Books I Read in January

I only read two books in January, and I’m a quarter of the way through another.

My first January read was A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.  It tells the story of a Russian aristocrat, Count Rostov, who is sentenced to house arrest by the Bolsheviks in 1922. But his house arrest happens to be inside Moscow’s finest hotel, Hotel Metropol, as he was already resident there when sentenced.

a-gentleman-in-moscow-amor-towles

A Gentleman in Moscow (hardback). Published September 6th 2016 by Viking

Over the course of 30 years in the hotel, the Count befriends several of the guests — some come and go while others remain part of the novel’s fabric. The concept of the novel is interesting: the hotel remains static, a stage on which characters enter and leave, but outside the world is changing.

The book begins in the 1920s, shortly after the Russian Revolution, and ends in the 1950s, in the midst of Soviet Russia. Although I was vaguely aware of external events (one character is sent to a gulag prison camp, while Rostov’s friend Mishka writes poetry which is censored), as readers, we are sheltered from all this. The hotel’s warmth and charm is an oasis away from the harsh political climate.

‘Warmth and charm’ sums up the whole book really. Beyond a passing mention here and there, Towles doesn’t elaborate on the brutalities of Russia’s history during the novel’s thirty-year span. It is historical fiction, of a kind, but it’s dressed up in finery and the historical details focus more on luxuries (orchestral music, Swiss Breguet timepieces, fine dining) than gritty reality.

“Does a banquet really need an asparagus server?” one of the characters asks. “Does an orchestra need a bassoon?” Rostov replies.

Although it has been given acclaimed reviews in the media, I thought it was just so-so: entertaining but not outstanding. I enjoyed it as an escapist read and it is well-written, but I’m not sure that it merits all the hype it is getting (rave reviews from NPR, The New York Times and The Washington Post, among others). A review I read on Goodreads classified it as ‘a fairy tale for adults’, which I think is very apt. It’s full of whimsy and charm, but lacks real substance. I’d rate it three stars out of five.

My next book in January was Sweet Caress by William Boyd. In this novel, Amory Clay is the central protagonist. Born in 1908, Amory develops an early interest in photography and aspires to make it her profession, at a time when it wasn’t considered an acceptable career for women.

sweet-caress-cover-bloomsbury-usa

Sweet Caress (paperback). Published May 17th 2016 by Bloomsbury USA.

Boyd charts Amory’s progress through the early twentieth century as she becomes an intrepid photographer. Her work takes her to pre-war Berlin at first, where she takes secretive photos at an after-hours night club, and later to New York, London and Paris.

She specializes in photojournalism, documenting fascist marches in London, the aftermath of World War II and, later, the conflict in Vietnam. In a stint as a fashion photographer for American Mode, Amory finds that although she is good at it, she is bored by the predictable poses and glossy veneer of fashion photos, preferring instead to shoot photos from a less artificial angle.

A number of small black-and-white photos are dotted throughout the book, with captions that relate to Amory’s photos. They are anonymous and are all photos that Boyd has found in junk shops and yard sales.

Of course, the photos are all representations of fictional characters, but they make the people in the novel seem more vivid and real. Boyd uses one of these found photos (below) as a frontispiece, depicting Amory as a young woman in the 1920s.

amory-clay-photo

Photo: unknown. Found at a bus stop in Dulwich, London.

The novel is narrated from a first-person perspective, and I really felt that I got to ‘know’ Amory as a character. It’s a mark of an excellent novel when you turn the last page and feel just a little bereft, wishing you could spend more time with its characters.

In the acknowledgements at the end, there is a list of female names: the real-life trailblazing female photographers who inspired Boyd’s depiction of Amory. Sweet Caress left me wanting to research the fascinating lives of these twentieth-century women, most of whom are now unknown.

Currently reading: Where My Heart Used to Beat by Sebastian Faulks.

What did you read in January? It doesn’t just have to be books — if you read a really great article online, share that too!

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18 thoughts on “Books I Read in January

  1. What a delightful palate cleanser of a read this was after spending WAY too much time following the news! I’m late to the party and getting into audio books and listened to the latest Flavia de Luce mystery novel by Alan Bradley. It was a nice commute alternative to podcasts…which I still deeply love.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad to be able to provide a little diversion from the news! 🙂

      I haven’t joined the audio book party yet, but seeing as I have such a long commute, it would be nice to have a change from podcasts now and then. Do you get your audio books from Audible?

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  2. The photos in the book sound a little bit like Miss Pettigrew’s Home for Peculiar Children. The author of that book used strange Victoriana photos through out the book to represent the characters; he said that sometimes the photos had created the characters. The novel was a bit ho hum, but I loved that idea. I wonder if we’ll see more of books like that in the next little while.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Reading Bad Feminist, a collection of essays by Roxane Gay. I’m enjoying it so far — her essay on being a hyper-competitive Scrabble player (w 28 footnotes!) is both very funny and spot-on. I finally hit 424 as my score last week (I play the computer — should I cheer beating an algorithm?)

    I treated myself to five new books recently and have a blog post cued up about what they are and why I chose them.

    Def. need to escape the endless “news” these days!

    The reason the Moscow book is getting such rave reviews might be becs his first book, The Rules of Civility, was a best-seller. I enjoyed it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sounds great! I haven’t read any of her work, but I’ve seen her name in the media.
      I don’t get along with some modern feminist writing, like Lena Dunham, for instance. I find her brand of feminism rather brash, and IMO some of it seems like controversy for the sake of controversy. But I’m always open to well-written, thought-provoking feminist writing.
      I shall await your blog post with anticipation! 🙂

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      • She spends a fair bit of time addressing/arguing with other women writers — like Dunham’s TV show “Girls” and deconstructs others’ arguments. If you don’t know who she’s talking about, it could be tedious. But her writing is unpretentious and smart.

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    • It’s definitely an entertaining read. I’ve heard good things about the author’s first novel (Rules of Civility) as well, so I may add that to my TBR list.

      Oh yes, I really enjoyed Sweet Caress. The plot and character development was great.

      What are you reading at the moment? 🙂

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  4. I’m usually a book a day person, but blogging slows me down… this month…’Resolution by’ A.N. Wilson, Captain Cook’s voyages seen through the eyes of George Forster the son of the historical person Johann Forster; still ploughing through Sebag Montefiore’s history of the Romanovs, re-read Leigh Fermor’s ‘A time to Keep Silent’, also re-read Neale Donald Walsche’s Conversations with God Volume I, and re-read ‘The Outermost House’, by naturalist Henry Beston, his classic on living alone on the beach at Cape Cod for a year…
    I am a great re-reader… CS Lewis said something about only a reading a book once is to fail to appreciate it…

    Liked by 1 person

    • What an interesting assortment of books you’ve read this month. 🙂
      I keep hearing good things about The Romanovs — I read one of Sebag Montefiore’s fiction books (Sashenka) which I enjoyed very much, but I haven’t read any of his non-fiction.
      The Outermost House sounds like a book that I would enjoy. I’ll add it to my list. 🙂
      I agree with you about re-reading books. I’ve read all my favourites (especially Jane Austen) more than once.

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