Ought we to be ashamed as readers? Or, at all?

I have been having the most interesting conversation with Tom, albeit through truncated comments rather than around a table,  on his post about France’s bookstores. His point, I believe, is that they shame American bookstores. That is a point well taken.

But, I took it farther. I pressed on to say that French fragrance and fashion and food shames American products of the same sort. Tom wishes to keep the critique to art (i.e. literature).

Okay, let’s talk about literature for a minute here. Can we start with what I read my eight and nine year olds in my third grade class?

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This year I was surprised by a group of 8 fifth graders, who knocked on my door and presented me with a large purple cellophane box. Inside, was an item they had made for each read-aloud book I had shared with them when they were in third grade. There was an origami box turned into a covered wagon for The Little House on The Prairie. There was a tissue box covered in spiders for Charlotte’s Web. (“Because you always cry at the end.”) There was a recipe for ladyfingers from one of my childhood favorites, The Pink Motel. I won’t bore you with a description of each item, the point is what I read to them mattered. What I read to them was mostly from many, many years ago.

What matters now? What kinds of books are written, published, or read that matter? Books are available because they titillate, or entertain, or are expected to make a profit for the publisher. But I wonder about the quality of the writing, the worth and lasting value of the books we read today.

Perhaps this is why, in part, I have turned so eagerly to translated literature. It seems that books from other countries are better at addressing pertinent issues, or at least the large dilemmas in life. I think of the lists for the Man Booker International Prize I have read over the years, each one seared into my memory. (Even The Iraqi Christ, which I loathed.) They are more than a “trite” murder, fantasy, or romance driven novel. They are the bread and meat of which life is made.

And so we come full circle. Ought we to be ashamed of what we read? Are books with little inherent value being published at the fault of the reader or the publisher? Or, perhaps you feel that the books published today, in America, bear no blame at all. But I contend that we are not living with the quality I once knew, nor the quality enjoyed by those abroad. And I think it speaks to a larger issue of loss, a decline in culture, or morality, unlike any time I have seen before.

A Gentleman In Moscow by Amor Towles (and Give-Away)

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That sense of loss is exactly what we must anticipate, prepare for, and cherish to the last of our days; for it is only our heartbreak that finally refutes all that is ephemeral in love.

I can hardly describe the pleasure A Gentleman In Moscow  gave me. For once, the wealthy aristocrat is not the villain. Although there are plenty of people in 1920 Russia who would consider him one, to the reader he is a hero.

Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov was in Paris when the Hermitage fell, and returned after the Revolution. While we learn slowly of his story, we are under house arrest with him at the Metropol, the fine hotel in which he lives, for the authorities have forbidden him ever to leave lest he is shot.

How can one live in a hotel, no matter how extravagant it may be? Surely the rubles hidden in the legs of his grandfather’s table can afford him the luxuries to which he had become accustomed. But, life in Moscow passes him by as the streets and parks change without him ever seeing it first hand.

When actress Anna Urbanova falls from grace, after Stalin’s disapproval that the films she stars in refer too grandly to “waltzing and candlelight and marble stairs”, in other words nostalgically looking at times gone by, she and the Count unwittingly join the Confederacy of the Humbled.

Like the Freemasons, the Confederacy of the Humbled is a close-knit brotherhood whose members travel with no outward markings, but who know each other at a glance. For having fallen suddenly from grace, those in the Confedarcy share a certain perspective. Knowing beauty, influence, fame, and privilege to be borrowed rather than bestowed, they are not easily impressed. They are not quick to envy or take offense. They certainly do not scour the papers in search of their own names. They remain committed to living among their peers, but they greet adulation with caution, ambition with sympathy, and condensation with an  inward smile.

One day, the Count is paid an unexpected visit by a man named Osip Ivanovich Glebnikov, former colonel of the Red Army and an officer of the Party, who wishes to learn the Count’s secrets of being a gentleman. To develop certain diplomatic skills, for he has noticed that the Count is not reconciled to his position. Rather, he is resigned to it, with grace and style.

But these two characters are not my favorite. No, I am enchanted with Nina, the child whom the Count befriends, and with whom he plays, in the lobby of the hotel. Then suddenly Nina is grown up, and she comes back to leave her daughter Sofia with the Count. This little girl is now in his charge. She sleeps in his room on a mattress hoisted above his with cans of tomatoes stacked on top of each other. She invents a game with him called Zut (after the French phrase, “Zut alors!”) which is the only thing one can exclaim when one has run out of answers. They are utterly beautiful to read about, as Sofia grows up, and their relationship grows with them.

This novel is about Russia, and politics, and the time period from 1922 to 1954. But, it is mostly about the Count, and his friends, and life lessons seen from the interior of one hotel which somehow seems to encompass the whole world.

“I’ll tell you what is convenient,” he said after a moment. “To sleep until noon and have someone bring you your breakfast on a tray. To cancel an appointment at the very last minute. To keep a carriage waiting at the door of one party, so that on a moment’s notice it can whisk you away to another. To sidestep marriage in your youth and put off having children altogether. These are the greatest of conveniences, Anushka-and at one time, I had them all. But in the end, it has been the inconveniences that have mattered to me most.”

The publishers have granted me one copy to give-away, to a U.S. address only please, so if you wish to enter the drawing please mention it in a comment below. A winner will be drawn one week from today.

 

Thank you to all who entered! The winner of A Gentleman in Moscow provided by Penguin is Lesley of Prairie Horizons. Congratulations, Les!

The Boy Who Loved Rain

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I didn’t realize I had accepted the review of a book written by a pastor, poet and missionary who lives in Normandy, France. But opening  the book to find an epigraph written by Paul Tournier, and finding passages of text pertaining to faith, made me glad I had.

Fiona and David’s fourteen year old son is at the heart of this story about family. He vacillates between temper and apathy; he stays up late into the night and sleeps until noon the next day. He has trouble at school getting along with others, and his parents are often called in to speak to the administration. He wakes in the night with horrific nightmares about trying to save a sister he doesn’t have, a scenario in which he can find no sense. He has hidden a suicide pledge, sealed with a bloody thumbprint, behind a painting in his room. Something is terribly wrong.

His mother, in utter desperation, flees London to a little coastal town in Brittany named Portivy, on the peninsula of Quiberon. Her friend Miriam lives there, and with her wisdom Colom’s story is slowly revealed. It is the first time he is fully aware of his past, for his childhood was a darkly shadowed one; a childhood his parents thought best to leave undisclosed.

But when have secrets ever been helpful? When truth lies hidden, pain has the time it needs to grow until a near Herculean effort is required to vanquish it. This effort is what is required from both of Colom’s parents as they face their past and what they have left untold to their beloved son.

I was moved to discover that author Gerard Kelly uses the story of Jairus in the New Testament to address Colom’s situation in his novel. When he sees Jairus’ utter despair at the apparent death of his daughter, Jesus comes to bring her to life again. Miriam reminds Fiona that Jesus sends all of the adults out of the room and focuses on the daughter alone.

“An adolescent in crisis is always a family in crisis,” Miriam continued, “but adolescence is about identity; about becoming an individual. My thesis suggested that healing can’t begin until we acknowledge the child as the subject of their own story: the actor in their own journey. The adults who have held the child as the object in their story must let go. It’s the whisper of identity they’re waiting for. Life, spoken into them again.” (p. 223)

Can anything be harder than being a parent? In the best of situations, it requires endless patience, forgiveness, and hope. It requires taking the focus off of one’s self and letting the “child” stand on his own. My son is 24, and I’m still practicing this every day.

Other important things that Kelly includes in his novel are:

  • John Tavener’s  Ikon of Light, a beautiful piece of sacred music
  • a reference to a 300 year old text written by Jean-Pierre de Caussade (quite possibly from The Sacrament of The Present Moment: “The present moment holds infinite riches beyond your wildest dreams but you will only enjoy them to the extent of your faith and love. The more a soul loves, the more it longs, the more it hopes, the more it finds. The will of God is manifest in each moment, an immense ocean which only the heart fathoms insofar as it overflows with faith, trust and love.”)
  • a painting by Kandinsky named Farbstudie Quadrate
  • a quote pertaining to rain which precedes each chapter, from sources that include Garth Stein’s Racing in The Rain, Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, and Elie Wiesel’s Dawn.

Thank you to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to read this book, to reflect on parenting, and childhood, and the necessity of truth under any circumstance. Thank you to Gerard Kelly for reminding us that uncovered secrets and forgiveness are the tools we need for healing. He blogs at godseesdiamonds.tumblr.com and is the founder of the twitter prayer stream @twitturgies.