|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!
Paul: A Biography
by N.T. Wright
The title says, Paul: A Biography, which is simple and straightforward. But if you surmise from the title that N.T. Wright’s latest book is a dry and dusty retelling of Apostle Paul’s life, you would be completely mistaken. Written in 2018 and published by Harper One, Wright’s newest book might best be described as a probing exploration of the dangerous activities of a world-class, mission-minded Torah teacher. It is, indeed, the breathtaking story of the perilous calling of Paul of Tarsus, the brilliant Jewish thinker and preacher who faced beatings, stoning, imprisonment and death for proclaiming Jesus Christ as Messiah. Thorough, gripping, fast moving, eye-opening? Yes. Dry and dusty? Nope.
In Paul, Wright wants to upset our entrenched notions concerning the Apostle by asking numerous personal questions about him: What was Paul’s life like as he was growing up? Why was he so dead-set against the early Jesus followers? Did he understand what was happening to him on the Damascus Road? After the Damascus encounter, what did Paul think he was doing when he set off on his travels and why was he so successful at achieving his ends? These and many other questions about Paul are presented and investigated throughout the book, but first Wright sets the historical/cultural stage so that the reader can interpret the circumstances of the events knowledgeably. The author writes: “[When] we try to understand Paul, we must do the hard work of understanding his context — or rather, we should say, his contexts, plural. His Jewish world and the multifaceted Greco-Roman world of politics, ‘religion,’ philosophy, and all the rest that affected in a thousand ways the Jewish world that lived within it are much, much more than simply a ‘frame’ within which we can display a Pauline portrait.” (10 Kindle)
In the early chapters of Paul, Wright snags the reader with this biographical hook:
“Paul’s letters give us a few tantalizing glimpses of his life, and this is one of the strangest:
‘When God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb, and called me by his grace, was pleased to unveil his son in me, so that I might announce the good news about him among the nations–immediately I did not confer with flesh and blood. Nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me. No, I went away to Arabia, and afterward returned to Damascus.’ ” (Gal. 1:15-17)KNT (61 Kindle)
Wright looks at this somewhat odd statement from Paul and instead of giving the standard “Arabia was Paul’s first missionary journey” explanation, he opens a conversation about Paul and the prophet Elijah. Wright compares Paul’s zeal for his ancestral traditions to Elijah’s zeal to defeat the worshippers of Baal. He reminds us that it is Mt. Sinai in Arabia where the covenant between Israel and God was sworn and it is also the place where Elijah fled when Queen Jezebel threatened Elijah’s life after the defeat of the Baal worshippers. Mt Sinai in Arabia is the very location where the once zealous, now hobbled, prophet Elijah, receives his assignment from the Lord to go to Damascus, anoint new kings and appoint the prophet Elisha to take his place. Wright explains that in Galatians, “Paul says that ‘he went away to Arabia’ — just as Elijah did– and ‘afterward returned to Damascus’ — again just like Elijah….”
“The parallel with Elijah — the verbal echoes are so close, and the reflection on “zeal” so exact, that Paul must have intended them — indicates that he, like Elijah, made a pilgrimage to Mt. Sinai in order to go back to the place where the covenant was ratified. He wanted to go and present himself to the One God, to explain that he had been “exceedingly zealous,” but that his vision, his entire world view had been turned on its head. And he received his instructions, “Go back and announce the new king.” (64 Kindle)
Have you ever thought of the Apostle Paul as a prophet? I had never once considered that possibility until reading Paul: A Biography. Wright’s book is filled with these kinds of “wake up and smell the incense” moments in Paul’s life.
In Paul, Wright chisels away centuries of rock-solid, predominantly European-Protestant notions about Apostle Paul and offers us a fresh, bold look at the first-century, religiously zealous, faithfully Jewish person underneath. This inside look at Paul’s life and culture, and particularly his religious upbringing and early influences, adds a wealth of understanding to Paul’s astonishing meeting with Christ on the Damascus Road. Wright titles his book Paul: A Biography in order to make it clear that he is not writing another historical/theological study about Paul and his letters — Wright has written four books on those subjects — but a volume that is “searching for the man behind the texts.” I believe Wright has achieved his goal.
By following a timeline, an ancient map and reading Apostle Paul’s writings, most anyone can form an idea about Paul’s life and travels. But Wright provides the background for Paul’s letters, poems and prayers; fleshes out his friends and enemies; and offers a passionate account of Paul’s successes and failures, fears and triumphs. The result is that Paul, who, in his letters, consummately proclaims the Lord Jesus Christ as Messiah, is himself masterfully and marvelously made known by N.T. Wright.
 The Kingdom New Testament: A Contemporary Translation by N. T. Wright. (Harper Collins, 2011)
Have you heard about book club book kits? They are available from many libraries. Below are a couple of pics of a book kit from my local library. (The unreadable white sheet of copy paper on the table in front of the book kit bag is the Readers’ Discussion Guide. It has suggestions for ways to run a book club and ideas to help get the discussion rolling.)
BCBK’s contain 10-12 books – one large letter edition and one audio book, where possible – and a Readers’Discussion Guide in each kit. They are the only library “book” that has a return date that is six weeks from the date of check-out rather than three weeks. This extended period of time allows users to dispense the books, read, meet, discuss and return the kit, and pick up the next book kit so that the book club can meet monthly.
For those who want to join a book club but find buying a book every month financially prohibitive, or for people who simply prefer to use the library, BCBK’s are a super option. Laura, a librarian at my local library, said that the popularity of BCBK’s is becoming greater every year.
Maybe it’s time to start a book club using book kits? Check it out! 📚