A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles (2016)

“By their very nature, human beings are so capricious, so complex, so delightfully contradictory, that they deserve not only our consideration, but our reconsideration – and unwavering determination to withhold our opinion until we have engaged with them in every possible setting at every possible hour.”

Just loved this read by author Amor Towles – enough so that I immediately went to the library and booked out his other book, Rules of Civility and am very looking forward to that read.

(This rarely happens so fingers are crossed that it’s a good read. It was published in 2011 so a few years ago now and on his author website, he seems to have written some other well-received works so more to dig into at some point. Oooh. And he’s written an intro to the 75th anniversary edition of Fitzgerald’s Tender in the Night (Scribner, 2019). (Impressive.))

So what’s so good about this Towles/Gentleman in Moscow? I think one of the main attractions was that it was so well written. Towles is a master at the written word and he’s developed an interesting character in Count Alexander Rostov that I really cared about and thought about, even if I wasn’t actually reading the text at that particular moment.

The gentleman in question is a Russian count who has been given a lifetime sentence in 1922 for a perceived infraction against the government. This sentence means that he can live for the rest of his days in a lovely posh hotel but he can never leave the premises so this isn’t a high-action novel or anything. It’s a thoughtful and fascinating look at a man who tries his best to make the most of a bad situation and who has lived a full life prior to the incarceration.  

Rostov has never held a job but he is well-educated and witty. With this enforced sentence, he is forced to watch history change Russia as it happens outside his windows. Just fascinating and difficult to put down.

There is no doubt that this will be in the year’s Top Ten Books at the end of the year. For sure.

“After all, an educated man should admire any course of study no matter how arcane, if it be pursued with curiosity and devotion.”

And then I just liked this quote:

“As at home in a tin as it is in Limoges, coffee can energize the industrious at dawn, calm the reflective at noon, or raise the spirits of the beleaguered in the middle of the night.”

Travel: New Mexico Camping.

This is our Tiger Moth camper and the truck (which blocked the wind from the cold North that weekend.)

With the pandemic as it is (as I’m sure you know), it has meant a LOT of staying home and not traveling so the Superhero and I were getting some itchy feet and decided to visit the Maxwell National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico the other weekend.

Now I’m not the biggest fan of camping in the world but one way I’ve learned that I do like is to take our tiny camper and the truck and drive off to the wilds somewhere. It was a five-hour drive one way (so quite a hike) but for distances around here in West Texas, that’s not too bad…

And you know what? It was really fun. I was so surprised. (Past experiences have not been that way, but they were long ago with different equipment and levels of attitude, as well. 🙂 )

For this trip, the Superhero had gone above and beyond in terms of being well organized and producing meals out in the open and I wanted for nothing that we didn’t have. (Very impressive to me.) It was so quiet out on the grasslands. Since it is open prairie, there are no trees and the view was never-ending.

The sunsets were amazing (see pic above) and you could hear the wildlife around you: mostly birds during the day and then a pack of coyotes at night. (Surprisingly, our dog (who came with us) didn’t really react to this, not even a bark or a growl. Perhaps she knew that there were more of them than of her?)

So – not a lot of reading but we did listen to an audio book on the drive there and back – lots of time to do that! – and then I read more the next day. The camping experience was worth it though and I’m looking forward to the next time (may be later this summer).

Library Loot: April 07 2021

Loot from my local library included the following:

  • Belfast Diary – John Conroy (NF about 1980s Northern Ireland during the Troubles).
  • Sharks in the Time of Saviors – Kawai Strong Washburn (F). One of former Pres. Obama’s favorite books of 2020, apparently. If it’s good enough for him… 😉
  • A Caribbean Mystery – Agatha Christie (F/murder mystery). Love me some Christie.
  • The Secret River – Kate Grenville (F/Australian). I’ve heard good things…
  • Dolores Claiborne – Stephen King (F). I would like to read more King so seeing if I can handle his less-scary titles first.
  • Emma – Jane Austen (F). In the mood for a good classic.
  • The Water Museum – Luis Alberta Urrea (F/short stories). I don’t always get on that well with short stories but I’ll give them a go with Urrea’s work since he’s really good.)

March 2021 Reading Review

The reads for March 2021 included:

So to the (rather obsessive!) numbers:

  • Total number of books read in February 202116.
  • Total number of pages read 3,266 pages (av. 266). 
  • Fiction/Non-Fiction10 fiction / non-fiction. 1 play.
  • Diversity 3 BIPOC. books by women.
  • Library books vs. books I owned (and thus removed from the home abode): library books, owned books (whee!) and e-books.

So I had a productive reading month which was really fun. Plus, I also pulled out some cross-stitch and finally finished up a project that I’ve working on for quite a while. Just need to get it framed and then it’s done. 🙂

Library Loot: March 31, 2021

The library books:

  • Evil Under the Sun – Agatha Christie (F/mystery)
  • The Great Gatsby: A Reader’s Companion to the Novel – Richard Lehan (NF/lit crit)
  • A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles (F)
  • Seeking Pleasure in the Old West – David Dary (NF/history)
  • Before You Put That On – Lloyd Boston (NF/style)

The thrift books:

  • Possessing the Secret of Joy – Alice Walker (F)
  • Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card (F/sci fi)
  • Us Against You – Fredrik Backman (F)
  • Living History – Hilary Rodham Clinton (NF/auto)

So, lots from which to choose here. I’m a happy camper.

Review: Greek and Roman Myths

I was perusing another book blog (sorry – not sure how whose it was but it was good), and was greatly impressed with this person’s familiarity and knowledge of Greek and Roman mythology. At the very same time, I’d also been thinking about reading (and reminding) myself about these very same myths that I’d read way back in junior high (or even earlier).

And then – serendipity: I found a Scholastic book of myths in the thrift shop the other day so I snapped that sucker up.

This was very fun to dip my toes into the ancient world of gods and goddesses and their overlap with the messy and imperfect lives of the humans, and I thoroughly enjoyed this reminder of old gods such as Perseus and Theseus and new ones (to me) such as Atalanta. Can’t forget old Midas and Pygmalion as well…

This very quick read was followed up with a supplemental read of the fabulous DK Eyewitness book about mythology, but this volume encompasses much more than just the Greek and Roman world as it also includes myths and cultural beliefs from across millennia and across the world.

I had been rather hoping for a more focused look at the Greek and Roman myths, but sometimes you don’t know what you need and the Book Gods fill in the gaps for you, and that is what this DK Eyewitness read was for me. This was like a visit to a really well-curated museum exhibit on the subject.

Thoroughly enjoyed this and now I’m on the lookout for more myths. I’ve missed my myths. Ha.

Queenie – Candice Carty-Williams (2019)

Picked this up at the library the other day after having seen it mentioned on quite a few book bloggers’ sites and, at the same time, wanting to add another POC author to my reading life.

This is, apparently, Candice Carty-Williams’ first novel although it looks like she has a background in publishing as well. So – did I enjoy this read? Not sure that “enjoy” is the best word but it was a fast read and a pretty good one. I’ll say that.

The narrative revolves around the central protagonist, Queenie, a 25-year-old first generation Brit who is single, living in the UK with Jamaican parents. As the plot moves forward, we get to see how Queenie lives and works and from the POV of this particular reader, it read very smoothly overall.

Reading some of the reviews, countless people had compared Queenie to a more brash Bridget Jones in many ways, but I don’t think this is an accurate impression. Queenie is a much more hardened character than Bridget ever was.

She straddles both the Jamaican immigrant culture as well as the culture(s) of her friends and has to deal with insidious cuts and asides (racial and otherwise) in her newspaper workplace.

It seems as though she has her life fairly together for a twenty-something woman in the 21st century, but the one piece that is significantly awry for her is her love life where there is one terrible decision after another. (There is a lot of unprotected sex in this book. Fair warning, if you want it. If not, carry on.)

And I just kept wanting to pull Queenie aside EVERY time she went to bed with someone and tell her that she didn’t have to do this. But I couldn’t and it was actually made even harder to be patient with her as she came across as consistently unlikeable in many ways: she’s selfish at times but perhaps Carty-Williams’ goal with her was to provide a more human character who makes human mistakes. I’m not sure.

This was well written overall. Carty-Williams handles the narrative effectively. I just wish that I had liked (and respected) Queenie a little more.

The Long March – Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick (1998)

Chahta hakia hoke: We are Choctaw.

With Cathy at 749Books focusing on All Things Irish this month, I’ve been pulling some Irish-related titles from the shelves and in doing so realized that I know shockingly little about Irish history. So – wanting a quick primer on the Emerald Isle, I read this title. (I also have another FANTASTIC novel that I’m finishing up but that’s a different post.)

This read was about the terrible potato famine that occurred in 1845-1847. The juvenile title covers how the Choctaw people in Oklahoma collected money from their tribespeople to send to the Irish during their time of need…

Despite having lived close to OK for many years, I was not familiar with this event of the Choctaws supporting the far-away Irish so my interest was piqued when I saw the title on my library website.

Even better – it was a kid read which meant two things: (one) it’s probably really well explained (assuming the author is good) and (two) it wouldn’t take long to read and learn. I was right on both counts.

The protagonist, Choona, a young Choctaw boy, is familiar with the terrible Great March (or the Trail of Tears) which his tribe had been forced to undertake when their lands were taken away from the tribe, and as the reader learns (along with Choona) of the overlaps between these two displaced peoples, s/he also learns the importance of being true to yourself and others.

(In fact, there is such a connection between the Choctaw tribe and Ireland that Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland, was inducted as an honorary tribal chieftain.)

So – what was good about this read? Well, it was really well researched by Fitzpatrick and she had worked closely with her Choctaw contacts, both the actual Chief of the Choctaw tribe and the Executive Director of a non-profit that works with the actual tribe. This automatically added authenticity and drive to the book for me, at least.

Additionally, the artwork was stupendous. Fitzpatrick, the author, is also a professional illustrator and it was obvious that she had taken great pains to reflect Choctaw life and people accurately and with care. I wonder how she had come across this story originally, as I haven’t heard of it before now. I’m really glad that I’ve learned about this as it’s a really interesting story.

Fascinating (to me) note: According to this title, the state name of Oklahoma (actually Okla Homa) is Choctaw for “Red People”.

The Invisible Man – H. G. Wells (1897)

Having a hankering for some more classics reading and wanting something that wasn’t a huge long commitment, I found “The Invisible Man” by H. G. Wells on the library shelves. I noticed that the edition was a special commemorative 100-year anniversary edition as well (with great production values) so it jumped into my hands. And goodness me – it was a good read.

I would imagine that there are many readers out there familiar with at least the general idea of this story: a man invents a way to control the field of optics (in physics) and then becomes invisible. Imagine the power and the glory for someone who can’t be seen by others…

This science fiction story was originally published as a serial in 1897, although Wells expanded it into a novel that was published later on that same year.

The protagonist, the invisible man in question, was a man called Griffin who was, incidentally, an “albino” medical student (along with the challenges inherent in having that condition) so when he started messing around with light refraction in the human body, he was very focused on making his own life easier (as well as changing the scientific world around him.) He has designs on power for when he had his invisibility and tries the initial experiment on a cat, who actually does become invisible (except for its spooky eyes). 

(And this is a real physics thing, apparently – not the making-yourself-invisible in real-life just yet but if everything else in the human body is invisible and can’t be seen, theorists think that the only thing that can’t be invisible would be the retinas of the eye. Fascinating if off-putting to think about.)

Wells did a really good job of explaining the physics behind this theory and after reading it carefully, I think I finally understand how it could work, so kudos to Wells for his step-by-step explanation of this. (If I can understand it, so can you.) 

So back to the novel: Griffin arrives as a visiting scientist to the small village of Iping in Sussex. He boards at a small rooming house with an inquisitive landlady and ends up setting up a lab in one of her rooms. (These experiments cause several accidents but Griffin is sanguine about these costs and just instructs the landlady to add it to his bill. Problems arise when she asks Griffin for the money – he doesn’t have it which leads to some of his behavioural choices later.)

What takes this plot up a notch is that Griffin quickly learns that life is lot more complicated when you are invisible. It’s starts off all fun and games (and power) but quickly becomes pockmarked with issues. 

If you are invisible and eat your lunch, your food is visible in your stomach until it is absorbed into your body. If you get cold, you will want to put clothes on (and who wants to be naked?) so once you are wearing these items, you’ll be visible again (through the outline of the clothing). What about sleeping? Where will you go? And can you manage your new life alone or will you need help?

And as life changes for Griffin in his new form, he gradually becomes more and more unstable and more and more violent. He has a quick temper anyway, but the frustrations of living as an invisible man are overwhelming and he starts to fight and physically hurt people.

Others in the village learn of his situation but start to view him as a scary bogeyman-type of person, more of an urban legend than a human… The chase is afoot. 🙂

He gets scared and hungry, and so he travels to a nearby town with a man called Marvel who Griffin enlists to help him. Griffin had burned down his original bed-and-breakfast home (to spite the landlady) but in doing so, he had burned down his laboratory. Only his three notebooks had survived so he asked Marvel, the assistant, to track down these books since they have the solution to how, Griffin believes, that he can get his life back and stop being invisible. 

However, others are also on the case (with evil designs on the info contained therein) and so there is an adventurous chase that occurs – all very Boys’ Annual type of story.

This was fun but I was taken aback by all the violence by the Invisible Man. I had no idea he had these tendencies but it was a hard life, if you’re honest. (He did do it to himself, that’s true, but still…) 

Does Griffin ever get his life back? Does he ever become visible again? Is there happiness for him?

I’m not going to say but rather encourage you to read this novella for yourself. Just steel yourself for the ongoing fights and arguments but they are part of the story and integral to the plot. 

I’m glad that I have read this and now I’m curious about Well’s other works, including “The Time Machine” (1895) (this one is actually on the physical TBR I saw this morning) and “The Island of Doctor Moreau” (1896). Have you read any of these?