A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles

gentlemaninmoscowImagine a book set against the backdrop of some of the most dramatic and exciting events in history — from the Russian Revolution, through the era of Stalin’s iron rule, the Second World War, and the power struggles that followed Stalin’s death — told from the perspective of a man who observes it all without ever being able to leave a single building. This is a fascinating point of view from which to explore several tumultuous decades in Russian history.

The titular gentleman in Moscow is Count Alexander Rostov, sentenced in 1922 not to death or exile but rather to house arrest in a grand hotel. As an aristocratic young man who had the world at his feet before the revolution, Alexander suddenly finds his world restricted to the (admittedly luxurious) walls of the hotel. For the next three decades he lives there, moving down the social scale from honoured guest, to prisoner, to hotel staff. Yet as his world becomes narrower, he immerses himself in relationships with those around him and becomes a keen observer of the changing world in which he can no longer move about freely. This book took me awhile to get into, but I found it rich and rewarding once I was drawn into Alexander Rostov’s life and the world of the hotel.


Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction -- historical

The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry

essexserpentThis book reminded me a bit of The Lie Tree, which I read and liked last year — although this is a novel for adults and The Lie Tree was a YA novel. Both novels are set in Victorian England, in that era that Matthew Arnold describes so well in the poem “Dover Beach,” when

The Sea of Faith 
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore 
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled. 
But now I only hear 
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, 
Retreating, to the breath 
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear 
And naked shingles of the world. 
With Darwin’s theories of evolution and other scientific discoveries shattering long-held beliefs and certainties, the Victorians lived in a world of uncertainty and doubt that seems more familiar than we might expect, out here on the teetering edge of this new century. Sarah Perry’s main characters are the recently widowed Cora Seaborne, a woman fascinated by scientific discovery and chafing at the restrictions her society places on a woman’s mind, and clergyman Will Ransome, a rational man who believes that his Anglican faith can blend seamlessly with the new science.
When word comes that a mysterious sea-serpent has been sighted in the waters near Will’s parish, he is angry at the superstitious response of the villagers. Cora, meanwhile, coming to the village from outside, is fascinated, sure she is about to be  present for the discovery of a new species, that she will finally have a role in advancing human knowledge and a make her own name as a woman scientist. (There’s a nice shout-out here to Newfoundland’s giant squid, which had been believed to be a mythical creature until clergyman Moses Harvey photographed one in 1874. I’ve often visited the preserved remains of a more recent giant squid at our provincial museum; the giant squid’s mention in this novel is a reminder that in the Victorian era, science was peeling back the layers of mystery and mythology — and, for some, removing religious faith as well).
Despite their differences, Will and Cora are drawn to each other – but this is no simple opposites-attract love story. Will is married to his adored Stella and they have a family; Cora is pursued by the doctor who attended her husband in his illness, and adored by her devoted servant Martha. The secondary characters, their passions and obsessions, their web of interrelationships, are as carefully and lovingly drawn as main characters Will and Cora. I found this an absorbing and fascinating novel.

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction -- historical

On Beauty, by Zadie Smith

onbeautyHaving read and really loved Zadie Smith’s Swing Time a few weeks ago, I had a harder time with On Beauty, although it is just as well written with as much wit and insight. The big struggle for me with On Beauty is that, while it’s told from an omniscient point of view with several major characters, one of the central characters, Howard, is a man I found so unpleasant I couldn’t bring myself to care what happened to him (or else I was actively hoping for the worst to happen to him).

I don’t mind flawed characters. I don’t even need characters to be “likable,” exactly, as long as there’s something there that’s interesting and that I can relate to, or that intrigues me. But Howard — a middle-aged white academic married to a black woman, raising three young adult children and locked in a professional feud with a fellow academic whose family life becomes entwined with Howard’s in myriad ways — is both awful and boring. And I really felt this was a flaw in the book, not in my appreciation of Howard. Several chapters in, Howard’s wife, Kiki, who has not decided whether or not to forgive him for a spot of infidelity, reflects that whatever else he did, he could always make her laugh. As the reader, I had to that point seen nothing in the story to indicate Howard had a sense of humour. He certainly never made me laugh. Kiki thinks of herself as having married her best friend, while I found it impossible to believe that a woman as interesting and vital as Kiki could ever have had this limp dishrag of a man as her best friend.

I did enjoy all the other characters and points of view, and the story itself was interesting, but Howard as the big soul-sucking cypher at the centre of the narrative was a major flaw I never got over. After I read it, I found out that it’s sort of a riff on the novel Howard’s End, which I’ve never read. Maybe I’d have appreciated it more if I had, but the end of this particular Howard couldn’t come quickly enough for me.

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction -- general

Of Mess and Moxie, by Jen Hatmaker


Awhile back I was having a podcast conversation with a couple of very smart, well-read, theologically-aware clergymen of different backgrounds, about books that have inspired us (Seriously, click the link and listen — it’s really good!). While they tossed around Jurgen Motlmann and Richard Rohr, I sustained that the writers whose work most sustained me are women writers — mostly fairly liberal Christian women, not theologians but memoirists and essayists, who are able to bring self-deprecating humour and wry honesty to their discussion of the spiritual life. Anne Lamott, Nadia Bolz-Weber, Rachel Held Evans, Sara Miles — these are my gurus. For a lot of Christian women, Jet Hatmaker would also be on that list. I’ve enjoyed her online presence for awhile, but this is the first book of hers I’ve read.

Hatmaker writes like a nice Southern preacher’s wife who knows she doesn’t quite fit the mold of nice southern preacher’s wife. She writes about faith, family, church, our messy lives and the “moxie” it takes to rise above the mess (or at least live amidst it). For some reason, I like her better as. a speaker than as a writer, but I can understand why her written voice in her books appeals so strongly to say many women readers, especially those who have felt trapped by the mythology of the good Christian wife/mother/woman. In the sometimes cloying air of “women’s ministry,” scented by porpourri and expectations, Hatmaker throws open the windows and lets in a breath of fresh air.

Leave a comment

Filed under Nonfiction -- general

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, by Arundhati Roy

This boutmosthappinesok took me quite awhile to get through. Not that it’s not brilliantly written — it is. But one of the issues with reading more diverse books from writers of different cultural backgrounds — which is something I am consciously trying to do — is that the introduction of a lot of unfamiliar setting, vocabulary, and background can slow the reader down, and it certainly did for me in this case. 

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is not a simple, easy to read novel. It may not be an easy read even for someone who is very familiar with life in contemporary India, the politics of the Punjab, and the roles of transgender people in Indian culture. The writing is dense, the story multilayered with many different points of view and characters whose stories don’t intersect till near the end of the book. It’s the story of Anjum, a transgender woman growing up in Delhi, eventually finding a niche in the community as part of a group of recognized-yet-outcast trans women called hijras. The role of the hijra in Indian society is fascinating and I did a little googling to learn more about it afterwards, but Roy writes (as is, I think, appropriate for a writer immersing a reader in a different culture) as though we already know all this, leaving the reader to piece together the bits of information. Then, just as we’re absorbing Anjum’s character and world, the scene shifts to a different place and time, a whole new cast of characters.

This book is very well done, but it’s also quite a lot of work. at least, it was for me — so readers who are not already very familiar with the world Roy is writing about should be prepared for a total-immersion course.

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction -- general, Uncategorized

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

lincolnIt’s an interesting reading summer when Lincoln in the Bardo is not the first, but the second, highly experimental, postmodern novel about a famous American president I’ve read (the other one being, of course, Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings). Lincoln in the Bardo landed on my to-read list after numerous recommendations from trusted sources. I found it slow to get into, a novel I resisted being drawn in by at first, but ended up loving it and being deeply moved by it.

Lincoln in the Bardo takes places in the hours and days immediately following the death of Abraham Lincoln’s young son Willie. The “bardo” of the title is a Tibetan Buddhist concept of the afterlife, not entirely unlike some conceptions of Purgatory in Christian imagining — not a place of either torment or reward, but a kind of limbo, a waiting-room on the way to whatever the afterlife holds. Souls who don’t or can’t or won’t move on to another plane of existence are stranded in this state, hanging around the graveyard in denial about the fact that they’re actually dead, clinging to this life with its passions and hopes instead of moving forward. It’s this chorus of the only-mostly-dead who narrate and comment, in a variety of voices, on the newly arrived Lincoln boy and the intense, stormy grief of the father who comes to visit his son’s body.

There’s so much going on here it’s hard to explain it all, even though in some ways the scope of the story is quite narrow. The part that I struggled with was not the scenes of the dead speaking in their various voices from beyond the grave — I had no trouble accepting that as a narrative device. Rather, I had trouble with the expository chapters sprinkled in between, where another plethora of voices narrates and comments upon what’s happening in the “real world.”

These historical accounts — usually only a sentence or two from each — are drawn from eyewitnesses and later chroniclers, describing Willie Lincoln’s death in the White House, President Lincoln’s response to it, the state of the American Civil War at the time, etc. These snippets of historical voices are placed next to one another, sometimes complementing and often directly contradicting each other, echoing the technique of the graveyard voices and reminding us that eyewitness accounts can disagree with each other even over something as basic as the colour of Abraham Lincoln’s eyes or the phase of the moon on the night Willie died. It’s a wonderful, fascinating technique that makes us call history into question, and Saunders handles it as well as he handles everything else in the book.

But. But. BUT.

There’s a big but. And I understand it and I get why he did but I still struggled with it, and it kept me from fully immersing in the book for quite awhile. These “historical sources” that populate the expository, real-world chapters — most of them actually are historical, drawn from historians’ books as well as various contemporary accounts of the events. But a substantial number — less than half, but more than a quarter, I’d estimate — are wholly made up by Saunders, and there’s no distinction made in the way he credits and cites them — the made-up sources look just as real as the real ones, and I was only able to figure out which was which by googling (which of course I did because, have you met me?).

Again, I 100% understand from a literary point of view what Saunders is doing here. He’s playing around with our perceptions of truth, history, story. He’s telling a “historical” story and turning it into “fiction,” but taking away the sheen of verisimilitude that makes “historical fiction” (including the kind I write) feel like a transparent glimpse into history when in fact it’s not. Saunders forces us to question our definitions of both “history” and “fiction” at every turn. Here’s a historical event, narrated by a chorus of fictional characters who aren’t even “real” within the fictional confines of the story — they’re dead and trapped in a mythological afterlife. Then there are these supposedly reliable expository chapters in between, where we should be able to count on objective, dispassionate voices — but not only do these contradict and argue with one another, but some of them are fictional as well, and we can’t tell which ones! It’s a brilliant and at the same time a frustrating technique. Even as I admired it, I struggled with it.

My copy of Lincoln in the Bardo was a library copy (I read mostly e-books, but the structure of this one seemed better fitted to reading on paper) and I’ll be honest: if I’d been reading a copy I owned myself, I would have gotten little sticky-tab circles and colour-coded the historical snippets to indicate to myself which were fictional and which were real. I know that doing that would have undermined the whole point Saunders was making about the unreliability of history, but I would have done it anyway, but I am just that obsessed with “facts” and correctly citing your sources. We are what we are.

Anyway, all this to say that I both admired and struggled with the writer’s technique for the first half of the book, and then I just gave up and accepted it and allowed myself to fall into it. It’s a beautiful meditation on grief, loss, life and death, and once I let the book be what it was, it almost made me cry. The juxtaposition of Lincoln’s grief over his son’s death, with the grief of an entire country over the deaths of its young men in war — a war that Lincoln knows most people hold him responsible for — is powerful. But just as powerful are the personal vignettes of the struggling graveyard characters — people who, for one reason or another, cannot let go of their regrets, their dreams, the hopes for the lives they were supposed to have lived, and the unfinished business they left behind. Letting go of that vision is essential to their ability to move on, and this is why I guess Saunders chose a Buddhist word to describe this afterlife, since letting go — detachment — is so closely associated with Buddhist thought. (Although I would argue it’s there in some sense in all religions, and maybe all sane systems of thought — certainly it’s there in Christianity, whose founder told us we must lose our lives in order to gain them).

As one ghost after another struggles to let go of the old life and move forward into the unknown beyond, the one living man in their midst — Abraham Lincoln — has to let go of the son he dreamed of raising to adulthood, and move back into his own world of the living, in which he holds the the fate of thousands of other men’s sons in his hands.

This is an incredible, powerful, infuriating, challenging and ultimately fulfilling book. I’m so glad I read it.

Still haven’t completely let go of the idea of those little stickers, though. 

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction -- historical

Genuine Fraud, by E. Lockhart

genuinefraudReading Lockhart’s We Were Liars was an amazing, almost overwhelming experience for me a couple of years ago, so I had high expectations for Genuine Fraud and picked it up as soon as it was available.

Genuine Fraud is a thriller, a genre I don’t normally read much because I don’t usually find them, well, all that thrilling. I was drawn into this book not only because I trusted the author, but because I found the main character, Jule, intriguing (though by no means likable — liking her is not the point) and I wanted to know how she got into the situation she was in as the novel opened, and what secrets she was hiding. The novel’s unusual structure — essentially the story is told in reverse chronology, each chapter taking us a little further back into Jule’s story to explain what happened — kept me turning pages through this quick read.

Because of We Were Liars, I expected a big twist at the end and kept trying to guess what it would be (thus making the plot even more complicated in my head than it actually was). But there isn’t one bit surprise reveal; there are a series of gradual reveals along the way that all add up to a genuinely intriguing thriller. 

The two main criticisms I’ve seen of this book are that 1) some of the things Jule gets away with are pretty implausible, which I think is true but also probably true of most mysteries and thrillers, and 2) it is not inspired by, but far too closely modelled on, Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. As I haven’t read that book, I can’t comment on that, but I will say that if you cite another author’s novel in your afterword as being a major inspiration, you do need to at least make sure there are significant differences between your work and theirs. Otherwise, you might just want to say that your book is a modernized, gender-swapped retelling (told in reverse) of a classic thriller. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you’re clear that’s what you’re doing.


Filed under Fiction -- mystery, Young Adult