Book Review: A Gentleman in Moscow

Amor Towles novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, takes place almost entirely within the walls of the grand Metropol Hotel in Moscow. Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov lived there in 1922, when he was convicted as an unrepentant aristocrat, declared a Former Person, and sentenced to house arrest. He was moved from his suite to an attic storage room and told that if he stepped out of the hotel, he would be shot.

Believing that “if a man does not master his circumstances then he is bound to be mastered by them,” the Count determines to make the best of his.

There are worse places to be confined than a Grand Hotel. But confinement is confinement, and it strains the count at times. In one of the best pieces of “showing, not telling” I’ve seen, the Count has been inside for about a year when he feels a blast of cold air in a hallway. Searching for its origin, the Count finds himself in the coat room, where someone has just come in in from outside. He also notices the smell of wood smoke on the coat someone has just left behind. The coat room girl finds him a few minutes later, holding the sleeve of the coat. It was such a poignant moment, made all the more so by the fact that Towles didn’t explain, “He missed the outdoors and the smell of winter and wood smoke.” He left the scene as is for the reader to infer why the Count lingered, holding the coat sleeve.

The Count hits a low point, and I love the scene that switches his thinking. But mostly the book involves the Count’s activities, friendships with members of the staff, interactions with a nine-year-old girl, a famous actress, an American journalist, Russian officials, and various others who come through the hotel.

We learn what kind of man the Count is. He’s in his thirties at the beginning of the novel and his sixties by the end. At first he is quite charming but almost flippant. He’s almost unfailingly polite. As he tells a little girl who asks about the rules for being a princess, “Manners are not like bonbons, Nina. You may not choose the ones that suit you best; and you certainly cannot put the half-bitten ones back in the box.” He’s not without thought for others, as we see in remembrances of getting his grandmother out of the country before his arrest, his care of his sister, his sacrifice for a friend. But we also see how he grows as a person over the course of the novel.

The narrator also lets us in on what’s going on in the country and how it affects the Count even inside a hotel. This was a time of great change in Russia, after the revolution, spanning two world wars, famines, the Stalinist era, and more.

A few of my favorite quotes:

“A king fortifies himself with a castle,” observed the Count, “a gentleman with a desk.”

But imagining what might happen if one’s circumstances were different was the only sure route to madness.

It was, without question, the smallest room that he had occupied in his life; yet somehow, within those four walls the world had come and gone.

I also enjoyed a section where he talked about names in Russian novels—how difficult they are, and how several names can be used for the same person with nicknames, honorifics, etc. I smiled because I had thought that very thing when reading Russian novels.

This is not an action-packed, plot-driven novel (though the action picks up and becomes quite suspenseful in the last few chapters). It’s more of a quiet, thoughtful book. This doesn’t often happen, but I didn’t start another book for more than a day after finishing this one, just to sit with my thoughts about it a little longer.

Towles said he got the idea for the novel when, traveling for business overseas. He noticed some of the same people every time he visited certain hotels. He wondered if some of them lived in the hotel, and that started his thoughts around a character who did live at a hotel, but not by his own choice.

I loved Towles’ writing. One thing I especially liked was the way he took details of a previous scene that I thought was finished and brought them up again later. For instance, in an early scene, the Count has some fennel sent to his friend, the chef at the hotel restaurant. I got the idea that fennel was hard to come by, and the Count was a nice guy to get some, and he still had the connections to do so. But then the purpose for the fennel comes out in a much later chapter, a delightful surprise.

I normally avoid most current secular fiction because there’s almost always some language issues and/or sex scenes. I don’t recall many language problems–a couple of “damns,” one instance of taking the Lord’s name in vain (though the author sometimes told us someone did without subjecting us to the sound of it). There are a couple of sexual encounters, but no steamy, explicit scenes.

I enjoyed going down the rabbit hole of Towles’ web site for the book. He shares some information on the Metropol (a real hotel) and its history, interviews about the book, some questions he receives and their answers, a reader’s guide (though I’d advise not reading the latter two until after you’ve finished the book to avoid spoilers). The structure of the novel hadn’t dawned on me until I read the guide Towels’ mention of it n the guide: the first few chapters cover a day, then a couple of days, gradually increasing. Tthe middle covers years, and the last chapters hone in on days again. I was also surprised that one of the most-often asked questions concerned who the person was in the last scene with the Count. That person was always described throughout the novel with a particular adjective that’s also used at the end, so that was no mystery to me. I enjoyed learning what some of the scenes were based on.

I listened to the audiobook superbly read by Nicholas Guy Smith. He did a wonderful job giving each character distinctive  and apt voices.

Have you read A Gentleman in Moscow? What did you think?

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: Amberwell

AmberwellI had not heard of D. E. Stevenson until a few years ago. I’ve seen her name mentioned favorably, but had never felt inclined to check our her books. But then Hope‘s mention of Amberwell led me to try it.

Amberwell is the name of the house owned by multiple descendants of the Ayrton family in Scotland. The residents in this book have five children, two boys from a previous marriage and three girls. The parents are aloof, authoritarian, and imperious. The children are kept in the nursery much longer than usual, and the parents don’t attempt to get to know them well.

But the children are allowed to roam free on the estate, and spend most of their time outdoors playing all sorts of imaginative games.

The next section of the story jumps ahead ten years. The two boys are in the service during WWII. One daughter has married, one’s whereabouts are unknown, and one is left to keep things together on the home front. Each faces their own struggles and heartaches.

Amberwell falls into disrepair due to shortages of supplies and manpower. But it draws each of the children back like a beacon.

My thoughts:

It took me two or three chapters to get into the story, but once I did, I loved it. The last third or so of the book, I wanted to set everything else aside and just read.

At first I wondered if this was a children’s book, not only because the children were the main characters, but also because the writing seemed simple. But by the next section, the writing and the plot shifted into a higher gear.

There was one odd place where one of the girls witnessed something untoward from their father, but nothing was ever said about it again.

I listened to the audiobook read exceptionally well by Leslie Mackie. She has a lovely, soft Scottish accent but could bring out the brogue with some characters. That’s one advantage to audiobooks: I don’t usually think in the accent of the characters when I’m reading, unless the dialect is written well. But hearing a whole book set in Scotland with a Scottish accent really added to the enjoyment.

I’m delighted to have discovered D. E. Stevenson, and now I have a whole list of her books to explore. In fact, I’ve already started on the sequel to Amberwell, Summerhills.

I’m counting this book for the Back to the Classics Reading Challenge under the Classic About a Family category.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent)

Laudable Linkage

Here are a few noteworthy reads discovered recently:

Is an Unborn Child a Parasite, Living off Another Person’s Body without Permission? HT to Challies.

Chinese Christians Memorize the Bible in Jail: “They Can’t Take What’s Hidden in Your Heart.

Ten Steps for Getting Started With Inductive Bible Study.

Understanding Narrative Passages of the Bible. Sometimes it’s easy to breeze through Biblical narratives, especially familiar ones (David and Goliath). This post has an excellent worksheet for getting more out of those passages.

Small vs. Insignificant. It isn’t the size of the task or the reach that’s most important.

7 Things You Should Never Say to Your Aging Parents.

Creativity for People Who Think They’ve Lost It. I used to think I wasn’t creative because I wasn’t “artsy.” But creativity involves much more than art.

Christianaudio is having a great sale on audiobooks.

Meet the Irishman Who Takes the World’s Best Animal Selfies, HT to Laura. These photos are so cute! Here’s a short video of his attempts to get some of the shots. He’s braver than I am!

 

Why Listen to Audiobooks?

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Like most avid readers, I like the tactile experience of a book in my hand and turning pages while taking in the story, though I’ve gotten used to e-readers since so many free and discounted books can be found for it, and there are features of it I like. But my first preference is still an actual book made of paper and ink. Why, then, would I listen to an audiobook? Listening, after all, is a different experience than reading.

I first sought out audiobooks when we moved here. As I have mentioned before, where we used to live, the places we needed to go most often were only five minutes away. Going “across town” only took maybe 15 minutes. When we moved to our present location outside a larger city, it took longer to get most places. I’m not a person who likes to spend time in the car: “going for a drive” is not on my list of fun things to do, and I chafed at the “wasted” time driving, even with a Christian radio station and an abundance of music to listen to. I decided to try a trial subscription to Audible.com: if I remember correctly, the introductory offer at that time was one free book, with the option of canceling the monthly fee at any time. I was hooked immediately. Driving became an enjoyable experience rather than just a chore. Then I also began to listen while getting ready in the morning, doing housework, and exercising. Of course, I listen when I am alone or when other members of the family are occupied in others rooms: since my children are older and are usually otherwise occupied, that affords me more listening time than I would have had when they were younger and usually with me.

Though I have listened to a variety of genres of audiobook, for me they work best for classics that I might not otherwise read. I’m currently halfway through War and Peace, a book I probably never would have tackled in print just because I wouldn’t want the sheer length of it to monopolize my reading time for so long. Plus the meandering narrative or excessive descriptions of classics are easier to take if I am doing something else while listening than if I am trying to slog my way through it by reading. They also work best for fiction or biography for me. With non-fiction, even for the print version I have to reread or review sections to get the most out of them, which doesn’t work as well for audiobooks, plus my attention wavers much more listening to non-fiction than fiction.

Some of the advantages of audiobooks:

  • They allow you to do something useful with your mind while your hands are busy.
  • I don’t usually think in the accent of the country the book is set in, and hearing it read with an accent increases the enjoyment of the setting.
  • Hearing the inflections of the author draws out meanings or points I might have glossed over.
  • I can get through more books than I can just by reading physical ones.

There are some disadvantages as well:

  • You can’t skim through a boring part.
  • If your attention wavers or you need to go back and refresh your memory about a person or incident, it’s harder to flip back through to the part you need. The app I use does have a button to go back 30 seconds or go back to the beginning of the chapter, but I can’t always get to it if I am driving or cooking.
  • I miss the tactile sensation of holding a book and knowing about where physically a favorite part is.
  • Audiobooks often do not include the acknowledgments page or author’s afterword.

Personally I feel the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.

Many Audible books work in sync with Kindle version of the book, and often if you buy one, you can get the other for a discounted price. With classics you can often get a free or very inexpensive Kindle version, and if you leave off at a place in the audiobook, you can pick up at the same place in the Kindle version and vice verse. If I don’t have a Kindle version, sometimes I’ll get the print version from the library just so I can mark places (though the Audible app does have a way to bookmark certain spots) or go back through a passage I feel I need to go over again to understand better.

I don’t think I could get much from a nonfiction audiobook that is not a story or biography: with those books I underline, mark places, and place sticky tabs all through and still feel  sometimes like I haven’t quite grasped the whole thing.

I’ve mentioned Audible.com because that is primarily what I use (I am not affiliated with them and will not receive compensation from them for mentioning them). The monthly charge is $14.95 a month for one credit, which usually equals one book. That might sound high, but a longer classic runs 20-30 hours, and there is not much else I could do for $14.95 that will give me that many hours of use and pleasure (especially comparing it to the price of going to see a 2-hour film with someone). But in addition to the monthly credit, they have sales for members throughout the year where I have gotten books for $1.95 to $6.95. They also release a free book around Christmastime (past free books have included A Christmas Carol, The Cricket on the Hearth, The Snow Queen, and The Wizard of Oz). They have an app that makes it very easy to buy, download, and listen to a book. I also like that you can play decent sized samples of the book before buying: sometimes they’ll have several editions of a book with different narrators, and I’ll listen to several before choosing which one I like best. Narrators can really make or break the listening experience, especially since you’ll be spending so much time listening to one and they shape the way you experience the book. In over four years of listening to audiobooks, I’ve found only a small handful of truly bad or just flat narrators, but it is worth the time to decide between the okay or good narrators and the best.

But there are a few places where one can get free or inexpensive audiobooks. Some public libraries have them. A few other places are LibriVox (free) and ChristianAudio.com (discounted). Audiobooks.com is the same price as Audible.com. ITunes has some as well. LearnOutLoud.com is a subscription service as well with different prices for different types of subscription but they do have some free selections. GoBible.com does not charge a monthly subscription, but the few books I looked at on their front page were quite a bit more expensive. I think they offer one free audiobook download per month – at least they used to. I haven’t gotten their mailings in a while. Sync offers a free young adult or classic audiobook once a week, I believe, from May through the summer. I got my first Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place book through them and got subsequently hooked not only on the stories but also on Katherine Kellgren’s narration. I have used a couple of these but don’t remember which ones other than Sync. Others I have read of but have not tried are AudiobooksForFree and OpenCulture.

You do have to be watchful when buying or downloading an audiobook to make sure you’re getting the unabridged version rather than an abridged or “dramatization” (unless that’s what you want). Dramatizations are usually cut down like movies are, but they have the advantage of different actors for the different characters, so it is a little more like listening to an old-time radio drama. You won’t get all the nuances of the book, but for a longer classic that you might not otherwise delve into because of the older styles of language or writing, an abridged or dramatized version might give you the basic idea of the story.

On a practical note, I am not a big fan of ear buds, but I do use them when listening while walking. In the car I have an adapter that plugs into my iPhone and then into the tape player (yes, my car is old enough that it only plays cassette tapes) so that the sound comes through the speakers; my youngest son’s newer car has a built-in plug-in for phones that does the same thing. Otherwise I listen with the phone on the counter or in my pocket.

What is your experience with audiobooks? Do you enjoy them? What are your sources?

See also:

Why Read? Why Read Fiction? Why Read Christian Fiction?

Why Read Biographies?

Finding Time to Read.

(Sharing with Booking Through Thursday.)

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Austen in August Challenge

Austen in August

I just saw yesterday, while perusing the What’s on Your Nightstand posts, that Lost Generation Reader is sponsoring an Austen in August reading challenge (HT to Bluerose). As the name indicates, the idea is to read something by or about Jane Austen during the month of August. Since I’ve already started Just Jane, a novelization of her life by Nancy Moser, I’m delighted to be able to jump in without straining much from the other challenges I am participating in this year. I’ll also listen to Northhanger Abbey via audiobook. I have more Austen books both on hand and in my audiobook library, so after I finish these two I’ll decide if I want to add any more.

Booking Through Thursday: Rereading

btt  button Booking Through Thursday is a weekly meme which poses a question or a thought for participants to discuss centering on the subject of books or reading.

Today’s question has to do with rereading:

I’ve asked before if you re-read your books (feel free to recap), but right now I want to know if that habit has changed? Did you, for example, reread more as a child and your access to new books was limited by how often you could convince your mother to take you to the library? Has the economy affected your access so that you’re forced to reread more often now? Have you grown to look at old books as old friends so that you’re happy to spend time with them rather than rushing the next new thing?

I don’t remember whether I reread much as a child, though I imagine I did with a few favorite books. I don’t think the economy has had much effect on rereading: if I couldn’t afford new books, there are hundreds through the library. But I do reread some books, for several reasons:

1. It is like a visit with an old friend, much like listening to the same music, rewatching a movie, telling the same stories at family gatherings. It’s cozy, comfortable, and familiar.

2. It’s hard to get everything from most books the first time through. To me the best books are those I can revisit many times and still gain something from.

3. It’s hard to remember everything we got from the first read, especially (for me) with nonfiction.

4. It reinforces what I learned from the book before.

5. I identify with different characters or parts of the book differently at different stages. Little Women is a classic example: I identified with different ones of the girls as a child and young teenager; as a young wife I identified with Meg; as an older mom I saw Marmee through new eyes (and the girls, too, for that matter, looking on them from a mother’s point of view rather than as friends.)

6. It can be just plain fun to revisit a story.

The problem is that there are so many enticing new books to choose from that it is hard to make the decision to reread an old one. Sometimes with nonfiction I choose to reread because I need those lessons or that information again. But with fiction, audiobooks are a great way to revisit books. Although I do listen to new books that way, I can tend to miss something from them if I can’t hit the replay button (like when I am driving or cooking). But that’s not so much an issue with a familiar book. Plus by listening I don’t feel like the old book, especially if it is an old, longer classic, is monopolizing so much of my reading time. And hearing it read can bring out facets I may have missed in my own reading.

Here is a list I made a few years ago of books I have reread and would like to reread. I’m happy to say I have reread many from the latter list since then, most via audiobook.