Reader’s Notebook, 5/4/17

A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles
As I point often, I amuse myself with my To Read list. I’ll read a blurb about a book somewhere, or see it on a Best Of list, or get a recommendation from a friend, and just throw it on my list and then forget why the book received acclaim. Which is kind of fun, because that makes each book a mystery when I finally get to them.

Here is a classic example. It was on numerous Best of 2016 lists so I jotted it down. I heard some more buzz for it, put my name on the waiting list at the library, and was finally able to tackle it a couple weeks back. I opened it thinking it was a modern spy novel, akin to something Jason Matthews might write, for example.

Boy was I wrong.

Rather, this is a delightful, utterly charming, and brilliant account of Russian aristocrat Count Alexander Rostov, recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt. A true Gentleman, as men of a certain upbringing would aspire to become.

The book begins in 1922, in the early years after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Rostov is facing trial and is damn near close to being sent in front of a firing squad because of his connections to the former Tsarist regime. He receives a reprieve, though, when it is pointed out that he penned a poem before the revolution that was used as a rallying point for those opposed to the old order. Suspicions remain, though, so while he escapes with his life, he becomes a “former person,” a man without an official identity sentenced to house arrest in the swanky Moscow hotel he has lived in for years. Worse, he’s removed from his sumptuous suite and confined to a tiny room in the hotel’s belfry.

Does Rostov collapse in the face of this massive change to his life? No, a gentleman does not give up! A gentleman carries on as best as he can. Rostov continues to live life as he did before, just within the hotel’s walls. He dines fabulously. He has conversations. He visits the barber every Wednesday at noon. He befriends a nine-year-old girl who is fascinated by him. They go on adventures through the hotel as he teaches her about life outside the hotel. He falls into an affair with one of the most glamorous movie stars in all of Russia.

Time passes. The Count takes a job in the hotel’s restaurant. The girl grows, and eventually leaves the hotel. World War II comes and goes. The girl returns, now an adult with a daughter of her own. Her husband has been taken to a camp in Siberia. She asks the Count to watch her daughter so she can find her husband and return with him to Moscow. It will only be a few weeks, she insists. A few weeks turns out to be forever, as she never returns. The Count now has a “daughter” of his own. After some rough early days, they settle into life together. She is a bit of a musical prodigy, and becomes one of the most celebrated young pianists in Moscow. Although the Count can’t travel across the street to watch her performances, he still takes great pride in her success.

As the story moves to the 1950s, the Count makes the acquaintance of two Americans who spend time in the hotel. Both turn out to have connections with the US intelligence agencies. Eventually, the Count is asked if he might share information about life in Soviet Russia with his American friends. He declines, saying he still loves his country even if he does not love its current government.

From there springs a truly glorious final act, in which the Count buys freedom for his daughter while finding a different kind of freedom for himself. Wrapping up complex stories is difficult, but the end of this book is absolutely, completely, totally perfect.

Towles is a wonderful writer. As I said, this is a charming book. It’s easy to poke fun at Count Rostov, with his 19th century aristocratic ways. He comes off as a bit of a dandy quite often. He clings to tradition, even in the face of a changing society, not solely out of stubbornness or advancing age, but because that’s what a gentleman does. But there’s a core morality to him that is admirable.

I’ve read several very good books this year. I’m pretty sure this is the best of them.


Odd Man Out – Matt McCarthy.
I roared through this book, knocking it out in one day. It’s a fun, funny, and illuminating look at the life of baseball players in the lowest level of professional play – the rookie A leagues – told from the perspective of McCarthy, a 21st round pick by the Anaheim Angels in 2002. McCarthy was not the standard issue baseball player. His parents were both academics. He graduated from Yale and is now a physician. Thus he occupied an odd, singular place in the locker room of his rookie league team in Provo, Utah. While he easily fit into the racial split in the locker room – whites and Hispanics did not mix – his education and worldview differed sharply from many of his teammates, who were southern and less educated than McCarthy.

He details the general dumbness that results from young, physically gifted men being paid to play a sport, from guys making a couple hundred bucks a week to the guys who signed for hundreds of thousands of dollars. The sexual and racial humor. The constant poking fun at the Mormons who dominate Provo and their many cultural restrictions. The shocking divisions between the American and Latin players. The selfishness that comes from guys all trying to do whatever they can to make it to the next level, often at the expense of team success.

I loved it, mostly because it seems to be a pretty uncompromising look at what goes on in baseball. McCarthy certainly does his best to come off in a good light, but he often seems like as big of a dumbass as the teammates he criticizes.

And then I read about the controversies that arose after the book was published. Several episodes he details, which he claims he recorded into his journals immediately after they happened, have been alleged to not have been possible because of the timing of roster moves, the schedule, etc. Other episodes have been challenged by his former teammates and manager.

Whether all that matters isn’t really important. This isn’t a historical text that will be used to educate future generations. It’s an insider look at baseball played by 19–22 year olds. Even if all the details or anecdotes aren’t 100% true, I think they probably tell a reasonably accurate story of what goes on in minor league baseball.