"A Gentleman in Moscow" by Amor Towles

I could have never imagined that a work of fiction existed that would inspire me to read more Russian history. I have found it, though, in “A Gentleman in Moscow” (2017), the fascinating and touching novel of American writer, Amor Towles. His first novel, “Rules of Civility,” was also an award-winning bestseller.

It’s 1922 and the Bolsheviks have taken over. At the close of his trial, Count Alexander Rostov has avoided the firing squad or Siberia through a combination of connections and charm. Instead, he is sentenced to house arrest in the Hotel Metropol, the plush Moscow hotel across from the Kremlin where he had lived as a student and wrote the anti-revolution poem that made him suspect. Their message to him is clear—step outside, and you will be shot.

And, here you have it in a nutshell: a substantial novel, covering decades of one man’s life that takes place in one building. But don’t despair, readers. Towles shows us from the start that he will make us smile, and care deeply for this man we will follow. At the trial that opens the story, the Count is questioned about whether he left his second home in Paris and returned to Moscow to take up arms against the Revolution. No, “those days are behind me,” he tells them. “I missed the weather.”

Aside from the intelligent and witty Count, Towles has filled his story with delightful characters. Towles says in interviews that, as he wrote, the hotel kept opening up to him, just as it did for the Count. His protagonist befriends another permanent resident. Towles says, “For the virtuous who have lost their way, the Fates often provide a guide…Odysseus had his Tiresias just as Dante had his Virgil…. “In the Metropol Hotel, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov had a nine-year-old girl by the name of Nina Kulikova.” He has met his match in this bright, verbal child.

A willowy, auburn-haired actress Anna Urbanova, is a returning guest, very much welcomed by the Count. The chemistry between them grows as wine is consumed, and over the years their relationship changes in surprising ways. Emile the cook, and his sous chef Andrey become the Count’s best friends, and, also, his colleagues, when the Count takes on the job of head waiter.

Virtually everything in the Count’s world becomes a character—the miniscule room he inhabits, the aged wine he has stowed there, the hotel cat who monitors his comings and goings, and especially, the luxurious Metropol itself (an actual Moscow hotel built in the same mold as other grand hotels constructed around the world at the turn of the century).

This rich novel might require one to occasionally stretch the imagination, but the joy of becoming immersed in the Count’s world and his rich thoughts is certainly worth it. I say without hyperbole, it is one of my all-time favorite books, and I recommend it without reservation.

"Hillbilly Elegy" by J.D. Vance

Like thousands of others, I picked up J.D. Vance’s New York Times bestselling memoir “Hillbilly Elegy” (2016) to better understand why the white working class in the middle of the country carried a newcomer to politics and government service, of questionable judgement, into the White House.

Vance starts with geography, focusing in on the hills of Appalachia, most specifically his home of Jackson, nestled into southeastern Kentucky’s coal country, where most workers were miners or small farmers. His mother Bev lived a life of fighting and drama, was addicted to drugs, and brought husband after husband into his life. “Settling down wasn’t quite her thing,” he tells us. Vance spent most of his youth living at the nearby home of his grandmother and grandfather. Mamaw, whom he affectionately calls a lunatic and crazy hillbilly, reminded him daily of their code of behavior. That meant sticking up for family, not taking disrespect from anyone, and certainly not waiting for the law to snuff out someone who errs. (He reports with obvious pride that he is related to the infamous feuding Hatfields.) Mamaw pounded into him the lesson of making something of yourself—“Don’t be like those f_ _king losers.” That lesson stuck.

As background, he says that after World War II, his family was part of the mass migration of people from the hills of Kentucky, West Virginia and Tennessee north to the cities and towns of Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana and Pennsylvania. There they found work in the new industrial plants. He quickly observed a new economic reality—residential segregation—where poor whites lived, were schooled, and socialized only with one another, totally unaware of what was happening on the right side of the tracks. This insular lifestyle brought about low expectations and little resiliency among his people when those factories shut down. It’s a disturbing story he tells about the anger and distrust that built within that group when they were jobless and mistrustful of the government, politicians, and the “elites.”

Yet there is a compelling personal story that underlies the bad cultural news he delivers. So many factors in his early life pointed towards the same shaky path most in his family had taken—unstable work, addictions, tumultuous relationships. They were “set up to fail,” he reminds us frequently. But Mamaw, with all her vitriol and drama, turned out to be the most stabilizing factor in his life. “She believed in me and made me think I could do it.” He almost flunked out of high school, but he and Mamaw knew he was smart enough for college. But all the applications and financial aid information intimidated the two, who knew nothing of that world, so he joined the Marines. There, “giving it all was a way of life,” and he threw himself into it. He found there is “something powerful about realizing you’ve undersold yourself.” That gave him the courage to take his next steps—Ohio State and then Yale Law School.

Understanding Vance’s story and life trajectory, I paid attention when he talked about his people who “worshipped Jesus and the USA” but have lost their patriotism and mistrust the news, politicians and government. Vance has no easy answer to the question of how to address the needs of this angry white working class from whom he came. He’s a Republican but says that his party and the conservatives generally are fueling the notion that government is to blame. His message to those he knows well is “Stop blaming Obama or Bush and ask ourselves what we can do to make things better.”