A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles

Moscow in 1922 is no place for a count. The Bolsheviks are in charge, and they are not fond of the leisure class. Happily for Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, there are those who feel that despite his membership in the ranks of the elite, he is a hero of the prerevolutionary cause, thanks to an inspiring poem he published in 1913. Thus, rather than execute him, the Emergency Committee of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs decides that he should be confined to his recent place of residence: Moscow’s grand and glorious Metropol hotel. But if the Count should ever step outside of the building, he will be shot.

Thus begins the splendid story of the Count’s decades-long house arrest. The Count—already, in his own gentlemanly way, a man of the people—may find himself in reduced circumstances, but his charm, humor, and powers of observation will serve him in good stead. He makes his attic hovel into a home and accidentally creates a family out of the Metropol staff and guests.

The cast of characters is delightful: the precocious young girl with a fondness for yellow, whose curiosity cannot be contained (and who ends up giving the Count two precious gifts); the brilliant, temperamental chef; the snooty actress; the warm-hearted seamstress; the officer of the Party with a thirst for knowledge (and for film noir); and many, many more. Each character has a role to play, and all offer the Count ample opportunities for bon mots, erudite ruminations, and cheeky capers.

Though occasionally the author gets a little too cute (the bouillabaisse project comes to mind) and the depiction of Stalinist Russia can be a little too jaunty, all is forgiven when Count Rostov begins to muse–which he does often. He is a gracious and endearing companion, a man who manages to make fine wine from the grapes at hand, and saying adieu to him as the book came to an end was sweet sorrow.

Behind Closed Doors, by B. A. Paris

Ever since Gone Girl, I’ve been waiting for the next great creepy relationship book with a twist. There’s just something about a gripping story in which an attractive façade disguises true, shudder-producing evil. The key to a successful story like that, though, is that its dangers need to be shocking, and its pretty surface needs to be at least passingly believable—we need to be horrified that such evil can live unquestioned in plain sight, and feel the emotional claustrophobia of the situation.

Here’s where Behind Closed Doors fails. We’re introduced to a successful 40-year-old lawyer, the ironically named Jack Angel, who has built his career defending domestic abuse victims. He is smooth, drop-dead gorgeous, and unmarried, and (we later find out) he has built a very pretty house of horror with metal security shutters on all of the downstairs windows on spec. After all, who knows when you’re going to run across the ideal prey? He’s been a creep since he was 13 years old and killed his mother—maybe. But apparently since then he’s gone regularly to Thailand to fulfill his nonspecific terrifying fantasies that don’t include sex with vague, nameless people, as one can apparently do with impunity in Thailand. It seems that he’d really like to up his game, though, and ideally move his horror show closer to home, for convenience. After all, he went to all of that trouble, building the house.

Fortunately for Jack, he eventually happens upon Grace, a young, successful, beautiful, globe-trotting professional woman with ridiculously irresponsible parents and a sister, Millie, who was born with Down’s Syndrome. He courts Grace and quickly wins her devotion by being nice to her sister. They marry hastily, Jack bizarrely skips out on the wedding night, and the next thing Grace knows, she’s in Thailand on her honeymoon, locked outside day after day on a hotel balcony, unable either to go to the bathroom (which I found to be the most chilling part) or to make anyone believe that her brand-new husband is a raving lunatic, despite her best efforts. But then, a thriller that can do no better than “My experience … was made even worse by the knowledge that when Jack wasn’t with me, he was exhilarating in someone else’s fear” is no thriller at all.

When the newlyweds return to the US from this idyllic (for one of them, anyway) wedding trip, Jack continues to hold Grace hostage. Every day, as Jack goes off to work, he locks Grace in an empty room for the day with nothing to do. If Grace somehow displeases him, she is forced to miss a weekend of visitation at Millie’s special boarding school. (Apparently, no one from Millie’s school finds it odd that previously devoted Grace would go almost two months without visiting her sister.) But the real threat is that once Millie graduates, Jack is planning to bring her to live with them and have his totally unspecified nonsexual but terrifying way with her, somehow feeding off of Millie’s fear, which Grace finds too frightening to even contemplate. He puts together a secret red room for Millie (despite the fact that her favorite color is yellow—the horror!) in the pretty house’s basement and decorates it with portraits of battered women that he forces Grace (a very, very amateur painter) to paint as a form of torture. When Grace has been particularly uncooperative, he punishes her with the ultimate form of torture, by making her … sit in the red room looking at the awful portraits she’s painted. The couples with whom he makes her socialize on the weekend and for whom she’s forced to bake perfect souffles have no idea of the anguish Grace is enduring, because she has no way of saying anything—Jack has cut off all access to pens.

As Millie inches closer to leaving her boarding school and coming to live permanently with Jack and Grace in the menacing red room, Grace finally feels the need to take action. Grace’s conundrum is that although she desperately needs to get away from Jack, she knows that in everyone else’s view, he’s Prince Charming. So whatever she plans to do needs to hold up against the judgment of the outside world. In unbelievable fashion, Millie herself hatches a surprising plot, giving Grace an unexpected tool. (What luck that Millie had been recently listening to Agatha Christie audiobooks!) Grace then creates her own elaborate plot and lays the groundwork for carrying it out by demanding a glass of whiskey every night in her prison room. For some reason, once she really puts her foot down, Jack is happy to share a whiskey with her night after night—whew! Thank goodness! Because without that poor decision on his part, Grace is never going to be able to carry out her plan to get out of her empty room and save Millie from the miserable fate of Jack feeding off of her fear in undefined but nonsexual ways!

Author B. A. Paris just doesn’t seem to be able to dredge up the kind of ickiness needed for this kind of story. And there’s really no shame in not having a sick, twisted mind—it just means less fun for the rest of us. With characters and plot that have little grounding in reality, the cringe-worthy questions the book asks on its cover—“The perfect marriage? Or the perfect lie?”—beg for a third option: The perfect dud.

Clock Dance, by Anne Tyler

Even if Anne Tyler’s name hadn’t been prominently displayed on the cover, it would nonetheless have been obvious very quickly that the wispy Clock Dance is an Anne Tyler book, with quirky characters, odd family dinners, a fondness for Baltimore, and a protagonist, 62-year-old Willa, who greets an out-of-the-blue opportunity to shake things up with impulsive decisiveness.

Willa is a mild-mannered harmonizer with a lifelong attraction to people who make use of her peacekeeping skills without ever appreciating them, or her. The backstory in the first third of the book attempts to explain how Willa has come to be living rather uncomfortably in Arizona with her pushy retired second husband, wishing she felt needed, even if she doesn’t quite realize it yet. To start, we see Willa as an 11-year-old dealing with a manic mother, a milquetoast father, and a much younger sister. She makes a clear if unconscious choice at that impressionable age to avoid drama at all costs. We are then shown Willa ten years later, bringing the young man who will become her first husband home from college to meet her parents. We see why she makes the choices that she does, but we also see the behaviors that lead to the next scene, twenty years later, when she loses her first husband in a tragic accident.

Fast forward to the present. Willa is going through the motions, newly settled in Arizona, longing for connections but unable to create them for herself. Then comes a shocking phone call: Her older son’s ex-girlfriend Denise has been shot in Baltimore, she’s in the hospital, she has a 9-year-old daughter, Cheryl, who needs to be looked after, and a neighbor is reaching out to Willa, who is mysteriously listed as an emergency contact on Denise’s phone list. Willa doesn’t know the neighbor, the ex-girlfriend, or the ex-girlfriend’s daughter, but she suddenly sees a chance to be useful, and she barely hesitates in booking a flight.

Once Willa arrives in Baltimore and meets her delightful charges, together with the engaging, eccentric neighbors, there are few surprises. But despite its familiarity, her journey is entertaining. Willa is her usual self: cheery and polite and genteel and, yes, maybe a little superficial. Perhaps in this setting, though, her gift for harmony can be appreciated, and she can learn how to achieve balance between everyone else’s needs and her own.

The reader is left to supply much of the detail regarding Willa’s relationships with her sister and two sons, which are at best strained. One can sense their likely frustration with her terminal inability to take a stand against the forceful personalities she attracts. “Marriage was often a matter of dexterity, in Willa’s experience,” Tyler writes, and we are left to wonder if perhaps what Willa saw as dexterity, those closest to her saw as weakness. The reader can feel the pain and bewilderment that the absence of these key figures in her life causes Willa, perhaps driving what would otherwise be some odd choices in Baltimore.

Anne Tyler leaves her beloved Baltimore to work its magic on Willa, in an ending that’s neat, predictable, but satisfying nonetheless. As the book ends, it’s hard to say goodbye to its inhabitants, particularly level-headed young Cheryl, who loves to bake and is a sweet pastry of a character, with much to teach her surrogate grandmother. We leave Willa in a good place, though, learning that family can have many names and faces, and embracing her serendipitous second chance.

Less, by Andrew Sean Greer

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In the first few pages of Less, I admit, I thought that perhaps I’d made a mistake—or that the Pulitzer Prize committee had, in awarding the book the 2018 prize for fiction. The start of the book felt like a version of what Arthur Less, the central character and a midlist-level author, describes his most recent (rejected) novel to be: “… About a middle-aged gay man walking around San Francisco. And, you know, his … his sorrows….”

“Is it a white middle-aged man?” he is asked. Yes, he admits.

“A white middle-aged man walking around with his white middle-aged American sorrows?”

“Jesus, I guess so,” he answers.

“Arthur. Sorry to tell you this. It’s a little hard to feel sorry for a guy like that.”

“Even gay?”

“Even gay.”

It was a surprise, then, to find myself slowly coming to love the self-esteem-challenged, bumbling, generous, sweet, reluctantly aging, possibly talented–and yes, gay–Arthur, dealing with simultaneously turning fifty and losing his much younger lover by planning a trip around the world. He accepts expenses-paid invitations for odd panels, award ceremonies, and author residencies to finance the journey, which allows him to give a reasonable excuse for turning down an invitation to his ex-lover’s wedding. What could go wrong?

The trip gives Greer an opportunity to gently lampoon the life of a mid-list author—the weird situations, which Arthur accepts genially, and the constant self-doubt, which just adds to Arthur’s unwitting charm. All of his travel adventures are awkward and amusing, but the excursion to Germany is laugh-out-loud funny, largely due to Arthur’s overestimation of his German-speaking talents. I found myself wishing I knew German, so that I could understand the humor here at its deepest level, but truly, the author manages to convey Arthur’s unknowing mistakes and the Germans’ bemusement at his odd pronouncements with skill and endearing humor.

Less is a rather short book, but it nonetheless manages to thoughtfully examine themes of love, family, genius and mediocrity, the creative process, and aging. Illness, tailors, the Odyssey, and Charlie Chaplin all serve to shine light on Arthur’s inner and outer journeys, with gentle pokes at poets and Little League along the way. The main character’s naive innocence and sentimentality are wholly believable and adorable, but they also allow the author to sneak in sharp, humorous, sometimes unexpected observations about the human condition.

When Arthur has made his indelible mark in Mexico, Italy, Germany, Morocco, and India, with a quick trip to Japan on the horizon, he encounters his supposed nemesis, who poignantly cuts to the chase, explaining to Arthur with some reluctance: “You’ve bumbled through every moment and been a fool; you’ve misunderstood and misspoken and tripped over absolutely everything and everyone in your path, and you’ve won. And you don’t even realize it.” Greer does a masterful job of making sure that we laugh at the crazy situations in which Arthur finds himself, at his quirks, occasionally even at his thought processes, but never really at Arthur himself. Because in the heartwarming end, no one can help loving lovable Arthur Less, whether he recognizes it or not.

 

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant is not completely fine; that is clear from the start. But she is survivor, whether she knows it or not. This book is Chris Bohjalian’s disturbing The Double Bind mashed up with Graeme Simsion’s charming The Rosie Project, with fascinating, heartwarming, and surprising results.

Twenty-nine-year-old Eleanor has worked in an office job for eight years. From Monday through Friday she has her head down at work, unable to figure out how to interact positively with her co-workers. Every night, she goes home to her apartment, has a solitary dinner, and goes to bed. She drinks her way through the weekend, alone, just to get from Friday to Monday. Every Wednesday evening, she speaks with her “Mummy,” a terrifying maternal figure. As the book progresses, we find that Eleanor has had a challenging upbringing that featured abuse and trauma, but the biggest problem she faces is an inability to recognize “normal.”

The first few chapters of the book describe Eleanor’s loneliness in painful detail, but for the reader, the ache is tempered by the laugh-out-loud observations Eleanor makes along the way. Her point of view is definitely unique, but it rings true in the context of what, over time, we find her life experience to have been.

Eleanor’s lonely existence starts to evolve when she develops a crush on a singer in a band. She essentially goes through her teenage years a decade late as she deals with these new feelings. The crush leads to a clumsy attempt to improve herself. At the same time, she begins inadvertently to form friendships with Raymond, the new guy at work, as well as the elderly Sammy and his family. Before she knows it, she has something resembling a social life—and the emotions that she has suppressed her whole life begin to demand her attention.

By page 18, I thought I knew exactly what was going to happen with this book. By page 28, I had revised my assessment somewhat. By page 74, I had surrendered myself to the charm and unexpectedness of the story, rooting for the unconventional heroine and the sweet characters who model normal behavior for her and ultimately help Eleanor to reclaim her own voice.

Comfort Food, by Kate Jacobs

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In food terms, Comfort Food is macaroni and cheese, with a little bacon thrown in. In other words, it’s basic fare with just a little something extra–a great choice for the beach or a plane trip, and unlikely to upset your stomach.

The heroine, Gus Simpson, is a 50-ish Martha Stewart type with two feisty daughters, a neighbor who is reclusive for good reason, serious control issues, and a television cooking show that is unexpectedly on the rocks. Gus is forced by circumstances to take some risks, pulling a motley assortment of reluctant friends and family along with her as she tries to revive her sinking career (not to mention her pathetic personal life). The results are extremely contrived, but surprisingly entertaining.

Gus starts out a little too strident, but the many (maybe too many?) odd characters surrounding her soften the edges. Like the author’s hugely popular The Friday Night Knitting Club, this book touches just enough on themes of commitment, loss, friendship, and family to keep the book group talking. But there’s no need for deep thought—with this book, just sit back and enjoy the action, the unusual characters, and a couple of twists at the end.

One warning, though: As you read Comfort Food, keep a pile of snacks handy, because the food descriptions will have you salivating.  

The Sisterhood of Books

Sherry and Kristie

We’re Kristie and Sherry, and we’re sisters. Growing up, we shared our siblinghood with five loud, smelly brothers. We also shared a bedroom from the day Kristie was born until the day Sherry left for college.

Over the years, we grew apart. We grew together. We had adventures. We lost touch. We got back in touch. We spent a summer together. We got married (and occasionally divorced) and raised a wide variety of children, our own and other people’s. We are godmothers to each other’s firstborns. We discovered wine. And beer. And over the years, we have loved each other and annoyed each other in the special ways that only sisters can.

And–we both ended up working with books.

Sherry is the relatively quiet one; she became an editor. Kristie’s the outgoing one; she ran community outreach for a university library and coordinated a super-huge yearly book-and-author fest. And we both read books. Lots of books. All kinds of books.

Knowing how much we love books, people are always asking both of us for book suggestions, and we happily make them. We love putting the right books into the hands of people who will love them as much as we do.

After a while, though, it felt like we were duplicating our efforts, typing the same answers to the constant cries of our friends on Facebook: “Help! What should I read next??”

Why should telling other people about the books we love be so difficult? Why not keep track of what books we want to recommend (or not)? Why not start a conversation about what we like and why? Why not throw ourselves headfirst into the twenty-first century and start a blog? After all, everyone else in the world has.

And why not do it together, sharing our sisterhood of books?

So, here we are. We are very different people, but get us both started on the subject of Michael Chabon, and you’d never know that Sherry is still upset about what Kristie did to her Barbie doll collection.

Welcome to our sisterhood. If you love books and the places they take you, we think you’ll like it here.

Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray

Okay, Skippy dies. That’s no surprise; it happens in the first few pages of the book, on the floor of a Dublin doughnut shop frequented by acne-ridden adolescents from the boys’ school up the road. The surprise lies in how fervently I hoped throughout the rest of the book that that scene somehow didn’t happen, that it was all a hoax, that Skippy was in fact alive and well and off somewhere getting his life together.

From the first chapter, Paul Murray shifts through time with assurance, showing how sweet, sensitive Skippy’s death affects those around him while also revealing, slowly, how he came to be sprawled on the floor of the doughnut shop with his friend Ruprecht looking on in the first place.

The adults in the book are hugely disappointing–indeed, the complete ineptitude displayed by Skippy’s teachers and parents is one of the weaknesses of the book. But the author draws upon Skippy’s friends for the story’s humor and wisdom: the observations about school and life are sharp and witty, and Skippy’s pal Dennis gives an interpretation of Robert Frost that still makes me laugh out loud.

Funny, tragic, and occasionally even uplifting, Skippy Dies is a roller-coaster ride through the good, the bad, and the ridiculous–i.e., adolescence–with a main character whose death serves, too late, to bring him to life.

Failure to Launch

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There’s no shame in not finishing a book.

Or at least, if there’s shame, it’s likely on the book’s side. (That’s our story, and we’re sticking to it.)

Sure, life happens, and sometimes we have to put an okay book down for a while, and sometimes a while becomes a few months, or a few years, or forever. But if the book were more than okay, wouldn’t we find a way to pick it back up again?

WE would.

So, what books have you put down, never to pick back up again, and why?

We’ll go first.

A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick

In his study of three extremely complex characters, Robert Goolrick creates a compelling meditation on love, greed, addiction, passion, death, forgiveness, beauty, wealth, madness, and redemption, set in wintry Wisconsin in the early 1900s. The author does not over-describe, instead leaving the reader to fill in the blanks about the characters’ past and present lives.

Each character has a clear desire, but not everyone in this story can get what he or she wants, and much of the book’s suspense is created as the competing plans unfold. The characters undergo tremendous internal changes over the course of several months, changes that are largely (but perhaps not entirely) believable. Still, there are a few aspects of the plot that are a little too coincidental to be comfortable, and one main character seems a little too good to be true.

This is an engaging book that will leave you thinking about the meaning of parenthood, the rewards of forgiveness, and the nature of love.