A Gentleman in Moscow is a beautiful, engrossing story of Count Alexander Rostov, a Russian aristocrat conscripted by a Bolshevik Tribunal to live out his days under house arrest in the Metropol, a luxury hotel within view of the Kremlin. Rostov, however, no longer is allowed to inhabit his sprawling suite, but must instead hole up in the small attic amongst the looming heirloom furniture. Rostov maintains his dignity, never forgetting his ancestry or the honor of a gentleman.
Spanning the decades following the Russian Revolution, this is the story of Rostov as he experiences the changes in politics and society from the time of Lenin to Khrushchev. He maintains his sophisticated lifestyle; although he can never step outside the hotel. The characters within the Metropol show Rostov what life is like on the outside, and many become as close to him as family, especially a certain 8-year-old girl, who is both precocious and adoring, who changes his life forever.
This book is delicate, subtle, full of humor and pathos. Every small, seemingly insignificant detail has ramifications as the story progresses. This is an exploration of the changing political and social climate of Russia as it affected individuals, the importance of tradition, and the bonds that can form over the treasures of a shared past. Towles’ descriptions made the book come alive. I smelled the delectable bouillabaisse prepared with black market ingredients, I tasted the tartness of the whiskey sipped in the hotel bar after closing, I chuckled at the sharp retorts to uninformed politicos.
I absolutely adored this story. I hung on every word, every description of Russian delicacies, every anecdote of the Russian gentry. I recommended this book highly. Watch out 2017 Booker committee, you need look no further for your winner.
The best thing about this book? Mike Massimino is a regular guy. He’s a guy you’d want to sit down and have a beer with, the guy who might be your kid’s cub scout leader, or your neighbor who lets you borrow the edger. This book is about Mike’s rise to superhero astronaut, and all the bumps, failures, and doubts along the way. He’s a regular person (albeit a super-smart, courageous one), and look what he did!
Mike doesn’t dwell too long on his childhood in New York, but does include some important aspects about his growing up that helped him along his path. The meat of the story is his quest (at times thought quixotic) to work for NASA and eventually become an astronaut. Unlike many memoirs, this book focuses only on the important parts of the story, and doesn’t include every anecdote or biographical tangent. It’s tight, entertaining, fascinating, and, most importantly, honest. It’s not overwhelming with scientific explanations. This is a human interest story. At times, my palms were actually sweating while reading about Mike’s first EVA on his flight to repair the Hubble.
And Mike didn’t write this book to make himself look like a hero. He doesn’t leave out the doubts, the fears, the downright terrors, he experienced, both during his studies and exams and also while in space. He even talks about having imposter syndrome, feeling that he wasn’t good enough, smart enough, or prepared enough to go into space. But time and again, he was tested, and he was the right man for the job. That’s a real struggle a lot of us mortals can identify with, which only makes this book more intriguing. I was amazed at the lengths he went to in order to overcome deficits, even to the point of not accepting that his vision wouldn’t pass him into astronaut training. He was going to have 20/20 vision no matter what. For Mike, there is no door that is completely closed.
Spaceman gets five big ol’ stars from me. This is a book for everybody. I’m passing this on to my middle-schooler, who wants to work for NASA as soon as humanly possible. Whether you’re interested in space exploration or not (and if not, what’s wrong with you?), this is a story that everyone can relate to. Mike Massimino is my new hero. Read Spaceman, and he’ll be your hero too. I only hope that maybe if I write him a fan letter he’ll send me an autographed photo. How about it, Mike?
Up until recently, I had to stop reading books set during WWII. I couldn’t take anymore horror. I was having nightmares about hiding in a subway tunnel during the Blitz. The truth is, though, that these horrors actually happened, and they were real life nightmares to so many. So, I’m not giving up.
Mischling is worth it, even if it’s difficult.
Stasha and Pearl are twin sisters who have been sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau as part of Mengele’s Zoo. There are atrocities. There is torture, medical experimentation, unspeakable dehumanization. By being part of the Zoo, the sisters believe that they may be getting special treatment and their mother and grandfather are better taken care of. The torture the girls undergo, however, isn’t always explicit. Konar has a delicate hand, and many of the terrors are indirect and left up to the imagination of the reader, often to an even more powerful effect. What I appreciated most is that the story of the sisters doesn’t end with the liberation of the camps. There is no scene of the girls grabbing a Russian soldier by the hand and being led into the sunshine through the gates. There is no “happily ever after” now that the war is over. There is only “after.” The real story starts after the horrors of the camp have ended. Now the children of Mengele’s Zoo are free, but they’re lost. They have no families, they can’t find their parents or siblings. The children and those adults who were forced to assist Mengele with his experiments are left to fend for themselves, burdened with the memories of what they had to endure, and what they had to do to others in order to survive. There were delusional rationalizations they had to construct for self-preservation, and now that clarity has come they’re not sure what’s true anymore.
Please don’t be dissuaded by the subject matter. Like I said above, Mischling is worth it. It’s worth it because it’s honest. One of the sisters is bent on revenge. She fantasizes about plans to hunt and kill Mengele. She contemplates suicide. She imagines what life may be like without her sister, and it’s unendurable. She holds on to violence and draws power from it. She seeks how to make herself whole again, but she can’t let go of her anger. This book is about moving forward, finding the strength to believe that there is an “after.”
The effects will last a lifetime, but the love they hold onto will carry them through. Mischling is sorrowful and unimaginable, but it’s also redemptive. The story of Stasha and Pearl deserves to be read.
One phrase kept coming to mind as I read this book: “We accept the love we think we deserve.” This quote is from The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, and captures the essence of McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians. At the surface, this is a story of a young drama student having a relationship with an older, established actor. It’s almost a cliché – the teenage girl infatuated with an older man who takes advantage of her naiveté.
The difference here is that McBride’s tale forces the reader to be accepting and sympathetic of others’ experience, almost without judgement. It’s raw and disturbing, but that’s what makes it work.
Doubtless many readers will be aware that the writing style is not traditional. McBride writes in snippets, in phrases, short fragments of sentences. It’s not exactly stream-of-consciousness, but this style allows for introspection and first person point-of-view more honestly than the usual straightforward structure. It’s poetic and innovative, and not linear or direct. This writing creates succinct paragraphs without wordy descriptions. Dialogue is not bordered with quotation marks, but is directly inserted into the text. It may be off-putting or confusing at first, but it really doesn’t take long to adjust to this narrative voice. If you’re able to read Shakespearean English, or dialect, or an invented language, such as seen in The Country of Ice Cream Star or Cloud Atlas, then The Lesser Bohemians, though challenging, won’t be too difficult to tackle. Just let your mind go, be free of the burden of expectations, and absorb the words as they appear on the page. You’ll be just fine.
The subject matter may appear harmless – a May/December relationship – but it’s far from innocent. There are uncomfortable, sometimes taboo, subjects in this book. Incest, psychological abuse, drug use, child abuse . . . it’s all in there. It’s reminiscent of A Little Life, but this book is more believable and much better written. The characters are despicable, but they’re real.
I was bothered by the acceptance of psychological abuse as it was treated in this book. The young girl, Eily, allows herself to be cruelly manipulated by her older lover, mostly because she just doesn’t know any better. There is so much drama and on/off in their relationship, such desperation, dependency, and “he loves me and he’ll come back,” that it practically made me nauseous. The reasons for his behavior are made clear, but does that make his abuse and infidelity acceptable? I pity any young girl who reads this book and thinks this type of relationship is okay, or worse, that it’s normal and the best they can expect to have. Sex is used for approval, sex is used for revenge, sex is used for power. Even though there is some catharsis and growth, there remains a horrifying lack of self-esteem in both characters. This relationship is too damaged to be healthy, and McBride’s novel doesn’t address that danger. As an adult, I recognize that fact; as an 18-year-old, I may not have.
I recommend The Lesser Bohemians for those readers who want to experience a different narrative style and can handle difficult issues. I would only recommend it for adults. I prevaricated between giving a 3 or 4 star review. So, 3 stars for the story and 4 stars for the raw, powerful writing. McBride’s first novel, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, wowed me with her bold use of language. I admire McBride’s writing, and give her kudos for creating a daring story.
There are so many great books being released! I wanted to share some of the ones I’m most excited about reading.
I couldn’t wait to get my hands on A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. I finally got my copy (signed!) and started reading it right away, despite the fact that I’m already reading five other books. Set in 1922, Gentleman is the story of Count Rostov, a Russian aristocrat consigned by the Bolsheviks to live out his days under house arrest in the Metropol hotel. After only reading 50 pages, this book has hooked me. It’s beautiful and introspective, and, best of all, Count Rostov is deliciously charming.
Mischling is the German word for “mixed blood,” those deemed by the Nazis to have both Aryan and Jewish ancestry. Twin sisters Pearl and Stasha arrive at Auschwitz in 1944 and are immediately part of Mengele’s Zoo. At first they feel that maybe they are privileged to be set apart from the others, given special treatment, but it doesn’t take long for the horrors to reveal themselves. I’ve already started listening to this audiobook, which is expertly narrated by Vanessa Johansson. The reader is given both voices of Pearl and Stasha, two very different girls whose souls are blended: “Everyone survived by planning. I could see that. I realized that Stasha and I would have to divide the responsibilities of living between us. Such divisions had always come naturally to us, and so there, in the early-morning dark, we divvied up the necessities: Stasha would take the funny, the future, the bad. I would take the sad, the past, the good.” Dear readers, you’re going to want to get this one.
Emma Donoghue is the author of Room (shortlisted in 2010 for my fave book award, The Man Booker Prize) and Slammerkin (read this immediately if you haven’t already), so when her latest novel, The Wonder, hit the shelves, I knew I had to have it. It’s described as an Irish Gothic masterpiece, which definitely sets my nerves a-tingling. The Wonder is Anna O’Donnell, a young girl who hasn’t eaten any food in four months, claiming she is sustained only on manna from heaven. A nurse trained during the Crimean war is sent to observe Anna, drawing her own conclusions and battling faith and responsibility to her charge. Reviewers are raving about this vivid, eerie story. And with Donoghue at the helm, it’s bound to be an emotional adventure. Sign me up.
Today Will Be Different – the unpredictable husband, the adored child, the zany plot full of hilarious yet stressful situations, the frantic mom who’s barely holding it together while everyone she loves threatens to thwart her precarious grip on sanity. Like her previous novel Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, Semple weaves the poignant with the hilarious, making for a heart-breaking and entertaining story. Following Bernadette, this book has big shoes to fill, and I’m looking forward to jumping in.
*Big Gasp* when I heard that Eimear McBride had a new book coming out. I loved her debut novel, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. McBride’s writing is unusual; it’s mostly stream-of-consciousness poetical fragments and reading it takes a modicum of concentration. Please don’t let that seem as a warning to send you running the other way. I usually don’t do well with indirect, abstract prose. I think – and this is my blog, so I get to say what I want – that writers like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, who attempted to write this way, are *ahem* overhyped. McBride uses a similar style, but she does it successfully. I love her writing. She gives a sense of a scene blended with the character’s interpretation of what’s happening in bits. It’s like writing with sprinkles, reading by glancing snippets, a series of quick poetic morsels. And McBride is a genius at it. She’s a joy to read, even if I do have to slow down a little, furrow my brow. Her writing is worth the effort (more so than Joyce). I just received a copy of The Lesser Bohemians today (squee!) from Blogging for Books in exchange for my review, so put that on your radar as imminently forthcoming. I’m sure to be up late tonight!
Hannah Kent’s debut Burial Rites is one of my Favorite Books of All Time (see that cool list here), so her second novel, The Good People, is a must-read for me. Set in Ireland in 1825, widowed Nora is forced to care for her grandson, Michael. She seeks the help of Nance, a local healer, to help cure Michael, who is rumored to be a changeling and is blamed for the ill luck that has befallen their small town. Kent is adroit at creating a burdening atmosphere around haunting stories, and blending superstition and Gaelic folklore into historical fiction should be a perfect match for her skills.
This is what I’m looking foward to . . . so far! What’s on your to-read-soon list?
This book presents two twinned, parallel storylines of women suffering imprisonment.
In the main story, Jenny, a young girl in solitary confinement, reminisces about her lost love affair with Tom, an older man. There are hints that this love affair is the cause for her imprisonment (but I won’t get into that!). Solitary is dismal, as expected, but also lets Jenny’s mind wander, and we get the entire story of her affair with Tom, of her relationship with her grandmother, and her descent into passion and madness.
Jenny often speaks of color, or the lack of it, in her prison cell, fantasizing about a palette of paints. Her mental life is rich, which offers the reader a glimpse into her psyche. At first you wonder if Jenny was somehow wronged. Is she a victim of exploitation? Or is she psychotic?
In her mind, Jenny tells herself the story of Peggy Maybee, a distant ancestor who was imprisoned for trying to steal peacock feathers to give her infant son. Peggy is put on a prisoner transport ship and sent to Botany Bay, and desperate conditions, mutiny, and horrible punishment await her on the ship. I enjoyed her story as much as Jenny’s, despite the cruelty and depravity that Peggy had to endure. Her story is brutal and devastating.
I would describe Glaister’s writing style as modern gothic. There’s the subtle psychological disintegration, the haunting sense of place, the character-driven plot. She describes one item, like grey scrambled eggs, or the thin nubbiness of the bedspread, and you get a sense of the entire room, of the mood and atmosphere, of the dinginess, or newness, or oppressiveness. There’s a dark, introverted quality to the perspectives of both Jenny and Peggy.
This book was a riveting tale of blind passion. Jenny is, at first, very sympathetic, but as her story progresses she becomes less reliable, which only makes the book that more interesting. Anyone who’s had their heart broken will be able to relate to Jenny’s story, but her innocent infatuation turns dramatically into violent obsession. And yet, Glaister’s writing is so multifaceted that even in the end, as twisted as Jenny is, you still rally for her.
While looking at my Goodreads “most read authors” list, I was surprised to see that most of my most-read authors are women. Much to my chagrin, Stephen King has the top spot (thanks, fiery and quickly-extinguished high school obsession!). I haven’t read everything these women have written, but I have read a handful of each, so I have a general idea of what to recommend when someone says, “I’ve heard of her! Which one should I read first?” When asked this question, my inclination is to shove the entire oeuvre in their hands and overwhelm them, but in the interest of keeping friends, I’ve chosen The One to recommend from each of my five ladies.
Let’s start with Dame Daphne, Daphne du Maurier, my north star, my totem, my patronus. The obvious answer, the one everyone has read, is Rebecca. But no! As enchanting as Rebecca is, go deep and start with My Cousin Rachel. It’s more subtle, it has the most unreliable narrator, and it’s delicious. And after you read My Cousin Rachel, you still have Rebecca to look forward to.
Mi amore, Sarah Waters, is quite possibly my favorite living writer (sorry, David Mitchell, there’s only room for one). I posted on Litsy recently that I just want to grab her face in my hands and gush, “Thank you for writing books!” Sarah Waters has such talent for detail, such exquisite writing. She makes you live her characters. You adore their loves, you anguish over their indiscretions, you obsess over their failings. I inhaled her latest, The Paying Guests, but if you’re a Waters newbie, I’d recommend Fingersmith. Summary: deception, betrayal, twists. And that’s all you should know about the book before you open it. It’s best to go in blind. One reviewer called it “lesbian Dickens,” but I’d just call it amazing.
Margaret Atwood. Her actual name should be The Margaret Atwood, as she is grand enough to deserve the article. Or maybe, like Beyonce and Madonna, just Margaret. She’s famous for The Handmaid’s Tale, which is that one high school required book that kids have actually enjoyed. If you’ve never delved, I would recommend starting with Alias, Grace. It’s historical fiction, which is a bit of a branching out for Atwood, but it includes the nuances, mystery, and psychological twists that are in all her works. It’s the 19th century, and Grace is accused of murdering her employer and his mistress / housekeeper. But did she? Is she a victim or a fiend? She tells her story to a psychologist and he’s never quite sure if he can trust her narrative. Atwood’s writing is juicy; the small details add up to an enthralling story. I can’t recommend her highly enough. I want to stand on street corners and pass out her novels like religious tracts.
And next up, Elizabeth Strout. Going to have to recommend the gold standard, Olive Kitteridge. It reads as several interconnected stories revolving around one crotchety retired schoolteacher. Strout touches on the minor incidences of daily life that reflect the grander issues of aging, marital discord, and disappointments. It’s bleak, but not without hope. The miniseries starring Frances McDormand is excellent as well. (But read the book first.)
Finally, for my non-fiction-reading friends, there’s the inimitable Mary Roach. She’s ridden the Vomit Comet, she’s attended a school for mediums, she’s undergone electrode-tracking sexual stimulation on camera, all for the sake of her art. And in every photo I’ve seen of her she looks like she’s having a blast. She is the Jack Bauer of scientific journalism. Informative, entertaining, and definitely hilarious, Roach’s books are always a pleasure. I’d start with Stiff: the Curious Life of Human Cadavers for your first Roach romp.
There are also other female authors who have captured my heart (and I want to devour everything they’ve put on paper): Kate Morton, Emma Donoghue, Jeanette Winterson, Joanne Harris, and Vendela Vida.