Sunday, August 21, 2011

Chance Encounters

Who knew that George Washington wrote a small book/pamphlet entitled “100 Rules of Civility”, to instruct young men in the rules of accepted social behavior? Apparently Amor Towles did and based his first novel on the “Rules of Civility”.

The Prologue to the novel is narrated by a middle aged woman who is at an art gallery with her husband viewing photographs taken of people in New York City in the 1930’s. She recognizes the subject of two contrasting photos and is taken back three decades in her memory.

The story begins on a snowy New Year’s Eve night in 1937. The narrator is Katey (Katya) Kontent. She and her roommate, Eve (Evelyn) Ross, from a boarding house for young women, are headed to a Greenwich Village jazz bar with three dollars between them to ring in the New Year. Enters, Tinker (Theodore) Grey. (Everyone has a nickname.) His eyes are royal blue, he is dressed in a tuxedo with a cashmere coat over his arm. The girls are intrigued. He buys them drinks and leaves, to instantly return, with a bottle of champagne. The three make New Year’s resolutions and plans to see each other before the week is over. But by the end of the first week of 1938 a tragic accident occurs and the lives of the three new friends are changed forever.

Our narrator/protagonist, Katey, enters the fast lane of the late 1930’s with glitzy New York and Long Island parties and a new glamorous job. Eve and Tinker are on their own glamorous, disastrous journey. Their journeys take us through the best of New York City in the late 1930’s. It is almost as if the city itself is a character.

We watch as these three characters evolve, disintegrate and reinvent themselves. And what we see is not always what really is. Why does the charming, rich, successful Tinker carry a worn, underlined copy of George Washington’s “100 Rules of Civility”? Why does Eve rebuke all offers of financial help from her well meaning father? Why does Katey try not to talk about her parents?

Amor Towles has written a wonderful period piece with relatable characters and a strong, witty and reliable narrator who relates an intriguing, dramatic story.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Double Vision

I've always been a fan of police novels – hard-boiled detectives, mean streets, unsolved murders. (Richard Price's “Lush Life” is a favorite). And although I'm not a sci-fi fan, I do admire writers who can create an alternate universe. I loved Michael Chabon's invention in “The Yiddish Policemen's Union”. Now I've found a novel that does both these things, and the result is a very entertaining read.

China Miéville’s The City and The City starts out as a standard crime story. Inspector Tyador Borlú is investigating a murder – the dead body of an attractive girl found in an abandoned van in the city of Beszel, somewhere in post-Soviet Eastern Europe. Beszel sits next to another city called Ul Qoma – much like Buda and Pest, Tel Aviv and Jaffa, or the more prosaic Minneapolis and St. Paul. But it doesn't work quite the same way. Early on in the book, strange terminology is sprinkled in with the standard police procedural dialogue as Miéville slowly reveals that these two cities - governed by separate bodies, guarded by separate police forces, with different languages and architecture, vigorously enforcing their isolation from each other – occupy the same geographical space.

I could now give you twenty examples of the incredibly clever ways in which Miéville makes this absurd situation seem utterly believable and often amusing. But they're all spoilers, and since I really enjoyed reading this book with no advanced knowledge of this intricate conceit, I refuse to ruin it for someone else. But I can tell you that he manages to remind me of Raymond Chandler, Franz Kafka and George Orwell all at the same time.

PS This is a great book to read on a Kindle if, like me, you are unfamiliar with words like machicolation, quango, boscage, lingam, and sigil.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Walking in Manhattan

I've always liked books that give me a real sense of the geography of a city. I've even been known to pull up Google maps so I can follow the footsteps of a character. There are few books that do this better than Teju Cole's Open City. The diary-style book records the wanderings and musings of Julius, an African living in Morningside Heights as he pursues a psychiatric fellowship at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital. Julius was born in Lagos, Nigeria to a German mother and a Nigerian father, but has now adopted New York as his home, a home in which he still feels himself to be an outsider.

Sometimes Julius comments on the sights he is seeing or on people he meets during his walks; at other times he thinks back on his childhood in Nigeria, or reflects on books he has read or pieces of music he admires. During a trip to Brussels, where he makes a feeble attempt to find his German grandmother, he meets a Moroccan Muslim at an internet cafe, and ponders the immigrant experience that they share.

As you can tell, there isn't a lot of plot. What moves the book forward are not events and dialogue but rather Julius's thoughts, ideas and questions. But it isn't boring. Julius is an interesting, insightful character, and I felt his loneliness and isolation in the honesty and openness of Cole's prose. And yet, late in the book there are revelations that made me realize that even a person as frank and open as Julius can still be blind to his own failings. The revelation is such a shock that I still wonder whether Cole was more heavy-handed than he needed to be.

Cole's prose, though not showy, can still create some striking images. For a long time I will remember the scene where Julius, accidentally leaving Carnegie Hall by an emergency exit, finds himself on a rain-slick fire escape four stories above the street. As Julius recounts this he seems to embody all that it means to be human. I'm looking forward to taking another walk with Teju Cole.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Expatriates in Paris

There is something about the life of Ernest Hemingway that never fails to intrigue an audience. He was always bigger than life. Paula McLain has written a bestseller about Hemingway’s life in Paris in the 1920’s. McLain’s novel, “The Paris Wife”, is the story of this time through the eyes of Hadley Richardson, Hemingway’s first wife.

Hadley and Ernest meet in Chicago in October of 1920. She was a twenty eight year old “spinster” living with her sister and her husband in St. Louis. He was a twenty one year old dashing, war hero who wanted to write a great novel.

He proposed, they married. After one wonderful evening with Sherwood Anderson (the author of “Winesburg, Ohio) Ernest is convinced that everyone and everything interesting in the world of writing is in Paris. And so begins the story of Ernest and Hadley in Paris, where Hadley attempts to be the perfect wife to the talented, moody, complex Ernest.

This novel falls into the category of historical fiction as the author will admit that she mined Hemingway’s posthumously published memoir, “A Moveable Feast”, about his life in Paris. But in “The Paris Wife” the narrator is Hadley. The story tells of the intricate relationships that Ernest had with John Dos Passos, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Gerald and Sara Murphy, and other people who made Paris in the 1920’s the exciting, hard drinking, self indulgent haven for American expatriates. The group made wild trips to Pamplona, Spain to see violent bullfights, where Ernest set his famous novel, “The Sun Also Rises”. Their life was a maze of drinking, traveling around Europe and finding the right setting for Ernest to write.

I found Hadley to be a strong, interesting character who tries to remain dignified when her world begins to fall apart. Perhaps she took on more than she could handle but she, most likely, had no choice once she became part of Hemingway’s world. “The Paris Wife” is a great story about a special time in the history of American literature through the eyes of a woman who tried to hold her own as she was carried away by a strong, uncontrollable force-----Ernest Hemingway.