Lost Children Archives–multiple stories

Lost Children Archives

By Valerie Lusisella

Published 2019

Read April 2021

This reader is still trying to decide what to think about this book.

The mother/wife/woman narrates most of the book but not all of it.  She describes their beginning—she and the father/husband/man both signed onto a project to record sounds in New York City.  She was a journalist and glad to get work that would last awhile and have medical benefits. They were assigned as a team to record as many of the 800 some languages spoken in the city.  They worked well together, fell in love, and decided to move in together.  She brought her daughter, then a little less than two years old. He brought his son, five years older.  We learn the boy lost his mother during childbirth.  We learn nothing of the girl’s father.  The adults marry and begin filing joint tax returns.  They use choose to use pronouns for the various family members that show they are one family.

The narrator picks up the story as the project is nearing its end and the adults are thinking about their next projects, although they aren’t discussing their next steps with each other.  His new sound project, for which he has secured a grant, will involve the last Apache leaders and he eventually tells her he will need silence and solitude and relocation to the southwest.  She had become involved with a Mexican woman living in the city whose daughters had tried to sneak into the country but had been abandoned by their “coyote”, found by border patrol agents, and prepared to be deported back to Mexico.  This leads her to get funding for a sound documentary about the immigrant children’s crisis at the border while still hoping she can help her friend find her children.  It becomes clear they aren’t on paths that have a clear intersection.  She tells us that she decides to find an intersection by refocusing her project on a site near the southern border.  This leads to a family road trip to the southwest.

The woman narrator gives us an interesting picture of that road trip.  They choose not to go quickly to their destination but rather avoid the interstates and fairly slowly meander their way to the southwest.  The father/husband/man declares the final destination will be in the Chiricahua Mountains as that’s where the Chiricahua Apaches had lived before they had to surrender to the “white-eyes”.  During the slow trip west, we hear stories the father/husband/man tells the children about the Apaches.  We learn more about the lost girls that the mother/wife/woman is seeking and we hear her read from a book called “Elegies for Lost Children” (a book that the author creates for this novel) that describe the journey of seven children being led by a “coyote” from Mexico into the United States.  We hear about the games the children (now 10 and 5) play in the back seat of the car including role-playing the lost children in their mother’s book.

The picture of the road trip leads us to understand that the family unit, which has only been together four short years, is coming undone and perhaps has already completely disintegrated as far as the father/husband/man is concerned.  We don’t hear anything from him.  The mother/wife/woman’s acceptance of the disintegration of the family unit grows over the course of the trip.  They become father/man and mother/woman but the bond between the two “parents” dissolves with limited effort from either party, it seems, to hold it together. 

The picture presented made this reader question the parenting capabilities of the adults.  For instance, the parent’s choices for audiobooks astounded this reader.  Cormac McCarthy’s The Road?? This reader found that book quite astonishing but the extremely dark post-apocalyptic world includes people who raise babies to eat them.  They would play this for the children?  The parents do decide this book might be a little dark for the children but when the woman’s audio-player starts up each time, the first line of that book always plays.  They decide on The Lord of the Flies as the best book they have for the family and proceed to listen to it.  This reader shouldn’t have been surprised considering how dark the “Elegies for Lost Children” is.  Fortunately, the children are clearly very connected to each other and can carry on quite well with each other despite little attention from their parents. 

Eventually the boy takes over narration of the book.  He has certainly been listening to his parents and understands that they are likely separating and that this is their last family trip.  He wants to help his mother (he has certainly fully accepted her in this role) and eventually decides to help her find the lost children his mother is desperately trying to find—the two little girls who are being sent back to Mexico.   He takes his sister on a trek across the desert to find them and leaves behind a map for their parents to let them know where they are headed—to Echo Canyon which their father has been discussing.  Thus we leave the haunting narration by the mother of the parents distancing themselves from each other and seemingly their children too as they become increasingly focused on their respective projects.  We enter an even sadder narration by the son telling about the two young children trekking across a desert with little to eat or drink but with a mission to find the lost girls.   The boy has concluded that saving the children may be more important to his mother than they are themselves. Can this book become more tragic?  This reader will leave to your own reading to learn how things turn out.

This book has received many accolades.  This reader agrees that “The Elegies for Lost Children” paints a very dark, and likely accurate, picture of the trek many immigrant children are taking to come to the United States.   The author conveys the pain parents feel as they send their children on such a trek to rejoin family already in the United States.  The author makes the reader question the rationality and humanity of the policies that create this situation. 

However, the story of the family’s disintegration is troubling.  The parents allow their four year relationship to die with seemingly little attempt to save it and with little thought of how this might impact their children.  Of course the boy will stay with the man and the girl will go with the woman.    Their children not only get lost trying to help their parents find the lost children in their mother’s book, they are about to be very lost when they lose their sibling, and are left only with their biological parent who seems to have limited interest in them.     It remains unclear to this reader why this is the story the author chooses to tell while reeling out “The Elegies for Lost Children”. 

Snow—John Banville writes a mystery

Snow

By John Banville

Published 2020

Read March 2021

As noted in a previous entry, this reader found a Benjamin Black novel in a Little Library on a road in the Finger Lakes and learned two things:  Benjamin Black is the pen name of Dublin’s famous writer John Banville; Benjamin Black’s mystery novels are well “crafted” (as the author describes) and quite the worthy read.  This reader has enjoyed another Benjamin Black novel since then and commented on it.

Recently this reader found John Banville’s Snow in a Little Library in Naples Park, Florida.  While this book was found 1500 miles away from the other Little Library, the discovery was just as welcomed as the first.  Apparently Banville (a highly celebrated Irish writer) has decided it’s acceptable to sign his “entertainments” with his real name.   

This book too is has a mystery in it.  While the book suggests it may have a classic Agatha Christie plot—the victim is found dead in the library and the killer must have been inside the house when the family retired—the book also provides a unique look into the 1957 world of Wexford County via depiction of a  fraying Anglo-Irish Protestant family and its interactions with the Catholic priest who is murdered in their slowly decaying house.  St John Strafford, the investigator from Dublin, is an unusual Garda member as he is from the same class as the family and also a Protestant.  We hear his thoughts as he moves through the investigation and through his days and nights while staying in this small town south of Dublin.  We watch him slowly unfold a number of family secrets and we see him interact with the Catholic Church as it defines what is expected from the investigation of the death of one of their priests.  

This reader won’t divulge more about the plot which is certainly darker than hoped for by this reader but as dark as should be expected by some of the details of the murder.    Rather this reader will leave you with a passage that quite took this reader by pleasant surprise and made her sit upright.  Strafford has been forced to stop his car to wait for a flow of sheep to pass across the road.  “Strafford idly studied the milling animals, admiring their long aristocratic heads and neat little hoofs, like carved nuggets of coal, on which they trotted so daintily.  He was struck too by their protuberant and intelligent-seeming shiny black eyes, expressive of social resignation tinged with the incurable shame of their plight, avatars of an ancient race, being herded ignominiously along a country road by a snot-nosed brat with a stick.”

This reader is glad Banville has decided to expand his literary efforts to this new form of “entertainment”.  Benjamin Black’s novels are much more than simple mysteries providing terrific language about not only the characters but their physical and social environment.  Banville has upped the ante even more with this entry and this reader looks forward to more. 

Tony Hillerman—Great Mysteries and Interesting Characters

Coyote Waits

By Tony Hillerman

Published 1990

Read March 2021

Skeleton Man

By Tony Hillerman

Published 2004

Read April 2021

This reader has encountered Tony Hillerman and his characters Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, Navajo Tribal Police officers, in the past.  Then, as now, this reader read two this series (of eighteen) nearly back to back.  Joe is the older and wiser officer and Jim Chee the younger officer trying to find his way in his world that straddles the Navajo and white world.  He straddles as well his draw to be a traditional healer and his pursuit of being a good investigative officer.   

The stories are set in and around the Navajo Nation and include either a mystery to be solved by Leaphorn and Chee (in cooperation or in parallel) or some kind of suspense story (as in Skeleton Man.  Over the course of the series, the stories of Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee are revealed.  As with the Massie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear, the reader is treated to an interesting mystery/suspense story set in a different culture and/or time and the story provides some insights into that culture/time.  In both series, the story of the main character(s) is slowly metered out but in a way that doesn’t dominate the mystery/suspense plot .  Both the character(s)’ story and the mystery engage and propel the reader into both stories.   It’s not critical to read either series in chronological order of the story(ies) of the main character(s) as there is sufficient background provided to enable you to participate in their story(ies) as told in a particular  book.  Interestingly, all three characters, Massie Dobbs, Joe Leaphorn, and Jim Chee, have entries in Wikipedia that are fairly detailed regarding their life stories. 

Unfortunately the world lost Tony Hillerman so the eighteen books are all the world will get describing the lives of Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee and the mysteries they solve.  Lucky for this reader, there are a good number of Hillerman’s book left to read.  

The Great Santini–A difficult story the author lived

The Great Santini

By Pat Conroy

Published 1976

Read March 2021

Pat Conroy wrote a fictionalized account of his childhood and published it 14 years after the 1962 setting for the story. The main character, Ben, based on Pat, is the oldest child of Lt Col Wilbur “Bull” Meecham (who calls himself “The Great Santini”).  Bull Meecham is a Marine fighter pilot who fought battles in his plane in WWII and the Korean Conflict and now finds himself in a command position for which he was far from the first choice.  He has been assigned to lead a group of Marine fighter pilots.  He intends to make the best of the best and prove he should be promoted despite the reports in his record that suggest he is not leadership material.

Bull Meecham, a Chicago native, met his wife while stationed in the south.  She was 18 when they married.  He was considered quite a catch.  She converted to Catholicism for him, sends their children to Catholic school when there is one in town, and sets up a small alter in each house they occupy—-they move frequently from base to base. 

Bull Meecham was an amazingly abusive father and husband, expecting complete obedience and respect from all members and beating any of them who don’t live up to his expectations.  He pays little attention to his daughters who he expects to be “great tail” for their future husbands—-Marines of course–and he expects his sons to become Marine fighter pilots too.  The scene in which he and Ben are playing a game of backyard basketball was extremely telling.  Bull is going to be beaten by his high school son and he can’t stand it.  He can’t lose to anyone ever.  After being struck in the head with the ball repeatedly by his father, Ben goes inside while his father remains outside practicing basketball so he won’t ever lose again.

This was actually a difficult book for this reader to endure.   Being aware that it was based on the author’s life made it even more difficult.  No family member can possibly be left undamaged by the environment Bull creates in the household.  The only semblance of peace they get is when Bull is on assignment overseas and the family returns to the mother’s childhood home and stays with the grandparents.  These readers hoped that Ben would at some point get beyond the constant bickering he does with his sister and actually hear her pleas for help.  The two of them are each other’s dates for a school prom.  She tries to seriously talk with him and tells him that she isn’t sure she wants to live but he doesn’t hear it.  The stories of the abusive treatment by Bull of his family and squad continue for 536 pages.  This reader wondered how it could ever end.  Fortunately it does.  

One hopes that military life has changed during the nearly 50 years since the setting of this story.  One hopes that women have real avenues to break out of abusive relationships.  One hopes that children are never raised in this kind of environment so they aren’t permanently damaged by it. Obviously changes are incomplete on all accounts. 

By writing what he lived, Conroy left a canon of writing that never feels inauthentic—-he lived most of it himself.    Hopefully this writing helped him heal and hopefully this writing will help others recognize that there is much healing needed by too many people.

Alternate Sides—another Quindlen hit

Alternate Side

By Anna Quindlen

Published 2018

Read Feb 2021

Alternate Side is Quindlen’s most recent novel and true to form she gets inside a character and welcomes you to live with her.  This book is set in New York City, on a small dead-end street of three story houses now worth a fortune and occupied generally for over a decade by their current occupants.  Most were bought by couples with hefty means —at least one medical specialist (no GP’s here) or someone in high-end finance etc.  The occupants have come to know each other over the years while walking their dogs, raising their children, attending the annual street barbeque (now catered), and attending the holiday party hosted by one of the families.

Nora Nolan moved to New York about two decades ago and remains totally in love with the city.  She walks to her job as head of development (fund raising) at a Museum of Jewelry and regularly runs through the city as well.  Her husband Charlie was in law but now is in high finance although he is never quite in the inner circle at his firm.  Their twin children are now in college so they have the large house to themselves.  Charlie would like to move somewhere warm – likely also to have a fresh start at a job—but Nora has no intention of leaving her beloved city.

The book is populated with their neighbors on the street, the people who work for them, and  some of Nora’s other friends and family.  Their housekeeper/nanny, Charity, has been with them since the children were very small.  Ricky is the local handyman everyone on the block uses to fixes whatever needs it. This reader kept confusing several of Nora’s friends, likely because this reader never became invested in them and they weren’t particularly distinguishable to this reader.  The male neighbors were more memorable.  George is the self-appointed leader of sorts of the block who posts memos regarding pest control, the neighborhood BBQ, and who has taken charge of managing the vacant lot on the block that serves as a parking lot for the special few.  Jack is a perpetually angry about anything that hinders his access in or out of said parking lot.

An event occurs that accelerates some major shifts in the neighborhood, shifts that perhaps were already occurring as the various neighbors mature in middle age and beyond.

While this reader related extensively to the protagonist in Miller’s Creek,connection with this protagonist was more difficult for this reader.  This is quite likely because this reader is not in love with New York City and is always delighted to be leaving it, even though the reasons for visits are always quite satisfying.  The income level required to maintain the type of lifestyle the characters lead is also in a different stratosphere than that of this reader so the problems they encounter are less familiar.  The daughter chastises the mother humorously for use of the term “first world problem” as it’s now out of fashion, according to her, but its use was quite appropriate.

Although this reader didn’t relate strongly to the particular environment of the protagonist, Quindlen again does a great job of enabling the reader to grasp her feelings, especially in the later part of the book as her life begins to change dramatically.  The reflections on her life that the protagonist shares are quite revealing and genuine and did grab the reader in the way Quindlen’s books always have.

This reader will certainly read the next novel Quindlen publishes and hopes it is soon.

The Good Wife-A Novel

The Good Wife

By Stewart O’Nan

Published 2005

Read Jan 2021

Patty Dickerson is one of three sisters.  She isn’t the pretty one or the smart one. She was just an average girl who was anxious to leave home and get away from her mother and her mother’s household.  She married Tommy and lives with him in an apartment that is a big step up from the one they first occupied when they married.  They both work at some jobs and Tommy plays in an adult hockey league.

When the book opens, we meet Patty as she kisses her husband goodbye.  He is going to celebrate his goal in the hockey game that evening with his teammates.  She is heading home as she’s pregnant and tired from working all day before sitting on a hard bench that night to watch the game and cheer for Tommy.   She never expects that will be the last time she sees Tommy outside a jail or prison for a long time.

We learn along with Patty that apparently Tommy and his friend Gary have been breaking into houses and stealing things.  While Patty was getting ready for bed after the hockey game Tommy and Gary were breaking into an older woman’s house.  She somehow dies, they try to cover it up with a fire, and, of course  are discovered quickly when a neighbor calls 911 about the flames he sees and the figures that leave the house.  They land in jail that night.

Who did what?  Burglary?  Accidental manslaughter?  Second degree murder?  Arson?  Whose hands caused the death?  Tommy is defended by a public defender.  Gary can afford a lawyer.

We witness Patty trying to make sense of all this, attending the hearings, trying to find money for a “real” lawyer, trying to understand what the public defender is telling her, visiting Tommy in jail, and  realizing this situation isn’t resolving quickly or well.

The author has us continue to witness Patty’s trials as she tries to figure out what to do, how to be, who she is.  We watch her lose her apartment, move in with her sister for a while and then move in with her mother in the house she had so anxiously wanted to leave not that many years ago.

The book did not follow the course this reader though it might although it started down that path.  The book is a simple but complex story of a woman married to a man who ends up in prison and whose son knows his father only through the visits he makes with his mother.

The book is set in the Southern Tier of New York State.  The author captures well the small town atmosphere.  He describes plainly and clearly the drive to the prison in Auburn and then the long bus ride she takes later when he is transferred to a prison outside Dannemora, a prison made famous a few years ago by the escape of two prisoners aided by a guard.

The reader does not get the sense that the author is trying to instruct about nor opine about the criminal justice system.  His focus is simply Patty.   What she experiences as she lives her life as it has been transformed by that one night when Tommy didn’t make it home.  He does that job well.

Station Eleven–A Pandemic Story But Much More

Station Eleven

By Emily St John Mandel

Published 2014

Read 2021

A book discussion group to which this reader belongs selected this book for the 2020-2021 reading season in March 2020 despite the book being advertised as one that deals with a world after a virus takes out most of civilization and while the US was starting to shut down due a virus that causes Covid-19.  The book discussion scheduled a year after the voting occurred will be an interesting one.  This reader anticipates several group members will require the same push into the book this reader did, but hopefully the group will engage with the book and listen to many themes it covers.

The structure of this book is quite well done:  The central, unifying character, a 51-year old actor named Arthur, dies nearly immediately as the book begins, during a scene in which he is playing King Lear.  The book moves back and forth in time across the various major characters, who are connected to Arthur in some way, giving their “before the virus” story and their “after the virus story”, and for some the “during the virus story.  We learn more about Arthur through these sections as well.  Fortunately the “during story” is only shared for the characters that don’t encounter terrible violence, which is not true for all the characters.  The major characters are various ages when the virus hits:  Kirsten (appearing in King Lear with Arthur) is eight; Miranda (Arthur’s first wife) and Jeevan (the audience member who tries to save Arthur’s life on stage) are in their mid/late 20’s; Clark (Arthur’s friend since college) is also 51.  So we see different kinds of impacts on the characters by the virus due to their age at the event.   Arthur dies before the virus hits.  A late section recalls his last day of life which reveals some of his evolution during a “normal lifetime”.  Each major character is associated with a separate sub-plot and a number of supporting characters associated with it.   There are also major connecting events that tie the characters and their stories together either before or after the virus hits.   The King Lear play ties together Arthur, Jeevan, Kirstin, and Miranda.  The dinner at Arthur and Miranda’s ties together Arthur, Miranda, Clark, and Elizabeth (Arthur’s second wife and a component of Clark’s post-virus story).  An interview by the editor of a Petoskey newspaper post-virus connects Kirsten, Clark, and Arthur.  And finally there are “things” to tie together the stories.  Miranda’s graphic novel “Station Eleven” connects Miranda with Kirsten, Arthur, Arthur’s son, and Clark.  The glass globe Clark gives Arthur and Miranda at the dinner party later shows up in Kirstin’s story.  Finally, Miranda’s dog connects her with Arthur’s son who plays a significant role this reader won’t describe here.

There are several major themes of the book.  “Survival is not enough” is a tag line for the Travelling Symphony to which Kristen belongs.  Literature, performing arts, and fine art are each important for several of the characters and drives home the importance of these in the vitality of any culture.  Purpose is essential for humanity.  Several of the characters find their purpose as some kind of artist but Jeevan and Clark show that purpose is essential for all of us.  Lack of purpose in a life leads to “ghost-walking” through life.  Clark eventually recognizes he has been ghost-walking and Jeevan knows it early on.

The author is from British Columbia, Canada.  She weaves some of her experience being on a small island there into her story—Arthur and Miranda are both from a small island off the coast of British Columbia which is the connection that brings them together initially—in Toronto.  Mandel sets the site of the King Lear play in Toronto so that is the place that Kirsten and Jeevan start their post-virus lives.  Clark is in transit to Toronto when his plane is forced to land in a town southwest of Lake Michigan.  The Travelling Symphony’s “territory” is along the shores of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron down to the fishing towns on the St Claire River.  As this reader grew up in Michigan, these locales were meaningful and connected this reader to the story in ways others readers might not be.

Of course this is also an “end of the world as we know it” book (and that song becomes an earworm for some of the characters at one point). The author draws out many themes through the various subplots including before/after a catastrophic event; remaining human and humane when survival is not a given; trying to flee the enemy/issue/plague and not always succeeding; the role of religion in society; true and false prophets, memory and remembering; and most importantly, the role of cooperation in making a viable, livable community in the face of chaos.   Her focus isn’t on how terrible things are but rather on how these characters are making life bearable for themselves and others, despite the dangers and uncertainties.  There is a clear glimmer of hope give near the end—Clark show Kirsten light coming from an area some distance from them.  It appears to be a grid of streets lit by electricity.

Although Mandel certainly wasn’t expecting a real pandemic to be the backdrop for many of her future readers, but it is now. It will likely invoke the experience of this reader who had to dip her toe into the book a little tentatively.   Jeevan tries to convince his girlfriend to take seriously this new Georgian flu and flee the city.  She doesn’t and reminds him that SARS came and left without much noise and this one likely will be similar.  But it’s not.  This Georgian flu is quite deadly.  Of course we can discuss whether Mandel’s flu could really spread quickly if it kills so efficiently and quickly but she’s not trying to educate about flu spread so we should just accept the premise.  We’re now living through a different kind of flu—Covid-19 that fortunately isn’t nearly as deadly but is certainly causing much terror throughout the world.  Are there things we should learn from this book as we face into the rest of the Covid-19 pandemic that likely will turn into endemic Covid-19 that lasts for the rest of our lifetimes?  Perhaps some lessons include keep some perspective on things, pay attention to those studying the disease, remember to retain your humanity, if your previous purpose has been disrupted, what can you do now to continue living with a purpose,  how do we create new communities that help us maintain our humanity and purpose, and how to do ensure the arts remain present to nurture our souls.

Someone–a McDermott Classic

Someone

By Alice McDermott

Published 2013

Read Jan 2021

The beauty of McDermott’s books comes from her ability to provide us with a scene from a life.  It’s sparse but complete.  It’s tender but slightly sharp.  It tells the perception of the narrating character but manages to somehow convey the reality of the situation.

Such is the beauty of Someone, a series of scenes of the life of narrator Marie.  We encounter her first when she is a girl of seven.  She waits on the stoop of their Brooklyn house for her father who will be arriving home from his desk, not laborer, job.  Her brother Gabe is studying inside.  His friends are playing stickball in the street.  Her mother is preparing dinner.  We are treated to the arrival of her father, her jubilation from his presence, and their little rituals of greeting, pre- and post-dinner habits.  We learn a bit about the neighborhood and the neighbors, hear the names of characters who will turn up throughout Marie’s life, get a hint of her poor eyesight, and a hint as well of the serious nature of her big brother Gabe.

The various chapters begin somewhat chronologically but as the book progresses, they move back and forth a bit.  The story of her cataract surgery comes before the story of her wedding day.  A story of being in a nursing home precedes the story of the birth of her first child.  Each has been written in past tense and it’s a marvelous approach that the memories become unordered just as our own memories are even when we might try to start at the beginning.

Marie’s story is set in an Irish neighborhood in Brooklyn and we learn it’s evolving.  Marie’s mother wouldn’t consider leaving it so Gabe lives with her in that same apartment until she passes although Marie and her husband have moved to a house in the Bronx.  Gabe’s brother had been ordained a Catholic priest.  Why did he leave the priesthood and return to live with his mother?  We get a possible explanation late in the book but we also feel slightly guilty that it’s really none of our business.  Marie tells us some things but not others.  Maybe she knows answers and maybe she doesn’t.  She tells us what is important to her which is what matters.

The specifics of Marie’s life are shaped somewhat by the time and place in which she lives, but the phases of life she passes through are universal as are many of the feelings she does and doesn’t tell us. It’s certainly no surprise to this reader that Someone was a finalist for the National Book Award.  This reader looks forward to savoring more of her simultaneously understated and powerful books.

Miller’s Valley–Quindlen Hits the Mark Again

Miller’s Valley

By Anna Quindlen

Published 2016

Read Jan 2021

If you are looking for a book with somewhat flawed but engaging characters, realistic drama with no sermons, great but not syrupy language, a story that speaks to both your head and your heart, find a book by Anna Quindlen.  She does it again with Miller’s Valley.

This story is set in the 1970’s in a rural valley near a dam.  The feds want to extend the man-made lake into the valley but the farmers who live there don’t want to sell.  The farmers, like most small farmers then and now, can’t make a living just farming.  The narrator’s father is a fix-it man who can fix most anything.  The narrator’s mother married into the Miller family which has owned this farm for several generations.  She is actually the primary bread-winner via her nursing job at the local hospital.  Her sister lives in a small house at the back of the property and hasn’t come out doors for as long as narrator Mimi can remember, event when the valley floods during big rainstorms.

Our narrator is the youngest child of three.  Mimi’s oldest brother Ed is fifteen or so years older and is in college studying engineering by the time Mimi’s narration begins.  Her popular and good-looking brother Tommy manages to graduate from high school somehow and enlists in the Marines. He returns from Vietnam physically intact but certainly changed in ways that keep him emotionally separated from the family.   This is especially difficult for Mimi’s mother as Tommy is clearly her favorite child.  Mimi quietly observes her family and seeks to stay under the radar but her academic capabilities are recognized by her teachers who provide her direction to “go beyond”, direction that Mimi’s mother and brother Tommy also echo.

Quinlen does a remarkable job telling the story of this family and giving a sense of the change that is impending for these family farmers and their town and for other small communities as young people leave for college and don’t always return.    This reader grew up in the same time period as Mimi and is impressed by the author’s talent in capturing the flavor of the time and at the same time making the story quite timeless.  This reader looks forward to reading more of this author’s work.

A Gentleman in Moscow–A Modern Russian Novel

A Gentleman in Moscow

By Amor Towles

Published 2016

Read  April  2020;  Jan 2021

This reader listened to this book in the early days of the Covid-19 Pandemic shutdown  and read the written text of this book in Jan 2021, during the phase of the pandemic in which the vaccine is becoming available to tackle said pandemic.  This reader savored the book each time and in both formats.

Towles presents us with Count Alexander Rostov, recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, member of the Jockey Club, and Master of the Hunt, as he is appearing before a committee of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs in 1922.  He stands accused of becoming an anti-Revolutionary and threat to the current government. This would usually result in being sent to a firing squad.  However Rostov admits authorship of the poem “Where Is It Now”, written in 1913, has been attributed to him. This poem is considered by the committee as a call to action and puts him in the category of heroes of the prerevolutionary cause.  Thus he is spared the firing squad and sentenced to house-arrest in the hotel in which he resides, the Hotel Metropol, a grand hotel in the center of Moscow.  Thus begins our adventure with the Count as he begins his sentence living in the hotel, not in the spacious and pleasant suite he has called home for the last four years, but in a tiny attic room.

The reader follows the Count over thirty-two years of his sentence of house arrest.  He enters his sentence at age thirty-three having had no occupation as it is “not the business of gentlemen to have occupations.” He eventually confronts the fact that this sentence, a sort of forced retirement from his non-occupation of a gentleman who has many interactions with the world external to the Metropol,  is becoming quite tedious and meaningless.  We follow him as he finds purpose to his life in the form of an occupation as head waiter of the elegant hotel restaurant and as a friend to workers and several special guests of the Metropol.  We also follow changes in the politics and culture of the new State as the Metropol’s ballroom holds many organizing assemblies, conferences, and other meetings of the evolving government.   We watch as the Count’s occupation and talents lead him to connections to some officials in the Soviet and American governments that prove useful to them, and perhaps him.  A major event happens to the Count near the middle of the book and a new purpose is thrust upon him, caring for the child of a former resident of the hotel when he had first started his house arrest and when she was a spunky nine-year-old.

The book is not short—it takes Towles 452 pages to cover thirty-two years of a man’s life who has much time to consider what is happening to him and his homeland and how he is reacting and will react to it.  Towles uses several footnotes to expand on specific items, giving the reader the feeling of being “let in” on something of importance.  Most of the time the book is focused on the Count’s activities and thoughts, but occasionally Towles focuses briefly on the activities and thoughts of other characters, generally to forward specific parts of the plot involving them in an efficient and effective manner.

The Count’s self-reflections and realizations of how his sentence has impacted him and how the new State is impacting his homeland in general and his close friends in particular are quite well done.  In the end, however, the book is much more about the evolution of relationships between the Count and the various characters—hotel employees and hotel guests—and the importance of friendship and purpose in a life well lived.   Towles approach to the book’s structure, the language he uses, and the warm and sometimes humorous scenes he chooses to include and the darker and violent scenes that he doesn’t include, but we know happen, make this book a very pleasant and well done read.