IN 2012 I LISTENED to the audiobook of the best new book of the decade*, Rules of Civility. It took about three pages to make this proclamation, and by the end of the story I confidently pronounced Rules to be the perfect novel and a new American Classic.
SINCE THEN I’ve googled, oh, a hundred times(?) to see what Towles is working on, where his work appears, what book has been released as a follow-up. Google has been pretty quiet on the matter.
Released yesterday, A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW is Towle’s second novel and one highly anticipated by critics and readers alike. It’s the story of Count Alexander Rostov who, in 1922, is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. As Towle’s website states his reduced circumstances provide him a doorway into a much larger world of emotional discovery.
This one I will read with a hardback copy in my hands.
AND THERE IS THIS. I learned of Towles’ new release not via Google but in listening to a podcast with which I am also a bit captivated. What Should I Read Next is the brainchild of Anne Bogel, a mom of four who blogs at Modern Mrs. Darcy and talks books via the podcast. Her format is simple and interesting: She asks a guest to name (and describe) three books she/he loves and one she/he hates, and from that she plays matchmaker, suggesting three books that meet the guest’s reading profile.
She’s a book whisperer, if you will, and it’s interesting to hear her choices. It’s also entertaining and informative to listen to the guests and their picks. Hear more at this link: What Should I Read Next.
A new Towles’ novel and a podcast that pairs readers with books they’ll love: two great reasons to rejoice even if the calendar says summer is over!
*in my opinion
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I want to tell you every detail I said to my husband the moment I reached him sitting there on the deck down by the pond. Even if it takes a long time, I don’t want to leave out a thing.
He smiled and sat back in the faded red Adirondack, happy to hear me out.
But let me go get the books I said. I want to show you while I tell you.
He smiled. I’ll get us a beer he said.
This is what Tim knows that you may not: I will go anywhere, anytime to hear my favorite author, Lee Smith. She wrote the book that, when I was 14 years old, ignited my intense passion for reading. I had a summer job at the Lonesome Pine Regional Library when I happened to pick up The Last Day the Dog Bushes Bloomed. I had always been a big reader (flashlight under the covers, etc.), but the first page of Dog Bushes poured over me in a way that made me know right then it was different from the others. It was to become my very first favorite book of all times.
How I love Lee Smith for that gift.
It’s not much of a stretch, then, to understand she also wrote the book that ignited my passion for writing. Fair and Tender Ladies is the kind of novel that brought it all home for me: the significance of place; a wild admiration for strong, persevering women; an overwhelming devotion to language that is filled with heart and honesty and grit. Every paragraph, in every Lee Smith story, stirs something in my soul that says Come on girl. We’re meant to do this.
It is terrifying, though, to face the vast expanse of the unwritten novel. It is overwhelming and burdensome, difficult to begin because it is impossible to see your way through. That’s because the process of writing is like moving half-blind through a black tunnel; while I have finally begun writing the thing, I’ve no idea where I am or the distance to the finish. I simply inch forward in the darkness, the characters revealing the story to me one tiny bit at a time. I watch, I listen, I write.
I could hardly believe my good fortune when I learned Lee Smith was to appear at the South Carolina Book Festival alongside the other Appalachian writer who has stolen my heart, Ron Rash. I had just read his remarkable Serena, a novel that grabbed me and pulled me under in such a good way I am still fretting over it, still carrying those characters with me two books later.
(Good God Ron Rash is a powerful storyteller.)
They did not disappoint.
Lee, on writing:
Every novel comes with its own demands.
There’s no story if there’s not some trouble.
I do a lot of pre-writing to understand the characters. It’s what happened in the past that formed their lives.
Ron, on writing:
You would think it would get easier, but it doesn’t.
It’s like being a mule. You just keep your head down and go up and down the rows. And you look for those moments of grace when it is easy.
I reached her and we chatted briefly, me remarking how much I enjoyed Guests On Earth, how thrilled I was she was there at the South Carolina Book Festival, Lee responding in such a gracious way you’d think we were old friends. Then like a 5-year-old with a kindergarten secret I blurted out I’M WORKING ON MY FIRST NOVEL AND IT TAKES PLACE IN SCOTT COUNTY.
The line hung there between us and I thought I might faint. Then she looked at me with kind and interested eyes, put down her pen and said How wonderful! Tell me all about it.
For the next four or five minutes she listened to me as if I were the first student in the first writing seminar she ever taught. She asked me questions; she answered my questions; she even made a note or two about some specifics in my story.
Then she signed my book and smiled, and as I walked away she said Write away, Cathy! Write away!
For the first time in my life I understood “on cloud nine.” I skipped around the exhibit hall, gravity-less, an insider, a writer among writers. I spent that day, and all the next, wildly taking notes as poets and novelists shared their stories and their lessons about the craft. Then I stood in line after line for inspiration and the author’s signature. I told each and every one: I am writing my first novel and without exception, WITHOUT EXCEPTION, these generous souls cheered me on with encouragement like: Remember the joy of the process and make time to write each day and I hope you’ll be here with me next year, signing your book.
And then I met the great Pat Conroy, who shook my hand and looked me in the eye and said: Shall I give you some writing advice?
How grateful I am to this group of writers and to the organizers of the South Carolina Book Festival. It is a grand gift to all of us—but none more so than we who will take their advice and, just as they said, write on.
What do I recall of her, here in these soft pale days at the lapsing of the year? Images from the far past crowd in my head and half the time I cannot tell whether they are memories or inventions. Not that there is much difference between the two, if indeed there is any difference at all. Some say that without realising it we make it all up as we go along, embroidering and embellishing, and I am inclined to credit it, for Madam Memory is a great and subtle dissembler. When I look back all is flux, without beginning and flowing toward no end, or none that I shall experience, except as a final full stop. The items of flotsam that I choose to salvage from the general wreckage—and what is a life but gradual shipwreck?—may take on an aspect of inevitability when I put them on display in their glass showcases, but they are random; representative, perhaps, perhaps compellingly so, but random nonetheless.
It’s a very cool thing to be part of a book club, particularly when it is a book club of fascinating women.
It’s even cooler when one of those women publishes her first novel.
That’s just what happened with our little group—resurrected last month after an unplanned one year hiatus*—when we gathered to toast the release of Starfish, the delicate debut novel of our swell friend and all around Renaissance woman Michele Kingery. Starfish is the coming of age story of Charli Weeks, a 15-year-old who finds her Lowcountry life turned upside down through a series of events she can neither understand nor control.
Amid the hugs and champagne toasts and predictions of a runaway best seller, we grilled Michele on the finer points of publishing a work of literary fiction. How thrilling for all of us to share in the joy of its release!
Starfish is next up on my summer reading list and I can hardly wait to get started.
I feel I owe you a good post, what with pulling that “subscribe to my blog” move on Sunday. (Thank you for indulging me via FB, Twitter, etc. ) I feel the need to make good, to write meaningfully, to go deep and reveal an insight excavated there.
I’m just having a little trouble doing it.
It’s the voice in my head, you see, the voice that offers a running commentary on the endless To Do list that is my life. Review the lease. Send a card to Jean. Mark the raised bed plantings. Mail the graduation present to Joe. Prep for the logo meeting. Renew Audible. Decide on studio lighting. Migrate the Google Reader feed. Schedule lunch with Staci. Respond to new business lead. (FIND the new business lead now buried in 2,215 emails in my inbox.) Sort inbox to find the other hundred emails to which I owe responses. Find that note about that app that manages your inbox for you.
It’s unsettling, this commentary, this unsatisfied, insatiable voice. It knows me well, feeding on the one thought that, when I am not diligent, overtakes all:
I don’t have time. If I just had more time. Why is there never enough time?
A few years ago, in a race to get from one meeting to the next, I wheeled into a parking lot and ran for the door of an already in-progress board meeting. I made my way to an empty chair beside my friend Mike—a highly respected banker with whom I had served on several boards—and went about the business of sitting, parking my purse under the table and retrieving a notebook and pen from my disorganized and impossible to find anything under the best of circumstances briefcase. (Okay, it’s not a briefcase, it’s a backpack, but that’s another story.)
In a halfhearted attempt at an apology excuse, I leaned toward Mike, who was sitting serenely with—by the way—nothing but the agenda in front of him. I whispered:
In case you haven’t noticed, you have a mental dialogue going on inside your head that never stops. It just keeps going and going. Have you ever wondered why it talks in there? How does it decide what to say and when to say it? How much of what it says turns out to be true? How much of what it says is even important? And if right now you are hearing, “I don’t know what you are talking about. I don’t have any voice inside my head!” —that’s the voice we’re talking about.
This is going to be an interesting journey, I think, this trip inside my head to deal with the voice.
How I look forward to the peace and quiet there on the other side.
As she sank to her knees on the grass and sobbed, the memory of a conversation with Frank floated into her awareness.
But how? How can you just get over these things, darling? she’d asked him. You’ve had so much strife, but you’re always happy. How do you do it?
I choose to, he said. I can leave myself to rot in the past, spend my time hating people for what happened, like my father did, or I can forgive and forget.
But it’s not that easy.
He smiled that Frank smile. Oh but my treasure. It is so much less exhausting. You only have to forgive once. To resent, you have to do it all day, everyday. You have to keep remembering all the bad things.
He laughed, pretending to wipe sweat from his brow.
I would have to make a list—a very, very long list—and make sure that I hated the people on it the right amount. That I did a very proper job of hating, too. Very Teutonic. No.
He had learned that it was the smallness of people that filled him with wonder and tenderness, and the loneliness of that too. The world was made up of people putting one foot in front of the other; and a life might appear ordinary simply because the person living it had been doing so for a long time. Harold could no longer pass a stranger without acknowledging the truth that everyone was the same, and also unique; and that this was the dilemma of being human.