Monday, April 16, 2018

A Gentleman in Moscow By Amor Towles

By the end of this novel, I admired the amount of information packed into this title. 

First, it places us in Moscow, a place somewhat mysterious to most of us, and immerses us in layers of Russian history from the end of the Czarist days, through the revolution, through the tenures of Lenin and Stalin, and into the infighting over the next period of leadership.  Towles recreates the period effectively through details of furniture, books, menus, and meetings. 

Second, the title draws our focus onto the gentleman, Count Alexander Rostov.  We grow to admire how he uses the more admirable traits of the old aristocracy to adapt to his lengthy house arrest in the fading glamor of the Hotel Metropol, which is richly developed as a setting.  We come to know its layout, décor, and personalities.  Rostov maintains possessions and habits when they conform to his higher goals; he avoids letting ideology prevent him from cultivating friendships among many levels of the hotel’s staff and guests.  His “gentleman’s” traits allow him to act as a mentor to two remarkable young girls.  Without his established character, some of these relationships might seem improbable.  But though these relationships, he seems remarkably to be engaged in society though physically limited to the hotel.

Of course there is action in the novel, but its languid pacing echoes the decades of Rostov’s arrest and suits his expansive and reflective nature.  He is allowed to express a philosophical digression from time to time.  We always suspect the house arrest must come to an end, but that ending is brilliantly tight and pulls together a number of crumbs that have been left along the reader’s path – some carefully constructed by Rostov and others provided by opportunity but cleverly exploited.  We are amazed how he contrives Sofia’s escape from Soviet Russia and his own escape from the Metropol, and we are left to speculate on his future.  A surprising number of details are left for us to surmise, but I’d like to think that we are urged to emulate the gentleman and not ask too many unimportant questions and instead focus on the important ones. Bill Smith

Friday, March 23, 2018

Suggested Novels to Read Next

I Thought You Were Dead by Pete Nelson
Hardcover, 264 pages
Published April 13th 2010 by Algonquin Books
For Paul Gustavson, a hack writer for the wildly popular For Morons series, life is a succession of obstacles, a minefield of mistakes to stumble through. His wife has left him, his father has suffered a debilitating stroke, his girlfriend is dating another man, he has impotency issues, and his overachieving brother has invested his parents' money in stocks that tanked. Still, Paul has his friends at Bay State bar, a steady line of cocktails, a new pair of running shoes, and Stella. Beautiful Stella. With long sleek legs, kind eyes, lustrous blond hair. Their relationship is the one true bright spot in his world. She offers him sage advice on virtually every topic. And she only wets herself every once in a while. 

Sky Bridge by Laura Pritchett 
Paperback, 232 pages
Published April 5th 2007 by Milkweed Editions
A supermarket clerk in a small dusty town, 22-year-old Libby is full of dreams but lacks the means to pursue them. When her younger sister Tess becomes pregnant, Libby convinces her not to have an abortion by promising to raise the child herself. But then Tess takes off after the baby is born and Libby finds that her new role puts her dreams that much further away. Her already haphazard life becomes ever more chaotic. The baby's father, a Christian rodeo rider, suddenly demands custody. Libby loses her job, her boyfriend abandons her, and her own mother harps on how stupid she was to make that promise to Tess. More than a story of a single mother overcoming obstacles, Sky Bridge is a painfully honest, complex novel that leaves readers with a fresh understanding of what it means to inhabit a world in which dreams die, and are sometimes reborn.
Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy by Gary D. Schmidt  
Paperback, 219 pages
Published April 25th 2006 by Yearling Books
Not only is Turner Buckminster the son of the new minister in a small Maine town, he is shunned for playing baseball differently than the local boys. Then he befriends smart and lively Lizzie Bright Griffin, a girl from Malaga Island, a poor community founded by former slaves. Lizzie shows Turner a new world along the Maine coast from digging clams to rowing a boat next to a whale. When the powerful town elders, including Turner s father, decide to drive the people off the island to set up a tourist business, Turner stands alone against them. He and Lizzie try to save her community, but there s a terrible price to pay for going against the tide."

My Antonia by Willa Cather
Paperback, 232 pages
Published February 20th 2000 by New Millennium Library (first published 1918)
 Through Jim Burden's endearing, smitten voice, we revisit the remarkable vicissitudes of immigrant life in the Nebraska heartland, with all its insistent bonds. Guiding the way are some of literature's most beguiling characters: the Russian brothers plagued by memories of a fateful sleigh ride, Antonia's desperately homesick father and self-indulgent mother, and the coy Lena Lingard. Holding the pastoral society's heart, of course, is the bewitching, free-spirited Antonia.

Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende
Paperback, 432 pages
Published May 2nd 2006 by Harper Perennial (first published 1998)
Orphaned at birth, Eliza Sommers is raised in the British colony of Valparaíso, Chile, by the well-intentioned Victorian spinster Miss Rose and her more rigid brother Jeremy. Just as she meets and falls in love with the wildly inappropriate Joaquín Andieta, a lowly clerk who works for Jeremy, gold is discovered in the hills of northern California. By 1849, Chileans of every stripe have fallen prey to feverish dreams of wealth. Joaquín takes off for San Francisco to seek his fortune, and Eliza, pregnant with his child, decides to follow him.

As we follow her spirited heroine on a perilous journey north in the hold of a ship to the rough-and-tumble world of San Francisco and northern California, we enter a world whose newly arrived inhabitants are driven mad by gold fever. A society of single men and prostitutes among whom Eliza moves--with the help of her good friend and savior, the Chinese doctor Tao Chien--California opens the door to a new life of freedom and independence for the young Chilean. Her search for the elusive Joaquín gradually turns into another kind of journey that transforms her over time, and what began as a search for love ends up as the conquest of personal freedom.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Everything I Never Told You is the story of a Chinese-American family and how they try so hard to do well and do good. But first one thing goes wrong and then another and then another, and to protect themselves and each other, they amass secrets that can’t be sustained.

Lovely Lydia, with her silky black Asian hair and her beautiful blue Caucasian eyes is the heart of the story. And we know from the first sentence that Lydia is dead.

Lydia is dead because her grandmother was left without a man in a time and place where a woman was supposed to be a home ec teacher (or nurse or secretary) and have a man. Lydia is dead because her dad is Asian and feels like a misfit in 1977’s Ohio. Lydia is dead because her mother, rebelling against her mother, disappears from the family, leaving them in mortal terror for months.

Lydia is dead because, like most young children, she assumes she is the cause of the family’s misery. She has surely been bad, or at least lacking, and driven their mother away. And so she makes a deal: if her mom comes home, she (Lydia) will be perfect. She will say yes to everything asked of her.

When her mother returns, Lydia accepts the burden of being the perfect child to save the family. Her loving siblings (and the characters in this story really do love each other) know she is faking so many things, but don’t dare tell because they too feel Lydia is the glue that holds the family together with her Chinese hair and American eyes.

Near the end of the story, when too many pressures are building on Lydia (when she is failing not only physics but drivers ed, and she is terrified of her brother Nath’s going away to college), she is forced into an epiphany:

[S]he had been afraid so long, she had forgotten what it was like not to be – afraid that one day, her mother would disappear again, that her father would crumble, that their whole family would collapse once more. . . . Anything her mother wanted, she had promised. As long as she would stay. She had been so afraid.

She connects this fear with the time in childhood she almost drowned and her brother saved her.

His fingers caught hers and right then she had stopped being afraid.
Kick your legs. I’ve got you. Kick.
It had been the same ever since. Don’t let me sink, she had thought as she reached for his hand, and he had promised to not when he took it. This moment, Lydia thought. This is where it all went wrong.
It was not too late. There on the dock, Lydia made a new set of promises, this time to herself. She will begin again. She will tell her mother: enough. She will take down the posters and put away the books. If she fails physics, if she never becomes a doctor, it will be all right. . . . And Nath. She will tell him that it’s all right for him to leave. That she will be fine. . . . And as she made this last promise, Lydia understood what to do. How to start everything over again, from the beginning . . . What she must do to seal her promises . . . Gently she lowered herself into the rowboat and loosed the rope.

The ending is painful but truthful. Families are nurturing; families are damaging. And not everyone survives the damage.

But the ending is also hopeful. The family slowly, gently rebuilds itself without the keystone of Lydia. Years later, when Nath is in space he stares down at the silent blue marble of the earth and thinks of his sister, as he will at every important moment of his life. He doesn’t know this yet, but he senses it deep down at his core. So much will happen, he thinks, that I would want to tell you.

Ng writes with a distinctive technique of exaggerating characters and events – pushing out curves farther than they naturally go, chipping usually smooth edges, and sharpening points almost to invisibility.

For example: James, a slightly-built Chinese man, teaches a college course on the American cowboy. Marilyn, his student, kisses him on the first day of class and beds him not long after. Later, she abandons her family without a word. Lydia has chatty phone conversations with non-existent friends. Loving, insightful little Hanna is so inconsequential they sometimes forget to set a place for her at the dinner table.

These are extreme, stylized images. Like burrs that cling, they won’t be forgotten anytime soon. Ng walks a fine balance with this technique. The distortions have to be strong to claim a lasting hold in the reader’s mind, yet believable enough to be realistic. Otherwise, the reader won’t identify with the characters or care what happens to them.

The book’s cover anticipates this stylized realism. The title, Everything I Never Told You, is handwritten – seemingly with a dried-out brush dipped in ink, or with an iffy-nibbed pen. The writing suggests the person holding the brush or pen is determined to finally tell the true story, as ragged and uneven and tender and unique as it necessarily is. And that we’ll probably remember it.—Sharelle Moranville

Monday, January 22, 2018

The Opposite of Fate: Memories of a Writer's Life, by Amy Tan

Amy Tan’s mother believed in ghosts and curses and lived her life expecting bad luck. A typical maternal warning:
"Don't ever let boy kiss you. You do, you can't stop. Then you have baby. You put baby in garbage can. Police find you, put you in jail, then you life over, better just kill youself.”
Her father was a Baptist minister who was guided by his Christian faith. His approach:
"Faith is the confident assurance that something we want is going to happen. It is the certainty that what we hope for is waiting for us even though we still cannot see it ahead of us."
So Tan lived her life amid contradictions, in a home full of invited and uninvited ghosts, holy and otherwise.

After reading this compilation of essays about her life, it’s easy to believe that the connection between other worlds is far more tenuous than most pragmatic Americans like to believe. Tan has used bits and pieces of her life in her fiction, especially her relationship with her mother, But she was holding back some of the most bizarre elements of her story:

•Her friend and classmate Pete was brutally murdered when they were in graduate school. Amy communicated with him in dreams so vivid she learned the names of his killers. And he told her to leave school and start a career in writing that ultimately led to her novels, which include The Joy Luck Club, The Bonesetter’s Daughter, and The Kitchen God’s Wife.

•Tan’s mother spent three years in a Chinese jail for having an affair while she was married. When she got out, a chance meeting reunited her with the man with whom she had an affair, and the two got married and became Tan’s parents. Her father died young, of a brain tumor, only months after losing his son and Tan’s brother, also to a brain tumor. 

•Tan’s mother’s morbid obsession with death no doubt stemmed from watching her mother kill herself by eating raw opium.

Because the book was built out of existing work—magazine articles, speeches, introductions to other books, even long emails—it is a bit disjointed, with repetition of several stories and too little details on others. It came out a year after Tan was diagnosed with Lyme disease, which weakened her physically and mentally. Perhaps she felt she would not recover well enough to write a formal memoir. 

She rrecently published Where the Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir, another series of essays, although she’s not comfortable with being a memoirist. In an interview with The New York Times, she said:
"It’s like taking the mask off, taking your clothes off, and having people say, oh my God. It’s nonfiction, and people can make fun of the way you think or say, oh that was trivial."

Clearly, her life has been remarkable and far from trivial, but it’s possible she might be accused of being unbelievable. As she notes in The Opposite of Fate, her truth is far stranger than fiction.—Pat Prijatel

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy, by Anne Lamott

For people who have read Anne Lamott’s previous writings on faith and life, this book will come as no surprise.  It continues her own confessions, struggles, insights, longings, and gropings toward understanding herself and a fuller relationship with God and with her fellow human beings.

For those who have not read any of Lamott’s earlier books, pick this one up.  Lamott writes with humor and unfailing honesty as she confronts her own (and our) human greed and selfishness and love and honor and, yes, mercy.

Woven throughout are her own takes on various Bible passages and people that may well resonate with the reader.  They certainly do with me.  Listen to her about St. Paul with whom I have long had a difficult relationship:

“Putting aside the little problem with all the people he had killed, he was annoying, sexist, stuffy, and theoretical.  He was not a great storyteller like the Gospel writers. He often got preachy, and his message was frequently about trying to be more stoic, with dogmatic ‘Shape up’ and ‘Shame on you’ talks.  He was cranky, judgmental and self-righteous, worse even than I.  Yes, he had moments of genius and light, but then he’d start wagging his fingers again.  Yet, he knew my heart, he knew the struggle with our dark side:  ‘I do not understand what I do.  For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.’  And he preached the willingness to be loved and included, as is.  He knew that people like me would want to have the willingness to have the willingness, but that this is scary and hard.  He knew that it comes from the pain of staying the way we are, cut off from ourselves, squandering our lives, envying others, bingeing on whatever, terrified of making mistakes.”

Lamott explains that it is mercy – the promise to offer and receive relief and forgiveness – that lies at the heart of all great faith traditions and our own spiritual identity.  Mercy gives us the chance to “soften ever so slightly” so that we can understand one another more deeply.  Mercy is, in her words, “the medicine, the light that shines in dark places.”

This book is beautiful, with so many wonderful passages that beg to be read and savored, pulled close into your heart and pondered there.  Read it.  You won’t be disappointed.—Jeanie Smith