Friday, February 16, 2018

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles ~ my review

10054335Oh my. Amor Towles’ elegant writing is such a pleasure to read. After reading his novel Rules of Civility, I could not possibly decide which I enjoy more, his metaphors or his observations. His scene one-page one commentary on why people at narrator Katey Kontent’s party were literally drunk reads: “In the 1950s, America had picked up the globe by the heels and shaken the change from its pockets … So all of us were drunk to some degree.” Such colorful, insightful descriptions continue as Katey’s 1938 flashback unfurls to reveal what happened to Tinker Grey.

Katey Kontent is as appealing a heroine as I’ve met in any novel. In her mid-twenties, Katey is one sharp cookie as she discerns that people and relationships are not always what they seem. She relates to friends Eve Ross, Tinker Grey and his brother Hank, Anne Grandyn, Wallace Wolcott, and other assorted characters with spunky honesty and genuine kindness. They dream; they dare each other; and they decide what to pursue and what to discard. Their deeds and misdeeds depict post-Depression New York City, youth in any era, lifestyles of different social strata.

What a buoyant year Katey had in 1938! In Rules of Civility, she remembers 1938’s loves and losses from her 1966 mature view of life’s choices. What might have happened? We’ll never know. One thing we do know is that Katey Kontent’s memories of 1938 are vibrant, pivotal, and altogether fascinating—some tinged with rusty regret, some gilt with grandeur.

“And for the moment, we let ourselves imagine that we were still in Max’s diner—with our knees knocking under the tabletop and seagulls circling the Trinity steeple and all the brightly colored possibilities dangled by the New Year still within our reach. Old times, as my father used to say: If you’re not careful, they’ll gut you like a fish.” [page 75 in my edition]

Adding to the delights of this novel is its Appendix: “Young George Washington’s Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation.” You’ll just have to read the book to find out why it’s included.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Eight Months in Provence ~ my review

I can certainly identify with Diane Covington-Carter’s yearning to live in France. I can’t quite identify with her actually doing it. Maybe I should reread Eight Months in Provence: A Junior Year Abroad 30 Years Late as many times as it takes to muster the courage to pack my passport.

Not that this enjoyable memoir is a how-to book; but if a reader needs a little encouragement, she might find it here. The author simply tells the story of her fulfilling a decades-long dream to live in France. Life events had prevented her studying in France for her junior year of college. But at age fifty, she goes to Aix-en-Provence, a town she had once enjoyed on a vacation, to live for eight months. Her story is made up of many small, mundane realities like finding an adapter for her computer and equipping her rented kitchen with a vegetable peeler. Reading about her commonplace challenges and even mishaps encourages me to not worry about such problems, should I go to live in France for a time. That Covington-Carter’s problems work out, even without French fluency on her part, reassures me.
I especially like the relational stories in this memoir—new French friendships as well as old family friends in Normandy and visits from the author’s mother and sister. I like that for love of France, Covington-Carter voluntarily puts herself in this culture-shock immersion situation. For example, she observes French conventions by being quieter in public and restraining her urge to hug people. She navigates customs surrounding addressing people more or less formally.
Most of all, I appreciate Covington-Carter’s honesty about her doubts along the way. Her time in France is a series of epiphanies bolstering her courage and confidence. Repeatedly when she realizes a mistake, she quiets the knee-jerk self-criticism with a little mantra, “Croyez-en-soi,” Believe in yourself.
Eight Months in Provence: A Junior Year Abroad 30 Years Late is peppered with French words. I would have liked way more. Otherwise, I thoroughly enjoyed reading about daily realities of a dream of living in France.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Finding the win in the loss

When I was in my forties, I was active in a local tennis club—Thursday night drills, league games, and even a regional tournament. One day the club’s tennis pro offered me a match with a girl he had been coaching. The girl was ten. He told me she was a true phenom, and nationally seeded, so I was apprehensive, but he said it would be "good experience" for me. I would soon learn just how much topspin he had put on that enticement ball.

Match day came. I quickly saw that the phenom was a baseline player. I’d been in so many drills on net play, I figured I could easily rush the net. I never made it to the net though. She steadily pummeled every return just inside my baseline. From there, I could see only the top of her head, which unnerved me as well. Game. Set. Match. She beat me 6-0, 6-0 in no time flat. Now she had made her drills pay off!

Afterward, the pro jumped up and down with excitement that I had gotten one point off her. He’d been setting her up to play a lot of the club’s habitués, and to that time, I was the only player who had gotten even one point in any game. Never mind that the pro probably humiliated all of us to better his protégée. Never mind I’d hoped his promised “good experience” would involve more varied challenges. Getting so soundly humbled was indeed good experience. It taught me that winning requires more disciplined training than just Thursday night drills. And if nothing else, it taught me to ask more questions when someone promises a “good experience.”