Another book review from the so-called Movie Snob.
A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles (2016). I enjoyed Towles’s first novel, The Rules of Civility, and I enjoyed this one quite a bit too. It’s about Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, a Russian aristocrat who has returned to Russia from abroad shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution. In 1922, he gets hauled before a revolutionary tribunal and narrowly escapes execution. Instead he is sentenced to permanent house arrest—at the fabulous Metropol Hotel where he has been staying. The novel is the story of what happens to the Count after that. The writing is always graceful, and the Count is a well-drawn and endlessly amusing character. I found some parts of the story very moving, but others were maybe a shade too fairy-tale-like. And I wasn’t quite satisfied with the ending. But on the whole, I very much enjoyed the story and would recommend it to just about anyone.
From the pen of The Movie Snob.
The Woman Who Lost Her Soul, by Bob Shacochis (2013). This novel has its strong points, but the cover blurb from NPR calling it the first Great American Novel of the 21st century seems way overblown to me. The book is divided into five major sections, and I thought the first two were the strongest. In “Book One,” the protagonist is a human-rights lawyer who’s called upon to travel to Haiti and help investigate the murder of an American woman—a woman he briefly knew and was dazzled by a couple of years earlier. Book Two is a harrowing look at a (different) woman and her young son trying to escape Croatia to safety at the tail end of World War II. Book Three, which seemed the longest, is about a seventeen-year-old American girl living in Istanbul with her diplomat father. It was pretty good. I thought the last two books kind of went off the rails. Anyway, I thought the writing was strong, but be warned that there’s a lot of sordid stuff in this tale. And, as I mentioned, I didn’t care for the wrap-up.
A book review from The Movie Snob.
The Big Green Tent, by Ludmila Ulitskaya (2010; trans. 2015). This is a big old novel about life in post-Stalinist Russia. I liked it. At first, the book is a cohesive story about three boys who befriend each other around the time of Stalin’s death in 1956 and the teacher who inspires them to love Russian literature. But after a few chapters the novel gets fragmentary, jumping around in time and sometimes following other seemingly minor characters on long (but interesting) tangents. Many of the characters are involved in one kind of dissent or another, and the danger of exposure, arrest, and imprisonment is always right around the corner. I haven’t read that many Russian novels, but the characters in them always seem fascinatingly larger than life to me, especially in their passions and appetites. I read this 500+ page novel in fits and starts over a few weeks, so I was often confused about who the various characters were, but I don’t think it diminished my enjoyment of the story very much.
A new book review from the desk of The Movie Snob.
Home, by Marilynn Robinson (2008). It has been more than 10 years since I read and reviewed Robinson’s previous novel, Gilead, and now I wish I had read the two novels back to back, or at least closer together. Gilead was the autobiographical story of an elderly Iowa minister, and figuring large in his story were his dear friend Boughton and Boughton’s black-sheep son Jack. Home tells much of the same story, but this time from the perspective of Jack’s sister Glory, who is a close-up witness to the ripple effects of Jack’s sudden return to the tranquil pond of Gilead, Iowa. In my review of Gilead I took its narrator, Ames, to be a pretty saintly guy, but Home puts him in a rather different light. Anyway, I thought it took a while to get going, but ultimately Home packed a pretty good punch. I recommend it. And maybe I won’t wait 10 years to read Robinson’s 2014 follow-up, Lila.
A book review from the desk of The Movie Snob.
Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson (2013). Apparently this was a #1 national bestseller. It’s got a weird gimmick, for sure. Ursula Todd is born in 1910 England. And she immediately dies, strangled by her own umbilical cord. Then she’s born again—but she’s not reincarnated as somebody or something else, in the usual way. Rather, it’s like God hit the rewind button, and so she’s born again on the same day, at the same time, to the same parents. Only this time, she’s not strangled by her umbilical cord. And so the novel progresses . . . until she dies again. And is born again, on the same day, etc., etc. At first I thought this was just a series of different possible stories about Ursula, but it gradually becomes apparent that the same Ursula is somehow living all these lives sequentially because she starts getting these weird feelings and premonitions and déjà vu type sensations that lead her to act differently and thus live out completely different lives. I thought parts of the book were very good, especially the parts about World War II (which she experiences in some very different ways in her various incarnations). But the Groundhog Day-style gimmick didn’t do much for me, and at the end I wasn’t sure whether poor Ursula will ever get out of her timeloop. So I’ll give it three stars out of five.
A new book review from The Movie Court.
The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer (2013). I enjoyed this novel about a group of teenagers who become friends at an artsy summer camp in the early 1970s and mostly manage to stay friends as they grow up and experience adulthood. The central character is Julie Jacobson, an awkward girl from an undistinguished background who is nevertheless adopted by a gang of cool kids. Rechristened “Jules,” our protagonist is intoxicated by her new friends and spends most of the rest of the book yearning to recapture those adolescent summers—and being a little envious of the seemingly awesome lives two of her friends make for themselves afterwards. Having recently been a fortysomething myself, I was perhaps naturally inclined to warm to the book’s themes of growing up and dealing with the pressures of adulthood, family, responsibility, loss, and mortality.
A new book review from The Movie Snob.
The Devil and Webster, by Jean Hanff Korelitz (2017). I thought I would like this recent novel more than I did. It’s about Naomi Roth, the president of a small, exclusive, and very liberal New England college called Webster. She’s a former 60s radical herself, so she’s fine with it when a bunch of students start camping out on the main campus lawn to protest the college’s decision to deny tenure to a popular (African-American) professor. Unfortunately, the college denied the fellow tenure because it discovered he had committed some serious plagiarism; unfortunately for President Roth, the college’s strict confidentiality rules preclude her from telling the students anything about the tenure process or decision at all. So the school year goes on, and the protest—led by a charismatic young Palestinian student—threatens to balloon out of control. Making matters worse, President Roth’s own daughter is a Webster student and very much a part of the protest. The story is entertaining enough, but I didn’t find the ending very satisfying—it somehow left me wanting more.