Monday, November 05, 2018

Ascending (A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles)

"Ascending" is an odd choice of gerund for this particular book, especially since the main character descends in social stature as he is confined to a hotel in Moscow, never to step foot outside of its doors in house arrest. However, this gentleman Count Alexander Rostov ascends up the stairs to unused servant quarters in the attic. Rostov also ascends a ladder of growth in what really matters in life when much is taken from you. Much, but not all. Furthermore, the chapter titles start with 'A' and "Ascending" is one of the chapters.

A Gentleman in Moscow has a high rating on Goodreads (4.36 stars), and mine is not going to change that rating. Of the 52 books I have read this year (while this is only my 48th review this year, I have already read all 52), this one wins as my favorite fiction. The criticisms from those who did not give it 4-5 stars ranged from "too much historical fiction" to "not enough historical fiction" (so those cancel each other out in my mind), "too charming and like a fairy tale" (valid, but that's one reason I was drawn to the book), and "needs a quiet place to be read" (I indeed had a wonderful quiet place to read this book).

In a lovely vacation rental near the beach, where activities such as beach walks, puzzle building, craft making, eating, and conversing were happening, I had a comfy chair to sit in and read. It helps that I love Russia, Russian literature, charming vocabulary, lots of conversation, literary allusions, and gentle action with enough sad parts to keep it real.

This was a library discussion book (in which every member loved the book -- highly unusual), but I ended up buying my own copy. Whether one buys the book to read or borrows it from the library, it does make for a great discussion group book. It has been a couple of months since our group discussed this book so I will comment on discussion questions I could glean from my bookmarks.

Page 29: What is it that keeps us going? Revenge, goals, practicalities?
Pages 86-87: (a hard one to explain, but definitely discussable): What does it mean to be out of step with one's times (or in step)? What of poetry? What of the written word?
Pages 109-110: Is there value in marking time? "...if attentiveness should be measured in minutes and discipline measured in hours, then indomitability must be measured in years. Or, if philosophical investigations are not to your taste, then let us simply agree that the wise man celebrates what he can."
Page 121: If you found a tree and ate of its fruits which enabled you to start your life anew, would you?

At this point, I'm going to say "and many more" because the book is a hefty 462 pages long. Towles breaks it up into 5 books in one, but I felt each "book" moved seamlessly into the next. There are plenty of characters that also move in and out of the story just like in Russian stories. I thought I would get lost, but I didn't. Unlike Russian stories, Towles gave most of his characters only one name. The book would make an excellent movie or even series. The characters are all ages, and charming little stories are within the main story. I even learned some games to play while waiting for dinner in a restaurant! The ending is surprising, in a good way. 

Thursday, November 01, 2018

Surviving (Born a Crime by Trevor Noah)

I confess I did not know who Trevor Noah is (Jon Stewart's replacement on The Daily Show) because I don't watch television at 11 pm. I also did not choose this book to read but I read it for a local library discussion group (a group which I am leading so reading the book definitely will help with that). I do agree with the 4 star rating of my friends. It's listed under biography, but it is autobiographical. Trevor writes stories of his life growing up in South Africa when it was a crime for a white Swiss-German father and a black Xhosa mother to conceive a child. It would be best to go into a reading of this book knowing that the format is set up for individual stories rather than a seamless narrative.

If you're looking for sappy, romantic, or humorous view of South Africa, this is not the book to read. As an adolescent, the book cover states that Trevor was "mischievous".  That's one way to put it. Other reviewers found him to be a mouthy, smart-aleck brat. Let's say that he does not sugar coat his adolescence and he probably gave his mother a lot of gray hairs, but he survived under some truly dysfunctional circumstances both in his culture and in his family life. There is both swearing in this book (Trevor's and others) and faith in God (his mother's). There are poor choices, survival choices, funny choices (but not really as many as you might think coming from a comedian. A one point I was fed up with Trevor's sass and antics, but by that point I had learned so much that I did not know about South Africa that I hung on. It was important to me to walk in Trevor's shoes. There is both a shocking scene involving a boy named Hitler that will be incredibly thought-provoking and an equally miraculous scene involving his mother that is nothing short of amazing.

This book is a fast read and an excellent choice for discussion groups. I won't be buying the book new, but if I were to see a used copy for sale, I probably would buy it.  I also heard that the audio book is fantastic.