|Disappointment with a book is unsettling, especially when the author is a favorite, but it is not the end of the world. It is an excellent opportunity to evaluate one’s expectations and desires when it comes to books which are good skills to develop when it comes to choosing the next book to read.|
As a writer, Amor Towles is top shelf. I enjoyed his first mesmerizing book, Rules of Civility. I loved A Gentleman in Moscow and read it several times. But his third novel, The Lincoln Highway, was not for me. This book was built on sorrow and violence and fits the description of a modern tragedy – which was a complete change of direction for this author and not what I was expecting at all. The Lincoln Highway is a journey story of three young people but it is a not hero’s journey, although there are aspects of heroism in several of the characters. I wanted to be able to root for someone in the book but there always seemed to be a roadblock, a detour, or a pothole in the plot that threw off my ability to commit to any one figure.
I also had trouble believing the characters’ use of language. It was far too lyrical, beautiful, and worldly-wise for their backgrounds. What came out of the characters’ mouths was intriguing, yet it was not in agreement with the characters’ ages, geographic location, or experience, for the most part. I could not fully believe the arc of the story, either. Amor Towles is a magnificent writer and so I must ask myself: Am I missing something here?
The first part of the story foreshadows the final events of the story, and I wish I had caught the crippling deficiency of one of the main characters before it was revealed at the end. That might have made a difference in my opinion of the book. Maybe.
I watched an interview with Amor Towles on YouTube prior to the release of The Lincoln Highway. The author stated that he definitely did not want to write a book that was a copy in any way of his previous two books. In this Towles has succeeded, perhaps too well. I confess my disappointment in The Lincoln Highway, but I have realigned my compass and look forward to traveling with Mr. Towles on his next book journey.
A Gentleman in Moscow: A Novel
by Amor Towles
Well, I am late to the party on this book, most certainly. Not that there hasn’t been sufficient encouragement to read it for the last five years. I have heard plenty of positive talk and read multiple reviews praising author Amor Towles and A Gentleman in Moscow. But I failed to commit to reading it even despite the striking black and white photo on the cover. (I am a pushover for a good book cover.) The picture, as you can see above, is taken from inside a sophisticated city apartment. It shows the back of a man who is standing on a small balcony. He has access to the balcony through floor-to-ceiling French windows which are thrown open. There is an ornate wrought iron railing at the edge of the balcony and the man’s torso is bent slightly forward as though he were looking over the balcony balustrade to see what is happening on the street below. He is wearing a finely tailored suit and a fedora. His hands are gently clasped behind his back.
Every time I have seen this book cover, I have had the urge to look over that ornate railing with this fellow to see what is going on in the world. Now that I have read the book, I understand the poignancy of the beautiful photograph and have learned that in contrast to the picture’s outward view, the attention of the book’s protagonist, Count Rostov, is not outside the building but inside it.
The story begins in 1922 in Moscow during the Stalin era after the Russian revolution. The main character, the accomplished Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, is an aristocrat who, though he was spared execution, has been ordered to remain as a prisoner in the Metropol Hotel in Moscow. He has been summarily demoted from being “a person” to being a “non-person” by a Bolshevik tribunal. From this moment forward, Rostov, who has traveled extensively in Europe and practices the ways of a Russian gentleman, must, for the remaining years of his life, learn how to deal with circumstances within the walls of the hotel.
Amor Towles masterfully creates the setting of the book which starts out in an almost claustrophobic space. Then, with Count Rostov as the narrator, the reader is introduced to numerous hotel employees and occupants and their roles in various work rooms, ballrooms, gathering spaces and restaurants in the magnificent Metropol hotel. We learn with Rostov about the operations of the grand hotel from its basement utility quarters to the majestic view of Moscow from the roof of the Metropol. As he tells us about Rostov’s new life as a non-person, Towles skillfully expands the story, and the characters’ lives, so that what started out as a confined and oppressive space becomes an open, broad, and sweeping environment with fascinating intersections between peoples’ lives. The horrific political struggle in Russia which rages throughout the country is also mentioned in a variety of ways, but only in an oblique fashion because the primary plot of the story is what takes place inside the hotel. In this way, the reader is as much a prisoner of the Metropol as Rostov is.
Towles has truly created a masterpiece in A Gentleman in Moscow. The story never loses momentum even though it stretches over three decades and contains numerous characters. How the author deftly interweaves the passage of time, the disparate personalities, Russian history, and the captive Rostov’s life is nothing short of magical. Each section of the book (which all have titles starting with “A.”) is a vignette, wonderfully crafted, clever beyond description and often wise. The book is ultimately a delicious and frequently humorous commentary on the human condition.
If you haven’t read A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, I strongly recommend this book to you. It is thoroughly engrossing, beautifully literary, and atmospheric in the most unlikely setting possible. The narrator of the audiobook is excellent, yet I think I will buy a copy of the traditionally built version and read it again so that I can underline the numerous glittering phrases and glorious metaphors that slipped away on the air as I was raptly listening. I am certain A Gentleman in Moscow would make a terrific choice for a book club. Highly recommended.
The book, “The Authorized Biography of Eugene H. Peterson: A Burning In My Bones,” by Winn Collier, came today. I just now finished reading the preface, gazed at the map, buzzed through the contents, and read the introduction. Haven’t even read the first page of the first chapter of Part One and tears already fill my eyes. Why?
I never met Eugene Peterson but for seventeen years, a group of women got together weekly at 6 A.M. to read and pray through the Psalms, and Eugene joined us there — in a way. Each week we read one psalm in the NIV, or KJV, or NESV, and then we read the same psalm in The Message, the paraphrase of the Bible written by Peterson. What happened next around that kitchen table was up to the Holy Spirit. It was always unpredictable, surprising, and lively. The room was filled with worship, prayer, singing, meditation, discussion. We wept, laughed, got angry, questioned, rejoiced, and very often one of us would say, “Would you read that section in The Message again, please?” We loved the perspective Eugene Peterson brought to our time in the psalms. His rendering of the psalter gave us great delight and plenty of fodder for deep reflection.
After 17 years of weekly fellowship around a table, Bible at the center, coffee cup in hand at the crack of dawn, we women came to know one another pretty well. I felt like I knew Eugene Peterson, too — his tempo, his imagery, his heart. I mourned deeply when he died in October, 2018. I reminisced about the early morning coffee, conversation, prayer and scripture we had “shared” for almost two decades. I was going to miss him. And yet, it was a great comfort to know that even though he himself might be gone from us, The Message he wrote for us was still here.
I am very grateful to have the opportunity to get to know Eugene Peterson better through Winn Collier’s biography, “A Burning In My Bones.” Reading will begin tomorrow morning. The coffee will be ready by 6 A.M., if you care to join us.
A Facebook friend shared that she sent a letter to a well known writer in response to an article he posted at his website. The article included a reference to Emily Webb Gibbs, a character from the Sinclair Lewis play, “Our Town.” My friend’s comment triggered a memory of my high school classmate, MerriJo Morton*. MerriJo was a member of my sophomore class when we went to see Lewis’s play “Our Town.” The character Emily Webb Gibbs made quite an impression on her too, as you will see…
My high school American Lit class was given free passes to a production of “Our Town” at the Seattle Rep as part of an arts appreciation effort directed toward Seattle area high school kids. One member of our group, MerriJo, was not the least bit pleased about going to see the play but was glad to get out of the standard classroom setting for an afternoon. We were all in our seats, the play ready to begin when MerriJo, unhappy and feeling stifled in the theater, began to get noisy and somewhat disruptive. Her behavior generated scowls and urgent whispers of “Shhh!” and “Sit down!” from teachers and classmates alike.
Once the play started, MerriJo relaxed and became attentive to and engaged in the stage presentation. No one knew just how engaged she was until the moment in the play when it became clear that the main character, a young mother named Emily Webb Gibbs, had died. Shocked and obviously upset, MerriJo suddenly sat up in her seat and leaned toward the stage as she keened, “No-ooo! No-ooo!” This time, her noisy outburst was met with compassion, tissues, and hugs. Many of the students in the audience were weeping, but MerriJo was the only one who let her feelings truly, intensely, enter into the action of the play. She had crossed the threshold from a passive observer in the audience to a fully involved participant in the story.
On our way home after the play, there was plenty of discussion about what we had just experienced at The Rep, and MerriJo spoke with a seriousness that no one had seen in her before. The play had affected all of us, but it had changed MerriJo.
MerriJo’s emotional reaction to the death of Emily in the play initiated several surprising outcomes. First, it improved some opinions about MerriJo, herself. She earned a new level of respect that day because she illustrated to us how powerful the arts can be, even for someone who was not particularly interested in them.
Second, MerriJo’s grief-stricken response to Emily’s death drew attention to the importance of the ghost-Emily’s question in the play – a question which also happened to be the central theme of the play: Does anyone truly understand the value of life while they live it?
And finally, thanks to MerriJo, I think the actors in that presentation of Seattle Rep’s “Our Town” went home happy, maybe even saying to themselves, “Mission accomplished.”
Has a work of art ever been the source of a profound impact on your life?
*Story is true but the name MerriJo is not.
Did you know that William Shakespeare had a son named Hamnet? “Hamnet?” you ask, “Not Hamlet?” Correct. Apparently, the names were interchangeable in Shakespeare’s day. Author Maggie O’Farrell learned of Hamnet’s existence from her high school English Literature teacher and was so struck by this information that she never forgot it. Move ahead thirty years: After many delays and much research by O’Farrell, the book Hamnet was published in 2020 by Alfred A. Knopf. And what a book it is.
Like a master impressionist artist, Maggie O’Farrell paints her novel about a family and village in plague-ridden, mid-sixteenth century England with such exquisite color and beguiling detail that the reader’s mind becomes saturated with the image-rich, emotion-filled story. Of the heart-rending moments in Hamnet, and there are many, the most poignant is the death and burial of a child. O’Farrell’s ability to make deep, mind-fracturing sorrow tangible is astonishing. Keep the tissue box close by, dear reader.
In Hamnet, O’Farrell portrays the inner and outer worlds of Agnes Hathaway, more often known as Anne Hathaway, wife of William Shakespeare. Not that William Shakespeare is ever named in the book, because he is not – not once. We know that the person who is Agnes’ husband is Shakespeare because it is common knowledge and in the story we see Anne’s strangely distracted, bright husband grow into his profession as a playwright. But O’Farrell has chosen to focus her attention on Agnes, and she builds a fascinating, multi-dimensional story of this woman who, according to an interview with the author on Damien Barr’s Literary Salon (March 4, 2021), has seldom received esteem from either historians or novelists. With stunning skill and obvious respect, O’Farrell has made Agnes the undisputed hero of Hamnet.
An aspect of the book that feels oddly familiar due to COVID-19, is the brooding backdrop of the Black Plague. In one chapter, O’Farrell follows the journey of a plague-infected flea from southern Europe to a final landing place in a small English town, where it proceeds to bite and infect many inhabitants. In our own time of Pandemic, this record of the transfer of infection from one country to another, from one person to another, was particularly relevant and uncannily spooky.
I read Hamnet some time ago and was so bowled over by it that I could not immediately articulate my impressions of the book. I have found that when I cannot process my experience of a book in words, I must go to another art form to describe the encounter, which is why there is the reference to pointillist art in the opening paragraphs of this review.
Now, I would like to try to describe a strategy in O’Farrell’s writing by comparing it to the wax resist method of dyeing cloth. Wax resist is a technique used in producing vibrantly beautiful batik fabrics. In the Indonesian batik method for dyeing whole cloth, wax motifs are applied to the cloth before it is dipped into vats of various colors of dye. The dye does not penetrate the wax, thus “wax resist.” As unlikely as it seems, this method results in dazzling designs appearing on the cloth at the end of the dyeing process. In Hamnet, there are times when what Maggie O’Farrell does not say creates the most astonishing impressions. Combine this “word resist” skill with the lively colors and rich details of O’Farrell’s narrative, and just as in the beautiful batik fabrics, the final effect of her writing is pure brilliance. Treat yourself to an extraordinary book — Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell.
HI Claudia! How are you?
Thought I would share this book-related experience with you.
Over the many winters that we have spent in AZ, John and I have enjoyed dining at a little family-owned café in Mesa called Mangos. They serve wonderful Mexican food and also have their own homemade fruit drinks called Agua Fresca. For these drinks they use cantaloupe, watermelon, mangos, lemons, limes — whatever is in season. The fruit flavor is incredible! It’s as though you have put a straw into a freshly opened watermelon or pineapple and sipped up pure nectar. Bliss!
Right next door to Mangos is a second-hand book store called Book Gallery. I have wanted to visit this store for a long time. Last week we made an unscheduled visit to Mangos and there was time to go into the Book Gallery at last. It resembles a lot of other wonderful old bookstores: Floor-to-ceiling shelves, numerous tables, and carts, and glass cases brimming over with bookish items. The possibility of finding hidden or misplaced treasures lures me into these venerable places.
I had a question so I looked around for help and spotted a proprietor-type person seated in a low chair behind the front, book-laden counter. This being the Southwest, I asked the young man if they carried anything by Wallace Stegner. He asked what I had in mind, and I said,
“A first-edition of Angle of Repose.”
He stopped for a moment to study me. Then he said,
“I don’t have one here, but there is one at our other store in Phoenix on Indian School Road. I am afraid it is rather pricey,” he apologized.
“What do you mean by pricey?” I asked.
“A first edition, unsigned, is $1,000.00.”
“Oh,” I gulped and hoped the alarm in my voice wasn’t detectable.
“Come this way,” he said as he walked toward the area of the store that housed their Fiction collection.
I followed the salesperson up a wide set of old, worn wooden stairs and we maneuvered around neat stacks of books to a well-lit corner on the second floor. I saw a small, white, rectangle of paper attached to a shelf. It had an “S” on it written with a Magic Marker.
The knowledgeable bookseller showed me their assortment of Stegner’s works in hardback, paperback, as well as various editions of his many books. None of them cost anywhere close to a thousand dollars, thank goodness. I bought three, all paperbacks: Crossing to Safety ($7), The Sound of Mountain Water ($4), and Wolf Willow ($4).
I had not read The Sound of Mountain Water or Wolf Willow, so I began Wolf Willow (full title, Wolf Willow: A History, A Story, and A Memory of the Last Plains Frontier) last night and was reminded again why Stegner is such a celebrated writer. Here are two paragraphs toward the end of the first chapter of the First Part of Wolf Willow entitled “The Question Mark in the Circle.” In this chapter, Stegner returns to Whitemud, Saskatchewan, just across the Montana border, in search of his boyhood identity. He has sought out the countryside, the river, the town, even his childhood house, but the essence of “home” and “self” eludes him. Then this:
“I pick up a handful of mud and sniff it. I step over the little girls and bend my nose to the wet rail of the bridge. I stand above the water and sniff. On the other side, I strip leaves off wild rose and dogwood. Nothing doing. And yet all around me is that odor that I have not smelled since I was eleven, but have never forgotten — have dreamed, more than once. Then I pull myself up the bank by a gray-leafed bush, and I have it. That tantalizing and ambiguous and wholly native smell is no more than the shrub we called wolf willow, now blooming with small yellow flowers.
It is wolf willow, and not the town or anyone in it, that brings me home. For a few minutes, with a handful of leaves to my nose, I look across at the clay bank and the hills beyond where the river loops back on itself, enclosing the old sports and picnic ground, and the present and all the years between are shed like a boy’s clothes dumped on the bath-house bench. The perspective is what it used to be, the dimensions are restored, the senses are as clear as if they had not been battered with sensations for forty alien years. And the queer adult compulsion to return to one’s beginnings is assuaged. A contact has been made, a mystery touched. For the moment, reality is made exactly equivalent with memory, and a hunger is satisfied. The sensuous little savage that I once was is still intact inside me.” (p19, Ballantine Books, Comstock Edition, 1973)
Wow. Such skill! He has achieved in those two paragraphs what any memoirist would hope to capture in their writing, I think, and that is: “… reality is made exactly equivalent with memory, and a hunger is satisfied.”
Did I tell you we are in the process of buying a small house here in Apache Junction? I guess this means we will have more opportunities to enjoy Mangos and Gallery Books. We hope to be home to Zimmerman sometime in early May.
I look forward to seeing you soon!
My husband and I are spending the winter months in Arizona this year. Our residence is in the midst of several mountain ranges but because we are surrounded by houses on three sides, there is only one range readily visible — the Goldfield Mountains. Every morning since we have arrived, I have jumped out of bed and run to the kitchen to raise the white-painted, wooden slat blinds on the window, and in good weather or bad, with the sun blazing or gray, overcast skies, the magnificent mountains are there and they immediately raise my spirits. Why it is so marvelous to see the mountains each and every morning I cannot say, but it is truly uplifting.
Clouds are often in the panorama of the Goldfield range also. They glide by, hover over, or nestle into the caps and valleys of the mountains and soften the rugged peaks and promontories that are silhouetted on the horizon. From this distance, about ten miles away, the mountains appear calm, imperturbable. They seem to offer pleasant assurances and graceful dependability. But I know from trips up dusty mountain trails that they are truly rugged, steep, irregular, stony, and challenging. Does this make them less majestic? Not at all. But it does make me very aware of the potential hardships they can cause.
We are getting some distance from the year 2020 now, but when I take time to consider it, 2020 was like a trip into the mountains; it was rugged, steep, irregular, stony, and demanding. It seems that giant, boulder-like challenges appeared on our life-paths continually. Many days were filled with difficulty. Some days were devastating. Apostle Paul tells us that when the way gets tough, it helps to turn our thoughts toward good things.
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things…. And the God of peace will be with you.” Philippians 4:8
Why? Why turn our thoughts toward the good and beautiful and true things around us? Isn’t that simply sticking our head in the sand? No. This practice, through the grace of God, turns chaos into peace. It turns the possibility of enduring endless dark days into the promise of experiencing light and life instead. Written from a jail cell, Paul’s “list of things to think about” is a life-giving exercise for rugged climbs and hard times.
Author and podcaster Anne Bogel has taken Paul’s life-giving list and turned it into a question: *Once a year, Anne asks her listeners and readers, “What is saving your life right now?” What seemingly insignificant activity or item — a fragrant candle, a beautiful tablecloth, reading a favorite nonsense poem – brings joy to your day, and provides some much-needed distance from the stony landscape of your daily difficulties? (You can read Anne’s 2021 list here: https://modernmrsdarcy.com/domestic-tasks-saving-my-life/).
I think this is a powerful question that opens up an escape route out of a rocky situation. A lifesaver does not have to be expensive or complicated, it simply must bring you joy. When was the last time you sang a favorite song at the top of your voice? Or blew bubbles on your front porch?
The activity that is saving my life right now is the daily, morning view of the mountains from our kitchen window in Arizona. If you can think of something that is a lifesaver for you, take a moment to treat yourself to it, then call someone and share it with them. It just might save their life right now, too.
*In her blog, Modern Mrs. Darcy, Anne Bogel credits Barbara Brown Taylor with initiating the lifesaver practice: “The idea comes from Barbara Brown Taylor’s wonderful memoir Leaving Church. In it, Taylor tells the story of when she was invited to speak at a gathering, and her host assigned the topic: “Tell us what is saving your life right now.”
My sister Pat, who is 86 today, has sent birthday cards to all our family members for decades. She is finally ready to admit that this self-assigned labor of love is getting the best of her. She read me a birthday note written to nephew Yoji Kono, whose birthday is in November:
HAPPY BELATED BIRTHDAY!
I know – your birthday wasn’t belated – this card is.
Besides that, this is my second try. I addressed the first version to ‘Dear Joe,’ (my nephew Joe Junttila.)
In my third try I said, ‘I think the world of you, Rob.’ (my nephew, Rob Hyrkas.)
Do you think I am confused?
Anyway, I hope you had a great time with your beloved family. ‘Hi’ to Genny and all.
P.S. I lost the card that goes in this envelope.
Lots of love,
P.P.S. Do you think that forgetfulness is a symptom of the pandemic?”
Happy Birthday to YOU, dear Pat, and thank you for the many wonderful birthday cards and loving greetings you have sent to all of the family for so many years. You are the best!
In our fellowship, the kids in Children in Worship learn about the church calendar through the use of a color wheel. Purple is the color of the seasons of Advent and Lent. Both are times of waiting and holy expectancy. The teacher of Children In Worship explained that whenever the kids see the color purple, a good question to ask is, “What is God up to now?”
A youngster from that class helped his dad take their garbage cans out to the road for the next day’s garbage pick-up. It was sunset. The youngster noticed the color of the sky and said, “Dad! Look! The sky is purple. I wonder what God is up to now?” *
What a great application of the color wheel lesson from Children in Worship. I hope I can incorporate that same exercise into my own life, and remember the meaning of the gift of purple.
*The story of the little boy who saw the purple sky was related by a Children in Worship leader at a training session in Princeton, MN, at Bethel Christian Reformed Church in 2014/2015.
I attended Mass last year at St John’s Abbey in Collegeville, MN. Before Mass started I noticed a young woman had walked into the church with a service dog. The two sat in the front of the church – I sat in the back and a lot of people sat between us as the church was full that morning.
At the conclusion of the Mass, while we congregants sang the recessional, I heard a strangled cry, a sort of moaning, echoing from somewhere in the church. Having worked in health care for thirty years, my emergency response adrenaline kicked in and I searched the church for who might be in distress and may need help immediately. “Call 911” ran through my mind as I stood up in the last pew with my phone in hand, ready to go to someone’s aid. Then I caught sight of the service dog at the front of the church and realized it was this dear canine servant who was singing along with the rest of us, howling away, happily joining in. As the dog yowled merrily, I recalled the lines of a folk tune written by folk musician and singer-songwriter, Bill Staines:
“All God’s critters got a place in the choir
Some sing low, some sing higher
Some sing out loud on the telephone wires
And some just clap their hands, or paws, or anything they got, now.”
And some merrily howl along during the recessional at church. True story.
“The Mass is ended. Go in peace.”