Wednesday, December 6, 2017

December Book Review Club: A Gentleman in Moscow

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@Barrie Summy


Don't forget to click the icon above for more reviews. See you in the New Year . . . 

By Amor Towles
Viking, 2016

In 1922, an insouciant Moscow aristocrat appears before the Emergency Committee of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs. As a threat to Communist ideals, he should be executed. Fortunately, he is the author of a celebrated 1913 poem many viewed as a call to revolution, so his sentence is relaxed. Instead of dying, he is ordered to spend the rest of his life in the formerly luxurious Metropol Hotel, where he has occupied a suite for the previous four years.

“Make no mistake,” the presiding officer concludes, “should you ever set foot outside of the Metropol again, you will be shot. Next matter.”

The record of Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov’s appearance before the committee, set in a utilitarian typewriter font, occupies the first three pages of A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW. Having heard little about the book, only that it was wonderful, I read this, decided the book might be depressing, and set it aside for a day when I didn’t need cheering up. (ARE there such days anymore? If you read newspapers, I mean.)

I could not have been more wrong. This book isn’t only wonderful. It’s delightful.

Everything depends on the character of Rostov: beautifully educated, well-traveled, urbane, amused, and kind. He reacts to his sentence as many of us would, welcoming it as a chance to get some reading done. Ejected from his suite and relegated to a tiny room in the attic with all his books and a few beloved bits of antique furniture, he settles down to read his father’s copy of Montaigne’s essays. We are with him intimately as he slogs through page after page, watching the clock. The book turns out to be the perfect size for propping up a wobbly chest of drawers.

Life awaits outside his attic room. Even in an era of revolutionary seediness, the Metropol’s staff manages to approximate the days of old. There’s a barber, a seamstress, kitchen staff, wait staff, concierge, and other residents, mostly party officials and their families. It’s a whole world, and we fling ourselves into it without a hint of claustrophobia.  

The crux of the story arrives with Nina, the nine-year-old daughter of some commissar living in the hotel. She has a skeleton key that opens every door, but better yet she has attitude. Before long, Rostov is a partner in crime, exploring forbidden rooms in the cellars or splitting the seat of his pants to eavesdrop on a party committee. He becomes Nina’s confidant and protector, and when she is a grown-up party functionary he renders her a service that changes both their lives.
Our narrator takes us outside the Metropol occasionally, but we’re always happy to return. By the end of the book, we could find our way up the stairs and through the halls blindfolded, and we want to spend as much time as possible with Rostov and his cohabitants. There’s everything in the Metropol: quiet humor, slapstick, love, sex, friendship, intrigue, and a hidden pair of dueling pistols that wait an entire book to live up to Chekhov’s instructions. (“If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.”)
A less depressing book you will never find.
(Dear FCC: I got this book for my birthday. Nobody cares if I review it. Now, about net neutrality . . . )

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

October Book Review Club: NORSE MYTHOLOGY

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@Barrie Summy

I'm in the midst of helping to organize Word, a literary arts festival debuting in Blue Hill, Maine, October 20-22. (Check it out here:  Life is fraught, so it's nice to settle down at night with a wolf who wants to eat the moon. Also to read about Ragnarok, which is so awful it seems churlish to complain about October's dying of the light. 

Anyway, read on, and don't forget to click the icon above for more reviews. Happy Halloween! 

By Neil Gaiman
W.W. Norton & Co, 2017

For those of dinosaur mentality, Thomas Bulfinch is the go-to source for news about Thor and Odin and Loki. (Not to mention Arthur, Charlemagne, and all those Greek guys.) Forget Marvel Comics. Forget Chris Hemsworth. For us, 1881 is where it’s at. (Being a modern, can-do woman, my edition of Bulfinch dates from 1913.)

That’s all changed now.

For future generations, Neil Gaiman’s NORSE MYTHOLOGY may very well be the definitive version. He tells the stories straight—this is not AMERICAN GODS or ANANSI BOYS, the novels that made his name by bringing gods to life. But he’s a marvelous writer, far more graceful and giving than Bulfinch. And he knows these guys well, especially Thor and Loki, the best (maybe the only) real characters.  He says he’s been obsessed with these gods since the age of seven.

He’s comfortable sharing the character insights he’s gleaned. “That was the thing about Loki,” he notes after the trickster has provided the gods with their hallmark treasures but cheated to do it. “You resented him even when you were at your most grateful, and you were grateful to him even when you hated him the most.”

Where Bulfinch devotes a paragraph to the god Frey’s courtship of the beautiful giantess Gerda, Gaiman gives us nine pages, introducing the love story by telling us, charmingly, that handsome and mighty Frey “was missing something in his life , and he did not know what it was.”

To win Gerda, Frey gives up his sword, a magical weapon so powerful it can fight by itself. The story ends with ominous regret. “Ragnarok is coming. When the sky splits asunder and the dark powers of Muspell march out on their war journey, Frey will wish he still had his sword.”

These are fun and funny stories, but they are not cheery. They never have been. When gods have children, they’re likely to come out weird—Loki’s include the Midgard Serpent, the snake that encircles the human world; Hel, the half-girl/half-corpse who runs the underworld; and Fenrir, the giant wolf who wants to eat the sun and moon. Ragnarok, the final battle between gods and giants that will end everything in fire and fury, is always looming, although supposedly the world is reborn after the cataclysm. (Hollow reassurance, since we’ll all be dead.)

Writing in The Guardian last March, Ursula K. Le Guin complained that, while Gaiman’s humor and fluent writing make these Norse stories suitable for children as well as adults, he minimizes the “strangeness” of the religion being depicted, with its bleak view of the world and its future. “I felt sometimes that this vigorous, robust, good-natured version of the mythos gives us everything but the very essence of it, the heart.”

I can see her point from a scholar’s perspective, and I did feel a certain lack of red meat here, despite Hel the half-corpse.  But I’m glad Gaiman opted for accessibility.  He’s clearly written the tales to be read aloud, one at a time—he keeps repeating facts from two tales ago, in case we’re reading one a night and have forgotten who’s who.

These are wonderful stories and, with the Greek myths, form the basis for much of European culture. Gaiman is helping to keep them alive in something close to their pre-Hemsworth form. And for that I’m grateful.

(Dear FCC: I borrowed this book from the Friend Memorial Public Library, Brooklin, Maine. They want it back. I have to buy my own— it’s one of those books you like to have around. It can go on top of that stack on the floor over there. If you have any spare bookshelves, FCC, please send them along.)

Thursday, September 7, 2017

September Book Review Club: Golden Hill

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@Barrie Summy

We're having infrastructure issues here at Desperation Acres. Internet outage first, then a power outage this morning. The joys of rural life. Nevertheless, we persist. Here's the first review of the 2017-18 season. Don't forget to click the link for more reviews!

By Francis Spufford
Scribner (Simon & Schuster), 2016

If TOM JONES novelist Henry Fielding traveled from the 18th century, acquired a 21st century sensibility and approach to novel-writing, he’d try very hard to write GOLDEN HILL. It may be, though, that only Francis Spufford could actually do it.  A celebrated writer of nonfiction ( I MAY BE SOME TIME and RED PLENTY, for example), he admits to having “come close to being a novelist” while turning, say, Britain’s obsession with icy places into a page-turner. Now, he says, “I’ve completed my shy, crabwise crawl towards fiction.”

GOLDEN HILL reads as an exuberant, occasionally raunchy adventure in the Manhattan of 1746, just like Fielding and friends except that the narrator doesn’t sidetrack into unrelated topics for pages and pages. Also, this novel has a very modern set of teeth in it.

Our story begins when a youngish man, known to us chiefly as Mr. Smith, arrives in New York with a promissory note for a thousand pounds, which he aims to cash at a counting house run by a Mr. Lovell. Consternation ensues: Is this promissory note real, or is Smith a con man? If it is real, there’s not enough cash in all of New York to pay off the note, even if you combine the available coins (Mexican, Portugese, Dutch, Danish and so on) with the more common paper money printed by New York, Rhode Island, or any of the colonies.

Smith is charming enough to be a con man. But he’s clearly well educated and widely traveled, a man of parts who could perfectly well be a sprig of the nobility. In fact, he does agree to wait for verification of his note on the next ship from London, as an honest man would.
And off he goes into the streets of New York.

Manhattan is practically a village at this point. Dutch and English live side by side, more or less in harmony. Smith notices that people are much healthier than in London, taller, well fed, and with fewer smallpox scars. He also notices the black slaves, which seem to be more prevalent than in England.

He notices the slaves a lot. They’re important to him. We don’t find out why until the story is three-quarters done, and the full tale emerges only in the last pages. Even the narrator’s identity is a surprise left to the end. The author is canny about the way he keeps us on tenterhooks, doling out a hint here, an insight there. You know you’re being played and you love it.

Being the talk of the town, Smith soon is embroiled in New York politics. He starts a romance, playing Benedick to her Beatrice. He finds out potentially fatal secrets. Is nearly killed by a mob that thinks he’s a papist. Is imprisoned for this and that, stands trial, betrays his own ethics.

In other words, he is extremely entertaining. So is this book. I hope Mr. Spufford sticks to novel- writing.

(Dear FCC: This book was a birthday present, chosen by my beloved with help from Samantha Haskell of Blue Hill Books. All hail the independent bookstore. Also beloveds.)

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Delayed Gratification (almost entirely my own)

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@Barrie Summy

Unforeseen circumstances are delaying this month's review. Check back tomorrow.

Sneak preview: GOLDEN HILL, a historical novel by Francis Spufford, is a splendid confection with a good, hard center.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

May Book Review Club: ARABELLA OF MARS

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@Barrie Summy

After a couple of months off, part of which I spent breaking a leg, I rejoin the Book Review Club for one session followed by a summer off. We'll be back in September.

Click the icon above for club members' other reviews. (OOPS--the link's not working. I've appealed for help. In the meantime, take this instead: ) 

Click the book title below for the ARABELLA OF MARS Indiebound page. 

By David D. Levine
Tor, 2016

Get your willing suspension of disbelief primed. Turns out interplanetary space has blue skies and thunderstorms. And asteroids grow oak trees.

I’m a stick-in-the-mud, so as I read ARABELLA OF MARS I wasted valuable breath grumping and moaning about blue skies on the way to Mars, not to mention breathable atmosphere. I kept thinking how much more I would have respected author David D. Levine if the steam-punk space travelers had confronted a vacuum.

Levine salvaged my good opinion by writing a good ol’-fashioned Yarn, befitting a well-regarded writer of short fantasy and sci-fi. (This is his first novel.) Better still, he thought up a feisty heroine.

It’s 1812, and mankind has been traveling in space since the late 1600s. (Isaac Newton had something to do with it.) Arabella Ashby grew up on Mars, which has been colonized by the British in raj-like fashion. At 16, she is accustomed to rampaging around the red planet with her brother, schooled in hunting and other unladylike pursuits by her nanny, a female Martian warrior with eye-stalks and a carapace.

But it’s 1812. Arabella’s mother is determined that her daughter should act like a lady and, what’s more, should do so back where there are marriagable men and nobody has eye-stalks.  She drags Arabella and two younger daughters back to England, leaving her husband and son behind to run the family estate.

A year later, word comes that Arabella’s beloved father has died. Sent to the country to grieve, she discovers a cousin’s dastardly plot to travel to Mars, kill her even more beloved brother, and inherit everything. Space travel notwithstanding, English estates still don’t descend to women. Arabella, her mother, and her sisters will be out on the street.

Arabella to the rescue. Ridding herself of proper female attire bit by bit en route, she makes it to London to sign on as captain’s boy on the Mars Trading Company ship Diana.

Apart from the above-mentioned annoyances of atmosphere and oak trees, the voyage is ingenious. Interstellar ships are more or less round, propelled by three sails catching the breeze generated by space storms or a coal-fired furnace. In a pinch, the crew descends into a hell-hole to pedal for hours. Everything else aboard ship is Patrick O’Brian down to the grog and seabiscuit.

Adding to the fun, although also to my stick-in-the-mud annoyance, is the fact that everyone is weightless. Oh sure, do away with the pesky vacuum but make everything float because it’s a hoot.

I have to admit, it is a hoot.

Levine does confront the pesky fact that the British colonizers are every bit as objectionable on Mars as they were in India. Nobody thinks the Martians could possibly be anything but savages and servants—my dear, they have shells—and British attitudes eventually trigger an uprising. Arabella’s close relationship with her Martian nanny comes in handy.

On her way to Mars, Arabella experiences a shoot-out with a French war ship (Napoleon being on the rampage in space, too) and a mutiny. Having shared with her father a love for automatons, she masters the ship captain’s pet navigation device, a highly intelligent machine called Aadim. Conveniently, the captain himself is a figure of romance.

This is a fun book, and there’s a sequel coming in July. I will be reading it, grumping and moaning.

(Dear FCC: I got this book from the library. Actually, a friend did, and passed it along to me because she figured I’d like it. As always, nobody cares whether I’m reviewing it or not. Most of us do care about net neutrality, so devote your attention to that, please.)

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

February Book Review Club: HOMEGOING

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@Barrie Summy

We skipped January, so Happy New Year! If you need a break from the news (and who doesn't?) lots of good books to choose from. Click the icon above for reviews. And click the book title below if you're moved to buy the book. 

By Yaa Gyasi
Alfred A. Knopf, 2016

In the late 1700s a pair of half sisters, who don’t know each other, are experiencing opposite floors of the Cape Coast slave castle in Ghana, then known as The Gold Coast. Effia, an Asante, lives on the top floor as wife of the castle’s British overlord. She tries not to acknowledge what’s happening in the dungeon, where her Fante half-sister, Esi, is packed literally like a sardine into a cell whose floor is feet deep in human waste. In time, Esi is loaded onto a ship headed for an American slave mart.

Born in Ghana but raised in Alabama, Yaa Gyasi makes use of her dual experience in following Effia’s and Esi’s descendents as they navigate European dominance and vileness over two centuries on two sides of the Atlantic.  On both sides, there is captivity.

The book alternates between Ghana and the U.S., one representative from each of seven generations.  This is fascinating but a little frustrating because the book is relatively slim—you feel you’re just getting to know a character when it’s time to move on to the next generation.  You never get the chance to sink in. Still, an absorbing read.

Possibly because of her background, Gyasi could be fearless in examining the involvement of Gold Coast tribes in rounding up their enemies for the European slave traders.  (Effia’s son, uneasy but complient, follows his father’s lead in rounding up slaves for the castle’s maw.) She finds more fertile ground in the Gold Coast and modern Ghana than in the U.S., where she almost seems to tick off boxes—emancipation, Jim Crow, ghetto life, jazz, the demoralization of African-American men, drugs, fatherless children. The Ghanaian chapters are more character-driven and richer.

The Door of No Return at the Elmina slave castle in Ghana, 
which visited a few years ago. This castle was run by the Dutch, 
while nearby Cape Coast Castle was British. 
Effia and Esi’s mother left each of them a black stone pendant, but Esi lost hers in the mire of her Cape Coast dungeon. Effia’s gets handed down the generations. This is an obvious but still potent symbol: African-Americans lost a critical part of their heritage when their ancestors were herded out the Door of No Return in one slave castle after another.

Effia’s great-great-granddaughter Akua, plagued by dreams of a fire woman who has made her burn her own children, takes the necklace to a fetish man to see if there’s any way to undo whatever evil is dogging her family.  “. . . Sometimes you cannot see that the evil in the world began as the evil in your own home,” she tells her son, Yaw.

“When someone does wrong,” she adds, “whether it is you or me, whether it is mother or father, whether it is the Gold Coast man or the white man, it is like a fisherman casting a net into the water. He keeps only the one or two fish that he needs to feed himself and puts the rest in the water, thinking that their lives will go back to normal. No one forgets that they were once captive, even if they are now free. But still, Yaw, you have to let yourself be free.”

Although it’s not perfect, I highly recommend this book. It’s heartfelt, talented, and brave, essential qualities in this awful time.

(Dear FCC: I got this book for Christmas and nobody cares if I review it. I’m sure you have better things to concentrate on just now.)