Book Review: A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles

I’d heard so many rave reviews of Amor Towles’ second novel that I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. More than one person said it was the best book of the year for them. So it was perhaps inevitable that I would set myself up for disappointment.

The book is certainly entertaining I just expected…more. More than Eloise for grown-ups, which is what I kept thinking of as I read the novel.

We begin in 1922 when Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is sentenced to house arrest. Fortunately, he lives in the Metropol Hotel in Moscow so while he is a prisoner of sorts, it’s a pretty luxurious prison. The Count is an easy-going, aristocratic fellow, used to the finer things in life such as wine, good food, beautiful women. He’s still able to enjoy all of these things over the next years of his life in the Metropol. Truthfully, it’s hard to say how much his life really changes by his imprisonment. This is partially because we don’t see much of his life previous to his sentence and partially because his life doesn’t actually change much. Not through the upheavals of Moscow in the early twentieth century, not through World War Two. There are references to food scarcity and some political meetings but it never feels like the Count is in danger or that much of anything bad will happen to him. He seems to live a charmed, if imprisoned life.

The novel is largely character driven and it does sparkle here as we get to know the people who live and work in the Metropol. They are eccentric and charming and although some start off a little flat, Towles does a good job of expanding their lives as the Count gets to know each one better. When Towles takes us deeper into the lives of these characters – showing us what life is like for them outside of the hotel, for example – the novel offers glimpses of real depth. Unfortunately, these scenes are short and infrequent. As Russia changes so does the Count’s position and prestige and he adapts remarkably well to this for someone used to a life of ultimate privilege. It probably helps that he is apparently unbelievably talented at everything he sets his mind to – from eavesdropping to seat arrangements.

I would have liked to see more of the broader setting of Moscow. The novel spans from 1922 into the 1960s, a time of huge change in Russia and in the lives of ordinary people. Yet Towles seems to downplay the historical background as insignificant to the story of the Count. It’s hard to imagine that even in such a unique setting as the Metropol, people would be living so separately from the life of the city at large.

There’s lots to enjoy here as the book is well-written, often funny, and has a certain sparkle of language that makes it easy to read. If you’re looking for something more in-depth or challenging about Russia in the early 20th century, this isn’t it.

 

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Rose’s Story

Birth stories are one of those things that most people aren’t interested in until they have their own. At least, that was my experience, so feel entirely free to skip over this if it’s your experience too!

It feels like you could hardly have two more different birthing experiences than Pearl and Rose. I shared Pearl’s story after she was born (part one and part two) but short version: Pearl was a transverse breech that went unnoticed until after my water broke and I had an unplanned caesarean section. She had been diagnosed with heart and kidney issues in utero and so spent the first day of her life in the NICU.

From early on in my pregnancy with Rose the question was “to VBAC or not to VBAC?” (VBAC = vaginal birth after caesarean). I have no regrets about how Pearl’s birth went. It was far from ideal but it was what was needed to deliver her safely. The result was a healthy, thriving baby and that is what matters. So I went into this pregnancy with the attitude that as long as we ended up with another healthy baby, I didn’t really care how it exited my body. Labour and delivery does not a mother make.

That said, when you have a baby, people want to know how long you laboured, how delivery went. New moms swap stories and I always felt like I didn’t have much to contribute. I had never been through labour. As well, recovery from the c-section had been hard and I didn’t relish going through that again, especially now with a two-year-old.

I was a good candidate for a VBAC but ultimately the decision would be left up to the wisdom of our local OBGYN (and the baby’s position, of course). I had my first appointment with him in August where he outlined his reasons for and against VBAC and suggested a date for an elective c-section. I was surprised by how disappointed I felt that he seemed to be leaning towards another c-section but we agreed to wait another month and see where baby was at.

My due date was October 8th but I was sure that baby would arrive earlier than that. I’d been having false labour and irregular contractions for weeks, something I never had with Pearl. Labour Day weekend, while Peter and Pearl camped out in our backyard, I felt the baby make a big movement I hadn’t felt before and the next day Peter commented that I was suddenly carrying lower than I had been. Contractions continued over the next weeks and by the time I saw the OBGYN again he was happy to see how low the baby was. Baby was in a great position for me to deliver and so we agreed to wait and see what happened, with the knowledge that if I hadn’t delivered by my due date they would schedule a c-section.

I felt increasingly ready for baby to arrive and so when my doctor suggested a membrane sweep at my appointment on September 29th I eagerly agreed. I made an appointment for the following week but we both felt confident that we’d be seeing each other again much sooner.

Heading out to the doctor’s office, Friday morning.

Contractions ramped up almost right away. Peter was skeptical but I was increasingly feeling like the baby would join us that weekend. Peter and Pearl and I went on a pre-bedtime walk that night and Peter timed my contractions as we strolled through the neighbourhood. They were coming close together but didn’t feel that intense so we took the long way home. Peter put Pearl to bed while I sat down on the couch and read up on signs of labour and when to head to the hospital. Contractions slowed down significantly and we went to bed.

Friday evening, out for a walk.

I woke again at 1:30 am and now my contractions were strong enough that I couldn’t fall back asleep. Moving to the couch, I timed them from 2 – 3 am and at 3am I woke Peter up. After calling into the hospital we decided it was time to go. Peter’s parents came to stay with Pearl and by 4am I was hooked up to the fetal monitor.

One last photo as a family of three!

I’ll spare you the gory details but will say that giving birth the traditional way is super painful. I know everyone says that but it is a next level pain that nothing prepares you for. While pushing (which lasted about 45 minutes) I couldn’t keep myself from yelling out, just these really deep, primal cries. Peter tells me that I wasn’t actually that loud but it felt like I was screaming my head off. I’d heard about the pain but also about the intense relief you feel when the baby actually arrives and both are true. Rose was born at 2:01pm, so all told I was in labour about twelve hours. It felt like a long time and I recall feeling frustrated at several points because it seemed like things weren’t moving as quickly as I wanted. Over and over though the nurses and doctor told me that things were progressing well and moving along.

Because I was a VBAC patient, I was kept on the fetal monitor for most of my labour, with a few breaks in order to walk up and down the hall. Baby’s heartbeat dropped a few times during contractions early on and then later as well so there were some nervous moments. Position seemed to make a difference so I stayed on my side a lot (which was the position in which I most felt the need to push later on) and the OBGYN hung around the hospital all day, despite not being on duty, just in case he needed to spring into action. My doctor and the nurses who cared for us were so available, helpful, and encouraging and I’m so thankful for the amazing care we received.

I had worried that I wouldn’t know when to push but what everyone says is true – you know. It’s a pretty undeniable urge and when I started to feel it I wasn’t yet fully dilated. Fortunately, my doctor quickly decided I was close enough and let me push. Almost immediately, everything stopped. I didn’t feel the urge anymore and my contractions moved further apart. They hooked me up to the IV and moved positions and things quickly started up again. This was definitely the most painful part but things were happening so fast, contraction following contraction, that I didn’t really have time to think or focus on anything other than pushing and getting the baby out. At one point, someone asked if I wanted to feel the baby’s head and I don’t think I even replied. I remember thinking, “I will when this is done.”

And then, the pain diminishes and you are suddenly holding the world’s newest person. “Let Karissa see,” said one of the nurses as they passed me my baby. I got to hold her right away, skin-to-skin, something that I missed out on with Pearl.

For all its unflattering qualities, I love this picture. Me, completely exhausted and euphoric. Rose, covered in vernix and so brand new.

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While checking her heartbeat, one of the nurses noticed that Rose was working hard to intake air so they took her over to the warming station in the room. She had cried a little upon coming out but her lungs were full of mucus. The doctor spent a few minutes suctioning out her lungs and she was on a respirator for a little while. It felt like longer as I watched but she was soon crying again and back in my arms. She nursed right away (something that took much longer with Pearl, likely because we were apart for most of her first 24 hours) and Peter and I just got to enjoy our new little love.

Peter and Rose

Pearl came to meet her baby sister later that evening – she was more interested in the dinner that had just been brought to me but was excited to introduce Baby Rose to her grandparents. Rose and I stayed the night in the hospital while Peter went home with Pearl and we were discharged Sunday afternoon.

Recovery this time around has been so much easier than after a caesarean. While giving birth is hard on your body no matter what, this time around it feels like my body went through something hard but something that it was made to do. This time around I’m able to go for walks, carry my newborn in a carrier, and get in and out of bed or a chair easily.

I’m thankful for each of my girls and how they entered the world. It’s been an interesting experience, having two such different birth stories and I feel very grateful for living in a place where I have medical care and options available to me and my family.

We are continuing to get used to life with two little ones but it’s been pretty straightforward so far. Peter had a week off work, which was wonderful, and I’m taking the days on my own with the girls easy as I figure out what parenting looks like now. Rose has been a great eater and sleeper and that also makes life much easier. Now I just need to figure out how to shower with both of them around!

Book Review: Lost in September by Kathleen Winter

Lost in September – Kathleen Winter (Alfred A. Knopf, 2017)

“This book is so weird,” was my almost constant thought as I read Lost in September. It wasn’t until I was around three quarters of the way through that I felt I had a handle on what I was supposed to believe/see. Sometimes that made for a frustrating reading experience but overall, Winter handles it with charm and though I began the novel thinking I wouldn’t finish it, I found myself pushing through to find out what was going on.

While I’m not sure the names Wolfe and Montcalm are world renowned, you can’t make it through the Canadian school system without hearing them paired together, along with the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. This battle in Quebec between the French and the English determined the fate of Canada. Ie: why most of us speak English today.

Less known is that a few years before this monumental battle James Wolfe was scheduled to have eleven days leave from his army position. Unfortunately, his leave overlapped with a switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar and those eleven days were lost completely. Wolfe never got his longed for holiday and instead died on the Plains of Abraham.

Lost in September takes place in 2017, where every September Wolfe roams Montreal, heartbroken over what he has lost and searching to replace those eleven missing days. He meets a man dressed all in yellow who has recently regained his sight, a woman writing a book about James Wolfe, and he lives in a tent with a strange sort of guru who may or may not be helping him.

He unfolds for us his strange and co-dependent relationship with his mother, his intense friendships with the men he served with, and his very subdued love affair with his former fiancee. All while wandering through Montreal, wondering how it can still be so French when the English won the battle, and avoiding a visit to a certain Madam Blanchard. Surely, these are the ramblings of an insane man, right? There’s no way James Wolfe himself is spending September 2017 in Quebec.

The truth, while apparent throughout, is skillfully revealed and all possibilities are thrown into question. Wolfe (or Jimmy as he’s sometimes called) is an increasingly sympathetic character because whether he’s Wolfe come back to life or a mentally disturbed homeless man, Winter imbues him with glimmers of clarity and intelligence. Whatever has happened to him, this wasn’t always who he was and the reader longs for him to be restored to the life he should have had. After all, this is a book all about alternate realities.

While the story of Wolfe may be unfamiliar to non-Canadian readers, I think the story in and of itself here in Lost in September is strong enough to engage even those who might be new to the Battle of the Plains of Abraham or uninterested in history. Just be prepared, this book is so weird.

Book Review: The End We Start From by Megan Hunter

The End We Start From – Megan Hunter (Hamish Hamilton, 2017)

I wasn’t sure about reading this short novella, about a woman who has a baby as London is flooded and she is forced to flee her home, while at home with my own newborn baby. The good news is the book is not disturbing or upsetting. The bad news is it’s not much of anything.

There’s a very particular style that Hunter is using here and it doesn’t work for me. The whole book is so vague that it read like the outline of a novel that had yet to be written. There’s no dialogue, all of the characters are identified only by letters (a pet peeve of mine), and it seems like an exercise in defying the “show, don’t tell” rule. It’s all tell, no show.

The narrator and her husband R have become first time parents to Z. At the same time, unprecedented flooding hits London and they are forced to evacuate. They move in with R’s parents, N and G, and there are apparently food shortages and riots but the narrator and Z mostly just hang out at home. Then something happens and G is gone and then later something else happens and N is gone too. Seriously, that’s about as much information as we’re provided with.

From there, this little family spends time in a refugee camp and R leaves after a while because he can’t be, like, hemmed in, man and he has to be free. Or something like that. It’s hard to tell how much our narrator really cares.The story has zero character development and even though what’s being described is traumatic, the stakes are so low and I just cared so little because I felt like I couldn’t visualize what was taking place and I didn’t care about these characters.

The book is short (I read it in two late night nursing sessions) so not much of a time commitment. To be fair, there are glimmers of potential when Hunter actually bothers to describe things but it’s hard to say if there is much more there. I couldn’t tell you whether or not Hunter is good at creating characters or tension because none of it is present.

Book Review: How to Breathe Underwater by Julie Orringer

How to Breathe Underwater – Julie Orringer

This collection of short stories focuses primarily on adolescent girls. The stories are compelling and readable and not at all familiar with my experience of being a teenage girl. Which isn’t to say that they don’t ring true but by the time I got to the end of the collection, it felt like the intensity of the stories as a whole was a bit artificial.

These are young girls with a lot of life experience. There is violence, sex, drug use, guns, death. And while no one story feels over the top, all together it kind of does. In the end, this is probably a story collection best read with long breaks in between each story.

Many of the stories are told from – and feel like they’re told from – an adult perspective. There is an omniscience and distance from the events themselves that feels more adult. Even the first person stories lack the chaotic urgency of a teenager relating something traumatic that happened to them. For the most part, I appreciated this and Orringer makes it work. She does play with form a little, including one story in the second person. (Not my favourite narration or my favourite story but I appreciate the effort.) The stories have a sort of feeling of an adult wishing they could go back and warn their younger self. And after all, isn’t that something we’ve all wished we could have done?

 

 

Reading with Pearl: Train Edition

Some of Pearl’s favourites.

I’m not sure that Pearl has ever actually seen a train but she sure seems to enjoy stories about them. And there seem to be multiple classic children’s books revolving around trains. Our story selection tends toward mid-20th century and I’m having trouble thinking of more modern train stories. Any suggestions?

Pearl’s favourite of these currently is probably The Little Red Caboose. We found that one at a Goodwill in Portland and Pearl and I curled up in a chair in the furniture section to read it over and over again while Peter looked at clothes. The pictures are pretty outdated (one page definitely borders on the offensive) but the story is sweet and simple and has a nice rhythm to it.

On the other hand, Peter and I don’t love the story of Tootle which seems to preach the message of “stay in your lane and don’t try and be different”. Fortunately, Pearl seems to like it most for the pictures and I can understand that when some of them are of a train wearing a crown of daisies and frolicking in a field.

I’m a big fan of Bill Peet’s work and Pearl has just started to enjoy some of his stories. The Caboose Who Got Loose is a rhyming story with a happy ending and while longer than the others, I enjoy reading it.

Any recommendations for train stories out there? Especially anything from the 21st Century!

Book Review: All We Leave Behind by Carol Off

All We Leave Behind – Carol Off (Random House Canada, 2017)

One of the signs of a compelling book for me is when I want to tell other people all about it. Or when I lay awake after reading it, thinking over various parts. All We Leave Behind did both.

Carol Off is a well-respected CBC journalist with a long career. (For those non-Canadians, that’s the Canadian Broadcast Corporation and it’s generally well regarded.) While reporting in Afghanistan in 2002, shortly after 9/11, Off interviewed an Afghan man named Asad who spoke out, on camera, about corruption and particularly against one of the warlords being enabled by US involvement. Because of Asad’s bold statements, made in hopes of change being possible in his country, his life and the lives of his family are eventually in danger and they are forced to flee Afghanistan.

Off begins the novel with an early experience as a reporter in Pakistan, one that taught her, Be careful what you wish for and reminds us that sometimes a journalist’s best story is the worst day of someone else’s life. It’s a strong way of establishing the conflict that many journalists feel. How do you report a story in a neutral manner? How do you stay objective in the face of suffering? And when do you get involved.

When Asad and his family escape Afghanistan and Off realizes that it was her reporting that put them in danger, she becomes involved in bringing them to Canada as refugees, crossing many professional boundaries but believing that it’s the right thing to do.

The book does a superb job of outlining Afghan history, both in a broad sense but also through focusing on Asad’s life and that of his family. We witness the changes the country goes through from the 1970s until present day and the influences of the rest of the world. Off provides the right amount of information so that someone relatively unfamiliar with Afghan history is able to follow along and I never felt lost or bogged down in the historical context. Off doesn’t spare feelings and doesn’t always shy away from naming names. She can be scathing in her denouncements of US involvement but she doesn’t let Canada off the hook either.

The second part of the book focuses on Asad’s struggle to first be recognized as a refugee and then to be accepted into Canada. Off definitely shows her political leanings here, outlining the ways that Harper’s Conservatives failed in a refugee crisis, as she details how Asad and his family struggled through the bureaucracy and redtape, floundering in the system for years while their lives were in danger. I get the sense that Carol Off and I are on similar sides of the political spectrum, so these strong opinions didn’t bother me but I imagine they may turn off some readers. (That said, if you know Off from her work with the CBC, you might not be surprised.)

As a Canadian, it was a harsh reminder that we are not always the peaceful, helpful nation we view ourselves as and that our hands have not remained clean in conflict worldwide. Even if our government tries to tell us we have. The book ends in late 2015 and it’s encouraging to think of how many Syrian refugees have been brought into Canada since then. At the same time, All We Leave Behind is a powerful lesson that many more are languishing in camps, turned back from safe borders, or perishing before they reach safety.

While this book will primarily be of interest to Canadians (and probably Canadians who find their ideals already align with Off’s), I think it would be a great read for anyone wanting to know more about either Middle East conflict or the experience of refugees. It’s well-written and informative and a topic that is only becoming more important in our current political climate worldwide.

Book Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

The Bear and the Nightingale – Katherine Arden (Del Rey, 2016)

Someone recommended this book to me and I was drawn in by the lovely cover and was excited to read this story based on Russian myth and lore. While it didn’t match my high expectations, it was a readable and enjoyable story and a twist on a fairy tale that might not be familiar to North American audiences.

This is medieval Russia – cold and barren, Christian but still steeped in the superstitious lore of tradition. Vasilisa is the youngest daughter of a wealthy family, the child predicted to bear the unique talents of her mysterious grandmother. She is a wild young girl, preferring to be outdoors, seeing things that others don’t. The family and the peasants under them honour the old mythical creatures and the stories that are told of them and so are protected from the harsh winter and nature of the world around them.

All of this changes when Vasilisa’s father re-marries. Her stepmother is deeply religious and forbids the old ways and the region quickly falls into chaos, death, and starvation without the protections of the old household gods. It is up to Vasilisa to defend both the mythical tbeings and her family as an even greater threat lurks closer.

Is this book great literature? No. But it’s fun and fantastical and the peek at Russian mythology made for an interesting read. It is the first book in a trilogy but I can’t say I have much desire to continue on with the other books. To be honest, that’s a point in the novel’s favour for me because it does have its own complete ending and wraps up the story plot while still keeping room for the next book. I’m happy to enjoy it on its own but if this book truly grabs you, there is room for more of Vasilisa’s adventures.

 

What I Read – September 2017

(My dad felt that my summer reading level had dropped off so I have done my best to boost my numbers this September. However, please keep your expectations low for October.)

The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters: The Jolly Regina – Kara LaReau (Amulet Books, 2017)

The Good People – Hannah Kent (Little, Brown, 2017)

The Wind is not a River – Brian Payton (Ecco, 2014)

How to Breathe Underwater – Julie Orringer (Vintage, 2003)

All We Leave Behind – Carol Off (Random House Canada, 2017)

Lost in September – Kathleen Winter (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2017)

Didn’t Finish:

The Wonderling Mira Bartok (Candlewick Press, 2017)

Currently Reading:

The Beauty Myth – Naomi Wolf

Bellevue Square – Michael Redhill