Delightful and Sophisticated: “A Gentleman in Moscow”, by Amor Towles - Book Review

Moscow of the 1920’s is haunted by years of shifting political philosophies. The Bolsheviks are in power, “liberating” wealth from the aristocrats, nationalizing property, and advocating for the working class, while it works its way to a formal communist society. It is here in Moscow where we are introduced to the young gentleman Count Alexander Rostov, whose family estate is confiscated, and the Count is sentenced to house arrest in the grand hotel Metropol. 

What a lovely man author Amor Towles creates in Count Rostov - unrepentant, light-hearted, with a child-like curiosity. Rostov is condemned to live in an attic room of the hotel and must never set foot outside its doors. The Metropol is truly a grand hotel with fine dining, a lively bar, and animated cast of guests and employees, where Rostov finds a way to thrive within its confines. His imprisonment allows him to build deep and lasting relationships with the staff and guests alike, including an actress, American diplomat, a Bolshevik officer, journalists, as well as the hotel seamstress, chef, and maitre d’, among others.

One of the most important characters is a precocious child living as a guest in the hotel, Nina. The Count becomes Nina’s de facto mentor and co-conspirator, and they help each other explore the hidden nooks and secrets of both the building and its guests.  Eventually Nina leaves for school and marriage, but years later, she returns with a daughter of her own. Nina must travel in search of her missing husband and leaves her daughter, Sofia, in Rostov’s care. What happens next is an emotional awaking and benevolence that surpasses anything he’s known before.

For decades, we follow the Count’s exploits and daily routines, and we discover how each of the people he’s encountered throughout his forced stay at the Metropol influence and affect his life and actions. We see Rostov grow wise and clever, yet never lose his humor, kindness, and aristocratic air. The novel is not a brief one, and I have to admit, the first half took a bit of perseverance. Once Sofia came on the scene, however, I couldn’t put A Gentleman in Moscow down. Here is where his friendships deepen, his wisdom develops, and the plot thickens.

Towles’ writing is above all elegant in its delivery. He writes with affable sophistication - a true gift that is such a pleasure to dive into the depths of each page. His heartfelt accounts of the alliances, community, and love that develops over the course of the story are genteelly conveyed. In the end, I loved it.

Published: 2016
Publisher: Viking

Vickie’s rating: 4.5 stars 

“Astoria: Astor and Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire”, by Peter Stark - Book Review

What happened after Lewis and Clark headed west? It was years before the Pacific Northwest became part of America. The region was sought after by the Brits, Canadians, and enterprising Americans, including Thomas Jefferson and John Jacob Astor. Jefferson had his sights on colonizing it, thus securing the far borders of the still-fledgling country in 1810. Astor was determined to expand his international trade and create a critical outpost for his enterprise.

Author and journalist Peter Stark delivers this fascinating true adventure to us in Astoria, a journey put into motion by Jefferson and Astor. It’s the story of ambition, ego, bravery, madness, and humanity; of humans pushed to their limits both physically and emotionally, and of their survival.

Beginning with fur trading, Astor’s humble yet ambitious initiation into international trade began with New York, Canada, and Europe. With Jefferson’s political backing, Astor funds an endeavor to settle along the Columbia River leading to the Pacific Ocean to promote trade with Russia and China, ultimately creating an international route, exporting goods around the world. Astor embarks on two campaigns to reach the Northwest from New York - an overland expedition to closely follow the path of Lewis and Clark, and another by sea on the Tonquin, which rounded Cape Horn. These advance parties were to establish a settlement and pave the way for others to follow.

Over the course of three years, this incredible journey is filled with violence and hardships. The overland party encounters hostile indian tribes, harsh terrain and weather, and frequent sidetracks. The expedition by sea barely survives storms, attacks, and a tyrannical captain. Stark delves into the personalities of key players within each expedition, as well as the race to the Columbia River not only by the American expeditions, but by competing traders in Canada, and a hostile British fleet.

Astoria is an amazing view into our history and man’s determination to conquer and succeed. Stark is adept in conveying this tale, making it both fully engrossing and in building the reader’s anticipation, even though we already know the ultimate outcome. Not only is it a thrilling tale, it’s a great read.

Published: 2015
Publisher: Ecco/Harper Collins

Vickie’s rating: 4 stars 

Murder, Corruption, and Strained Race Relations in “Darktown”, by Thomas Mullen – Book Review

Books such as Darktown make me squirmy and uncomfortable because they delve into the true nature of racism in our country’s history. Set in 1948 Atlanta, author Thomas Mullen’s story centers around Mayor Hartsfield’s appointment of the first eight black police officers in exchange for a vote his way in the upcoming elections from the influential blacks in the community. Despite the motivation, sounds like a break-through for equalizing blacks and whites, right? Not even close. The black officers did not have patrol cars, could not arrest whites, and were relegated to the basement of the YMCA as their headquarters since they weren’t allowed in the regular “white” police station.

On top of the blatant racism from the white cops and citizens, black citizens were almost equally as unsupportive to the new officers. While accustomed to harassment and abuse from white cops, the black community saw the new officers as an additional intrusion into their way of life. In a poignant conversation between one new officer and a black woman whom he was questioning about a fight, she became increasingly agitated by his repeatedly referring to her as ma’am. She finally lost her cool and yelled, “You see a ma’am here? I look like a white lady to you?”

Darktown: A Novel
By Thomas Mullen

The novel tracks a few of the fictionalized black officers as well as a couple of the white officers. As the black officers attempt to solve the murder of a young black woman whose decomposing body was found in a pile of garbage, they face substantial push back from their white superiors. But not everyone is opposed to the integration of the police department, and the black officers find some quiet support from people they wouldn’t have expected.

This is a tough book to read and the bad guys don’t get as much of a comeuppance as you’d like. But it is important story. The timing of its release seems ominously appropriate in light of the ‘if you are not like us, you are not welcome’ rhetoric of one of our current presidential nominee’s platforms. In the novel, Mullen references a billboard on a Georgia highway opposing the United Nations. It read, “Keep America safe from foreigners!” Language on a billboard almost seventy years ago that could just as easily be found on one today.

The plot is good; the historical significance and relevance is better. The complexity and ugliness of the relationship between blacks and whites, particularly in the South, continues to remain something that cannot be unpacked in neat little boxes. Mullen enlightens the reader on why the same street changes names when it leaves the white section and enters the black part; those white aristocrats could not stomach having the same return address as their negro counterparts.

Darktown is gritty, real and, despite its historical roots, is hauntingly relatable in today’s times.

Published: 2016
Publisher: Atria Books/Simon & Schuster

Elizabeth’s rating:  4 stars

Lifting Darkness from “That Bright Land”, by Terry Roberts

It took a bit of effort to engross myself into That Bright Land. I had just finished reading Amor Towles’ new, very formally written novel (review coming soon), and switching gears to this post-Civil War drama written in the voice of a Union soldier, turned government man, was stark. But once I made the transition, author Terry Roberts had me the rest of the way.

That Bright Land
By Terry Roberts

The book is based on little-known, true events. Those in the South had greatly divided loyalties during the War of the States. In North Carolina, where our story takes place, even within small communities, some families chose to fight for the Union, causing great divides within the population and families. The basis for the story is a massacre that took place at Shelton Laurel in Madison County, where soldiers were ordered to execute their neighbors, those some considered traitors. Well, you can imagine the bad blood and ongoing resentments this caused, long after the war’s end.

So Jacob Ballard, a former Union soldier, who happens to have been born in Madison County is sent for to investigate a series of recent murders of Union veterans living in the county. They are dropping one by one, and no one can identify who the murderer is.

Roberts paints a vivid picture of rural North Carolina in an age of both poverty and growth; of a grand hotel and moonshine running; and the transition from slavery to freedom. Clues to the mystery reveal themselves slowly, and our hero has no technology nor team of experts to assist him. It is pure use of smarts and ingenuity to bring the murders to an end - a very different style than so many popular books today, and a bit refreshing.

Along the way, Jacob has his own personal awakening through rediscovering his long-lost roots, finding kinship, and ridding himself of the War’s demons that haunt him so. Some of the more endearing characters could have been better developed, but it was just well enough conveyed to build a well-rounded story. That Bright Land is a solid, quick, and engaging read.

Published: 2016
Publisher: Turner Publishing

Vickie’s rating: 3 stars 

"A Constellation of Vital Phenomena", by Anthony Marra - Book Review

I'll get this out of the way at the start. I was teary-eyed at the end. I always love a book where the pace seems to pick up as the end nears; you don't want to finish, but cannot stop until you've reached the conclusion, no matter how much you don't want to. There is a sense of urgency that compels you forward, until the choice is no longer yours. And you're left to contemplate the memory of the events and the emotions they've stirred in you. 

Such is the wonderful writing of Anthony Marra in his novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. The story covers citizens victimized by the two wars of the last 25 years in former Soviet republic, Chechnya. Every step of the way, Marra elicits profound empathy for each of his characters, all of whom are broken and deeply scarred. We have multiple protagonists, and Marra slowly unfurls the psyche of each of them - of how the wars have wounded them both physically and psychologically. He brings together Russian and Muslim Chechens whose lives intersect, conflict, and weave together in unexpected ways. 

The book begins with Havaa, an eight-year-old girl who is hiding in the woods after her father, Dokka is murdered. Long time neighbor, Akhmed finds her and takes her to safety, at risk to his own life. They find safety in a battered hospital with only one doctor, Sonja, who reluctantly takes the girl in. Over a five day period, we get to know Sonja, Akhmed, and Havaa, among others; and through them, journey through their memories of pain and love; of war and exile; and of traitors and deceit. 

Marra's telling of events seems so tangible and realistic. He spent time in in Chechnya and did extensive research to write this book, giving the reader a rare and authentic connection to a region we otherwise may hear little about. He deftly brings to us the anguish and brutality of war, along with the effects of mental and physical torture, whether self-inflicted, at the hands of Russian captors, or by human smugglers. Marra carefully brings each character alive with all their shortcomings and fears, poignantly delivering the desperation and longing in each of them. He infuses moments of lightness; whimsy as it naturally occurs, whether a defense mechanism or as irony in daily life lived in turmoil.

Some of the most beautiful moments are perhaps when narrating a letter written to Havaa about her father or other passages expressed in first person. Marra uses a poetic voice, so skillfully articulating the emotion of a father's subtly expressed, yet deep devotion to his daughter. Living under the dark cloud of war, occupation, and brutality heightens the senses, dulls sensitivities, and acutely alters human behaviors. We feel them - or as close to it as we can - through A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Published: 2013
Publisher: Hogarth

Vickie's rating: 4.5 stars

“Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist”, by Sunil Yapa - Book Review

The World Trade Organization negotiations in Seattle of 1999 were memorable for their controversy, protests, and stark violence that took place. Delegates from around the world tried to gather to discuss free trade agreements amongst nations, while thousands (40,000+) of protesters halted the opening day ceremonies through acts of civil disobedience. Months of planning took place by opposition groups to influence or halt the talks, culminating in violent clashes with police. It was a very dark event, that went out of control.

Author Sunil Yapa has written his debut novel from the perspective of those attending these WTO events. Part historical fiction, part  political commentary, Yapa’s retelling of the opening day deftly moves from person to person, with vivid descriptions of each attendee’s viewpoint. We hear first from a runaway teen who had no intention of getting involved in the protests, but somehow got swept up in it; from two protestors and their own fears, joys, and sense of purpose; three police officers, including the Seattle Chief of Police; and finally, a Sri Lankan delegate attending the meetings.  Each chapter moves to a different character, checking in with them throughout the day - from the peaceful and festive atmosphere of early morning, to forceful clashes between police and protestors chained together to block streets from passage; of tear gas, police brutality, and the combination of cruelty and love that can exist simultaneously in our hearts.

There is subtext for each of the characters as well, including the source of anger behind an officer’s venom, our runaway’s search for deep meaning in life in the face of his mother’s death and his father’s cynical view of the world, and the delegate’s recognition of his place as merely a cog in the world stage wheel.  Here is where you’ll find the true interest in the story, and where I imagine the title of the book is born - the heart is not a simple vessel, but one of complex emotion capable of great affection and equal devastation. 

Yapa’s book is a quick read and illuminated for me what my memory of the event had long lost. My only disappointment was the consistent and extensive flowery style - descriptions lasted paragraphs, verging on rants. Though this shouldn’t be a reason not to pick this one up.

Published: 2016
Publisher: Lee Boudreaux Books

Vickie’s rating: 3 stars

Coming of Age in “Brooklyn”, by Colm Tóibín - Book Review

Eilis Lacey is from a small Irish town. Everyone knows everyone; there are few jobs. It’s a beautiful place of family and friends with limitations to earn a living after World War II. Eilis lives with her fragile mother and charismatic sister, taking classes and caring for the home. Her three brothers have moved to London where work is abundant. She is in a comfortable, if not ideal, existence.

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True Story of an American and His Heroic Family in "Avenue of Spies", by Alex Kershaw - Book Review

An American doctor and his family live out Hitler’s destruction during WWII in Paris. Writer Alex Kershaw, a journalist and historical author has conducted a deep inquiry into a particular family’s involvement in the French Resistance in under German occupation.  Avenue of Spies is the completely absorbing result. 

American Sumner Jackson is a surgeon at the American Hospital in Paris and provided medical care during the first world war, so he is no stranger to combat wounds and care. His is married to Swiss-born Toquette, and they have a son, Phillip. They live on a very posh street in Paris - Foch Avenue. The street is an important setting, as many of the homes become the headquarters for Hitler’s SS, the Gestapo - spy hunters and gruesome torturers.

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