Once Upon a Time in Russia by Ben Mezrich

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Let me be clear. This one is on me. This was my bad

Whenever we finish a book that we love, we commit that author’s name to memory and keep track of what they’re working on. When Junot Diaz finishes his next book, I’ll know. Because I (non-creepily) adore him. But sometimes I forget about the flip side-when we finish a book we despise, we need to remember, to burn the author’s name into our retinas as to remind ourselves to never waste our time or money on this hack again. I failed. I forgot. And that’s how I ended up reading half of Once Upon a Time in Russia by Ben Mezrich.

Yeah that’s right. I didn’t finish the book. And I’m still going to review it.

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I’d previously suffered through one Mezrich’s earlier turds, Sex on the Moon about a misunderstood NASA scientist who decides to get out of his shell and win the girl by ROBBING NASA OF MOON ROCKS AND SELLING THEM TO THE FIRST GUY WHO EXPRESSES INTEREST, HE SEEMS LEGIT AND NOT AN FBI AGENT OH WAIT. On the way, he destroys decades of his mentor’s research but he’s in the past and our hero is the future or some nonsense.

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Mezrich specializes in what he calls “creative nonfiction” and what I call “filthy goddamn lies.” What that means is he starts by telling a true story and then peppers in what he thinks those real people were thinking. By adding what he thinks is happening, he diminishes the actual story that he has.

And it’s too bad, because the story itself is pretty interesting. It’s mostly about the Boris Berezovsky, a self-made billionaire who made his fortune as Communism tottered to its death in the Soviet Union. He started by buying a car company, then some nightclubs then a television station. He made an enemy of Putin (bad call, dude) and ran for his life, eventually committing suicide (probably) in London. The book also covers some of the men around Berezovsky, including Alexander Litvinenko, the former member of the Russian secret service who was assassinated with chemical warfare.

That sounds like the premise to an interesting book, right? Well, maybe it would be in the hands of a competent author. But the only thing Mezrich seems to like more than literally putting words in people’s mouths is tired clichés. Drama is “sweeping” dust is “silvery” revelations hit “like a hammer” He also revels in the gore so much that it just becomes boring. He mentions three times in two pages that a limo driver was decapitated in an attack. We get it dude.

So to sum up Once Upon a Time in Russia: The Rise of the Oligarchs-A True Story of Ambition, Wealth, Betrayal and Murder shouldn’t be a bad book. But, oh dear God it is. Learn from my failings, people, and don’t give Ben Mezrich another chance.

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Portrait of the author right now
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