration. She might as well say there is no such thing as French or Chinese cuisine ... Like travel, great literature should help us escape the prison house of our island in time, place, class and culture. Otherwise, for all that one can learn, one might as well stay home and watch the telly.