Book Review: “A Gentleman in Moscow” by Amor Towles

A Gentleman in Moscow

By Amor Towles

5-stars

gentleman in moscow

A book that soothes and warms you with its infectious geniality. A book filled with optimism, verve, self-belief and, incongruous though it seems, Communism. A gorgeous story, whose luxury comes not from the fine dining, orchestral music and room service of the best hotel in Moscow, but from its generosity of spirit.

Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is a gentleman in every sense of the word: not just thanks his to family name, but to his undying optimism and good humour. He is a gentleman in the age of Bolshevism, he is a “Former Person,” he is a prisoner of the state. Once accustomed to all the finer things in life, a gentleman of distinction and leisure, he is now under house arrest till the end of his days. But he learns that life has so much more to offer and the Hotel Metropol must now become his world.

But there are worse places to be put under house arrest than the most glamorous hotel in Russia. And besides, one can never predict who might stroll through the elegant revolving doors and change your life forever: a forthright girl, a brooding poet, an elegant movie star, an American ambassador, a prissy hotel manager, a one-eyed cat, a cantankerous chicken…

Despite Rostov’s confinement, the story does not feel the slightest bit confined. Where better to accommodate important committees on commerce and industry than the grand halls of the Metropol, while a curious girl and a Count can quietly observe? Outside the hotel, queues of people line the streets to get a new pair of shoes, and city monuments are brought down to make way for something more utilitarian. We peer into the Kremlin offices and travel out to rural farms; we hear stories of a rich man’s past and a loving husband’s broken home.

A world of experience, sprawling outwards and curling back inwards; a spiralling map that leads back to the Hotel Metropol and the ever charismatic Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, “the luckiest man in all of Russia” (p313).

 “Our lives are steered by uncertainties, many of which are disruptive or even daunting; but that if we persevere and remain generous of heart, we may be granted a moment of supreme lucidity – a moment in which all that has happened to us suddenly comes into focus as a necessary course of events, even as we find ourselves on the threshold of a bold new life that we had been meant to lead all along.” (p441-2)

“The Count had restricted himself to two succinct pieces of parental advice. The first was that if one did not master one’s circumstances, one was bound to be mastered by them; and the second was Montaigne’s maxim that the surest sign of wisdom is constant cheerfulness.” (p417)

(I really tried to delete one of these quotes for the sake of brevity, but I just couldn’t.)


ISBN: 9780091944247

Publisher: Cornerstone

Title: A Gentleman in Moscow

Author: Amor Towles

Book Review: “Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde”

Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde

By Robert Louis Stevenson

jekyll and hyde.jpg

Thanks to over a century of interpretation, the story of Jekyll and Hyde has been retold over and over. Thanks to TV, film and generations of school teachers, this classic novella is part of our national and, indeed, global culture. Everyone knows the basics: a scientist, Dr Jekyll, creates a formula to separate his evil qualities from himself. But rather than purging his evil, he gives it a face and a body to call its own. As a result, Jekyll periodically transforms into his evil doppelganger, Mr Hyde. As Hyde gains more and more control over Jekyll, terrible consequences follow.

“Street after street, and all the folks asleep – street after street, all lighted up as if for a procession and all as empty as a  church – till at least I got into that state of mind when a man listens and listens and beings to long for the sight of a policeman.” (p.3)

It is a classic for a reason: it keeps you turning the pages, it makes your heart beat faster. It makes you want to ask the questions you’re not sure you want answered. The gothic atmosphere is timeless and potently imagined. Seen through the eyes of Mr Utterson, Jekyll’s friend and solicitor, much is kept from us and more still is never truly revealed. We only catch glimpses through closing doors and hear footsteps down dark alleys. The rest is up to us.

Born of Gothic Romanticism, Stevenson’s novella focuses on themes of morality and human folly. Cloaked in the shadowy alleyways of Victorian London, deliciously grimy and decadent, Jekyll has embarked on a dangerous game. Despite the warnings of his fellows, he is wont to delve further into the mysterious existence of morality than is wise, upsetting the delicate coexistence of the soul and the human body.

I have read and studied a fair amount of Gothic literature, but “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” never featured on the reading list, so I have only just got around to reading it. I wish I had read it before, because it compounds huge amounts of that era’s nuances into such a small space: doppelgangers, shadows, mad scientists, tragedy, morality, suspense, murder, mysticism – all in fewer than 100 pages. Understanding the ideas and devices that define Gothic Romanticism is in no way necessary to read and enjoy this novella, but if you do have some understanding and have yet to read it, I would heartily recommend it.

 

ISBN: 9780141389509

Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd

Title: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Author: Robert Louis Stevenson

 

 

Book Review: “A Little History of Philosophy” by Nigel Warburton

“A Little History of Philosophy” by Nigel Warburton

little history philosophy

Does what it says on the tin. From Socrates through to Alan Turing and Peter Singer, bitesize chapters relate the history of philosophy from its birth to present day. You couldn’t call it a full history, since it focuses primarily on Western philosophy. Nevertheless, it is a lovely introduction to philosophy for students or for anyone with an interest in the subject. These philosophical episodes also coalesce with pivotal moments of political and scientific change: Rousseau in the French Revolution, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, Karl Marx theorising Communism, Alan Turing cracking the Enigma code. Joining the philosophical dots through history helps to paint a picture of humanity and continued attempts to improve ourselves.

The tone of the chapters evolves as you read. Warburton is almost flippant and comedic at the start, when discussing Socrates. But this may well be a reflection of the ancient historical accounts we have access to. The erosion of time has made them into characters, rather than people. You cannot help but find Pyrrho to be an amusing character. Pyrrho was an early sceptic who believed we can know absolutely nothing. Our physical senses were likely to mislead us, so he therefore ignored them entirely.

“So, whereas most people would take the sight of a cliff edge with a sheer drop as strong evidence that it would be very foolish to keep walking forward, Pyrrho didn’t … Even the feeling of his toes curling over the cliff edge, or the senstation of tipping forward, wouldn’t have convinced him he was about to fall to the rocks below. It wasn’t even obvious to him that falling on to the rocks would be so bad for his health. How could he be absolutely sure of that?” p17

As the book moves further toward the present, the tone becomes more sincere and the questions more relevant for a modern reader. Will computers be able to achieve consciousness, for example? Is abortion moral? Reading this book is like studying a unit called “Introduction to Philosophy,”  with lectures from a university professor (which of course they are). Studying Socrates and Pyrrho give you a flavour of philosophical thought, but their insights are unlikely to impact on modern day life. Warburton fulfils his role as teacher by introducing an increasingly provocative style that encourages the reader, or student, to explore and question.

Book Review: “Reunion” by Fred Uhlman

“Reunion” by Fred Uhlman

reunion

In the afterword to this novel, Rachel Seiffert’s phrase puts it perfectly: “His restraint is formidable”. Sometimes the most difficult thing for a writer to achieve is restraint, the tendency to embellish being too difficult to resist. Uhlman’s narrative is stripped back, leaving only what is essential. I found reading this very short novel to be an unusual challenge, simply because of its brevity. I had to deliberately slow my reading, so as not to skim past something important. It is imperative you pay attention to every word, or you’ll miss something delicate and urgent.

This book is about friendship, the essence of what it is to find another person with whom you can share, with whom you feel natural. And the fragile state of adolescence, on the brink of adulthood, but still so much the child.

“Just as I took it for granted that it was dulce et decorum pro Germania mori, so I would have agreed that to die pro amico was dulce et decorum too. Between the ages of sixteen and eighteen boys sometimes combine a naïve innocence, a radiant purity of body and mind, with a passionate urge to absolute and selfless devotion. The phase usually only lasts a short time, but because of its intensity and uniqueness it remains one of life’s most precious experiences.” p13

This is the state in which we join two sixteen-year-old boys. Full of potential, minds to be readily moulded… or taken advantage of.

A thin, at times imperceptible veil floats above Hans and Konradin’s friendship. Konradin’s parents shake hands with Hitler in a photo. Herr Pompetzski delivers a lesson on the “dark powers” at work everywhere. A schoolboy tells Hans to “go back to Palestine”.

This book can be read in a matter of hours. Remarkably swift, delicate and poetic, Uhlman’s style reminds me an equally short novel: A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler. It is, like Ulhman, Seethaler’s ability to hold back that makes the narrative so powerful. They refuse to dress up a story that can and will speak for itself, with its humble words and noble human intention.

Book Review: “My Name is Lucy Barton” by Elizabeth Strout

“My Name is Lucy Barton” by Elizabeth Strout

lucy barton

My Name is Lucy Barton is an honest account of family and a true representation of how life and love can be so complicated and yet so simple. Strout’s tone is refreshing and unsentimental, and for me, that is both its strength and its weakness. I struggled to feel invested in what is essentially brief and largely uneventful. Strout’s strength, however, is creating an environment in which empathy is eminently possible.

“Lonely was the first flavour I hast tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, remind me.” p41-2

“I have since been friends with many men and women and they say the same thing: Always that telling detail. What I mean is, this is not just a woman’s story. It’s what happens to a lot of us, if we are lucky enough to hear that detail and pay attention to it.” p28

The charm of this novel is in its little glimpses of human tenderness. Lucy shares those feelings we all have but are often too embarrassed or ashamed to admit. Lucy and her mother do not have an easy relationship. They are real because they are normal and mundane but complicated, like all of us.

3 Reviews!

I failed to post a review during February, so have three to make up for it:

“My Name is Lucy Barton” by Elizabeth Strout

lucy barton

My Name is Lucy Barton is an honest account of family and a true representation of how life and love can be so complicated and yet so simple. Strout’s tone is refreshing and unsentimental, and for me, that is both its strength and its weakness. I struggled to feel invested in what is essentially brief and largely uneventful. Strout’s strength, however, is creating an environment in which empathy is eminently possible.

“Lonely was the first flavour I hast tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, remind me.” p41-2

“I have since been friends with many men and women and they say the same thing: Always that telling detail. What I mean is, this is not just a woman’s story. It’s what happens to a lot of us, if we are lucky enough to hear that detail and pay attention to it.” p28

The charm of this novel is in its little glimpses of human tenderness. Lucy shares those feelings we all have but are often too embarrassed or ashamed to admit. Lucy and her mother do not have an easy relationship. They are real because they are normal and mundane but complicated, like all of us.

“Reunion” by Fred Uhlman

reunionIn the afterword to this novel, Rachel Seiffert’s phrase puts it perfectly: “His restraint is formidable”. Sometimes the most difficult thing for a writer to achieve is restraint, the tendency to embellish being too difficult to resist. Uhlman’s narrative is stripped back, leaving only what is essential. I found reading this very short novel to be an unusual challenge, simply because of its brevity. I had to deliberately slow my reading, so as not to skim past something important. It is imperative you pay attention to every word, or you’ll miss something delicate and urgent.

This book is about friendship, the essence of what it is to find another person with whom you can share, with whom you feel natural. And the fragile state of adolescence, on the brink of adulthood, but still so much the child.

“Just as I took it for granted that it was dulce et decorum pro Germania mori, so I would have agreed that to die pro amico was dulce et decorum too. Between the ages of sixteen and eighteen boys sometimes combine a naïve innocence, a radiant purity of body and mind, with a passionate urge to absolute and selfless devotion. The phase usually only lasts a short time, but because of its intensity and uniqueness it remains one of life’s most precious experiences.” p13

This is the state in which we join two sixteen-year-old boys. Full of potential, minds to be readily moulded… or taken advantage of.

A thin, at times imperceptible veil floats above Hans and Konradin’s friendship. Konradin’s parents shake hands with Hitler in a photo. Herr Pompetzski delivers a lesson on the “dark powers” at work everywhere. A schoolboy tells Hans to “go back to Palestine”.

This book can be read in a matter of hours. Remarkably swift, delicate and poetic, Uhlman’s style reminds me an equally short novel: A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler. It is, like Ulhman, Seethaler’s ability to hold back that makes the narrative so powerful. They refuse to dress up a story that can and will speak for itself, with its humble words and noble human intention.

“A Little History of Philosophy” by Nigel Warburton

little history philosophyDoes what it says on the tin. From Socrates through to Alan Turing and Peter Singer, bitesize chapters relate the history of philosophy from its birth to present day. You couldn’t call it a full history, since it focuses primarily on Western philosophy. Nevertheless, it is a lovely introduction to philosophy for students or for anyone with an interest in the subject. These philosophical episodes also coalesce with pivotal moments of political and scientific change: Rousseau in the French Revolution, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, Karl Marx theorising Communism, Alan Turing cracking the Enigma code. Joining the philosophical dots through history helps to paint a picture of humanity and continued attempts to improve ourselves.

The tone of the chapters evolves as you read. Warburton is almost flippant and comedic at the start, when discussing Socrates. But this may well be a reflection of the ancient historical accounts we have access to. The erosion of time has made them into characters, rather than people. You cannot help but find Pyrrho to be an amusing character. Pyrrho was an early sceptic who believed we can know absolutely nothing. Our physical senses were likely to mislead us, so he therefore ignored them entirely.

“So, whereas most people would take the sight of a cliff edge with a sheer drop as strong evidence that it would be very foolish to keep walking forward, Pyrrho didn’t … Even the feeling of his toes curling over the cliff edge, or the senstation of tipping forward, wouldn’t have convinced him he was about to fall to the rocks below. It wasn’t even obvious to him that falling on to the rocks would be so bad for his health. How could he be absolutely sure of that?” p17

As the book moves further toward the present, the tone becomes more sincere and the questions more relevant for a modern reader. Will computers be able to achieve consciousness, for example? Is abortion moral? Reading this book is like studying a unit called “Introduction to Philosophy,”  with lectures from a university professor (which of course they are). Studying Socrates and Pyrrho give you a flavour of philosophical thought, but their insights are unlikely to impact on modern day life. Warburton fulfils his role as teacher by introducing an increasingly provocative style that encourages the reader, or student, to explore and question.

Book Review: “The Sellout” By Paul Beatty

The Sellout

Man Booker Prize Winner 2016

By Paul Beatty

the-sellout

Sometimes you know a book is good when you can’t stop thinking about it because you were so drawn into its world. Sometimes you know a book is good because it made you feel empowered. Sometimes you know a book is good because you really have very little notion what’s going on half the time. That’s how I felt when I was reading The Sellout by Paul Beatty. But in the best way possible.

There are ideas at work in this novel that are constantly clashing and rehashing the world it is creating and the world it is ripping off. This is an attack on American culture and racism and the page is his battlefield and the words are his foot soldiers. And the ideas are packed together so densely as to make resistance futile.

There were times when the sheer ridiculous made me laugh out loud. Other passages would glide over the surface of my consciousness, looking for in but finding none. Most of the time, I felt like I wasn’t, couldn’t “get” the joke. There is so much represented here that is completely alien to me. I have no idea what life is like in the poverty stricken regions of American ghetto towns. (I don’t think watching The Wire counts.) I’m a privileged white women living just down the road from Windsor Castle, for goodness sake. And reading this book doesn’t exactly make me feel ashamed of my ignorance, more curious about what I have unconsciously accepted about race perception in my own culture. The ingrained racism that is everywhere and that most millennials fail to see or understand is both evidence of society trying to move forward by “not seeing colour” and also a complete lack of real world understanding – of course we’re different colours. Equality: a pure idea; really fucking difficult to implement.

“In attempting to restore his community through reintroducing precepts, namely segregation and slavery, that, given his cultural history, have come to define his community despite the supposed unconstitutionality and nonexistence of these concepts, he’s pointed out  a fundamental flaw in how we as Americans claim we see equality. ‘I don’t care if you’re black, white, brown, yellow, red, green or purple.’ We’ve all said it. Posited as proof of our nonprejudicial ways, but if you painted any of us purple or green, we’d be mad as hell.”

I honestly feel like I have neither the life experience nor the intelligence to understand the incredibly complex and challenging ideas playing out in this novel. I feel like a 5-year-old trying to read To Kill a Mockingbird without the aid of a secondary school teacher to explain what an extended metaphor or a microcosm is. But this is so much more than microcosm and far more complicated.

I know that this book deserves at least your first reading … and my second reading.

“Unmitigated Blackness is essays passing for fiction. It’s the realization that there are no absolutes, except when there are. It’s the acceptance of contradiction not being a sin and a crime but a human frailty like split ends and libertarianism. Unmitigated Blackness is coming to the realization that as fucked up and meaningless as it all is, sometimes it’s the nihilism that makes life worth living.”

And if Beatty wrote this before Trump came to power, just think what he’ll have in the tank next.


For all those fearing for the safety of yourself and those you love, I stand with you.

#nomuslimban


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Book Review: “Ashes of London” by Andrew Taylor

Ashes of London

By Andrew Taylor

ashes-of-londonIt’s 1666 and the Great Fire of London is raging, but bodies are being found that have nothing to do with the flames. The burnt landscape of 17th century London is wonderfully grimy and decadent. Through the eyes of young Whitehall clerk, James Marwood and Catherine Lovett, the disgraced daughter of a once rich Regicide, we see people from all walks of life.

The charred London landscape is made richer by plenty of well researched history into the political landscape. Charles II is still dealing with the aftermath of his father’s execution and the disaster of Oliver Cromwell’s rule. There are still those who think of Charles II as a usurper; those who still await the return of the true king – King Jesus. Such believers, known as Fifth Monarchists, were supporters of Charles I’s execution, and have all but disappeared since the fall of Cromwell. Though most were pardoned by the new King, those men considered to be instrumental in his father’s death, have been charged of treason and sentenced to death.

James Marwood’s father was lucky and escaped execution. Catherine Lovett’s father is still on the run. Now, more and more of Lovett’s friends are turning up dead. And Catherine and James’ lives are getting more and more complicated. Cat and Marwood are complete strangers to one another and their individual plots run parallel throughout the novel, almost crossing many times. By keeping them divided, their apprehension (and therefore ours) keeps mystery, confusion and foreknowledge at the edge of the frame. These sensations – like the characters – chase, run and hide from each other constantly. While Taylor’s imagery isn’t the best, his plot development is first-rate. This is a novel chock-full of action and plot twists. Together with a hearty dollop of political intrigue, you are compelled to keep turning the pages.

“Dear God, I thought, my life is haunted by these religious fools.”

Review: “The Tobacconist” by Robert Seethaler

The Tobacconist

By Robert Seethaler

tobacconist-3

The Tobacconist is Robert Seethaler’s new release, following his Man Booker Shortlisted novel, A Whole Life (2016) (click here for my review of A Whole Life). I adored A Whole Life and was very eager to get going with Seethaler’s new novel when I got wind of its publication.

Vienna is on the brink of World War II. The city and its people are still recovering from the previous war, but Hitler’s influence is spreading and a restless populace is growing evermore so. Franz Huchel, a naive teenager from the salt mines, has been sent to work as an apprentice in a tobacconist’s. Franz’s employer, Otto Trysnyek, is a veteran, having lost a leg back in the war. He lives a simple and honest life and finds an unexpected ally in his dedicated apprentice. The tobacconist shop is the social equaliser: cigarettes and cigars, newspapers and pinup girls in a private drawer; everyone has their usual order, even a certain Jewish psychologist by the name of Freud.

As “Heil Hilter!” becomes a more regular greeting around the city, the lives of Otto, Franz and Freud grow ever more challenging. By the time his apprenticeship ends, Franz will be a boy no longer. He’ll learn about friendship, love and respect in a city about to be overrun by hate and fear.

“Maybe that’s it, he thought: just stop and stand here like this and never move again. Then time would drift past you, you wouldn’t have to swim with it or struggle against it.”

Now, I’ll be honest, it’s nowhere near as good as A Whole Life. But then I have put that book on something of a pedestal, so I had a lot of expectations going in. Seethaler’s stoic yet emotive description that so captured me before makes sporadic appearances but not nearly enough, in The Tobacconist. However, the characterisation and the plot development are more reminiscent of the writing I remember. Seethaler’s success is in taking everyday people with extraordinary struggles and infusing them with quiet strength. It is the noble example his characters set that I hope will continue to make his novels worth seeking out.

Georgie Matthews Review for A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler

a-whole-life

Books of the Year 2016

Featured

I didn’t start this blog a couple of years ago intending for it to be enitrely made of book reviews, but having started working in a bookshop in January, I have posted at least one book review a month this year. So I thought it was only right, having come to the end of 2016, that I give you my top 5. So in no particular order…

A Whole Life

By Robert Seethaler

Genre: Fiction
Published: 2014

a whole life.jpg

Review: “…A whole life in less than 150 pages. As you read, the sense of empathy settles quietly within, without your noticing and Egger, though often a stranger within his own story, is not a stranger to you for long…more

The Book Thief

By Markus Zusak

Genre: Fiction
Published: 2005

the book thief

Review: “…Germany is in the hands of the Führer, and Liesel Meminger is a book thief. Both Hitler and Liesel know that words have power. Words can save a person’s soul or inspire people to do unspeakable things…more

Golden Hill

By Francis Spufford

Genre: Historical Fiction
Published: 2016

golden hill again.jpg

Review: “…A glittering gem of a book, this historical New York adventure satisfies every requirement for a fantastic novel. Language that glitters and glides across every page…more

Smoke

By Dan Vyleta

Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy
Published: 2016

smoke dan vyleta

Review: “..His world is wreathed in the so-called Smoke: the physical manifestation of sin. But if one Smokes when one feels love, lust, pain, is it really as simple as that?…more

The Name of the Wind

By Patrick Rothfuss

Genre: Fantasy
Published: 2007

name of the wind

Review: “…The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss is surely a fantasy for adults. The most sophisticated of its kind I have come across. The language is rich and beautiful and the world Patrick Rothfuss has lent himself to flourishes under his care…more

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