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Book Review:  A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

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With his second novel, Amor Towles introduces us to A Gentleman in Moscow, the elegant Count Alexander Rostov.  We become immersed in his story and his world, which consists of an aristocratic past and his new life in house-arrest at the grand Hotel Metropole, across the street from the Kremlin.  1922 Moscow, and the post-revolutionary years of tumultuous Russian history scroll by outside, but Rostov’s saga takes place almost entirely within the walls of his luxurious prison.

A member of the old guard, he was living the high life, ensconced in suite # 317, until he ran afoul of the newly-minted  Bolshevik government, which accused him of writing a seditious poem.  Unceremoniously booted out of his grand rooms, he is sentenced to confinement in decidedly less posh accommodations in attic quarters on the 6th floor.  The firing squad, or a quick transfer to Siberia, are his options if he is ever caught setting foot outside the Metropole.

The next 30 years unfold as the Count makes a life for himself, so very different from the one he may have planned on.  Sophisticated and erudite, he seems to be a master of all trades, despite having never done an honest day’s work.  But he must, as all comrades, get a job, eventually becoming a waiter at the fine dining restaurant he previously frequented.   A job which, to no one’s no surprise, he performs with panache.  A man of impeccable personal habits and refined taste, he is a studious follower of routines, suave and sophisticated.  But he turns out to be not just another vapid member of the upper crust, and over the course of the narrative we come to see his wisdom, insight, courage and kindness of heart.    

Unlike many novels of Russia, this one does not dwell on the drear, snow, ice and ubiquitous pain of the Russian people.  The grim presence of Stalin and Khrushchev looms, but politics mostly stays in the shadows.  The threat is always there, as it most certainly was in that era, but it never steals the Count Rostov Show.  Cozy and warm inside the Metropole, a whole separate world exists with its lively cast of characters. 

The members of the hotel staff are transformed over time from the Count’s servants to his friends, confidants, and family.  He also has romantic encounters with a glamorous Hollywood star and a lovely fatherly relationship with the precocious young hotel guest, Nina. You like these people and root for them.  With the possible exception of the resident Bolshevik, with whom Rostov has an amusing contest of wits.  You end up pitying the hapless bureaucrat, who is no match for the clever Count. 

Towles does a beautiful job combining themes of romance, parenting, loyalty, and survival.  The Count makes the best of what he is given, with humor and grace and his existence becomes an example, despite his misfortunes, of the beauty of the human connection.  The author is also a master of detail and creating an ambiance.  Written with flair and style, the language is sometimes flowery and the artistic references not always easily accessible, but they are in perfect keeping with the character and his story.

This captivating tale is clever and elegant.  It makes you chuckle while also tugging at your heartstrings.  Technically historical fiction, it provides a view of Russian history through the eyes of one man who undergoes a metamorphosis, as does the world outside the doors of his gilded cage.  The learned Count schools you in a variety of subjects, since he is seemingly good at everything, but you never dislike him.  His soft heart and his faith in himself and others charm you in the end.

A Gentleman in Moscow is a surprisingly upbeat treat, filled with history, romance, suspense, family drama, literature, food and wine, politics and a little cloak and dagger thrown in for good measure.  If you enjoy it, you might also like to try Towles first novel, Rules of Civility, which was also widely acclaimed.

 

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Book Review: The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

Posted by janp on

The Immortalists, the second novel by Chloe Benjamin, introduces us to the four adolescent Gold children, from a religious Jewish family, during the steaming summer of 1969 in New York’s Lower East Side. The word on the street is that there is a traveling psychic currently installed on Hester Street who tells fortunes, including the exact date of one’s death.  Not all of the children are totally on board with the idea, but with a little pressure from the oldest sibling they seek out this woman and after meeting with her individually, are each informed of their fates. It isn’t until years later that they share with each other what they have learned.

The book plays out in four parts, each examining the lives of Daniel, Varya, Klara and Simon.  There is a wide divergence in their stories and fates. Simon comes out and leaves town for the free sexual scene in pre-Aids San Francisco.  Klara, fascinated with magic, eventually pursues a career as a stage performer in Las Vegas; Daniel becomes a military doctor and Varya a primate researcher investigating the secrets of longevity.

The premise of the book is intriguing.  The forbidden knowledge the children obtain is both curse and blessing.  The story revolves around their sensitivity to matters such as the impermanence of life, destiny vs. choice, reality and illusion, and what is beyond, if anything.  Does knowing when you will you die propel you to live a fuller life, or strip you of any joy in whatever time you are allotted?  You wonder if they believe the psychic and if they will keep their appointed dates with death.  What are the repercussions of this knowledge?

The book is well written, the unique personalities of the characters clearly fleshed-out.  They are compelling, if not all entirely likable.  The first part of the book moves quickly as we see Simon and Klara’s story play out.  The chapters with Daniel and Varya later on are a bit slower and somewhat darker.  Their stories are interesting, but do veer to a bit depressing, sometimes tragic and a little unsettling.

If you are looking for a light read, this is not for you.  But it held my interest for the most part.  Was the prophecy going to be true for them all? There are so many questions here, about life choices, family obligations, destiny, self-fulfilling prophesies, morality and free will, that it is quite a good pick for a book group discussion.  You can start with asking “Would you want to know the day you will die?”

If you like The Immortalists, you could also try Chloe Benjamin’s debut novel, The Anatomy of Dreams.

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Book Review: The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey

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The Widows of Malabar Hill, inspired by the woman who made history to become India’s first female lawyer, is the first installment of a new mystery series.  Sujata Massey introduces us to Perveen Mistry, the daughter of a respected Parsi family living in Bombay of the 1920’s.  She attended law school at Oxford, and now works for her father’s firm, but because she is a woman, cannot fill the role of solicitor and appear in court.  She instead is tasked with examining paperwork and doing research for contracts, wills, and settlements.  She chafes at this, since she is entirely capable of being a full-fledged attorney, but it is simply not done at that time in that place. 

She is assigned to review the execution of the will of a wealthy Muslim mill owner, Omar Farid, who has left behind three widows and several children.  The widows live in full purdah, strict seclusion, never leaving their home or speaking to any men from the outside.  Perveen notices inconsistencies in the signatures on the settlement paperwork, and fearing the wives are being taken advantage of, she is granted permission to speak to them in person for clarification.  As a woman, she is uniquely able to do this.  But her inquiries spark conflict within the Farid household that escalates to murder.  Now she must add that factor to her sleuthing about what is really going on within this cloistered space, as she attempts to ensure the family is protected.

Perveen, a sympathetic heroine, is sharp, strong-willed and independent, but also compassionate, with a painful back-story, fleshed out within a secondary plotline.  She fights for justice in a system where women’s rights and relationships shaped by religious and cultural norms are complicated and fraught.  These conventions frustrate her, but she is insightful enough to recognize she must stay within the rules to achieve her ends. 

The characters are unique and well-described.  You sympathize with Perveen as she wages an uphill battle in a man’s world, in which some of her best attributes get her in trouble and are a source of impatience and derision even among those close to her.  In this novel of place, the author deftly provides richly drawn cultural and period details of social interaction, architecture, politics and gender dynamics as a backdrop to the drama unfolding in Perveen’s life and that of her clients. Multicultural Bombay comes to life with engaging descriptions of the city itself, the enigmatic world of the Muslim purdah and Parsi cultural traditions, especially as they affect the lives of women. 

This story can be enjoyed by both mystery and historical fiction lovers alike.  It provides a fascinating setting, engaging characters, a mystery with twists and historical detail in which a strong female lead is both a source of sympathy and admiration. If you enjoy this book, the next in the series is The Satapur Moonstone.  For more from this author, you may also want to check out her first set of mysteries, eleven volumes featuring a current day heroine Rei Shimura, set in Tokyo, the first of which is The Salaryman’s Wife.

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Book Review: Oona Out of Order, Margarita Montimore

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As a fan of time travel stories, I can say that Oona Out of Order wasn’t among the most thrilling (The Time Traveler’s Wife), or romantic (Outlander) or darkest (Doomsday Book) I have read, but it did contain elements of those terrific reads.  What set it apart was a unique wrinkle. The protagonist, Oona Lockhart, at the stroke of midnight on January 1st, as she turns 19, faints and awakens thirty two years in the future in her fifty-one-year-old body.  She soon learns that this is her new normal and that every New Year’s Eve the same drama will play out, depositing her in a random year of her life.  She is still the same woman, emotionally and mentally, on the inside, but inhabits the body of whatever year the next dislocation brings. These time travel rules seem a little complicated, but you soon get the hang of it as Oona adjusts to her internal vs. external age.  And it is quite a romp.  Often with no knowledge of the intervening years, the relationships she finds herself in, not to mention the current technologies and pop culture fads, she often is just getting used to things when her birthday rolls around, and she is wrenched to a new existence as the cycle repeats. It is understandable that she struggles to feel grounded, despite supporting characters like her mother Madeleine and confidante Kenzie who serve as guides and attempt to provide her some structure as she faces life’s triumphs and heartbreaks.

Oona Out of Order contains lighthearted elements, poignant moments, and has a dizzying quality as our heroine attempts to negotiate her newly disjointed existence.  You come to admire her for facing up to the challenge with wit and self-awareness.  She leaves a note for the next iteration of herself every year, but soon finds that following her own advice is of little help.  Oona discovers that with some things she can take advantage of knowing the future, such as her finances. Others, like relationships and making important life decisions are a little more difficult to navigate, which serve to highlight the unpredictability and imperfections we all encounter.

I enjoyed the different time travel “rules” and found myself rooting for Oona to make it through the labyrinth her life has become and be happy. The characters are well drawn and there are just enough twists in the plot to keep you going.  Not the most dramatic example of the genre, but unique, thought provoking and touching.  You want to press on because you never know from one year to the next what unusual complications Oona will face.  You want to know how she will manage it, and what will be revealed.  An enjoyable, escapist read, even if you aren’t necessarily into time travel.  This is more of a story about love, commitment and self discovery than anything else.

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Book Review: The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict

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The Only Woman in the Room is the fictionalized account of a remarkable woman, Hedwig Kiesler.  Set in pre-WWII Austria, this daughter of a Jewish family has begun a career as a stage actress, known for her beauty and talent.  Forced into marriage with a notorious arms dealer, as the trophy wife she is privy to many dinner parties and clandestine meetings involving the Nazis and other political and military figures.  But her glamour masks a formidable intellect and she absorbs a great deal more than those who dismiss her as an airhead realize.

This is the backstory of the famous Hollywood icon, Hedy Lamarr, who later goes on to display her intellectual abilities in the scientific field.  She and her business partner are among the earliest to work on spread spectrum technology to develop radio guidance systems for torpedoes.  This glamorous figure had more than one dimension it seems.  While starring with the likes of Clark Gable and Cary Grant, her scientific work was drawing the support of figures such as Howard Hughes for this precursor to the wireless communication we use today. She had not been recognized until recently for these and other scientific accomplishments.

The Only Woman in the Room is somewhat of a hybrid Romance-Historical Fiction-Biography.  It recounts Lamarr’s journey from Austria to Hollywood, mostly concentrating on her early adult life, unhappy marriage to her controlling and abusive husband and the strange existence of having to be in a nest of vipers, as the accommodating hostess to her husband’s unsavory business associates.  The stunning and talented Hedy uses her position in society to actively hide her Jewish roots. The emphasis often is on her beauty, including a lot of descriptions of hair, make-up and clothes.  We are treated to her inner thoughts as she navigates her situation as well as her sometimes fraught familial ties.  

Despite the fascinating story of Hedy Lamarr, she comes across as somewhat of a lightweight in this telling.  Her character is rather watered down.  The story lacks more expansive detail and texture, which would have given it, and the characters, more depth and richness.  Hedy Lamarr is a brilliant, fascinating and strong female figure, but her characterization here is in contrast to her accomplishments.  The emphasis in this book is not on the truly remarkable elements of her story.  It becomes difficult to make the leap from early Hedy to Hedy the scientist.  If you didn’t know it was based on a true story you might think it an unlikely plot, based on the characters as drawn. The story of her scientific work is given a bit of a short shrift, especially for anyone who likes more detailed and involved historical fiction. The author appears to rush events at the end, when expanding upon them would have fully fleshed out the picture of this fascinating woman.

Despite the aforementioned shortcomings, I did enjoy the book. I had a vague knowledge of Hedy Lamar’s interesting background but was not familiar with the specifics.  Some in my book group were totally surprised by the story and were inspired to look into Lamarr’s life in greater detail and read other accounts.  This is a testament to Marie Benedict’s ability to spark interest in a topic. I personally think all good historical fiction has the potential to do just this.  If you enjoy The Only Woman in the Room, and would like to know more, you might be interested in Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World by Richard Rhodes, Beautiful: The Life of Hedy Lamarr by Stephen Shearer or an or an autobiography:  Ecstasy and Me, My Life as a Woman.  You might also try other books by Marie Benedict in which she has shined light on hidden roles of women in history such as Carnegie’s Maid and The Other Einstein.

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Book Review: The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard

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I recently came across an oldie on my bookshelf, The Transit of Venus, by Shirley Hazzard, and read a few basic reviews.  They were for the most part glowing, and the book was the 1980 winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction.  Shirley Hazzard is an Australian-born writer of both fiction and non-fiction know for her distinct style of prose.  The writing is beautiful, almost reminiscent of an earlier period when phrasing was often more lyrical, almost poetic.  Using exquisite language, with complex construction and nuance, she does have a way of capturing a character’s thoughts, a complex situation, or a point of view which I found unique and clever.

The Transit of Venus is a love story, albeit a gloomy version of the genre.  It is the story of two orphaned Australian girls who, upon entering adulthood post WWII, escape to England away from the overbearing, narcissistic female relative who has begrudgingly raised them.  What follows charts the course of their and loves and losses over the next 30 years.  Caro is a dynamic, glamorous soul with accompanying drama.  Introverted Grace settles into a more conventional situation.  Sprinkled throughout are a series of wholly unappealing lovers and husbands.

The plot is rather shallow, because it takes a back seat to the prose, and the lack of weight and clarity left me unsatisfied. The characters were an unhappy, brooding, unfaithful and unappealing lot.  Their portraits obtuse, I found myself not caring about them. The saga launches ahead in time to the 1960s and ‘70s with an introductory list of a few famous events which occurred during those decades.  But despite her obvious facility, the author doesn’t successfully evoke those times.

Her use of the language is impressive by any measure, but Ms Hazzard is an acquired taste.  I often found myself really having to concentrate to follow her.  This isn’t in itself a bad thing.  But it got in the way of me enjoying the book.  The fancy wording, delightful and insightful as it often was, did not always enhance the story.  I actually like a lot a description in a book and I don’t mind having to consult a dictionary, but it turned into a bit of a chore.  Almost self-indulgent, it was a little too clever by half.  The dialog was too elegant and cerebral to be believable.  Who talks that way?

To be fair, I did read it piecemeal, a chapter each night, so I never really got on a roll.  Perhaps with larger chunks of time devoted to it, I would have gotten into the flow of her style. It just required a little too much perseverance for a novel.  Shirley Hazzard, who passed away in 2016, is considered to be a brilliant writer and I was fascinated and impressed with her wordsmithery.  I was starting to get the hang of it in the latter stages, but admit I was impatient to finish.

I personally would not recommend this book, but I am in the minority.  Lovers of literature consider this one of their favorites.  So if that dichotomy piques your curiosity it may be worth a try.  You will know immediately in the first few pages whether or not the writing style is for you.  The story in itself isn’t very gripping or interesting.  You will find no mystery, drama, passionate romance, or twisting plot lines.  But a few pages in, if you find yourself captivated by the stylings of Shirley Hazzard, you may enjoy The Transit of Venus.

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Review: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

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everything i never told you

EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU by  Celeste Ng

This is not a happy book, but perhaps one of the most well-written I have ever read. It touches on themes of grief, the desire to belong, the mixing of cultures, living vicariously through others and being ahead of one’s time. These are wrapped up in succinct, but emotionally evocative, prose so beautifully rendered that I found myself wanting to re read many of the passages out loud.
The story takes place during the 1950’s ‘60’s and 70’s and revolves around the marriage and family life of a first generation Chinese-American man and his WASP wife in a mid-western small town. His lifelong desire to fit in to American culture and her lifelong regrets about not pursuing a medical career set the stage for conflict with both of their families and consequences for their children.
The first line of the book tells you their daughter has drowned under apparently mysterious circumstances. That sets the stage for the couple to look back on both their lives, informing us to why they act the way they do. In some chapters we get their children’s point of view, including the one who has died.
As the reader, it is clear to see the mistakes they have made, and continue to make when they fail time and again to communicate and to appreciate how their actions are doing harm to themselves and the ones they love. That is part of the tension of the story. You just want to tell them to stop!
Interesting, heart-rending, thoughtful and beautifully written.

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As If! The Oral History of Clueless as told by Amy Heckerling, the cast, and the crew

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This summer marked the 20 year anniversary of Clueless’s opening in CA movie theaters (and nationwide a week later). The fashionasif, the slang, the talent! and the soundtrack combined to create a sleeper hit teen movie with widespread appeal. Based on Jane Austen’s classic matchmaking story, Emma, Clueless won 8 awards, including Best Screenplay from the National Society of Film Critics but sadly missed the Oscar, in part due to it’s unfortunate categorization as a derivative work.

In this interview-style book, Jen Cheney shares memory and insight from the major players from the stars, director, producer, promoters, wardrobe, even bands featured in the movie and on the soundtrack. The book also places Clueless neatly in context of cinema history, and pop culture, showing how a seemingly fluffy story of a Beverly Hills socialite changed the grunge scene, empowers women and influenced music, television film for years to come, most recently in Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy“video, which recreates a number of iconic scenes from the film, down to the actual wardrobe.

A must-read for any fan of the film, As If! is organized chronologically from concept and then through each major scene, with forays into the worlds of costume, music and reviews. The author pieces together interviews (new and past) to stitch together a seamless narrative that makes the reader feel as if all the participants are in a room sitting in a circle and feeding off one another’s comments.

Missing throughout is Brittany Murphy’s voice, lost in 2009. A tribute at the end memorializes her without dipping into oversentimentality.

Read more about Clueless with these 22 fun facts, go see the revival playing at the Coolidge Theatre this fall, or borrow it from the Library today! Watch for the Broadway version to debut (pending funding) in the next few years.

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Review: The Children Return

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The most recent installment of the Bruno:  Chief of Police series by Martin Walker is now available.  The Children ReturnThe Children Return once again finds our hero Bruno pitted against forces larger than himself, and his local police force, in rural St. Denis, France.  Starting with a murdered undercover agent who had been investigating local jihadists, Bruno’s concerns quickly escalate to include a local autistic boy who had been hijacked by Islamic extremists, spirited away to Afghanistan and used for his amazing information-gathering technical skills.  He has now been rescued and returned to St. Denis, but his former captors are not letting him go that easily, and fears grow for his safety, and that of his family and the local populace, should these forces pursue him back to his home town.

Interwoven with this storyline are a few other subplots involving international intrigue, local history and as always with Bruno, a potential new love interest, complications with his old love interest, good food, good wine, good friends and the beauty of the Dordogne countryside.

While these mysteries are a charming read, they always showcase an interesting plot with some twists.  In addition they contain a serious vein which examines contemporary controversies.  This time around, the focus is on issues involving the large and growing Muslim population in France.  The people and local officials of the fictional town of St. Denis face these, as always, under the watchful and protective eye of their beloved Bruno:  Chief of Police.

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Review: Bed by David Whitehouse

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Bed by David Whitehouse is the story of a family wrought by one member’s refusal to get out of bed. The main character, Malcolm Ede, is a man in his 40s who went to bed on his 25th birthday and decided to never leave it again. The story is told by his younger brother, also in his 40s, who like his brother, still lives with his parents in the bedroom they grew up in.

The story unfolds, oscillating between childhood memories and the present. Mal started out as an eccentric child who ruined family outings with his outlandish behavior. Mal’s family cannot hold him accountable, and as a result, they become hostages of his actions. As a young adult, Mal is handsome, athletic, and popular. He meets a girl named Lou, and both Mal and his younger brother fall in love with her. However, finding a job, getting married, working, having a family, working more –essentially what most people do when they grow up– is completely unacceptable to Mal. He is convinced there is an easier way to live, and turns to (or into) his bed.

David Whitehouse writes beautifully. His descriptions are so vivid and original, I found myself rereading sentences just to linger over them a little longer; however, Bed was difficult to read due to the nature of the story itself. As readers, we want to know, Why? What motivates humans to act as they do? Whitehouse keeps us engaged on our search for answers.

As reviewed by Valerie Evans

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