September 12, 2018

Book review: “Brunelleschi’s Dome: The Story of the Great Cathedral in Florence” by Ross King

    Okay, I recognize that — as Ross King writes in Brunelleschi’s Dome: The Story of the Great Cathedral in Florence — building the dome over the long-undomed Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral had become, by the early 15th century, “the greatest architectural puzzle of the age.” And I see that, in solving that puzzle, Filippo Brunelleschi not only fashioned a great work of art — the dome remains the tallest and widest ever created without modern materials — but also raised the status of architect above the level of manual worker to that of the artist.  King writes: Largely through his looming reputation, the profession was transformed during the Renaissance from a mechanical into a liberal art, from an art that was viewed as “common and low” to one that could be regarded as a noble occupation at the heart of the cultural endeavor. Even more, Brunelleschi’s feat gave new meaning to the word “genius.”  King writes: Before Filippo’s time the faculty of genius was never attributed to architects (or to sculptors and painters, either, for that matter).  But Marsuppini’s epitaph refers to Filippo as possessing divino ingenio, “divine genius,” marking the first recorded instance of an architect […]
September 10, 2018

Book review: “Michelangelo & the Pope’s Ceiling” by Ross King

It’s a daunting task to write the story of the creation of a work of art and, even more, for one that comprises a multiplicity of art works. After all, the work — Shakespeare’s King Lear or Emily Dickinson’s “I taste a liquor never brewed” or Joyce’s Ulysses or Piano Sonata No. 11 by Mozart — speaks for itself. To know about Lear, you watch Lear.  Any prose written as a commentary runs the risk of sounding like so much wasted breath. How much more intimidating is it, then, to write a book about how Michelangelo’s masterpiece, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, came to be? A masterpiece with 150-plus pictorial units, including more than 300 individual figures, many of which are considered masterpieces in their own right? Masterpieces that are among the most popular and ubiquitous of art images in the Western culture?   Delightfully interesting In Michelangelo & the Pope’s Ceiling, Ross King faces these many challenges, and he triumphs.  His 2003 book is delightfully interesting, informative, inspiring and thought-provoking. King’s book explains without being boring.  It gets into nitty-gritty details without bogging down.  It gives the larger-than-life personalities of its three main characters, Michelangelo, Raphael and Pope […]
September 5, 2018

Book review: “Northern Armageddon: The Battle of the Plains of Abraham and the Making of the American Revolution” by D. Peter MacLeod

  Most accounts of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, also called the Battle of Quebec — a turning point in the history of North America, when Canada became British — focus on the two commanders, both of whom died in the fighting. However, in his 2016 book Northern Armageddon: The Battle of the Plains of Abraham and the Making of the American Revolution, D. Peter MacLeod takes a different tack. In the early morning hours of September 13, 1759, General James Wolfe sent his British soldiers climbing the face of the nearly 200-foot-tall cliff of the Quebec Promontory, a cliff that, to the French, had seemed unclimbable, especially with regular patrols along the cliff-edge. Nonetheless, through luck and energy, the British force got to the top and set up a battle line on the west side of the plateau, with some 2,100 troops. The French, once they realized that the British had snuck behind them, established their own battle line on the eastern edge of the plains, on and in front of the Buttes-a-Neveu. This was a raised mound that, MacLeod points out, would have provided the 2,000 French and Canadian militia troops with an advantageous higher-ground position […]
September 5, 2018

Book review: “Quebec: Historic Seaport” by Mazo de la Roche

  I was flabbergasted by Quebec: Historic Seaport, ostensibly a history of the Canadian city, published in 1944 by novelist Mazo de la Roche.  And my flabbergastation only grew greater the more I read the book until it evolved, near the end, into out-and-out disgust. Of course, I knew going into the book that it might be a challenge.  Novelists use different intellectual and artistic muscles than historians do, but, sometimes, this can result in a wonderful work, such as Son of the Morning Star, Evan Connell’s history of Gen. George Armstrong Custer at Little Bighorn. Not here. De la Roche writes her book as if it were a historical romance with manly men and daintily beautiful women.  And it isn’t really about Quebec.  It’s more a history of Canada in which Quebec plays an important-ish role.   “Their own doom” That’s not the real problem, though.  Ultimately, de la Roche’s effort is completely undercut by her deep and sharp prejudices. This reaches its nadir when de la Roche is discussing the Treaty of Versailles which ended the American Revolution, giving the colonies their independence.  She writes: In that treaty the New Englanders wrote their own doom, for in their […]
August 21, 2018

Book review: “Bone on Bone” by Julia Keller

  Julia Keller’s latest novel Bone on Bone is a story of misery and love. It is the story of people whose lives are full of misery.  Sometimes, for them, love ameliorates the pain.  At other times, it feeds the pain. Like Keller’s six previous books in this series focused on the fictional town of Acker’s Gap in West Virginia, there is a murder and mysteries in Bone on Bone.  There is a search for truth amid the chaos and confusion of existence. Yet, this isn’t a whodunit.  This is a literary work grappling with the existential pain of breathing, pain we all suffer.   The misery in Acker’s Gap The misery in Acker’s Gap has to do with the loss of jobs and potential and with the increasing use of illegal drugs by young people who don’t see a future, even young people with advantages. Not only are the teens and young adults in this novel eaten up by their drug addiction, but the lives of their parents are grotesquely twisted by the suffering of watching their children suffer. So grotesquely twisted that one mother seeks release in the bed of a pick-up lover as her husband, out of […]
August 15, 2018

Book review: “Wyrd Sisters” by Terry Pratchett

  That great and silly American writer Christopher Moore, in recent years, has mined the Shakespeare canon for sources for his comic novels. You could call this thievery.  Or you could call it homage.  Either way, the results are hilarious — Fool (a rip-off, excuse me, homage to King Lear) and The Serpent of Venice (Merchant of Venice and Othello). (And, after all, the great Will stole all his plots from earlier writers, right?) Two decades earlier, that great and silly English writer Terry Pratchett did the same thing in Wyrd Sisters.  This 1988 novel borrows a lot of the plot of MacBeth.  It’s got an evil Duchess to play the Queen part, and a Duke who takes the hand-washing bit way too far.  There’s a forest that moves, and a murdered king, and an unexpected heir. And, like many a Shakespearian effort, there are characters who are masquerading as other people. Quite a lot, actually. There’s a play within a play. And ghosts and “divers alarums” and witches. Ah, yes, Pratchett’s witches — the two old standbys, Granny Weatherwax, the crotchety uber-witch, and Nanny Ogg, an earth-motherish sort, as well as Magrat Garlick, the junior witch who’s still a […]
August 13, 2018

Book review: “Building A Revolutionary State: The Legal Transformation of New York, 1776-1783” by Howard Pashman

      For Great Britain, the late 18th-century conflict with its North American colonies was a civil war.  The colonists were in rebellion and needed to be policed. For the newly minted United States of America, the Revolution was a war for independence.  The colonists wanted to control their lives and fortunes. Either way you looked at it, however, the armies, officials and common people opposing the mighty British forces were insurgents.  They were the same sort of insurgents who, over the next 200-plus years, would rebel in France, Russia and Cuba, and in dozens of successful and unsuccessful attempts at achieving self-government. And, either way you looked at it, the time of the revolt, particularly in the early years, was a time of great chaos for new Americans. The history of the American Revolution, most frequently, has been portrayed as a story of great men who thought great ideas and brought about independence by the sheer weight of the righteousness of their creation — an early sort of manifest destiny. It was as if the new nation, as designed and proclaimed, made so much sense, how could anyone, except those dense Brits, ever think to question it?   […]
August 8, 2018

Book review: “A Book of Silence” by Sara Maitland

    Since 2000, British writer Sara Maitland has been investigating, searching for, reaching for silence.  Eight years through the still-ongoing process, she wrote about her endeavor in A Book of Silence. As part of this journey, Maitland has done 40 days and 40 nights of something approaching complete silence in a remote, isolated house in the far north of England.  She has looked at the stories of people who have experienced many versions of silence down through history. She has recognized two very different groupings of silence — one in which silence is a way to wall off the self from distractions in order to do creative work, and one in which silence is an openness to all of existence, a kind of praying. This is a complex book that will perplex many who are steeped in Western civilization’s values.  Maitland herself is complex, a self-described Roman Catholic socialist feminist writer of fiction and non-fiction.  Such a counter-cultural combination of beliefs and enthusiasms will also perplex many.   Unless you’re searching You don’t want to read this book unless you’re searching.  This isn’t the sort of book with warm and cuddly and/or humorous and/or entertaining anecdotes about some subject […]
July 30, 2018

Book review: “War and Our World: The Reith Lectures 1998” by John Keegan

    War is violent, chaotic, destructive, deadly and, for the aggressor nowadays, morally wrong.  Yet, how to fight war except with war? Two decades ago, in a series of radio addresses, John Keegan, the noted war historian, mentioned one weapon against war that many people would overlook — aid to needy nations in the form of anti-poverty and economic development measures. Since we know that poor states which have a fragile cultural identity are far more likely to engage in war-mongering or to experience inter-ethnic conflict as a by-product of insecurity, what then can be done to secure their identity and economic well-being? Can we somehow help those fledgling states to reach a more mature and stable condition of political security and economic autonomy? An essential weapon in our war against conflict must, therefore, be progress in aid and development programs allied to strong alliances with other nations which strengthen the economic structures of such states and help to neutralize the political insecurities against which their governments constantly battle. Only then can we help them also to reject, as we have done, Heraclitus’s belief that strife is the only just and corrective force.   “Must be realistic” War and […]
July 23, 2018

Book review: “The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography” by Alan Jacobs

  The Book of Common Prayer was created in the 16th century as the prayer book of the Church of England. Originally, that institution had been part of the Roman Catholic Church, but it was separated from Rome by King Henry VIII and became a national church, constitutionally established by the state with the monarch as its supreme governor. Thus, The Book of Common Prayer, created to replace the Catholic prayers in religious services, was, in effect, a government publication. This led to complexities for the prayer book in England that it wouldn’t have in other nations, such as the United States, where the Episcopal Church, part of the Anglican Communion, is just one of many organized religions rather than under the sponsorship of the state.   “Eternal Rest” For instance, as Alan Jacobs writes in his energetic look at creation and history of the prayer book The “Book of Common Prayer”:  A Biography, there have been times over the past five hundred years when the book was seen not just as an expression of religious faith but also as a stand-in for the nation in some way. World War I was one such time.  Indeed, Jacobs writes: One of […]
July 19, 2018

Book review: “The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography” by Donald S. Lopez Jr.

  In 2005, Penguin Books published a new translation of Bardo Todol, the collection Buddhist texts that, in the West, has been known as The Tibetan Book of the Dead for three-quarters of a century, and touted it as “First Complete Translation” of a work dealing with life between a person’s death and reincarnation. Actually, as Donald S. Lopez Jr. points out in his 2011 book The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography, “complete” here is somewhat inexact since Bardo Todol is a cycle of texts of which many versions exist.  Even so, the Penguin book, Lopez writes, is an improvement over the original English edition, put forth by American Theosophist Walter Evans-Wentz. Many more texts of the cycle are translated [in the Penguin edition] for the first time, the translation is made from a better manuscript, and the translation is more accurate than that first published in 1927. Lopez, an American expert on Buddhism and Tibet who has edited books by the Dalai Lama, notes that the publicity for the Penguin book is overblown, asserting that the book “embraces the concept of enlightened living and the importance of being open to the wonders of the human experience while, […]
July 17, 2018

Book review: “Absences: A Sequence” by John A. Griffin

    The 21 poems in John A. Griffin’s chapbook Absences: A Sequence appear very orderly. Each is 20 lines long.  Within each poem, the number of syllables per line is roughly the same. So, even though some have longer lines than others, the appearance of these handsomely printed poems is very similar, like nearly rectangular blocks of type, sort of brick-like, building blocks, if you will. Yet, that appearance deceives.  These are mournful — mourn-filled — poems, fevered with grief.  Grief for the death of a father and grief for the death that is coming for each of us.  Grief for absences. Indeed, the first poem in this collection, just published by The Esthetic Apostle and available at amazon.com, is titled “Caoineadh,” the Irish word for keening. More visually expressive of what’s in the poems are the four illustrations by Dutch collage artist Martine Mooijenkind.  Her illustration for the cover is titled “Lost,” while the three that accompany the poems are “Water on the moon,” “Gentle,” and “Angst.” They are jagged, harsh and deliberately crude.   “What ebbs withdraws” And, once you get into the poems themselves, you won’t be confused. In fact, it seems that Griffin, an Irish-born […]
July 12, 2018

Book review: “Aura: Last Essays” by Gustaf Sobin

One of the seven short essays in Gustaf Sobin’s final book Aura, published in 2009, is about the deep, unremitting darkness of medieval times. And about light, then and now. We can’t imagine how dark it was. We, with our street lights and electric light switches and automobile headlights and cellphone screens and television screens and flood lights and lighted sports stadiums. Not without Sobin’s help. The medieval night was very dark for anyone inside a home or castle or building of any sort. The only illumination  was from one or more candles. The churches and the rich had wax candles, but not the rural French, as Sobin explains: In such humble surroundings, it was more likely that tallow candles were burnt, the tallow itself drawn from the fat of goats, sheep and bovines…. Even if such candles could be considered a marked improvement over oil lamps with papyrus wicks like those employed during the Merovingian [reign, roughly 450-750 A.D.], or the torches and firebrands of pine and birch bark during the Carolingian [751-814], the little rings of light that they shed remained, nonetheless, minimal.   “Those wobbling, incandescent rings” So minimal were those “little rings of light” that they might, […]
July 10, 2018

Book review: “The Burren Wall” by Gordon D’Arcy

I’ve never been to the Burren in western Ireland or, for that matter, to Ireland at all.  But my curiosity was piqued when I heard about Gordon D’Arcy’s 2006 book The Burren Wall. It’s about the thousands of miles of stone walls that criss-cross the stark obdurate Burren landscape of grasslands and heath — human-made lines fashioned with unmortared rocks piled atop one another. When D’Arcy writes of the Burren wall, he’s referring to a general type of wall that’s found in the region, a very simple construction, built from human sweat and muscle, dating from just the other day to more than 5,000 years ago. As the photographs in his book show, these walls give the land a strikingly distinctive look.  They also provide a home for a rich array of flora and fauna.   No knowing Much about these walls is mysterious.  There is, for instance, no knowing who put up what wall.  Nor, aside from classifying a particular wall in a general era of hundreds or thousands of years, knowing when that wall was created. As D’Arcy notes, you might describe any of these walls as a land boundary, but there’s more to it than that.  He […]
July 2, 2018

Book review: “The Melody” by Jim Crace

The dainty Persian bells would jingle in the middle of the night when Alfred Busi’s wife Alicia would go downstairs to the larder for a snack. “What could it matter if she seemed a little plump, so long as she was well and happy with her life?” But, now, Alicia has been dead for two years, and, hearing the melody of the bells, Alfred, a 60-ish singer-songwriter near the end of his career as Mister Al, makes his unsteady way in the dark.  As the open door of the pantry, suddenly, “something fierce and dangerous,” pungent with odor, barrels out at him: “Not a bad smell, actually.  Not excrement.  Not sweat.  More a mix of earth and mold and starch.  Potato peel. The creature’s skin [feels] as smooth, as damp, as lightly pelted as potato peel.  Naked too.  Naked as potato peel.” This creature — whom Alfred comes to believe is a child, a boy, living wild in the nearby thick woods — sinks his teeth into the singer’s hand and grabs his throat, tearing at his neck. And then is gone.   Nature as a major character In The Melody (Doubleday, 225 pages, $26.95), the new novel from English […]
June 27, 2018

Book review: “Trickster: Native American Tales, a graphic collection,” edited by Matt Dembicki

Well, when you get down to it, isn’t life a trick? You’re born and spend your whole existence on Earth trying to figure out what it all means. And then you die. The Big Trick. No wonder, then, that, throughout human history, culture after culture has developed a mythology that has included at least one character who is a trickster. This is especially true among Native Americans where the multiplicity of tribes has resulted in a multiplicity of tricksters. Tricksters of all sorts, some cunning in their deviousness, others hapless when their tricks backfire. Some who are responsible for the creation of certain rock formations or the stars in the night sky, and some whose tricks are the reason certain animals look the way they do.   “The original people of this land” Trickster: Native American Tales, a graphic collection was put together by Matt Dembicki, a Washington, D.C.-based comics creator. He writes in an afterword that he got the idea for his collection when, at a local library, he came across the 1998 book American Indian Trickster Tales by Alfonso Ortiz and Richard Erdoes. He was enthralled by the variety of stories, featuring a wide range of animals. Although […]
June 25, 2018

Book review: “Time and Again” by Jack Finney

    Jack Finney’s 1970 time-travel novel Time and Again is a lot of things, including a cult favorite. It’s a science fiction novel inasmuch as it deals with time travel.  The method for making such a trip, though, doesn’t have much snap. Here’s how it works: Simon Morley, a commercial artist and the novel’s central character, steeps himself in the history and daily life of 1882, then he lives for a time in a setting that hasn’t changed since then (the Dakota Apartments in New York City) and then he self-hypnotizes himself, falls asleep and, when he awakens, he’s back there in time. So, there’s no wormhole, no elaborate machinery, just auto-suggestion.  As I said, not much snap.   Suspense It’s a suspense story, at least for the first 40 or so pages, when Morley is being recruited for what he’s told is an adventure that can’t initially be specified and then for the next 70 pages as he’s tested, accepted and trained for his journey. That suspense dissipates somewhat when Morley makes the first two of four trips across 88 years.  In part, that’s because he’s been warned not to do anything that might alter the course of […]
June 18, 2018

Book review: “Abraham Lincoln” by Adam I.P. Smith

Abraham Lincoln by Adam I.P. Smith was published in 2014 by the Britain-based History Press as part of its Pocket Giants series of very short — 100 or so pages — biographies of great world figures. It’s a series that includes works about Jesus, Jane Austen, Napoleon, Queen Elizabeth II, John Lennon, King Arthur and Buddha, among many others. The idea, of course, is that these biographies are extremely concise, but there’s also a bit of a flair to them. They don’t read like a long encyclopedia (or Wikipedia) entry but take a point of view. For example, Nick Higham’s book on King Arthur focuses on the question of whether there was a real person at the heart of the myth and looks closely at how layers of story and anecdote were added to the legend throughout the centuries. Smith’s aim in Abraham Lincoln is to explain his subject to non-Americans who aren’t steeped in the vision of the 16th U.S. President as a civic saint, a martyr for the nation and a political and patriotic touchstone. Smith writes: Abraham Lincoln qualifies as a historical ‘giant’ not because of the ways his image and the stories about him have drawn […]
June 11, 2018

Book review: “What If? — The World’s Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been,” edited by Robert Cowley

.There is no point to the study of history if each event, each action, each decision is seen in some mechanistic manner — as if what happened had to happen. The reality is that whatever happened might have been different. That’s why we study history.  We learn from history by looking at the results of an event, an action, a decision, and by considering how those results might have been different. What if George Washington had been shot in the fall of 1777?  What if Captain Patrick Ferguson of the British Army had chosen to pull the trigger when he had Washington in his sights?  If Ferguson had fatally shot the commander of United States forces at that particular moment, he would have changed the Revolutionary War in a drastic way. The lesson, here, is that an individual’s action (or, in this case, inaction) can have huge ramifications. Obviously, powerful people, such as queens and generals, make decisions that change the direction of the arrow of history, but, as the story of Ferguson shows, an Average Joe who is at the right spot at the right moment can also shift things.   Dozens of historical moments The Ferguson-Washington encounter is […]
June 6, 2018

Book review: “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer” by Michelle McNamara

People get obsessed.  They get obsessed with growing orchids.  With the fortunes of the Los Angeles Lakers or the Cincinnati Reds or the Cleveland Browns.  With the stock market. With mountain-climbing.  With old books.  With eating fancy meals. Michelle McNamara was obsessed with tracking down the man she named the Golden State Killer. This obsession grew out of her website True Crime Diary, launched in 2006.  In I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, she explains: When my family goes to sleep, I time travel and reframe stale evidence using twenty-first-century technology.  I start clicking, scouring the Internet for digitized clues authorities may have overlooked, combing digitized phone books, yearbooks, and Google Earth views of crime scenes: a bottomless pit of potential leads for the laptop investigator who now exists in the virtual world. I share my theories with loyal regulars who read my blog. I’ve written about hundreds of unsolved crimes, from chloroform murderers to killer priests.  The Golden State Killer, though, has consumed me the most. When the rapist-killer was active from 1976 through 1986, his crimes occurred in and around three California locations:  Sacramento, Santa Barbara and Orange County.  He was known as the East Area Rapist for […]
June 4, 2018

Finding a rich life by looking out the window: An interview with Patricia Hampl

Patricia Hampl laughs and says, “I have a list.” We’re talking over the phone about that bane of modern life, the to-do list, she in the kitchen of her St. Paul, Minnesota, home and me in Chicago in my own kitchen. I’ve just mentioned that interviewing her is on my to-do list for the day. It’s humorous because the subject of our conversation is her new book The Art of the Wasted Day (Viking, $26) which is about daydreaming, the antithesis of list-making. It’s about how rich life is when one focuses, at least part of the time, on being rather than on doing. “Pursuit” The idea of constantly doing something, of always accomplishing something, seems to be woven into the American DNA. Indeed, as Hampl, a critically hailed essayist, poet and memoir writer, notes in her book, the Declaration of Independence promises the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Which means that, while life and liberty are guaranteed, happiness isn’t, only the job of seeking it. “The essential American word isn’t happiness. It’s pursuit,” she writes. Over the phone, she expands on this: “Any form of rest in our culture is seen as sloth — […]
May 31, 2018

Book review: “The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel” by Robert Alter

It is a bit perplexing that the ancient story of David — the giant-killer, king, adulterer, father, sinner and old man — doesn’t have its own book in the Hebrew Bible. Instead, it’s spread over two full books (1 Samuel and 2 Samuel) and part of a third (1 Kings), 65 chapters in all. As a separate book, David would be the longest in the Bible with 40,000 words, much heftier than the actual leaders, Jeremiah with 33,000 and Genesis with 32,000. Yet, maybe it makes sense, given that David’s story is so sprawling and so meaty and so full of character, event and human dilemmas. A single book of David would be something akin to a single Shakespeare play that would include the plots and psychological depths of Macbeth, Hamlet and King Lear. Does that sound like an overstatement? Consider what Robert Alter writes at the start of his 1999 book The David Story, a translation of all 65 chapters with a detailed commentary: The story of David is probably the greatest single narrative representation in antiquity of a human life evolving by slow stages through time, shaped and altered by the pressures of political life, public institutions, family, the impulses […]
May 23, 2018

Book review: “The Patron Saint of Cauliflower” by Elizabeth Cohen

Let me make clear I’m no cook or baker. I have, I’ll admit, followed the directions to produce a Betty Crocker cake (with canned frosting) with relatively edible results. And, over the years, I’ve been able to put various food things in front of my wife and children when it was my turn in the kitchen, and there were few outright refusals. And I do like to eat. But the ingredients of meals, such as cabbage and cauliflower, pesto and olive oil, pears, asparagus, avocados, salt, apples, basil, artichokes and cream cheese, are pretty much a mystery to me. So, maybe I shouldn’t be reviewing Elizabeth Cohen’s collection of 32 seemingly kitchen-centered poems, The Patron Saint of Cauliflower, from Saint Julian Press in Houston. On the other hand, I think I have something to say. What I found particularly interesting about Cohen’s book was how I wasn’t lost in all the recipe language and garden harvests. That’s because, for all its talk about vegetables and seasonings, it’s not really about food. Or, better put, Cohen uses food as a doorway into the mystery at the center of all things.   Thoughts of future pain and incident Her opening poem is […]
May 21, 2018

Book review: “Noir” by Christopher Moore

Christopher Moore, the author of 15 wacky novels, explains in an afterword that he had planned for his latest book Noir to be about a “poor working mug” who got entangled with a “dangerous dame” in a dark and desperate story that involving a lot of fog, gunplay and danger. “What I ended up with is essentially ‘Perky Noir,’ a lot closer to Damon Runyon meets Bugs Bunny than Raymond Chandler meets Jim Thompson…But what was I going to do? ‘Noir’ was already typed at the top of every page.” The central character of a Christopher Moore novel is always a beta male, i.e., a nice guy who’s more than a little aimless, distracted and confused. In Noir, that’s Sammy Tiffin, a bartender in 1947 San Francisco who has a damaged foot and a past that he fears will catch up with him.   The Cheese Often, Moore’s guys are rather randy fellows, such as Pocket, King Lear’s jester in Fool, his 2009 adaptation of Shakespeare’s play. Moore is nothing if not gutsy when grabbing and remaking the works of great writers from the past. Indeed, he even retells — hilariously and, in an odd way, reverently — the story […]
May 16, 2018

Book review: “A Gentleman in Moscow” by Amor Towles

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, published in 2016, is a pleasant book, so playful and light that I fully expected to find, once I’d finished reading the novel, that a feel-good movie was planned starring Tom Hanks as Count Alexander Rostov. I was wrong. It’ll be a feel-good mini-series, starring Kenneth Branagh as Count Alexander Rostov. On the way to finding that out, I stumbled across a review that called the book Tolstoyan and asserted that it was a worthy update of the Great Russian Novel. I think that reviewer is wrong. True, like Anna Karenina, there is an attempted suicide in A Gentleman in Moscow. The difference is that, in Tolstoy’s masterpiece, Anna is successful, while the Count’s plan is interrupted comically at the last second by an old man obsessed with bees. True, A Gentleman in Moscow is set in Russia as are all Great Russian Novels. But where is the existential angst in the Towles book? Where is the evil? The closest thing to evil is a small-minded party member who’s nicknamed the Bishop for his overweening pomposity. But his appearance on the page never elicits dread. Instead, he’s a comic figure who sets in […]