Author Mel Carriere is not an expert on Russians, but as a former drunken sailor he has had some Cold-War bar brawls with a few, all in fun?
Books Changed by Circumstances
Different books move us for different reasons, in different circumstances. The uniqueness of enjoying a story on good old-fashioned paper is significantly different from movies this way, and even audio books - where our perceptions could be moved by the narrator's tone and inflection. A lot of the fun of really reading, on the other hand, comes from playing movie director in our own heads. In a story printed on paper, the reader/director gets to cast the characters, paint the backdrops, and arrange the camera angles the way his or her mind's eye forms them. Or else the reader doesn't see anything at all, and puts the book down for failing to spark the imagination.
The headlines make it pretty clear that people are not on the same page about anything, but at least we can agree that different people see different books in different ways, and like and dislike them in different measures. This is normal, nothing to get butthurt about, just a product of our individual experiences and personalities being spoken to. But can the same person like or dislike the same book at different times, depending on circumstances?
I ask this question because when I finished A Gentleman in Moscow, on February 18th, I had become a full blown Russophile. I was swept up in rapture by the charm, intelligence, warmth, and talent of the Russian people, and inspired by their ability to maintain these qualities in the face of adversities that we here in the United States have never been subjected to.
My country can feel fat, because we are not flat. We can be smug, righteous, and superior, because we have the luxury of never being invaded. Well, if you want to get technical, there was that half-hearted 1814 raid by the British up the Potomac, where they burned our beloved White House, but that just inspired us to change the words of a bawdy barroom drinking song into our beloved national anthem. So bring on those arsonist redcoats, says me, it just makes us stronger, it gave us a good tune to sing at ball games, or hum because we can't remember the words to all four stanzas.
In every other attempt at foreign defilement of the North American continent, wide walls of water along both coasts have served as impassable buffers against invasion. The Nazis may have wriggled their toothbrush mustaches contemplating it, but gave up because they could not figure out how to blitzkrieg across the Atlantic. The Japanese gave it a good shot at Pearl Harbor, but found out the Hawaiian Islands were only the halfway point of the Pacific, so their aerial assault wound up being more of a mosquito bite that woke a sleeping giant. Because it's just too hard to maintain an attack across those aqueous barriers, we have never been subject to cataclysmic changes to our government, or severe disruptions to our economy. We have never had our cities bombed and all our expensive real estate and consumer goods destroyed. Here within the force field formed by the walls of two vast oceans, Americans fiddle while the rest of the world singes dirges, oblivious to the distant misery in Afghanistan or Ukraine, except as a political talking point to blame on Biden on Trump, depending on whether we bleed red or blue. Sad, we say, but not our problem.
On the other hand, Russia has nothing but unimpeded plains separating them from invaders from Europe to the west, or Asian hordes to the east. The Russians don't have any significant water barriers, or even a high mountain range to serve as a fortress their rapacious foes will batter their covetous skulls against. Granted, they do have the brutal Russian winters on their side, better than one hundred divisions. Still, the openness of the steppe is a seductive mirage that has always tempted attackers. Granted, Russia didn't do so well against the Mongols in the 13th century, but a congenital unwillingness to accept defeat, even after horrifying initial losses, allowed them to turn back the until-then undefeated armies of both Napoleon and Hitler. Certainly this fortitude in the face of doom is something to be admired, as is the federation's contributions to science and the arts.
And admire I did. I was a big fan of Russia, until on February 24th, eight days after finishing the last sentence of A Gentleman in Moscow, Putin invaded Ukraine, and...
Lunchtime Lit Rules
Unlike Vladimir Putin, Lunchtime Lit books always respect internationally recognized frontiers. They never launch attacks across the border between work and home, remaining peacefully ensconced in Mel's lunchbox, only to be read on his half hour postal lunch break.
Lunchtime Lit Year to Date Recap * **
|Book||Pages||Word Count||Date Started||Date Finished||Lunchtimes Consumed|
The City We Became
The Left Hand of Darkness
The Curious Incident of The Dog in The Night Time
The Bone Clocks
A Gentleman in Moscow
*Word counts are estimated by hand-counting a statistically significant 23 pages, then extrapolating this average page count across the entire book. When the book is available on a word-count website, I rely on that total if it looks legit. It hardly ever looks legit, so count away I do.
**Thirty-four other titles, with a total estimated word count of 7,374,564 and 1,174 lunchtimes consumed, have been reviewed under the guidelines of this series.
Predictable but Satisfying
As far as actual book reviews go, if not for the invasion of Ukraine this one would have been largely empty. A Gentleman in Moscow is wonderful, there's not much grit to floss from between the sparkling teeth of its continuous merriment. Author Amor Towles does something like Fitzgerald writing the Great Gatsby, he makes you completely sympathize with a man of money, station, and sophistication, now held under house arrest in a hotel by the Bolsheviks. House arrest? Did I really just say house arrest? While so imprisoned in the Hotel Metropol, our good Count Rostov gets to eat gourmet meals, drink fine wines, and make love to gorgeous movie stars. If that's jail, what the hell am I doing delivering the mail, I should be off on a crime spree. Still, the story works, we bemoan the Count's plight because he is such a bitchin', unassuming dude who treats everyone with undiscriminating magnanimity, even the hotel workers who might have been held in bondage as serfs on one of his ancestors estates, back in the day.
Towles doesn't bother us here with any distracting commentary about extreme class inequality in Russia on the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution, which is why the book is such a lark. We're just expected to sympathize with this Count, now reduced in rank to former person, and applaud that he survived execution because of a revolutionary-sounding poem attributed to his authorship. And sympathize we do, by golly we do. We are riveted by his antics inside the illustrious Hotel Metropol. House Arrest might seem like a snoozer, but for the Count's literary followers it is anything but, as over the course of several decades he survives Lenin, Stalin, Kruschev, and even worse, jealous-bitch proletariat hotel managers. The story about being locked inside a building becomes a thrill a minute - not without being tempered by some touching sentiment, until it reaches a thrilling crescendo in a kicker of a finish that is predictable but satisfying.
Predictable but satisfying. How's that for a blurb on the back cover of a paperback? In truth, that was pretty much all I intended to write, at first. For all of its merits as an engaging, riveting tale, there is not much food for thought in A Gentleman in Moscow. The thinking reader is treated to only superficial philosophical nods to the themes of man's inhumanity to man, or maybe the nobility at the core of every human, nothing significant a ruminating reviewer can work up into his cud to chew on. Then again, the fact that I grasped that latter theme without the author explicitly preaching it to me is a tribute to the craft of Mr. Towles, who doesn't preach. The lack of sermon is a quality I like in novelists, because Lord knows I get enough preaching on Sunday.
Anyhow, I suppose it's a good thing Ukraine was invaded in the waning days of February, if for no other reason than to help pad this review. Comrade, did it ever.
How I Got Russified - A Little Story I'll Never Tell My Mama
Now that the expected checkpoints of the review have been dispensed with, I'll return to the comments I was trying to make in the opening paragraphs, about how our impressions of a book can be altered by internal and external factors, depending on personal experiences, sometimes even depending upon the course of history.
Like I said above, before the invasion of Ukraine I was a certified Russophile, I loved the Russkies. To explain how I got russified, I'll tell you a little story I'll never tell my Mama.
Around 1989 I was partying in a bar in Thailand, where some Russians were sitting at a table across from a pair of us US Navy squids. This was during the water festival - Lord what a party that is, so we were flinging water balloons at them and they were flinging them back at us, a little friendly ICBM exchange with dud warheads at the height of the Cold War. Nobody was getting sore, or as we say now, butthurt about it, everybody was having a good time.
At one point one of those god-cursed Ruskies escaped while we weren't watching them, like Jackson Browne said Russians will. Flying under my radar undetected, the commie fiend snuck up from behind and dumped a bucket of ice water down the back of my shirt. As I shuddered from the icy blast, World War III hung for a moment in the balance. I got up, shook myself off like a wet dog, and though I glared toward the Russians as if with retaliatory intent, my scowl quickly turned to a smile. I declared an entente, a cease fire, opting for a diplomatic solution. Hey, it was just water, they didn't douse me with Novichok, like those pesky Russians are known to do these days. With peace restored to the planet now, my trusty squid buddy Tom and I sat down as if to just have another beer, but behind our fortress of empty Singhas we were secretly plotting to get even.
Pretending to depart the premises, Tom and I smiled and shook hands with the Ruskies, then snuck into a back room of the bar, where we filled up an entire fifty-gallon garbage bag with water. Of course, none of this would have been possible without our Yankee-loving allies the Thais being more than willing to assist us against those evil Bolshevik bastards. So while the bar girls distracted the Ivans by showing a little leg, we sprung from the back room and heaved the brimming garbage bag onto their table, resulting in a tsunami that emptied it of beer bottles, vodka glasses, and anything else near and dear to those sorry Soviet suckers.
This experience of navigating through a tense international incident that could have easily escalated into nuclear winter is why I've gone through life loving the Russians. From what I've seen, they don't take themselves too seriously. To contrast this with what happens when people do take themselves way too seriously, later on that same night my friend Tom almost got into a fistfight with an American shipmate he doused with a squirt gun. It was the water festival for crying out loud, a water-flinging free for all, an aqueous orgy. Besides, it felt like 100 degrees outside, nobody was wearing their Sunday best, it was shorts and flimsy T-shirt weather. Clothing would have been optional, except that there are public decency laws in Thailand too. In these circumstances, who wouldn't want to get wet? But instead of retaliating water with water, the ugly American a-hole squirted hot sauce into my buddy's eyes, nearly resulting in a brawl. Chalk one up for the Russkies, they were down with the spirit of the occasion, whereas certain embittered Americans obviously were not.
But since February 24th, I wonder if a poisonous soul lurks behind the friendly face. Should I say comradish face? Is comradish a word?
Self-righteousness Tastes Delicious
Yeah, I can see you wagging your finger at me, telling me not to judge. I know the oft-repeated Bible story, I heard it again at mass on April 3rd - Let ye without sin cast the first stone. This beautiful gospel snippet applies to US of A, as well, perhaps even more. Your flag decal won't get you into heaven anymore, I'm sorry to say, we too have been a bullying super power involved in a land grab, Yankee Doodle has been doing invasions forever, from the beginning. Invasion of Canada in the war of 1812. Invasion of Mexico in the Mexican-American war. Invasion of Guatemala to steal the bananas (look it up). Violations of countless Native American treaties, resulting in the expulsion of entire tribes from their lands onto reservations, after which said lands were invaded by white settlers. Not judging, my house sits on land once claimed by either Utes or Arapahos. Invasion and occupation of the Philippines at the turn of the century. Invasion of Vietnam. Invasion of Iran and Afghanistan. Invasion of Pattaya Beach during the water festival of 1989. Did I miss something? Of course, we justify these intrusions on our neighbors on the basis of but we're the good guys, we're just saving you from yourselves. Tell that to the mother desperate to dig out her child from the rubble of a bombed building.
War is stupid folks, and Vladimir Putin is an evil asshole of the first order. But when someone else commits crimes against humanity, there sure is something satisfying about condemning those sons of bitches. Self-righteousness tastes delicious.
This could be why A Gentleman in Moscow sort of lost the loving feeling for me after February 24th. A mob mentality exists in Homo sapiens that I certainly share to an extent, an unfortunate dark side pre-programmed into our human nature, probably a survival mechanism designed to turn the tribe's collection of individuals into a single-minded entity when it perceives danger. In World War I the so-called native sons came together to harass and bully German Americans. By World War II you couldn't tell Germans from other Americans without a scorecard, so the angry mob (including German-Americans) turned on another victim, Japanese-Americans. And boy did they victimize them, rounding up good citizens into internment camps and robbing them of their property.
Here's another personal analogy that demonstrates the symptoms of a broader crime. People I knew from Pakistan were the best neighbors I ever had, they would do anything for you. When my car was broken down and the husband saw me hoofing it he gave me a ride to work. I suppose they were Muslims but you sure couldn't tell, because they hung Christmas lights with everybody else. These were the most docile, polite, non-violent people I ever met, they definitely were not flying any planes into any buildings. It didn't matter, after 9/11 these absolutely godly folks were bullied and harassed by flag-waving lowlifes who were just looking for an excuse to bully and harass. A sad commentary on humanity, indeed, this insipid aftertaste of our collective rage, licked up by the loathsome insects that worm out of their holes when the feeding frenzy starts.
I hope and pray the same sort of thing isn't happening to Russian Americans. At the moment, I don't personally know any Russians here in Colorado, but I wouldn't be surprised if there are some ignorant sacks going around bullying and antagonizing Russian immigrants who have done nobody any harm, have never invaded anyone - wouldn't even step into their neighbor's yard without permission, and probably left Russia because they wanted to get away from that evil son of a bitch Putin because the man is, quite frankly, frightening, just like his head cheerleader, Donald Trump, is frightening. If I was a Russian living here in the USA right now, my defense against potential lynching by hateful thugs would be to tell people I'm Ukrainian. Who's gonna know? Those dumbshit dogs sniffing around for trouble probably couldn't even find Ukraine (or Russia) on a map, anyway. Even the angry memes they share online are misspelled. Unfortunately, in trying times like these, the lowest common denominator in the human race elbows its way to center stage, and the adoring audience applauds.
Message In A Bottle - or Marketing 101
Let's wrap up our book review with topics a little less grim, shall we, something at least marginally related to book reviewing, for a change. Though its food for thought consists largely of empty calories, A Gentleman in Moscow does have valuable lessons for us. In particular, the book inspired me to look into the life and literary career of author Amor Towles, and this turns out to be fertilizer for the growth of aspiring writers. Just like the nobleman who is the centerpiece of his second novel, Towles's experience proves that it's important to be in the right place at the right time, particularly to be born at the right place at the right time. Oh, and to have a little luck too.
As far as the luck part goes, I don't know how much of one Wikpedia tale I read is true and how much is legend. Who has time to trace back every reference when hacking up a furball review that a few dozen people will read, and you're only writing for the sheer, self-indulgent joy of it? Anyway, the story goes that when Amor Towles was but a wee lad, he cast a message in a bottle into the ocean. Several weeks later he got a letter from Harrison Salisbury, the managing editor of The New York Times, after which the two continued to correspond throughout life. This is a significant development for an aspiring writer, because Harrison Salisbury is also important enough to have his own Wikipedia article, highlighted by a blue link, a rabbit hole this writing hound was too weary to chase down. The incident brings us to lesson number one learned from my brief brush with Amor Towles's life: If you are using a message in a bottle as the primary marketing method for your book, make sure it washes up on the right beach. It's a safe bet that when the managing editor of The New York Times is your patron, your manuscript isn't going to dry up at the bottom of a teetering stack, adding to the fire hazard over at the paper mill.
Lesson number two: It's also good to get sent to an exclusive private school, instead of wasting your time lost among the thousands of faceless peasants in a public institution. From there you will probably be bused, no chauffeured, to a field trip at Yale, an Ivy League college, where you will meet Paris Review co-founder Peter Matthieson. This literary light will try to distract you away from the prose-killing bug zapper of your banking executive Father, who wants you to follow in his trade, and try to convince you to write novels instead. But young Amor was wise for his age, so instead of hacking away in poverty and mediocrity, as writers are known to do, he made his fortune in finance before chasing after any literary bones.
To summarize Towles' successful marketing strategy into a concise equation - influence of the Paris Review co-founder, plus the added boost of The New York Times managing editor, equals your manuscript's salvation from suffocation at the bottom of a paper dogpile.
There are dozens of books out there on how to market your writing to success, but ignore those wasted words and use the example of Amor Towles as your guide. If he can do it, anybody can. A studio inside a plush Adirondack lake house with a vaulted ceiling, described in his Time Magazine feature, sure beats hacking away in a Starbucks with a smelly homeless guy sleeping in the corner, who could be me one day if my book reviews don't start generating more buzz.
Just Faking It
Don't get me wrong - A Gentleman in Moscow is a great read, I highly enjoyed it. I cannot deny it was a fun book for the moment, the problem is that it falls short of timeless. It may attempt to create a Gatsbyesque motif, but it plays none of the serious theme music Fitzgerald's flawed flappers danced the foxtrot to. Okay, Towles attempts to show us the innate goodness of men regardless of station by having his gentlemanly count reduced to toiling as a waiter, but the former person, ex-aristocrat has a stash of gold coins hidden in a secret compartment in his desk that he didn't get slinging hash. He shares his buried treasure with his worker and peasant buddies, plying them with liquor and tips, but is he doing it just to make his "incarceration" more comfortable? His plight comes across as contrived, it has no suffering, no fear, no palpable pain in it. The good Count hasn't really become one of us, he's just faking it.
Reading it as I did so close to the February 24th invasion of Ukraine, A Gentleman in Moscow served more as a reminder that the ghost of Russia-past looks a lot like the ghost of Russia's-present. Just substitute hard partying, vodka-swilling party hacks with hard-partying, vodka-swilling oligarchs, and it's the same picture. When I was partying with those Sputniks in a Pattaya Beach bar back in 1989 it was a little different, you could smell the glasnost in the air. You could feel the tremor in the ground that was going to bring the wall tumbling down not too long after. But the Russians were strangers to democracy during Amor Towle's period piece, and by keeping Putin in place six decades after Gentleman ended, to unleash suffering, pain and destruction on Ukraine, those sometimes loathsome, sometimes lovable Russkies have proven they still get antsy without an invasion-happy autocrat at the top.