A Gentleman In Moscow: A Review

A Gentleman In Moscow

This is a modern form of the tales of Scheherazade, and not a work of historical fiction. In both Arabian Nights and A Gentleman In Moscow, there’s a telling of a series of stories while imprisoned, with the principal question lingering: will the storyteller ever be free? Many stories reoccur throughout the narratives in repeating motifs. They include historical facts, poems and songs. The author of this book mentions, in sly passing, Rimsky Korsakov’s “Scheherazade.” That stayed with me, like the tinkling of that dinner bell, heard only once, but resonating with meaning. And finally, we human beings tell ourselves stories while all the time our lives move inexorably toward the end.

This book has an architectural character, with layer upon layer – story upon story – perfectly suited to a story of a life spent in a hotel. These stories, told by the raconteur Count Alexander Rostov, wind through the hallways, up and down stairs, onto the roof, into the cellar, and through all the rooms, bringing him into contact with the diverse population to be found in a hotel.

What interested me most was the emphasis on poetry. Poetry, he says, is always a call to action. He seeks out the poetic in life, and he gains stability and meaning from it. He notes the tie to action in his friend the poet’s case, and this friendship connects him actively to the plight of those less fortunate. Without this connection, this involvement, with the truly oppressed, Rostov is a cardboard cut-out of a person, less human by far than a Former Person.

The book is written in proper prose, reflecting its subject, who lives with a heightened sense of propriety within the limited scope of his class, of honor, and a defined code of conduct. Within that framework he makes adjustments. His occupations, though he doesn’t call or recognize them as such, are to read, reflect, dine, and discuss. He avoids bitterness through action, using his skills and his wits, and through self-reflection (so necessary for survival with dignity). He “sparked” conversations, and had “an instinctive awareness of all the temperaments in the room.” His ability to engage with other people is his saving grace (as with Scheherazade).

Glimpses of the changes taking place in Russia appear in the form of a friend and a girl, both of whom become exiles in their own country. Neither will compromise, while Rostov does make what appear, to the other person or people involved, to be compromises. He has a different kind of courage, grounded in sureness of his identity. The destruction of personal identity is going on around him throughout the book. Historical and cultural identity is being revised. Would survival be easier for members of the aristocracy when all is taken away from them, or for peasant farmers who are suddenly enfranchised (or promised enfranchisement) but never owned anything, except a few hard-earned possessions, never had time for contemplation, and for whom the life and health of family was a continual struggle?

While many of the life lessons in the book are not unique or original, they are very pertinent to the story. Of them, I thought this one of the more relevant to modern life. “From the earliest age, we must learn to say goodbye to friends and family.” But our possessions are “invested” with memories and give us solace – but “a thing is just a thing.” Rostov learns to “expunge them from his heartache forever.”

We can’t hold onto our homes, our possessions, even our families, because they can all be gone in a minute, or a decade; all we can do is keep our noble sense of purpose intact within ourselves and act accordingly, but with the good sense to increase our chances of survival.

Ultimately, this book is a modern fairy tale, which is most clearly illustrated by its ending.

This is the review of A Gentleman In Moscow on Amazon.

Advertisements

A Man Called Ove: A Review

A Man Called OveIn A Man Called Ove, Fredrik Backman writes about people who are at odds with modern rules, and he does so by ignoring, even flaunting, modern rules of writing. And it was glorious! Wonderful! He portrays people who don’t fit into society as it is presently constructed, so it makes sense he tears up the rules when writing about them. In this way he can tell the story of the old-fashioned Ove, for whom the rules are an undue burden, and the immigrant Parveneh, who recognizes the rules but for whom reality is a very flexible thing.

What are these rules of writing? Let me name a few. First, there’s the prohibition against using similes and metaphors. How did this start? From what I can tell, George Orwell said, don’t use similes. Now this has become orthodoxy. Backman deals with this by exchanging the word “like” with “as if” and “as though.” These phrases animate the simile and are usually effective. There was a point, though, in the beginning, when the as ifs and as thoughs sounded as if a thousand flies were buzzing in my ears. On occasion, these were much too lengthy and sounded contrived. But I give him credit for his determination in giving the reader both similes and metaphors.

The other rules all writers will recognize. Don’t use “ly” words. Don’t use words other than said, such as exclaim, shriek, and god forbid, wail and protest. Laugh is not a synonym for say. Don’t use it instead of say or said. Backman does all these unabashedly. But wait, there’s more. He changes tense for no apparent reason. He addresses the reader. He uses phrases. When he references tech devices, cars, and other mechanical instruments, he doesn’t concern himself with endless explaining of what they are. Oh, and he uses exclamation points! Even when the character is screaming. Love it! What? What’s happening? Just this: Backman runs over the lines, kicks the box around, and lets us care about the people in his stories.

Is the book perfect? No. The storyline is repetitive. A Man Called Ove could be called A Man Called Over and Over Again. Each chapter is a retelling of the same issues, but not always with much movement forward in the story. He relies on thematic sayings and symbolic scenes which are borderline preachy. But it doesn’t matter because it’s so much fun to read.

I ask you, what is that called? That’s Called Good Writing.

Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont: A Review

Mrs Palfrey

The truth about aging is a subject we want to avoid. Elizabeth Taylor confronts the truth with sensitivity and honesty, stripping away the platitudes about the golden years and showing us the reality of life for an older person in contemporary Western society. The individual is rendered meaningless the more they are removed from the family group, and even when included there’s a sense of alienation. In spare sentences without false emotion, Taylor gives us a heart-wrenching picture of Mrs. Palfrey, a woman doing her best to keep her dignity. The writing has a vibrant eloquence, and was a joy to read.

Taylor deftly portrays Mrs. Palfrey as tough in a British stiff-upper-lip way. She refuses to be isolated, and seeks friendship, with mixed results, as others her age are totted off to nursing homes or live in their daydreams. Her one success is the relationship with a young man who goes along with the lie that he is her grandson. He does this in exchange for the material he finds for a book he’s writing, but not entirely one suspects, as his own relationships are unstable. She goes along as well since refuting it would cause more consternation and she’s able to at least have a relationship. It’s her refusal to go quietly that causes her to fall, quite literally. Is it better to sit and wait for death, or to die rushing to meet someone, to do something? This is a question all who live to a ripe old age will ask themselves.

Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont on Amazon Kindle

Book Review: Stalingrad—The Loneliest Death

StalingradThis is my review of Christoph Fromm’s book, Stalingrad—The Loneliest Death, about the battle of Stalingrad in World War II, told from the point of view of German soldiers.

This powerful story rips the façade of honor and glory from war while meticulously exposing its true nature. Fromm’s book is a no-holds-barred dissection of the machinations of megalomaniacs, the complicity of ordinary citizens, the myths of war, and the lies we hold dear at a terrible cost.

In the beginning, the young German Leutnant Hans von Wetzland and his small band of soldiers believe this attack will follow the time-honored rules of warfare. Very soon, though, they discover that atrocities are being committed against Russians, including civilians. Because the Germans have committed these atrocities, they’ve destroyed any expectation of being treated humanely by the Russians, who respond with equal savagery. As the grim reality of Stalingrad sinks in, the soldiers find any advances or moments of peace are quickly followed by brutal retaliation or fatal mistakes by their own side.

Fromm vividly depicts the moral challenges each soldier in this group faces. He also shows that people with greedy and evil, as well as those with generous and good intent and actions, meet similar fates in the hell of war. Having human feelings can lead to fatal results, but also offer the only way out, although it’s a slim chance of survival. The images of freezing weather, hunger, illness, small acts of kindness, egregious acts of evil, hand-to-hand combat, and the senselessness of it all, are told from multiple points of view within this group, and are unforgettable.

While describing the horrors of war, Fromm delivers much beautiful and effective writing: “Shells and bullets tore to shreds not only the body, but the senses and the spirit, too.” And: “Figures swayed in the glow, as if in slow motion, as if some sadistic deity were holding back the passage of time for his own pleasure.” And: “Everyone had their own way of weeping.” There is also humor, bitter and obstinately humane. These far outweigh repetitious descriptions and unlikely chance meetings, as well as occasional grammatical errors.

After months of struggle against lack of food, clothing, and shelter, and merciless slaughter on both sides, the soldiers begin to realize things have gone terribly wrong. They discover officers who are corrupt, selfishly pragmatic, or incompetent. Their previously held beliefs break down beneath the weight of betrayal and unbridled brutality. A turning point comes with the realization they have been abandoned by Hitler. As an army in defeat, they are to expect no support from their leader. Instead, they are being sent to their deaths.

One soldier, Gross, who is attuned to the irony of the situation, says, “You thought Hitler was clearing out just Jews and Bolsheviks? Wrong. The Führer does the whole job. Now it’s the German soldier’s turn, and next it’s the German people!”

When the soldiers comprehend that all is lost, they rebel, and try to survive as best they can. Some rant about Hitler and the generals. Others realize they have been duped by propaganda. But many knew full well what they were going along with. Some are disgusted by their Hauptmann who still believes in the myths of war, or chooses to do so in order to salvage some sense of meaning. Young von Wetzland mutters, “It’s all been a lie.” All “his life it was untruths he had loved, and the more he knew them to be untruths, the more he loved them; and he loved them with a lust that could not be satisfied…” One by one each soldier reaches his breaking point.

As Fromm writes, “The calculations came in hundreds, thousands, the noughts multiplying; the horror of the death count would stretch the ability of those left behind to imagine and to feel pity, would stretch them to destruction as had the shells the bodies. How could anyone determine the fitting degree of mourning for more than a million dead, men who had perished for just one ruined city, when the ordeal for just one man alone was impossible to measure?”

This is war without mercy or honor, where courage, sacrifice, and morality count for nothing, as every action fails to improve the situation, leads to more destruction, and finally, loss of hope. In short, this is warfare on a grand scale which exposes its inanity. Anyone who is concerned with the survival of humanity as we glide into the future—whether unheedful or willingly supportive of the real motivations and consequences of war—should read this book.

Amazon Review                                                          Facebook Page: World War II True Stories


I received a copy of this book from the author. This is a voluntary review. While I’m not an avid reader of war novels, I am interested in the causes and outcomes of World War II, which I think are still relevant today.

Readers Favorite Review of Miami Morning

Reviewed by Vernita Naylor for Readers’ Favorite

Life doesn’t always turn out the way that we planned, but it does prepare us for each new adventure. In Miami Morning: A Leila Payson Novel by Mary Clark, Leila Payson is also known as “Miss Pacer,” which her friends fondly called her because she was always on the go. Leila later became known by the name Miss Pacer as well by her students. Leila was a Social Studies teacher. Leila loved the essence of her life, but one day she decided that she wanted to make a difference in life. The difference that Leila decided to add was a stint in an NGO in South Africa in the Health and Education industry. Little did Leila know that her life would change forever. Her time in the NGO will set the stage for how Leila will live the rest of her life. What Leila will learn during this stint will be the catalyst that enables her to help someone in the most profound way.

Leila’s interaction with characters Skye, Dov, Ron, Raoul, Maria and the mysterious man with the book became a part of her development. Each of these characters played a big part in helping Leila to become this vessel to provide comfort and guidance to someone who would need her in the most unusual way. I enjoyed how Miami Morning: A Leila Payson Novel by Mary Clark was developed because it displays how the ebb and flow in one phase of our lives helps us to walk through and navigate another part of our lives. All parts of our lives and pathways are not only interchanging, but intermingle to help strengthen our being, character, and our self-discovery.

Miami Morning on Amazon

Miami Morning on BarnesandNoble

Review of Miami Morning by Poet David Selzer

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading MIAMI MORNING. Its title raised expectations which were more than satisfied. The work is rich in characters, themes and incidents – and reads well throughout.

Mary Clark juggles and interweaves – sometimes only mixed metaphors will do! – an impressive range of plot lines very skilfully. So skilfully, in fact, that it seemed, for example, quite natural – rather than contrived – that the main protagonist, Leila, should meet up again with Mark, a probable soul mate, by chance on a Cuban beach!

I like Leila – her concerns and interests, her eclectic friendships, her alternating self-worth – and was engaged by her throughout. Mary Clark describes the wide range of relationships Leila has with a wide range people very convincingly.

life-is-an-adventure-1The author’s descriptions of people, places and weathers are very evocative. Just as I know I’d like Leila, I know I’d like Miami, for example – urban, urbane, and both disturbingly and reassuringly tropical. The accounts of the high school students brought back (good and bad) memories of working with adolescent learners very vividly.

Read the full review of Miami Morning on Amazon

Please visit David Selzer’s website. I’ve been following it for several years and have always been delighted by the range and depth of subjects taken on, and by the high quality of his writing. This is one of the poems I’ve most enjoyed: The Reclining Gardener.

Book Review: Echoes of Narcissus in the Gardens of Delight by Jo Robinson

From the beginning, Jo Robinson’s world of fantasy and harsh psychological realities in Echoes of Narcissus in the Gardens of Delight held me in thrall. This is a story of an interior life, as Donna, the main character, struggles to break free. She is trapped in a loveless and emotionally abusive marriage by a narcissistic husband. For many years she has poured her love and hope into her garden. And it is in her search for seeds for her garden that she meets Elvira, an extraordinary woman, who shares her interest. These gardens flow from the spirits of the women into land-shaping, and life-shaping, manifestations. They are touchstones, as the story evolves, for many lives. Elvira visits Donna, which very few others have managed to do, and sees Donna’s fantastic garden. Elvira has an impressive garden of her own, in town, with a café catering to people who are in transition from divorce, job loss, or death of a loved one. One of the ways they heal is by working with elderly people who live alone.

51p+WiVpzAL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Donna begins to connect with Elvira and her friends, and gradually reveal to them what she has been creating for so long in the icehouse of her isolation. But her husband has other ideas. Will she succeed? Her story is a testament to the resourcefulness and tenacity of the human spirit in its drive for freedom, and the greatest human act and experience of freedom, which is love.

Reaching, A Riveting Memoir

Reaching, a Memoir, by Grace Peterson, All Things That Matter Press

In rational tones the author takes you on a boat ride into the netherworld of a life coming apart at the seams. Piece by piece the “ties that bind” are broken, so that even in a secure marriage with a man who loves her, she is ripe for the final break. Her childhood years are devoid of love, and at times frightening. Her only solace is in the outdoors, along a river and in the gardens of a relative. She is reaching — reaching always for connection. The only good friend she has, when she is a teenager, dies in a tragic accident. So she feels the earth shaking under her feet. That is how the story begins, with a wonderful description of an earthquake. These verbal pyrotechnics occur throughout the story, peppering the rational view with lyricism and a kind of hope, the hope that humor and perspective brings.

After the birth of another child, she goes deeper into the misery, and becomes part of a religious cult. The journey is full of twists and turns, of being stuck on the wrong side of the river, and trying with all her intelligence to make it seem right. Reaching shows how easy it is for a damaged person, or one who is in a weakened state of depression or illness, to be brainwashed and persuaded to hand over power to another person or group. She is given the promise of “healing” by a self-appointed pastor, supposedly of the Christian faith. For years she follows his dictates, to the point of being held under water in the river. This is followed by a slow dawning that she is not being helped by this man; instead, her own identity begins to re-emerge, and with it a sense of self-worth. She is able to get back on the boat and return to her life, as a wife and mother, and lover of gardens. Her diagnosis in the end makes perfect sense, but you’ll have the read the book for that!

This book should be read by anyone who is following a “faith-healer” or senses indoctrination in a guise of grief or other counseling into any form of religious fundamentalism. It is a cautionary tale.

Reaching is available on Amazon/Kindle and Barnesandnoble/Nook and Audible

A Perceptive Review of Tally: An Intuitive Life

These words are from a review of Tally: An Intuitive Life by Marylee MacDonald, author of Montpelier Tomorrow.

When a young poet stumbles into the life of a Greenwich Village recluse, she meets a bearded old man living in a garret. Surrounded by manuscripts in which he has attempted to comprehend the meaning of life, PJ has entered a time of failing eyesight, physical frailty, and economic uncertainty. Quiet and observant, the young poet Erin, or “Eyes” as PJ soon calls her, begins to help him put his life in order.

“No one is ever conscious of what he is doing or why he is doing it,” PJ said, “even a person who is aware of everything he is doing and after pondering it, can perceive the reason or motivation for it.”

The above is just one of many sentences I underlined last February while I was doing a writing residency at the Vermont Studio Center for the Arts. Anyone who makes her or his life in the arts risks winding up like PJ, which is to say not wealthy, except in matters of the spirit.

“PJ’s long bony fingers swept over drifting stacks of books, papers, paintings, typewriter ribbons, photographs and found objets, all jumbled together, everything melting into some other form…’Dali would have had an idea of the melodramatic squalor in which I live,'” PJ told her.

PJ’s intellect and humor makes him an utterly fascinating subject. Some of his musings are brilliant; others, wildly off-the-wall.

To read the entire review, please click here.

Tally: An Intuitive Life, by Mary Clark, published by All Things That Matter Press, 2013.

amazon_button bnn_button

Have You Applied Your Ethics Today?

Alexander McCall Smith’s Famous Female Characters

We can think and act ethically in various ways. In his two series featuring female characters, Alexander McCall Smith illustrates this. One approach, in the Isabel Dalhousie Mysteries series, is to “stop and think” before acting. This creates an interruption in the flow of events. The other, in The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, involves a continuous evaluation and adjustment which can become almost seamless.

There are problems with the “stop and think” ethics, as McCall Smith notes. Isabel Dalhousie often makes the right decision for the wrong reasons. This happens because she doesn’t, and can’t know all the information about another person and the particular situation they’re in. In the last book of the series, she doesn’t have an important piece of information, but the person, Jane, she’s helping does. Jane learns that her supposed father is infertile. The other part that Isabel has not taken into account is Jane’s psychological processes. All Isabel knows is what Jane told her: she wants to find her father. Isabel doesn’t put herself into the other’s shoes, that is, an act of consciousness, and so she doesn’t imagine other possibilities. Now, this is not always true; sometimes she imagines other scenarios, but these are based on a reworking of the facts and perhaps a few psychological clues. These imaginings are usually far-fetched, almost artificially-induced, one might say, rather than organic (nurtured without artificial methods). So she is caught unaware of Jane’s acceptance of the “false” father and her re-focus on her mother. In time, this may not be enough for Jane, as McCall Smith hints. David Hume said that philosophical statements, ideas, theories would be best linked to psychological processes. This is what Isabel is missing, what she struggles with. In fact, she struggles with empathy.

Isabel’s quick, unexamined assessment of others has led her to be uncharitable. When she learns to “stop and think” it keeps her from jumping to conclusions, based on assumptions. She learns to question her assumptions. She grants, cerebrally, that others have a point of view and that their reasoning may be plausible. This helps her begin to develop a sense of what might be going on with other people. It’s a poor substitute for empathy, or compassion, but in her case leads toward developing these capacities.

There’s another way to become more just and charitable toward oneself and others. McCall Smith comes closer to this with Mma Ramotswe in The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. Mma Ramotswe is alert to, aware of, what is going on within herself and with the people around her. She is continuously evaluating and re-evaluating her thoughts, feelings, actions and their consequences, and information gained from her relationships. She is naturally empathetic, but has learned to use her reasoning ability to temper her emotions and perceptions. She monitors her subliminal stream of consciousness, as well as her conscious thoughts. With her the process of stop and think is not one of interruption. Her reflection and evaluation, and then adjustment, is ongoing, and integrated into the flow. It appears to be natural, or intuitive.

What causes this difference in the two characters? David Turnbull (No Dangerous Thoughts) points out that Isabel is alienated from other people. Isabel is “part of the privileged wealthy class who don’t have to work to make a living. Part of her problem is that it doesn’t come naturally to her to live ethically and her musings about that are part of her effort to overcome her basic alienation.”Mma Ramotswe, however, is “very attuned to the people around her.” Her thoughts are not only ethical, but often spiritual.

Mma Ramotswe grew up in a village, and goes out in the world to deal with people every day. She has suffered through an abusive relationship and the death of a child, both events that could have left her alienated, but her father’s compassion enables her to re-establish her self-respect and purpose again. Mma Ramotswe is integrated in her own life, while Isabel is not — or not yet, because she is striving for the integration of love, community, work, and purpose that  make life worth living.