In praise of twice-tolling timepieces and other miracles of invention: reading A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW

My powers of observation are not so keen that I’m going to brave the very crowded depths of reviews of A Gentleman in Moscow. (Want to read my reviews, I’ve got a whole category, above.)

Let’s just agree that Amor Towles’s second novel is a modern masterpiece, shall we? If you are one of the four people on the planet who haven’t read or at least heard about this story of Count Alexander Rostov, here’s a brief intro (from the jacket copy):

When, in 1922, the thirty-year-old Count is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, he is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin…the [erudite and witty] Count’s reduced circumstances provide him entry to a much larger world of emotional discovery as he forges friendships…

Basically, drama, relationships, and meaningful meditations ensue. Just read this novel about the Russian soul–its art, history, toil, treasures, and catastrophes. (And be sure to watch the best novel trailer I’ve ever seen at Towles’s website, above.)

Just as this former kid ballet dancer (me) can’t watch a ballet without my feet twitching,  my calves contracting, my back straightening, and my head lilting this way and that with those on stage, I can’t read a book without wondering how?

But here’s not the place for a deep-dive into craft. I simply want to note a few miracles of invention in A Gentleman… and provide a word of caution to the dutifully outlining and character backstory-charting new(er) writers out there.

An image of note: the Count’s twice-tolling clock is much more than a clock that tells time by tolling only at noon and at midnight. It provides a mechanism to discuss industriousness, for Towles to tell us of the Count’s father, who had the clock made because a man (of a certain class, time, and place) should be too busy with work to heed the chimes between waking and noon. And by noon, having had an industrious morning, a man should then leave his work to commune with others. Should he hear the midnight chime, he is too late to bed. And the replete uses for this image are only beginning…

Description of note: readers come to a book like this expecting description befitting its learned main character. Towles delivers, but fear not, he doesn’t (like in real Russian novels) let his pacing lag in many-paged sections of description. No, his descriptions are just as clippy and cutting as his dialogue.

Take the goose chase section (trust me), a funny and farcical bit that brings together in a hotel hallway a melange of worldly guests: two French journalists, a Swiss diplomat, three Uzbek fur traders, a representative of the Roman Catholic Church, a Russian opera tenor with his family of five, and an American general. (All that’s missing is a partridge you know where, but then we do have geese!) Each becomes a character–and a caricature in the Count’s eyes–in the briefest of scenes, thanks to Towles’s powers of description. The ambassador from the Vatican advised; the Swiss diplomat heard the Russian and the Italian out, mouth shut; the tenor, “who spoke only a few words of Italian, informed the prelate (fortissimo) that he was not a man to be toyed with.” The American general, from “The Great State of Texas” took charge and threw the geese out the window.

A sleight of hand (and humor) of note: recently I read a wonderfully-informative and instructive piece on Brevity‘s nonfiction blog, “The Sound of a Memoir,” about shying away from using song lyrics in our writing (whether fiction or nonfiction). Practically-speaking, citing song lyrics (titles are OK) can be an expensive endeavor–if a writer manages to get permission to use them. Creatively-speaking, there are better ways to note a song in a story–to provide a bit of soundtrack to a piece, to get the reader’s foot tapping and put him or her in mind of a certain time when that song said so much! (If you now, as I do, have Elton John’s “Sad Songs (Say So Much)” in your head, you’re welcome.)

Back to Towles’s mastery: In A Gentleman… the author artfully explores the passing of time and trends, in one part commenting on jazz music. In not one but a few places the author has the Count muse about the popular jazz tune that speaks of a distinct absence of bananas, a lack of bananas, for want of bananas… You get the idea. Anyone who hasn’t lived his entire life in a cave knows the song is Louis Prima’s “Yes! We Have No Bananas,” (hear the song here) but by not citing even the title, the reference becomes more than a song but a clever running joke.

All that’s to gush, yes, and also to provide a word of caution to the new(er) writers out there looking for the keys–not only to plot but to imagery and motifs, the characterization and quirks–that make a piece of writing beautiful. How to make these little miracles happen on the page? If I knew, I would be doing it, right now. But I think one of the keys to being a great writer is being a great reader. Another is to trust your mind to make the miracles as you go. Call it a state of flow or the (ahem) muse catching you by the hand, whatever, but writing is more about writing than planning. (OK, you caught me; I’m a panster.)

Yes, you can plan for plot. Outline all you like. Get a sense of your characters before diving in. But can you plan for the clever bits, the brilliant tropes and descriptors and “bananas” that make a piece sing, I’m not so sure.

What do you think? What miracles of invention have you encountered thus far in your summer reads? I’d love to hear from you!

 

*I grabbed the American and UK cover (which I prefer) images from Goodreads.

 

 

 

 

 

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Rust Belt Girl roundup

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Writing advice with a “twist,” love on fire in Cleveland, and zombie raccoons, oh my!

It was a busy week here at Rust Belt Girl. In case you missed it:

I joined NPR and other credible news outlets in reporting the “zombie” raccoons of Youngstown, Ohio.

I reviewed Mark Winegardner’s 2001 masterpiece, Crooked River Burning, which follows two star-crossed lovers on a journey through Cleveland in the 50s and 60s.

Of course, what week would be complete without a little writerly advice, this time with a “twist,” for National Licorice Day?

And…I’m happy to report that I’m still welcoming new followers who found me by way of my Interview with “Furnishing Eternity” author David Giffels, which was featured on WordPress Discover March 31. See it, and so many other blogs worth your time, here. Always fun to discover something new.

Happy weekend discovering to you!

What’s on your literary plate?

~ Rebecca

*Free image courtesy of Pixabay.com

 

 

 

Love in Cleveland: a story-review of CROOKED RIVER BURNING

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There’s something special about a love story set in the time and place one’s parents fell in love.

Paris? London? Niagara Falls? Nope. I’m talking about Cleveland, Ohio.

The real love story (that eventually begat me and my siblings) started with a blind date. Here goes: the young man who would become my dad met the young woman who would become my mom at her apartment door. Her first words to him: “You’re not as bald as they said you were.” Ah, romance. Long story short, she liked his car, a racing-green Austin Healey convertible, and him too, no doubt.

Crooked River Burning*, a novel by Mark Winegardner, explores parallel love stories—between a boy from Cleveland’s West Side and a girl from Cleveland’s East Side (read: upstart vs. old money); and between the people of Cleveland and their city itself.

From the book jacket:

In 1948 Cleveland was America’s sixth biggest city; by 1969 [the year my parents married] it was the twelfth…In the summer of 1948, fourteen-year-old David Zielinsky can look forward to a job at the docks. Anne O’Connor, at twelve, is the apple of her political boss father’s eye. David and Anne will meet—and fall in love—four years later, and for the next twenty years this pair will be reluctantly star-crossed lovers in a troubled and turbulent country.

The city of Cleveland is a microcosm of this changing country. The author gives the reader a window into organized crime in the 40s, when we meet real-life Clevelander Eliot Ness; into the 50s rock and roll scene starring disc jockey Alan Freed; and into the race riots of the 60s, when we meet Carl Stokes, the first black mayor of a major U.S. city.

For sports fans (Winegardner is also the author of The Veracruz Blues about baseball), there are stories plenty about the Indians and the Browns (with Art Modell cast as the Machiavellian villain he was, IMO.) Masterfully blending fact (replete with entertaining footnotes) and fiction, this novel is comparable to the works of E.L. Doctorow. Where Doctorow explored New York, Winegardner explores Cleveland.

Does Winegardner know Cleveland! One of my favorite Cleveland bits—and never more appropriate than now, as we endure “wet-winter” into April:

“In Cleveland there is no spring. In Cleveland there is winter, then a wetter-meaner sort of winter…Then one day winter/wet-winter ends and, bingo-bango, it’s summertime.”

But why talk weather when we can talk love? Wingardner on love:

“A person can be in love with the idea of love. A person can fall in love with the idea of another person. Less commonly, a person can fall in love with another person.

In fact, a person always falls in love with the idea of another person, not the person. Falling in love with the actual person takes time and too much honesty…

Some people luck out. The thing they’ve been calling love turns out to be just that. Such people exist. Film at eleven.”

Oh, you were looking for love between David and Anne? I’m not spoiling much when I tell you that the most romantic setting in the book, a snowy New York at Christmastime in a posh hotel suite, and Anne is down with the flu. On the other extreme, the setting of the Cuyahoga (“crooked”) River on fire finds our protagonists in, well, love as real as it gets.

Is the book perfect? Not quite. For me, some of the real-life Cleveland profile sections ran a little long: among them, Mayor Carl Stokes, Cleveland newspaper editor Louie Seltzer, maybe-murderer Dr. Sam Sheppard, pioneer news broadcaster Dorothy Fuldheim. Still, this book will find a place on my bookshelves, alongside Ian McEwan’s The Innocent, perhaps, for its mastery of a real time and place in history overlaid with a timeless love story and for a lyrical yet playful use of language.

But back to our fictional lovers…through their twenties and thirties, David and Anne attempt to make their childhood professional dreams (Cleveland mayor, and war correspondent, respectively) come true. But, like thwarted love stories talk of ships passing, most of us don’t become our childhood heroes.

If the real Cleveland love story—starring my dad and my mom—could have met the imagined one starring David and Anne, they would have come together in the late 60s. Both couples were in love as the real city burned its land and its water. The Cuyahoga River burned (helping to create the Clean Water Act); and the Hough Riots, among the first of the 1960s race riots, turned Clevelanders against their neighbors and even against themselves.

Like many Clevelanders who could, my parents left the city for a house in the country, where they would raise a few chickens and ducks, a goat named Esmeralda, and three human kids. In trading one setting for another, I’m sure they’d say they gained more than they lost. I wonder about those who didn’t leave.

Did Winegardner intend for this dual love story to be a cautionary tale? In 2018, one could read the book that way—especially through the lens of race. One of the most chilling parts of the book comes from Anne’s perspective. It’s a month after the riots, and Anne is questioning everything in her life and in her city:

“Human beings don’t destroy their own homes, do they? In Anne’s experience, they do…Rome burns. Has burned, is burning, always will be burning. Look harder. Smell it. It’s not Rome we’re talking about, sport. (Who knows but on the lower frequencies, Cleveland burns for you?) Yet you sit there. We sit there. Don’t move.”

My rating: 4.5 stars

What’s the best book you’ve read about your hometown? If you were going to write your own love story, where would you set it?

*Published in 2001 by Mariner Books (576 pages). Yep, I’m late to the party.

Like this review? Check out my “reviews” category above for more.

Thanks! ~ Rebecca

 

 

 

 

 

Play nice, or burn the house down? A review of Little Fires Everywhere

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To review, or not to review, that is the blogger’s question.

This blogger says yes–even when swamped with work (like I am right this minute) and with a novel revision tap, tap, tapping its impatient foot.

We must read well to write well, and writing a review helps me understand more fully what I’ve read–and understand what I’d like to mimic, and to avoid, in my own writing. Of course, I also hope my reviews help you decide what to read next. Because, life’s too short to read a meh or even a “nice” book.

In Mark Athitakis’s handy The New Midwest: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction of the Great Lakes, Great Plains, and the Rust Belt, the critic examines modern literature set in the Midwest. He argues that, while we writers and readers may have caught up with the place as it stands today–much of it post-agrarian, post-industrial–its reputation is stuck in the past. He quotes James R. Shortridge’s take on the Midwestern character of the 1800s:

“People there were seen as self-reliant and independent, kind, open, and thrifty…idealist, moral, and humble.”

Many would argue Midwesterners are still much this way, in a word: nice. (Others have met me.) Ng complicates this notion of the nice Midwesterner as she examines the tension between the stereotypical ideal and the spontaneous real in Little Fires Everywhere, her second novel, a character-driven story with lightening-fast pacing–not an easy feat.

The setting pits the ordered (wealthy) suburban ideal against the inspired, artistic–and even a little dangerous–real. Set in Shaker Heights, Ohio, the (actual) place is described in the jacket copy, as “a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland,” where, “everything is planned–from the layout of the winding roads to the colors of the houses to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead.”

Ng does a good job of setting this story against the larger, chaotic backdrop of America in the 90s–replete with pop culture, a la Jerry Springer on TV, Sir Mix-a-Lot on the radio, and the Bill Clinton and Monica scandal everywhere. Zoom in on Shaker Heights, however, and there are the guiding principles that drive this planned city–with its invisible trash cans and neat tree lawns, its over-achieving public schools and college-bound school children. Here is order, a refuge from chaos…so long as one abides by the rules. And the first characters upon the scene, the Richardsons–Shaker Heights royalty if there were such a thing–do, to the utmost. They are surface-y, but nice. Nice marriage, nice house, nice kids, nice bank account.

Enter the rule breakers, a single mother and artist and her teenage daughter–and the plot is off and running.

I hate the term page-turner, but this story was on fire from the first page (sorry). However, the characterization left me a little cold. For the author to examine and complicate stereotypes means the reader must bear stereotypical characters–the type-A, uber-planner matriarch, the blonde popular girl, the handsome jock, the sulky black sheep–until their characters are rounded out as they experience plot twists and turns. So…I didn’t cry for these characters when I should have; I didn’t feel their pain, because I knew them back when they were flat.

That said, if family saga is your thing, this book might be for you. The theme of mother-love running through rang true and provided an interesting examination of motherhood from various angles: genetic, adoptive, private, public, legal.

I did miss a bit of play in the language. A little rule-bending there would have added levity to the heavy theme. Yes, much of mother-love is extreme highs and lows, joy and anguish, success and defeat. But there’s also a lot of play in the happy mediums: the everyday moments of acceptance, when you look into your child’s face and see your own, reflected and real. I wouldn’t trade that for a false ideal any day.

Favorite passages from Little Fires Everywhere:

Later, when Moody saw the finished photos, he thought at first that Pearl looked like a delicate fossil, something caught for millennia in the skeleton belly of a prehistoric beast. Then he thought she looked like an angel resting with her wings spread out behind her. And then, after a moment, she looked simply like a girl asleep in a lush green bed, waiting for her lover to lie down beside her.

The idea that someone might take a mother’s child away: it horrified her. It was as if someone had slid a blade into her and with one quick twist hollowed her out, leaving nothing inside but a cold rush of air.

When the baby was found, she had been undernourished…her ribs and the small bones of her spine had been visible under her skin, like a string of beads.

My rating:

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Have you read Little Fires Everywhere? What did you think?

A couple more honest reviews, from:

The Washington Post

The Guardian

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ALL THE WAY HOME and the back- and heart-breaking art of the DIY

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I was sixteen before I knew a dad who didn’t drive a pickup truck.

Of course, this speaks as much to my limited teenage powers of observation as it does to my rural Ohio upbringing. Still…

My dad’s life was–and is–in his truck. A dad without a truck? How else would one: haul his 84 Lumber finds to turn the attic into proper living quarters;  bring home fresh-split logs–and the log-splitter–to stoke the wood stove in winter; tow a rotted shell of a boat to be restored from the ribs up–in the workshop designed and built yourself.

In my eyes, my dad was the original DIY-er, before that catchy name was put to skillful industriousness, craftsmanship, and thrift.

As such…reading award-winning Akron, Ohio, author David Giffels’ memoir All the Way Home: Building a Family in a Falling-Down House felt like going home. Cursory jacket copy summary:

With their infant son in tow, David Giffels and his wife comb the environs of Akron, Ohio, in search of just the right house for their burgeoning family…until they spot a beautiful, decaying Gilded Age mansion. A former rubber industry executive’s domain, the once grand residence lacks functional plumbing and electricity, leaks rain like a cartoon shack, and is infested with all manner of wildlife. But for a young man at a coming-of-age crossroads–“suspended between a perpetual youth and an inevitable adulthood”–the challenge is exactly the allure.

The tried-and-true tropes of female coming-of-age couldn’t be more different than those Giffels explores in this man vs. house tale. But in the reading of this heartfelt and oftentimes harrowing (as in Giffels hanging upside down out a second-story window to paint exterior trim) memoir, I completely understood his feeling compelled–even obsessed–to DIY.

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Throwback Thursday: Why half the world should read IN ZANESVILLE

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Even if you’ve never been there, you’ve heard enough to know the American Midwest isn’t sexy. I’m hardly the first Midwest native to admit to being from a Regular ‘Ol American Place.

The Midwest is “flyover country”–its detractors call it–between the glittering East Coast and shining West Coast. Yep, no matter how many Northeast Ohio boosters try, most of the U.S. will never be convinced of the beauty that is the “North Coast.” And that’s okay.

But…the insult that really stings: “Ohio is flat.”

It stings–not just because it’s a blanket generalization and untrue of my rolling Ohio hometown. (In fact, it stings more than memories of the same thing being said about my 6th grade chest–and that stung.)

It stings because flat is sameness. And don’t we (even States–if States had egos) want to feel special, unique, memorable: the opposite of same, boring, forgettable?

I am more than a home state booster; I’m a home state narcissist. You see, I picked up Jo Ann Beard’s novel, IN ZANESVILLE (pub. 2011), thinking it was set in Zanesville, Ohio.

It’s not. It’s set in Zanesville, Illinois, which, I sheepishly admit, is pretty much the same. In fact, it’s the sameness, the universality of the experiences of the novel’s fourteen-year-old narrator, that makes this novel so special–and yet relate-able to any reader who is or was ever a girl. And that’s about half the world. Read more

A conversation around CINDERLAND, a memoir by Amy Jo Burns (yes, spoilers)

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I don’t know about you, but I find the memoir in general a tough nut to crack. I’ll admit it’s not my favorite genre to read. As a fiction writer, I’m an escapist–I admit that too–always seeking new opportunities to inhabit the lives of fictional others.

The memoir also poses challenges for the reviewer: how to best critique a plotting of events in a life that really happened; how to critique a cast of characters who are actual people?

Then there are my own personal memoir hang-ups, which say much more about my issues–as a “good girl” raised on Rust Belt values (more on that later)–than the genre’s. As in:

  1.  Talking (or writing) about oneself is evidence of vanity.
  2.  Talking about one’s successes is risky business, as in you don’t want to jinx yourself.
  3.  Talking about one’s trials only invites more trials, as in, you think you’ve had it bad, I’ll show you bad; also as in, good girls bear their crosses with (quiet) grace or suffer the consequences.

Amy Jo Burns knows a lot about grace–and about suffering–and she has written a graceful memoir, one I can’t quite review but find myself drawn to write about.

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AMERICAN RUST, restless ruin: a book review

9781742374772American Rust by Philipp Meyer, reviewed.

Ah, America. Rags to riches. Dream fulfilled country, right?

Nope.

Without spoiling too terribly much, this is not that book. This is not romance.

American Lit. nerd time-out: in his Criticism and Fiction, realist writer of the 1800s, William Dean Howells, argued that a story where “all grows naturally out of character and conditions is the supreme form of fiction.” Down with the sentimentality of romantic fiction! Realism was best suited to express the spirit of America. Then, real got real-er, and naturalist writers like Theodore Dreiser and Jack London showed what happens when natural forces overwhelm us silly humans.

American Rust is real-natural in that way. And I like it. Realism has always appealed to this Rust Belt native for whom romantic lit. often feels at best, false, and at worst, dangerous.

For me, this debut novel’s strengths are in the real and natural way Philipp Meyer’s dark story grows out of the ruinous conditions of its modern Appalachian Pennsylvania setting: post-industry, post steel money, post employment, though still (or again) naturally beautiful.

This is a story of two very different young men from the same place. Isaac is small, awkward, and MIT-smart; Billy is handsome and strong, a former high school football star. One night, the friends get caught up in/perpetrate an act of terrible violence, just as restless Isaac has decided he must head to Stanford to put his genius to work. Post-crime, Isaac makes good on his promise to leave their hometown, and Billy stays. Each man suffers for his decision, Isaac on the road and in train yards where lawlessness reigns, and Billy in prison. The men’s families become entangled in the tragedy, as does the local police chief, Harris, who must weigh his job as a lawman against his love for Billy’s mother, Grace. All suffer in the aftermath of one violent mistake.

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RUST BELT BOY & holy pierogi

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Cleveland and Pittsburgh have always enjoyed something like a sibling rivalry. Unlike the relationship between Cleveland and Akron, or Cleveland and Chicago, Cleveland and the ’Burgh are too close in size for one to take the other under its wing like a little sister city, or to aspire to big-brother city coolness. So, rivalry it is—or always seemed to be, to this Northeastern Ohio native.

Later this summer, I will travel through (or around) both cities on my way to visit my dad in Port Clinton, Ohio—home of the annual Perch, Peach, Pierogi and Polka Festival. Along my way on the Pennsylvania and Ohio turnpikes, I will cross a lot of pierogi territory.

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A hick reads HILLBILLY ELEGY, the underdog lake & and a story excerpt

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We were “hicks.” That was the insult of choice directed at us Chardon High School Hilltoppers. Rival school children would call us that or sometimes “farmers,” which said more about the insulters than the insulted.

We were not “hillbillies” (our Hilltopper mascot being something of a misnomer). And so, while reading Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance, I had the feeling that not only was his family not my family but his culture was not my culture. (Not to say my culture is crisis-free.) Was his Ohio my Ohio?

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