A Gentleman in Moscow: a Novel

Featured

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.

Reading is more than what you think…

I am astonished by the number of people who are suspicious of and even offended by books containing imaginative fables, fantasies, and allegories. My curiosity being what it is, I have asked some of the “no fantasy for me” proponents what books kept them company as kids. Some can’t remember what they read, but a few said that they were drawn to books about animals, family sagas, science, and history. All good choices but I don’t think I could have made it through childhood without the help of Narnia, Half Magic and The Hobbit.

Active imaginations and creative pursuits were an ever-present commodity in my home as I was growing up. My brothers and sisters and I almost always had a book or a pen and paper on our person. Music of some sort ran on a continuous soundtrack through the house – always in the background, but often the main event, too. We children admired and emulated the quick-witted and clever people around us, both those on the radio and TV and the gifted members of our family and community. For instance, Mom quoted long rhymes at the drop of a hat, and recited poems & silly songs to us during our bath times or in other mundane, potentially boring situations. Because Mom insisted, we listened to the opera every Saturday (“Texaco Presents… the Metropolitan Opera!”) as we youngsters cleaned our large, old, kid-filled home. During those live radio performances, we experienced great dramas and fantasies put to music.

And then there was the Mass — especially Sunday High Mass — a holy, ritual-filled hour that taught us the transcendence of God, the reality of miracles, and the glory of heaven. Truth, beauty, goodness, all around. Those wonder-filled hours of chanted prayer and fragrant incense stood in sharp contrast to the times in our home that featured alcohol abuse and tense, fearful situations Thankfully, the reading of an entertaining book or a trip to a movie theater could serve as a way to cope with the pain and confusion those events brought on. Good stories and music had the power to calm one’s fears and presented the possibility of a future happy ending. “Bookish tendencies” were good skills to have when it came to dealing with the harsh realities of life.

I think my childhood reading of myths and fables also helped to teach me to read between the lines in the real world, which is a great survival skill. I am thankful for the books of C.S. Lewis, Edward Eager, and J.R.R. Tolkien for the comfort their works provided and the resourcefulness their stories brought with them. My youthful reading experiences taught me that wonderful books of fantasy help to exercise one’s mind not to simply escape trying situations, but also to train one to learn to deal with unsolvable difficulties. It was in those early reading years that I learned to trust my imagination to lead me to a deeper, more inventive understanding of the world around me. And don’t despair! It’s never too late to read books of fantasy and fairytales and receive all the good they have to offer. Pick one up today. Your imagination will thank you.

To the High Desert of Santa Fe, New Mexico, we journey…

 

… At the B19 Gate in the Phoenix Airport- American Airlines. Waiting for the flight to Santa Fe to arrive, then from the Santa Fe airport to a shuttle for a ride to St John’s College and check-in for The Glen Workshop. Never expected to be here too early to get into the dorms 😳but it just might happen! (Hope to include pictures of the Glen Workshop experience, but the WordPress mobile platform just crashed! Maybe pics can be edited in later…)

An introvert learns a lesson

"The Journey": Illustration depicts ...

“The Journey”: Illustration depicts a young boy absorbed in watching the scenery from his seat in a railway car for a series of poems by Josephine Preston Peabody entitled “The Little Past.” The poems relate experiences of childhood from a child’s perspective. Published in: “The Little Past : the Journey” by Josephine Preston Peabody, Harper’s magazine, 108:95 (Dec. 1903). 1 painting : oil. Digital file from original. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This morning early, several women met to visit, talk about writing, and to share something with the group that they had written in the last three months. This was our second meeting. Our first meeting was to get to know each other a little bit and to discuss what we hoped to gain from the group. I had some trepidations prior to the original meeting, mostly  because I am an introvert and find meetings like this to be difficult,  but, to my surprise,  the first gathering went very well. Even though none of us had the same type of writing goal in mind – our interests ran from children’s books to non-fiction to public speaking to mysteries to daily devotionals – we hit it off so well together that we decided to give the writing group idea a try. Before the meeting ended that morning, we  gave ourselves an assignment in reading and writing, and set a date to gather together again.

As the weeks passed and the date to meet drew closer, I  got my assignments done, which was a great feeling, but then I began to fret about the meeting. “Will the other people actually show up?” ” Why would anyone want to read my stuff?” “Isn’t it kind of odd that writers, who work alone, should even get together?”, etc. (For you extroverts, these kinds of statements are pretty typical examples of introvert self-talk.) Ultimately,  I knew I could depend on one other person being there, and figured that if only she came, we could still have a great morning, and I tried to put my insecure-introvert feelings aside.

Of course, all the mental pacing was for naught – everyone showed up, people graciously read each other’s work, and the critiquing was kind and valuable. I shouldn’t have worried, and I now know why: even at our first meeting, when we realized none of us was going to be writing in the same genre, we had a great time being together, sharing stories, encouraging one another as people first, writers second.  We are  a diverse group in age and experience, but because of that there is a lot of wisdom from which to draw.  Our  prespectives, strengths and weaknesses were mixed, balanced and blended as we shared our stories of meeting the demands of daily life, and the challenges of the writing life.

We plan to meet again next quarter, and as our level of trust and sharing grows, I believe our writing skills will be enhanced, too. Even though writing is a solitary, introvert-ish endeavor, I am beginning to learn the great blessings that comes from a writing group. Who knew?

What I learned from NaNoWriMo

Keyboard V

Keyboard V (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Not sure how I got swept up into the National Novel Writing Month in November, but it happened. If you are new to NaNoWriMo, their slogan is “Thirty Days and Nights of Literary Abandon”.  The idea is to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days.  If you want to learn more about NaNoWriMo you can do that here: http://www.nanowrimo.org/faq/about-us/

NaNoWriMo is completely on the honor system. After all, if you lie about reaching your goal, who have you fooled? Only yourself, of course. So, did I reach 50,000 words? No. But I did write 41, 271 words, which completely surprised me. Here are the top 10 things I learned from participating in NaNoWriMo:

  1. The number of words you must write per day to reach 50,000 words in thirty days is 1,667, but you should set your sites on writing at least 2,000. You need a cushion to get you through the days when life, family, work or illness demands that you leave the computer and get other things done.
  2. Recognize the things that are writing aids, and which things are distractions; e.g., TV = distraction; radio = aid. Also, being a good typist is a great asset to have at your disposal. I‘m a terrible typist.(Dragon speech recognition software anyone?)
  3. Find a comfortable place to write. This was a challenge. Never knew it was so hard to type with a computer on your lap. Couldn’t get used to my legs going numb after an hour of sitting cross legged.
  4.  Prepare an outline for the novel (fair according to the NaNoWriMo rules.) It is too time consuming to formulate an outline and write a story at the same time.
  5. Do not try to learn how to use Scrivener (a word-processing program designed for writers) and write 1667 words a day at the same time.
  6. Checking your progress on a fun website that has your personal total word count, a bar graph, and lots of other stats is cool, mostly.
  7. It is possible to write 3,000 words in 6 hours; also possible to type in a semi-sleeping state.
  8. It is very hard to lock your internal editor in a room in your brain and not allow her out for a month. Couldn’t do it.
  9. Yes, you can sit down and write even when inspiration has left the building.
  10.  You might want to take the last two days of November off work so that you can write for 48 hours straight, if necessary.

Will I do NaNoWriMo again? Can’t say, especially now that I know how big the commitment is. I will be better prepared to participate if I do take the challenge next year, though.  How about you? Are you interested in joining NaNoWriMo 2013?

The strangest dream…

Writer's Stop

OK, must get this down before it fades away to nothing. Last night I  dreamed that I was writing a book, a mystery. The main character was an investigator, a man of medium height who had a buzzy-type haircut for his thick graying hair, and carried around a short tumbler of tonic water where ever he went. He was a friendly, quiet guy, and people seemed to genuinely like him. People did not expect much of him, however, and he seemed to be a bit of a bungler, was absent minded and easily distracted. This character’s ‘assignment’ was to figure out how a local lawyer was able to get the vast majority of his clients acquitted without a trial. Our hero managed to solve the mystery, and cleverly;  so cleverly that the writer in my dream (me) was amazed and very impressed with him! (apparently this character in the book figured things out without any help from the writer!) As can only happen in dreams, I was the writer of the book, the reader of the book, and was also watching the movie made from the book at the same time.
This was a whole new dream experience, and a couple of things stand out:

1. I don’t think of myself as a writer of books, and  have never been a writer in any other dream.

2. Have never in my life featured a man as a main character in anything put into story form.

What does the dream mean? No clue. But it sure was fun to be able to read and write while sleeping! Now if I could just remember how the main character solved “The Mystery of the Quick Acquittals.”