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.