Review: The Girl From the Metropol Hotel

We bought this because of the nonfiction link to A Gentleman in Moscow, and Bird, Mom, and I passed it around.  This short memoir chronicles the childhood of Lyudmila Petrushevskaya, who was born in the Metropol but spends little time there throughout her wild, chaotic upbringing.  Told in vignette-style chapters that seem to overlap and occasionally go out of order, Petrushevskaya shares her experiences alternating between near-homelessness and schools/camps with rigid expectations.  Sometimes I was cringing at the feral society she found on the streets, beyond the reach of her aunt and grandmother.  Sometimes I was sympathetic toward the unreasonable strictness of the structures that attempted to socialize her.

But Petrushevskaya’s language is the stuff of fairy tales (in fact, now I want to go read her other books, including There Once Lived a Woman who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby).  So the rhythm of the sentences and the pretty diction make the horrible things she writes about seem bearable.  It’s presented in the way of children – this is just how things are.  Her faith that her mother would return someday was a little heartbreaking from an adult perspective, but little Lyudmila is just so sure.  Mama will come back.  No one else will do.

It was the writing itself, presenting uncomfortable realities in such a pleasant way, that made me like the book.

3/5 stars on Goodreads

Review(ish): Let’s Talk Tropes in “‘T’ As in Trapped”

For Christmas, the Engineer gave me a Detective Book Club book from the 1940s.  It’s one of those special printings for members of a specific subscription service, like Heritage Press, containing three separate mystery novels.  The first, Agatha Christie’s There Is A Tide, we’ve been reading together, mostly because I started reading it aloud to him as a joke (the first scene was amusing and I wanted to share it) and he ended up wanting me to continue.  The third, called Borderline Murder, is why he bought me the book (besides its old-book smell – both of us found it funny to consider the concept of “borderline” murder.  Is it like the difference between mostly dead and all dead?

The only one of the mysteries I’ve actually finished reading is the middle one, Lawrence Treat’s 1947 novel T’ As in Trapped.  It follows Wayne, an architect from New York, as his girlfriend’s estranged husband tries to frame Wayne for the murder of a psychic.  While I wouldn’t say I really enjoyed the book beyond the campy fun of a classic old-fashioned murder mystery, the other reviews seemed harsh to me.  Granted, only two other people on Goodreads have apparently read this book, but neither of them gave Treat any credit for the era in which he was writing.

Yes, Wayne’s constant monologuing about his own inner strength and how sure he was of himself became grating by the end of the book.  Yes, neither of the female characters seemed to pass the “sexy lamp test,” even though one of them was the murder victim.  Yes, Wayne uncovered increasingly convoluted and unlikely connections between his own colleagues and the murdered girl.  And yes, I barely rooted for any of the ensemble besides a side character, a forensic detective (such as you could be in the 1940s) named Jub.

But I honestly didn’t expect any better.  It was written at a time when murder mysteries were supposed to be full of strong, silent men and characters who all spoke the same.  It reads like a 1940s detective novel, which is what it’s actually supposed to be.  Modern writers and creators have parodied this genre so much (and with such fun results) that I think we forget there was a time that the tropes were executed in earnest.

I might not recommend this to a friend who adores mystery novels, even older parlor mysteries like Agatha Christie.  But someone who understands the era and can appreciate a bit of campy fluff would probably enjoy this as a light read.

3/5 stars on Goodreads, partly because I felt bad about its low ratings when it had accomplished what the contemporary genre demanded


Am I overthinking this?  Does understanding a book’s era mean we should cut it some slack?  What are things you wouldn’t forgive in a piece of writing, despite the expectations of the time in which is was written?

Review: A Gentleman in Moscow

*Requisite spoiler warning

You know those books where after finishing the last page, you close it, sit for a moment, take a deep breath, and restrain yourself (or not) from grabbing passersby and shaking them and telling them that they absolutely must read this book?  The books that turn you into a book evangelist?

This is one of those books for me.  And Bird.  And our mom.

I’m a sucker for microcosms, so the premise of Amor Towles’s novel had me hooked immediately.  Count Alexander Rostov, a former Russian aristocrat convicted for his status but spared for his poetry, is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol Hotel in Moscow after the fall of the Tsar.  The idea of a man building a life within the parameters of a single building, even one like the Metropol, appealed to my “watching from inside a small space” personality.  The story spans Rostov’s years inside the hotel, introducing us to the friends – and enemies – he makes and showing us the spaces he carves out for himself along the way.  The ensemble of side characters are just as charming as the protagonist, and as well-drawn, and the conflicts within Rostov’s shrunken world represent the greater clashes of larger powers outside.

Successful as he is in making his own little niche work for him, Rostov’s gentlemanly skills are put to the test when he becomes the foster father of a friend’s daughter.  Watching him (and his Metropol family) try to fit a precocious, energetic child into such a small allotted space (illegally, no less) reminds readers of the bargain Rostov makes to maintain a delicate peace with his situation – he has given up a future.  He has accepted the petering out of his own spent life.  But his sense of justice, of noblesse oblige (for, despite the revolutionary ideals of his jailers, Rostov’s greatest honor remains true gentility) will not allow him to accept the same lack of future for an innocent child.

All this is compelling alone.  But it is Towles’s language that makes the book great.

I can only describe the syntax as musical.  This is a “me, too” book, one that observes common experiences in such a way that they feel new.  A few chapters in, for instance, Rostov must cull his belongings to fit into his new attic apartments (a disgraced aristocrat being unworthy of his former fourth-floor suite).  In a few paragraphs, Towles meditates on why it can be so much more painful to let go of things than to let go of people – and I promptly had to read it aloud to my family so that they could also say, “Yes, that’s exactly it!”

In other books, the reader would quickly tire of too much time spent pondering life’s little quirks.  Not so with our gentleman in Moscow.  The sentences lilt and flow in such a way that none of Rostov’s many reveries feel too weighty or boring – and if they ever begin to drag on, Towles brings in another character to cut the monologue short, and Rostov himself chuckles at his own tendency to get lost in thought.

With good characters living out an intriguing story in such beautiful language, this book is one I will continue recommending (loudly, eagerly) to everyone.

4/5 stars on Goodreads

 

Review: Finishing School

I’ll admit it.  I haven’t touched my manuscript in months.  All my New Year’s resolutions quickly fell by the wayside as I kept telling myself that I would start working on it again when I got back to school.  Then when I got better after being sick.  Then when I was finally in one place again for a while.

All of these were lies.  And the longer I went without even opening the document on my laptop or putting pen to paper, the worse I felt about the project – and the more I wanted to avoid it.

This is why, on my trip to Boulder, I picked up Finishing School: The Happy Ending to That Writing Project You Can’t Seem to Get Done.  A joint effort by Cary Tennis, creator of the Finishing School method, and Danelle Morton, one of his students, this book first tackles what Cary and Danelle call the Six Emotional Pitfalls.  (Spoiler: I was stuck in the shame pitfall.)  Then it describes Tennis’s method: basically, instead of reading each other’s writing and giving feedback, Finishing School focuses solely on the performance of work, any work, that moves the writer forward.  The group meets and discusses that week’s successes and failures, but the members are simply sharing whether or not they adhered to their (realistic, planned) schedule.

Tennis and Morton delve deeper into why Finishing School works, detailing the emotional responses people tend to have when they shift their focus from some huge project to the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other approach.  As someone who tends to get caught up in the planning phases, I appreciate that Finishing School does emphasize the act of Doing the Work.  You’re allowed to come up with a schedule, you can even color code it if you want, but then you must Do the Work when the appointed time comes.  (There’s even a chapter dedicated to “My Fake Schedule,” a phenomenon I’m all too familiar with.)

This is one of those writing guides that may not fit everyone, depending on where they’re at in the writing process, but for me, it was exactly what I needed at this point.

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Review: The Forgotten Room

*Requisite spoiler warning.

I love old houses for the stories they seem to hold, particularly places where it seems as though the owners have just picked up and left.  I love generational sagas too, the types of stories where you see how the family stories intertwine and get to trace characters growing up, disappearing and reappearing and making you gasp, “Oh, so that’s what happened to him!”  So the collaborative novel from Karen White, Beatriz Williams, and Lauren Willig, The Forgotten Roomlooked to be right up my alley.

The Forgotten Room follows three different women in New York City in three different times: Olive in 1892, Lucy in 1920, and Kate in 1944.  They all come to the same building, an old mansion (well, new in Olive’s time, a hospital in Kate’s) searching for answers about what happened to their family.  And they all meet men, whose connections to the Pratt mansion run equally deep.  Each new couple delves a little bit deeper into the mystery of the previous generation, which the authors handle well – the reader knows more than the characters do, but never enough to completely solve the puzzle until all is unveiled at the proper moment.

I also saw a certain amount of developing feminism in each of the women’s experiences.  Having recently lost her father, Olive pushes back against the strictures of 1890s society with her reluctance to marry the first man who comes along.  She prioritizes finding the truth about her father’s death over her mother’s expectations, which is a small battle but a significant one for her time.  Lucy makes further steps with her refusal to become the secretary who sleeps with her boss, even going so far as to turn him down flat in a speakeasy.  Even more than Olive, Lucy insists on moving forward on her own terms, whether romantically or careerwise.

Kate’s struggle with blatant workplace misogyny and sexual harassment is the most obvious instance of feminism in the novel.  Her male supervisor not only sneers at the idea of a female doctor, but regularly undermines her treatment of her patients – when he’s not trying to get her alone in the storage closet.  Frankly, it was this battle against sexism, particularly when a young nurse looked to Kate as an ally and role model, that interested me more than any romantic entanglements.  That was where the novel fell short for me: these women had their own original motivations and desires, but that independence was quickly thrown out when they met The Man in their respective stories.  Though the ending(s) were cute enough, it wasn’t quite what I was hoping for.

Still, the parallel stories and the building tension as the generational mystery continued were intriguing enough to give this 4/5 stars on Goodreads.

Review: Remarkable Creatures

*Note: This is a review of a book I have already finished and therefore contains spoilers.  Proceed with appropriate caution.

It doesn’t take long into reading Tracy Chevalier’s first novel to figure out that the title isn’t just referring to fossils.  Remarkable Creatures alternates between two narrators: Mary Anning, the lightning-struck fossil finder from a poor family, and Elizabeth Philpot, the higher class spinster from London who turns out to be rather good at finding fossils too.  Both use fossils as an escape from their disappointing life: Elizabeth for the intellectual stimulation of collecting and learning, Mary for the money she can earn selling her “curies.”

At first, their relationship is sweet and symbiotic.  Mary takes the older Elizabeth under her wing by teaching her about the creatures they find on the beach and showing her where to find the best ones.  Then Elizabeth reciprocates by advocating for Mary when she finds a “croc,” an apparent monster skeleton embedded in the cliff, making sure Mary retains ownership despite other cury-hunters on the beach and trying to help her get a good price for it.

But, like the two women suddenly finding themselves thrust into the scientific world, the novel quickly becomes more about Elizabeth and Mary against the people who misunderstand them, or worse, mistreat them, and how those struggles start to strain their own relationship.

Elizabeth acts as Mary’s advocate, whether Mary knows it or not, for much of the book.  Here is where we see the struggle for female contributors to be recognized in the 19th century scientific community.  Elizabeth is outraged, for instance, that the collectors who buy skeletons from Mary and then sell them on to museums are listed as the finders of those fossils when they have never personally set foot on the beach.  For her, intellectual property and the right of a person to be acknowledged for his or her work is paramount.

Mary herself tries to balance the ownership she feels for the “crocs “and “monsters” she finds with the knowledge that selling them will bring in much-needed money.  Her arc deals more with class and elitism, recognizing that the best way for her to rise in status and secure her family’s future is to appease the men who come wanting tours of the beach – and to possibly marry one of them.  Few people besides Elizabeth recognize Mary’s intellectual potential, seeing her as a tool or servant to be used and paid rather than someone who could ever write papers about the things she discovers.  Indeed, to many of the men in the book, Mary doesn’t discover anything at all.

Beyond this already interesting feminist layer is the question of the “croc” itself, which turns out to be an ichthyosaurus – an as-yet undiscovered species no longer extant anywhere on earth.  This is a much bigger deal in the 1800s than nowadays; as many characters uneasily point out, an extinct species would seem to imply that God had made a mistake, or didn’t care about keeping His creations alive, which shakes their faith-based worldview.  I appreciated Chevalier’s evenhanded treatment of this debate.  She was far more interested in portraying the significance of Mary’s find than in condemning or promoting either extreme.  Indeed, Elizabeth comes to a sort of middle ground on the matter, while Mary doesn’t prioritize the God-vs.-science debate at all.

I didn’t much care for the amorous jealousy that undermines the two women’s friendship.  It seemed a bit forced to have Elizabeth envy Mary a man’s attention, even as she pronounced him a fraud and a cad (he reminded me a bit of a more abashed Wickham). Given how aware both women are of the ways social expectations limit them, I would have preferred to focus on their efforts to live despite those expectations (i.e., marriage) rather than let a clearly shabby suitor damage their friendship so much.  Then again, I suppose flaws are what make characters interesting, and an inability to let go of romance as a Way Out is certainly understandable given their setting.

Overall, I enjoyed this fictional look at two real women in the fossil community, and could definitely see parallels to the way some of my female friends in STEM have been treated today.  A worthwhile historical fiction read for any feminist or fossilist!

4/5 stars on Goodreads

 

Review(ish): L.M. Montgomery as Unexpected Mentor

I’m not really sure how to categorize this post, because the extent to which I identified with Lucy Maud Montgomery throughout the first volume of her selected journals had an enormous impact on my impression of that collection. From her opening entry declaring that she had burned all of her childhood diaries (I have more than a few I would like to shred) to her descriptions of the “melancholy” that seized her when she was older (and sounded hauntingly like my experiences with depression), I felt like this woman was my “kindred spirit,” as her most famous character would say.

Anyone who loved Anne of Green Gables will essentially find bonus material in this collection of the beloved author’s journals from 1889 to 1910.  It’s easy to find the places where Montgomery drew on her personal experiences to create Anne’s world, using her own memories and sometimes brutally honest depictions of her own feelings to remember what the emotional turmoil of childhood really feels like.  It’s also easy to see her writing style as it grew into the L.M. Montgomery we know and love.  I could recognize phrases she used directly or in altered form in the Anne books, as well as general sentiments that Anne would later echo.

I could also recognize myself in Montgomery’s inner life, as I said before.

It wasn’t just the melancholia that gripped her in the winter, leaving her without the motivation even to get off couch, as the worst of my own depression has done to me.  It wasn’t just the way she felt about books as friends, the way my own bookshelves act as a comfort when I feel lonely.  It was little things, little dislikes for irritating classmates and frustrations with unseen obstacles to her dreams.  Reading her journals even went so far as to comfort me for my own sporadic entries (I cannot seem to maintain a daily habit no matter how good it is for me).

Maybe I just connected to her as a fellow woman writer.  Maybe this is just one of those things among writers, to seek out a mentor version of yourself in the ranks of those who have gone before.  Maybe it’s just a more generic writer thing (it’s well known, for instance, that many writers have struggled with depression).  Maybe I just felt close to this real person who had created one of my favorite childhood characters.

Whatever the reason, I was not expecting such a personal level of connection when I picked up these journals on a whim at Half Price Books – but I’m glad I did.

Review: People of the Book

This is a book-lover’s book.

The Commodore gave me this book for my birthday/Christmas (the pain of not seeing each other for months now that she lives in another state slightly assuaged by meeting up for a day of gift exchanging and talking and coffee) because she read it and thought I’d like it.  It’s a biography of a book, an illuminated haggadah found in Sarajevo, that the (initial) narrator, Hanna, is hired to examine and preserve.  The tiny clues she finds in the book’s binding and on its pages, like a wine stain (that also turns out to hold some blood) and a cat hair, send the reader into flashbacks showing the book’s history.

Anyone who enjoys that old book smell will love living vicariously through Hanna’s examination of the book, and anyone who enjoys picking up used books with mysterious inscriptions in the flyleaf and marginal notes from previous readers will certainly get a sense of delicious satisfaction from knowing the full story behind the haggadah.  Honestly, the worst part of the story was knowing that Hanna didn’t learn everything the reader did.  Knowing where the blood came from, where the silver clasps had disappeared to, I felt bad for Hanna’s frustration.

With the haggadah as the sort-of protagonist, the surrounding characters need only be developed enough to explain what they do or don’t do to the haggadah.  This meant it was easier to connect with some characters than others, and while sometimes I wondered why particular events were necessary to include, for the most part I enjoyed each piece of the haggadah’s history.

Overall, a well-written, enjoyable read.

4/5 stars on Goodreads.


What book do you wish had a biography? 

Review: Eligible

*Note: This is a review of a book I have already finished and therefore contains spoilers.  Proceed with appropriate caution.

I’m a sucker for anything involving Pride and Prejudice, particularly modern retellings.  So when I saw Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible on my library’s Lucky Day shelf (relatively new and popular books you can check out for only a week, no renewals), I snatched it up, anticipating a fun, if fluffy, addition to my P&P mental shelf.

I ended up feeling very divided about the book.  Sittenfeld’s modernization of Austenian issues was admirable and unexpected, which is difficult to achieve in an adaptation of such an iconic work.  The main characters’ relationships remained intact, with Lydia and Kitty as joined at the hip as ever and Liz and Darcy shooting barbs at one another.  The portrayal of Jane as a 40-year-old seeking to have a child on her own is one of the most independent adaptations I’ve seen of the eldest Bennet sister.  One of my favorite parts was the change in Liz’s relationship with Catherine de Bourgh, who appears here as a famous feminist speaker rather than a disapproving aunt; the switch from condemnation to commendation was a pleasant surprise!  The author even went so far as to split the scurrilous Wickham into two questionable love interests: Jasper Wick acts as Liz’s long-term (married) boyfriend, with the original Wickham’s jerkier aspects and scandalous back story; Ham is a decent guy who happens to be transgender, which sends the old-fashioned Bennet parents into conniptions when he elopes with Lydia.  So while the story is familiar (Liz is prideful, Darcy is prejudiced, they love each other anyway), it wasn’t exactly predictable.

But for a familiar yet engaging story, the book was slow.  Sittenfeld used Austen-esque sentences to describe her modern characters, with phrasing more suited to a Regency-era parlor game than binge-watching a reality dating show.  The chapters were ridiculously short, ranging from half a page to maybe seven pages; it was as if rather than adding a line break between scenes, she decided to just give every separate scene its own chapter.  Then Sittenfeld fleshed out the Bennet family’s financial instability and added Jane’s pregnancy and a reality show wedding (and all the behind-the-scenes experiences of filming such a thing) to a novel that already has plenty of connected story lines.  And she wrote all of those new aspects in the same short-chapter, long-sentence style.  It added up to constantly feeling like I must have made a lot of progress, then being surprised by how few pages I had actually read.

I also found myself truly disliking Elizabeth Bennet (called Liz here) for the first time in any version.  True, her pride and stubbornness are central character flaws, without which her eventual growth as a person and subsequent coupling with Darcy would fall flat.  But Sittenfeld brings out a new side of Liz that frankly felt untrue to the character.  In Austen’s original story, Lizzie asserts her independence by refusing to marry someone she does not love.  This is radical for the time she lives in, but understandable for the character.  In Eligible, Sittenfeld extends that desire for control over one’s own life into an almost manic desire to control her whole family.  Liz apparently needs to parent her own parents, going so far as to list their house for sale without telling them.  I understand wanting to help fix one’s family problems, but is it really possible that someone as smart as Lizzie Bennet would decide that being her family’s savior means steamrolling over everyone, kicking her family out of their home, and insisting on overseeing all the financial decisions from now on?

Ultimately, this felt like fluff that didn’t know it was fluff.  The three stars I gave it on Goodreads were largely due to the love I already bear for the characters and their original tale.


Have you read Eligible?  Have you ever read any adaptations of a favorite classic that disappointed you?

Review: The Tearling Trilogy

*Note: This is a review of books I have already finished and therefore contains spoilers.  Proceed with appropriate caution.

I picked up The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen on a whim at my local bookstore.  It had a pretty cover, and the blurb on the back sounded like one of those fantasy novels I’ve enjoyed in the past but probably wouldn’t reread ever again.

That was the first time Johansen turned my assumptions upside down.

The book begins with an armed guard fetching the 19-year-old Kelsea, the queen ascendant, from her foster parents’ cottage in the woods to take her to the Keep for her coronation.  Sounds traditional enough – a hidden heir, a medieval-ish setting, mysterious circumstances and vague dangers.  But the Tearling, Kelsea’s struggling kingdom, is anything but traditional.

I have to review the Queen of the Tearling trilogy as a whole because it operates best that way.  A coworker of mine saw me reading the first book at work, freaked out, loaned me the sequel, and graciously let me read her copy of the final book (once she was done with it, of course) when it came out.  She pointed out that the first book works mainly to set up the world, nothing truly exceptional (I thought it was well-written, but so are many traditional fantasy books).  It’s the second book and its use of magic and time that break new ground in fantasy worldbuilding.  Discovering the true nature of the Crossing that brought settlers to the Tearling was just so great, even in a genre that tends toward sudden twists (and that’s all I’m going to say about it because I don’t want to deprive anyone of reading Johansen’s work by giving my much less wonderful paraphrase here).

The Tearling trilogy consistently challenges conventions of the fantasy genre, setting readers up to anticipate tropes and not really mind it, because we like the characters and would appreciate them anyway – then taking a sharp left turn and refusing to fulfill those tropes.  For instance, the identity of Kelsea’s father is a longstanding mystery throughout the three books, with any number of powerful, immortal, or badass candidates available.  Then it turns out to be someone who died in the first book, someone with a hamartia, someone who was not special beyond being dear to his friends.  But it doesn’t fall flat, because in every instance of these unexpected twists, major or minor, Johansen stays true to the integrity of the world she’s created.

One of the things I appreciate most about this world is its strong women.  From Kelsea herself to her adversary the anonymous Red Queen to the kickass bodyguard of the Tearling’s founder, there is no dearth of women wielding power here – and diverse kinds of power too.  There are several survivors of domestic abuse.  There are physical fighters.  There are intelligent teachers who strive to pass on knowledge.  But Johansen’s world does not lack shallow, weak, or cruel women either.  There are women who turn bitter from their trauma, and women to whom remarkable things do not come naturally.  There are women who have no idea what they want, and women consumed by their desires.  Kelsea in particular walks a thin line, observing and even living in others’ stories (more on that in a minute) while she tries to decide how to harness or quash her own great temper.

Seeing so many different women be allowed to live out so many different endings and populate the world just as truthfully as the men made this a welcome addition to my bookshelf.  Whereas other novels I’ve read, however well-intentioned or well-executed, can tend toward only one or two main female characters with the rest being mere props (e.g., the Badass Freedom Fighter, the Moody Mysterious Maven, the Unexpectedly Tech-Smart Plain One), in my opinion, the majority of Johansen’s female characters were given the kind of detailed attention that transforms characters into people.

I think honestly it was the characters that made me fall in love with these books, and Johansen’s loyalty to and respect for those characters’ authenticity that made the whole trilogy so enjoyable. The third book is a masterful conclusion, sweeping readers up and hurtling along toward an ending that will probably be nearly as polarizing as the series finale of How I Met Your Mother.  If you enjoy any type of fantasy, I highly, highly recommend all three books (in order, of course).

The Queen of the Tearling – 4/5 stars

The Invasion of the Tearling – 5/5 stars

The Fate of the Tearling – 5/5 stars