The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

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

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9780670026197: A Gentleman in Moscow: A Novel

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.

A Great Friend I Never Met

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A Burning in My Bones: The Authorized Biography of Eugene Peterson, Translator of The Message  -     By: Winn Collier

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.

What’s in a Name?

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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.” 

True story. 

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.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell — a book review

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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.

Where did I put that birthday card?

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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:

“Dear Yoji,

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,

Pat

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!

The Gift of Purple

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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.

A Place in the Choir

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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.”

The Allure of Library Book Kits

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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! 📚

Road Trip Roundup

Went on a lovely drive yesterday. It was a beautiful day — sunny, high clouds, perfect for a road trip to Tallahassee, FL.

One of the things on our “to do” list was to visit Bradley’s Country Store. Just a bit outside of Tallahassee proper, we arrived there by means of a country lane, County Road 27. Portions of this narrow but scenic roadway are crowned with a canopy of tree branches that reach over to each other from both sides of the road and sometimes meet in the middle overhead. The canopy drive is a beautiful thing to behold and delight to experience.

We arrived at Bradley’s early in the afternoon on a Thursday. As you can see from the picture above, the store is small and the parking lot in front of the store is small, also. Even though we visited on a slow business day, there were plenty of cars and customers coming and going at Bradley’s during our short visit.

Established in 1927, Bradley’s is known for stone ground corn grits and homemade sausage, which is what attracted us to their place of business. On entering the wood A-frame structure, we caught the delicious fragrance of sausage being cooked — a fragrance that draws you to the back of the old wood building, back behind the jar filled and product-laden shelves to the meat market where customers line up for a sausage link on a bun. Irresistible! It was obvious by the earnest faces of those in line that purchasing this item was the reason for their visit to the Bradley’s. There was plenty of foot traffic moving from the front to the back of the store, and we filed right in with the throngs of lunch-seeking pilgrims. That sausage dog was quite a treat!

The store’s board walls are lined with old painted-metal trade signs and advertising images. One large section of wall is covered from floor to ceiling with plaques, most of which are printed with black lettering on distressed wood panels. These are obviously new but fit the old-timey atmosphere of Bradley’s Country Store. A small square plaque on the wall said, “CALL YOUR MOMMA.” That item almost came home with me.

You can see in the picture that Bradley’s has a nice front porch with wooden rockers available for use. Inside, this inviting old building has well used, uneven floorboards,(watch your step), numerous shelves of home canned pickles, peppers, salsa, and sauces, and plenty of other nostalgia-inducing (and I didn’t even grow up in the South!) goodies. There are several Southern cuisine cookbooks to browse, homemade lavender soaps to admire, and of course, Bradley’s homemade sausage and stone ground grits. The staff was cordial, helpful, and knowledgeable.

We happily purchased some of Bradley’s Country Store’s most famous foodstuffs that day (you can order online as well) which we plan to share with family and friends soon. Cheese grits, anyone?

http://www.bradleyscountrystore.com/index.php?route=common/home