Sunday, March 26, 2017

A Gentleman in Moscow

by Amor Towles
Random House 2016
489 pages            Literary

House arrest. We often read those words in newspaper articles about political leaders being placed under house arrest pending a trial—for instance Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma—but we seldom  understand what house arrest must be like for the person under arrest. It was with this premise that Amor Towles conceived of his brilliant novel. A Gentleman in Moscow.

Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, an aristocrat, was placed under house arrest in 1922, ostensibly because he wrote a poem critical of the revolution, but more likely he was placed under arrest because he remained an aristocrat in a time of revolution. When asked in his trial about his occupation, he replies, "It is not the business of gentlemen to have occupations." With that unsatisfying response (unsatisfying to the court, apparently, but immensely satisfying to the reader), Rostov is placed under house arrest for having "succumbed irrevocably to the corruptions of his class." With the greatest of ironies, however, he is confined to the grand Moscow hotel where he has lived for the last several years, the Metropol, which by the way, is a real Moscow hotel. In his early 30s at the time of his incarceration, he remains in place in the hotel for more than 30 years. If he leaves the hotel, he will be shot on sight.

Thus begins a most incredible novel with the slimmest of premises: an aristocrat stuck in a hotel (albeit a grand hotel) for 30 years. One of my book club friends called it "the most charming book she had ever read." And I have to agree with her.  Rostov is the most masterful of gentlemen, convinced that “by the smallest of one’s actions one can restore some sense of order to the world.” There are conflicts; there are constraints; there is love; there are children; there is despair.  But through it all, Rostov remains himself—a perfect gentleman.

Until the end. The last chapters are so ingenious and breathtaking that I closed the book and sat stupefied and wordless. There are no words to describe the ending because I had become so entrenched within the walls of the hotel that I could not imagine the potential of an ending. 

The Metropol Hotel, itself, is one of the major characters of the book. And it is a marvelous character—from the kitchen to the grand dining room to the suites that became a little seedy during the Stalinist years to the tiny little rooms where Rostov sleeps. There even is a little girl being raised in the hotel—modeled after Eloise at the Plaza, the author says. The Metropol is a glorious setting full of colorful characters, wonderful food, and plenty to drink. This hotel character, indeed, is the most incredible in the entire cast of characters because it never gets boring and it seems much more spacious than it actually is.

The reviewer in the Washington Post describes the Count as a Slavic Alexander McCall Smith, and if I take a good look at the picture of the author, Amor Towles, I can see a resemblance between the author and my vision of the Count. Before Towles retired to write A Gentleman in Moscow and his previous novel, Rules of Civility, he traveled a great deal for business. Every time he would return to certain hotels, he would see some of the same people, and he began to imagine what life would be like if a person was confined to a luxury hotel. 

I do have to mention that our book club had a wonderful time discussing A Gentleman in Moscow, made all the more delightful by the addition of a vodka toast, rye bread, and beet salad. One of the things we laughed about was the amount of alcohol that is consumed in the novel, but we also spent a great deal of time discussing the obscurity, but also the profound meaning, of the ending—made all the more obscure and profound with the addition of the vodka. 

The review in The Washington Post.
An interview with Amor Towles about A Gentleman in Moscow.

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Painted Gun

by Bradley Spinelli
Akashic Books     2017
267 pages     Noir

In order to truly appreciate The Painted Gun by Bradley Spinelli, you need to be aware of the definition of "noir" fiction. An article in Huffington Post suggests that the protagonist in a noir novel is a loser, "as the life that awaits them is certain to be so ugly, so lost and lonely, that they'd be better off just curling up and getting it over with." Another definition of noir fiction says that it is closely related to the "hardboiled" genre except that the protagonist is not a detective, but might be a suspect or a perpetrator. Often the protagonist is self-destructive. One of the other characteristics of the genre is the dark humor that permeates its novels. Spinelli scores on almost every aspect of the noir checklist, and I really enjoyed checking items off the list.

David "Itchy" Crane is an information consultant in 1990s San Francisco. What that means is that he is not really a private detective but someone who helps clients find necessary information. (Remember that this is before you can find every bit of information you need on the Internet.) He is hired by an acquaintance to find a lost young woman named Ashley and is paid handsomely to search for her. What Crane immediately finds out is that she is a painter who only paints one subject—David "Itchy" Crane. Yet Crane has never met her and is freaked out by the intimacy of the paintings. Of course, like most protagonists in noir and hard-boiled fiction, he becomes obsessed with finding her. Along the way to finding her, people end up dead, the CIA is somehow involved, and his journey takes him to Guatemala where he finally is able to resolve the drama.

One reviewer suggests that it would have been easy for Spinelli to slip into cliché as the plot unfolds, but that doesn't happen. Crane, himself, acknowledges that he might be slipping into cliché, but surprisingly he has enough self-awareness to know where he is headed and he embraces it. Here's a favorite line--when Crane finds out that Ashley is painting portraits of him. "The word portraits ran down the back of my neck like stray hairs in a shirt collar after a haircut." 
One of the best aspects of The Painted Gun is its sense of place. The seedier sides of San Francisco are brought to life with all the expected characters, including some of the informants that Crane had used when he was a newspaper reporter. In the last chapters, Crane goes to Guatemala to finish his mission, and Guatemala comes vividly to life. This part of the novel is a bit of an anachronism. We get a history lesson into Guatemalan politics and bananas as well as a geography lesson. Frankly, I found this to be the most interesting part of the novel, although some reviewers thought the novel faltered  a bit there.

Publishers Weekly calls The Painted Gun a "tricky and delightfully surprising crime novel." They also suggest that Spinelli is a "talent to watch." The book can be read in one or two sittings and is a wonderful diversion. I received it from the publisher, and it came out this week. It was a lot of fun.

Bradley Spinelli website.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Tides: The science and spirit of the ocean

By Jonathan White

Trinity University Press     2017

335 pages     Nonfiction

I brought Tides with me to read on our vacation in Orange Beach, Alabama. I didn’t get a chance to read it until near the end; after we had pondered the tides for several days. I wish I had read it earlier. While Jonathan White is a writer, he is also a sailor and conservationist, so the scientific narrative about tides is punctuated with stories, illustrations, and pictures. This is not a textbook; Tides is narrative nonfiction, as mesmerizing as the tides it explains.

There are 370,000 miles of coastline around the world and the tides are never the same from place to place—or even in the same place. White says that on the Atlantic Ocean, the tides seem to be governed by the moon, but on the Pacific Ocean, they are governed by the sun. The rhythm of the tide seems to have more to do with planetary motion, which is not simple or regular. “It’s full of eccentricities.” In his journeys of discovery, White found that even the most experienced oceanographers and scientists can be perplexed by the tides. One scientist told him, “I don’t have ‘aha’ moments in this field, only ‘oh god’ moments when I find something that makes no sense.”

The book is filled with these amazing moments—stories, facts, fiction, and myth related to White as well as his own stories and experiences. I found it all fascinating. So, as I sit pondering the Gulf of Mexica for one more day, I know that there are many more mysteries of the sea to be explored. Now, if the dolphins would just return for a farewell visit before we leave tomorrow morning!

Jonathan White’s website. There is a wonderful trailer for the book on the website.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Homesick for Another World

by Ottessa Moshfegh

Penguin Press     2017

304 pages     Short Stories

In her book of short stories, Homesick for Another World, Ottessa Moshfegh has created characters that you might not want to know, but who fascinate you none the less. From the first story to the last, these are people at the fringes of society and at the fringes of their mental health.

The first story is about an alcoholic, divorced math teacher, who hates her job, hates her life, and hates her students. She keeps trying to put herself back together, but just can’t do it. Finally, she quits her job, but not before telling her principal that she fudged on the state exams. (I loved that—every teacher wishes to fudge on the state exams.)

The final story is about twins, a boy and a girl. They are about seven or eight, and the boy has filled his sister with the ugly thought that at some point, the earth is going to swallow her up and take her to another place. She has to kill someone in order to go to this other world, and she desperately wants to get there. How she goes about making this wish come true is devastating and a fitting conclusion to this fascinating collection.

I feel somewhat at a loss in blogging about Homesick for Another World. Each story features a character or two in a uniquely painful situation.  Sometimes I felt like a voyeur. I didn’t want to know about the messiness of these lives. Sometimes, I hurt for their pain and their loss. I had never met these characters before, and therein is the allure of the book. You have not read these stories before. I could not read more than one story at a time; they were just too painful. Frankly, this is not a book for everyone. Why persist in reading it?—because these are people that you need to know; because even if they would not become your friends, these are the people you see on the subway, or the bus, or in line at the grocery store.

The New York Times reviewer says, “A good story is a high-wire act that uses angle of vision, voice and plot to produce a work that somehow, against all odds, radiates meaning at all levels — in the sentences, the structure and in the absences.” Moshfegh is a master of the absences.  

Ottessa Moshfegh is a young author. She has published a novel, Eileen, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2016.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Law and Disorder

by Mike Papantonio
Select Books     2016
338 pages     Legal Procedural

Legal procedural novels are novels about court cases. If you have read any John Grisham , you have read a legal procedural.  Law and Disorder by Mike Papantonio is a novel about civil litigation. Civil proceedings are cases where one individual or group is seeking damages (money or otherwise) from another group or individual.  

 In Law and Disorder, there are two types of civil suits pending: damages are being sought against a pharmaceutical company and there is also an environmental lawsuit against an oil company. The protagonist is Nick "Deke" Deketomis, a very successful and prominent Florida lawyer, who takes on a drug company dispensing a birth control pill that is causing paralysis and death for the women who take it. This is personal for Deke because one of his clients dies just before the trial, which totally freaks him out. Then  his own daughter becomes extremely ill as well. In the midst of all this, Deke is spending time working on a Texas environmental case. Meanwhile in his hometown, an evangelical preacher is out to get him. This subplot ends in disaster for Deke as he accidentally kills a parishioner. So, he not only is dealing with two civil cases, but he is also facing manslaughter charges. 

There is a lot going on in Law and Disorder. We learn a lot about civil law; we have a cast of characters running around doing good and evil; we have an accidental death; and we have a lot of political posturing. Although Deke is an interesting protagonist, he is not a very appealing character, and we never get to know any other characters very well. The media circus around the cases is also interesting. What is most interesting are the political aspects of the author's intent. While there are many readers who might be offended by Papantonio's liberal politics, it certainly suits the mood of the country.

What is lacking is a reason to keep reading the book. The Kirkus review calls the book "bumper sticker prose." As Papantonio develops his writing career, I would hope that he could create more finely-tuned characters and a more sophisticated plot outside the courtroom. 

There is an excellent review on the Above the Law legal website. That reviewer suggests that lawyers will love the book because of the strength of the litigation. All others might be put off by the lack of strong characters and just too much going on with nothing fully developed. 

Papantonio is a liberal radio and talk show host on the RT America network. His show is called "America's Lawyer." The book came out about the same time as his show.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Still Life

by Louise Penny
St. Martin's     2005
312 pages     Mystery 

My friend Nancy has told me several times that Louise Penny is her favorite mystery writer, but up until last month, I had never read any of her books. Well, now I am hooked for several reasons. First, I had never read a novel based in Quebec. Second, Chief Inspector Gamache, the protagonist in the series, is an extremely thoughtful, charming man, loved by his subordinates and a very thorough detective. The Kirkus reviewer said, "Cerebral, wise and compassionate, Gamache is destined for stardom. Don't miss this stellar debut."

Still Life begins spectacularly. (I have become aware of how important opening lines of novels are.) Penny writes: "Miss Jane Neal met her maker in the early morning mist of Thanksgiving Sunday. It was pretty much a surprise all around." Jane Neal, an elderly retired schoolteacher, was a cherished member of the small community of Three Pines, south of Montreal. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his associates set out to solve her murder, made more difficult because the community is small; everyone knows everyone, and someone is keeping a secret. 

The beauty of Still Life is not the plot, which is a bit scattered. The beauty is in the awesome detective, the spectacular setting, and the genuine character development. Penny writes about Gamache viewing the village: "As he sat quietly and let the village happen around him, he was impressed by how beautiful it was, these old homes facing the green, with their mature perennial gardens and trees. By how natural everything looked, undesigned."

Gamache is a master detective. He knows that "crime is deeply human." He knows that if he is to catch Jane Neal's killer, he has to know the setting and the people. He has to connect with all the human beings involved. 

Mystery buffs will find that there are a lot of loose ends in the novel. This was Penny's first mystery novel, and I am assuming that she improved because she has won many awards for this series. My favorite line in the book comes from the musings of the village book seller, Myrna. "She felt if she could just get a good look at a person's bookcase and their grocery cart, she'd pretty much know who they were." A truth if there ever was one!

It's cold and snowy here; warm and cozy by the fire. Find a good mystery and settle in. Louise Penny has written 12 books in the Inspector Gamache series. Start with Still Life and read through them all. Then it will be spring!

Louise Penny's website.
Here are the books in order:

Still Life, A Fatal Grace/Dead Cold (same book, different title), The Cruelest Month, A Rule Against Murder/The Murder Stone (same book, different title), The Brutal Telling, Bury Your Dead, A Trick of the Light, The Beautiful Mystery, How the Light Gets In, The Long Way Home, The Nature of the Beast, A Great Reckoning.