A Gentleman in Moscow


This was a book like a sofa. I feel like I’ve used this compliment before, which means that I have to go start looking for a new comparison. But spacious, comfortable and easy to stay put in.

Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is a Former Person in the Soviet Union, which basically means that he’s part of all that was awful before the enlightened bolsheviks showed up. Because he wrote an amazing, wonderful, beautiful poem, they can’t just depart him. Instead, they tell him he can’t ever again leave the hotel he’s been staying  in (logical!).

And that’s where the book plays out, in a hotel. But luckily, not just any hotel. And the Count isn’t just any ordinary man. Time moves, people come and go, the Soviet changes, but the gentleman in Moscow is there.

I have yet to find a book involving Russia that doesn’t fascinate slash baffle me. This is one man’s story, this is a part of history. While being an appealing reason to sit down.

A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles, Viking 2016

The Collaborator

Captain Kadian takes a large swig from his glass tumbler, closes his eyes for a moment, smacks his lips and says, ‘The job’s not that hard, you see, you just go down once a week or fifteen days, and the money, the money is not bad at all.’

I really wanted to like this. Looking back a few days later, I appreciate the story and the story telling, but while reading it, it couldn’t hold my focus.

The story is about the nineties war in Kashmir, and the young man left behind to take care of the remains. Literally. Where others have left to fight (for India/against India), the headman’s son has the job of taking identity cards from dead bodies. He feels left behind, he feels like a failure, he lives in less than a ghost town.

So what was it that didn’t click with me? Maybe the endless dreariness, the weight of everything going on. It’s not like the prose is dull, uninspired or repetitive, but it does push you into the tightening corner of the main character’s despair.
Maybe I simply read it after the wrong book, maybe I just couldn’t handle the story.

The Collaborator, Mirza Waheed, Viking 2011

A Delicate Truth

On the second floor of a characterless hotel in the British Crown Colony of Gibraltar, a lithe, agile man in his late fifties restlessly paced his bedroom.

As Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is by the same author (only watched the movie, didn’t read the book), there should be little surprise that I felt like putting A Delicate Truth in the same category of detective stories. This is not a detective like Bond, Bourne or even Holmes. A Delicate Truth got probably put into the detective category because of – well, detective work. With secret files, hidden conversations, hierarchies in hierarchies, doubtful authorities and a lot of talking and bluffing.

There is a very secret project, hidden so deep that the minister of the ministry it falls under, doesn’t even know about it. But no such thing as a real, deeply hidden secret in this age, and people both inside, outside and ex-government start pulling threads.

A Delicate Truth lacks (“lacks”) car chases, knuckle fights or seductive beautiful ladies. Honestly, there’s just a lot of reading. Story lines old and new to follow, with some double identities added for a bit of a challenge. Frankly, it feels like this is an ‘old school’, English Library Chesterfield couches detective novel. And that’s nice, for a change.

A Delicate Truth, John Le Carré, Viking 2013

Short Girls

After Miles left, Van began checking the security alarm every time she entered the house.

What’s the difference between chick-lit and a story about two sisters and their careers, love-lives and family connections? Okay, there can be big differences when the one genre refuses to act like women are individuals with a multidimensional character, but that’s bad writing, not a genre problem.

Anyway, Short Girls. Two Asian-American sisters who stumble through life, love, family and career while trying to discover why they drifted apart. Their father is the unwelcome thing that binds them, continues to bring them together because of his needs, his inventions, his struggles as a short man and as an immigrant.

Besides the very recognizable (daily) things, Nguyen shows the strange world of being a minority, always knowing that the first judgment will be on your not-of-the-majority looks. Even for the American born sisters there are several extra layers of being different.

Short Girls gives a nice insight into the life of at the same time remarkable and ordinary women.

Short Girls, Bich Minh Nguyen, Viking 2009

what happened to goodbye

The table was sticky, there was a cloudy smudge on my water glass, and we’d been seated for ten minutes with no sign of a waitress.

From time to time a bit obvious, but so very sweet. I’m repeating myself, but this is just more proof about how there are good children/teenagers books around. This time it’s about new beginnings, identity and whatever happens when parents divorce.

Mclean follows her father around the country for his job, fixing badly functioning restaurants. In every new location, she invents a new identity. Drama queen, student council girl, loner. Her father fixes the restaurant, she makes sure that they can have an easy, domestic life.

Of course this time, things go differently. She forgets to give herself a new identity, the friends might be real friends and the high-strung relationship with her mother finally comes to an explosion. It’s giving, living and learning as an adolescent. A nice look into the teenage mind.

what happened to goodbye, Sarah Dessen, Viking 2011

Juliet, Naked

They had flown from England to Minneapolis to look at a toilet.

I saw more of Nick Hornby’s book-to-film projects than read his books. Feeling like a laugh (I never seem to learn about books with the “comedy” genre sticker), I took a risk with Juliet, Naked. It paid off.

Annie’s boyfriend for fifteen years is obsessed with an eighties’ musician. Both of their lives circle Tucker Crowe; his for unknown reasons, hers because her boyfriend can’t live without linking everything back to Tucker Crowe, his music and his life. Everything else is simply (permanently) put on hold. And, being human, Annie kind of gets used to it. She didn’t want this, but how do you change?

Tucker Crowe’s newest CD is the trigger to that change. Annie’s and Duncan’s life together finally splits and it’s up to them to look at ‘Now what?’ and who they have become after fifteen years of symbiotic living. This sounds pretty dramatic, but Nick Hornby’s dry English humour builds a coming-of-age-at-forty-something story without any bitterness or sentimental toppings. ‘Life happens when you’re busy making plans’ never rang more true.

Juliet, Naked deserves the sticker of comedy genre, without being horribly try-hard or  laugh-or-I-shoot.

 Juliet, Naked, Nick Hornby, Viking 2009

The Concert Ticket

Who’s last in line?

Exotisch. Verwarrend emotioneel en een donker sprookje. Het dagelijks leven als avontuur. The Concert Ticket gaf mij een bijzondere ervaring.

Op een dag is er een lange rij voor een kiosk in mid-twentieth century Rusland. Eerst is onduidelijk waarvoor men in de rij staat, maar nieuwsgierigheid is mensen eigen en meer mensen sluiten aan. Het wordt iets sociaals, een bubbel binnen het dagelijks leven. Dagen gaan voorbij en de mensen blijven terug komen voor de rij, zonder te weten precies waarom.  Na een tijd blijkt dat het om concerttickets gaat, van een gebande Rus die nog één keer in zijn eigen land wil spelen. Het gezin dat de lezer volgt heeft allemaal een eigen reden waarvoor ze een ticket móeten hebben. Redenen die het gezin uit elkaar laat vallen.

Vader Sergei denkt dat het hem terug kan brengen naar zijn jeugd en liefde voor muziek. Zijn vrouw wil een ticket voor haar moeder, de tienerzoon ziet het als een kans om het land te ontsnappen. Als bekend wordt dat er maar één ticket per adres verkocht zal worden, moet er samengewerkt worden. In plaats van dit ze dichterbij elkaar te brengen, drijven alle drie op hun eigen eilandje.

Olga Grushin geeft elk personage een leven als een donker bospad met links en rechts bedreigingen (en niet alleen externe). Het kale, harde leven van Rusland toont in kleine details, draagt bij aan het donkere, verloren gevoel van deze drijvers. Maanden gaan voorbij en de rij zelf wordt het doel, de tickets een onbereikbaar walhalla. Sommige mensen leren, anderen niet. Zo is het leven.

The Concert Ticket is feeëriek, zwaar en fragiel tegelijkertijd. Een aanrader.

The Concert Ticket, Olga Grushin, Viking 2010