Archive for the ‘Viking’ Tag

A Grand Life   3 comments


Epic Russian novels have long appealed to me for many reasons: the history, the descriptions of stark landscapes and lively urban settings, the storytelling, and the names. Ah, the names.

Author Amor Towles ties all these elements together in A Gentleman in Moscow.

Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, known as Sasha among a few and as the Count among many, is sentenced to house arrest at Moscow’s grand Metropol Hotel in 1922. This is an engrossing tale about a man who grew up with every comfort and advantage during tsarist Russia. Although his lifestyle changes, it unexpectedly expands.

At the beginning of his confinement, the mother country is in the early stages of political and economic changes that continue for decades. The Count is undeterred by his reversal of fortunes. Towles presents a contented man, knowledgeable, kind, charismatic, happy with routines, yet imaginative. As the Count’s story moves through the years he faces challenges greater than the restrictions of his movements, but always with a good attitude.

Towles injects humor and history with a hotel guestbook of intriguing characters. Interestingly, each chapter begins with the letter A, like the count’s (and author’s) first name.

Here is a novel of the never-wanting-it-to-end variety. The Count’s humanity, his relationships/friendships, and the rich memories of his childhood overshadow his loss of freedom. At times it’s easy to forget that he is a captive in a majestic hotel. He can’t actually check out any time he wants, but why would he want to leave?

A Gentleman in Moscow
Five Bookmarks
Amor Towles
Viking, 2016
462 pages

Microscopic and Grand   2 comments

“The Signature of All Things”

For a minute forget that Elizabeth Gilbert wrote Eat, Pray, Love. It may take a little longer, but the idea is to not let this dissuade you from reading The Signature of All Things. Gilbert’s novel is as different from her memoir as ice milk is from ice cream. The latter is much richer and nuanced; it’s worth every moment of guilty pleasure spent under its grip.

Gilbert transports the reader from London, across the seas (on multiple occasions), and to Tahiti and Amsterdam. Philadelphia provides the lengthiest setting where the brilliant, unattractive Alma Whitaker is introduced to the world: her birth is literally the first sentence of this epic narrative. In Gilbert’s words, Alma’s childhood “was not yet noble, nor was it particularly interesting …” Thus, the focus turns, albeit temporarily, to Alma’s father, Henry Whitaker.

Henry stole his way out of poverty. He didn’t just acquire wealth, he attained knowledge and became a leading botanist and businessman. Alma’s mother, a stoic and harsh parent intent on fortifying her daughter’s intellect, also possessed a great mind and interest in botany.

Through humor, interesting botanical descriptions and strong, insightful characters, Gilbert creates a story that not only spans continents, but also scientific ideas along with notions regarding love and relationships. The vivid imagery of the various landscapes is a bonus.

Alma is a passionate character rich in curiosity (and foibles). Yet, despite the limits placed on her gender, she explores life in miniscule proportions and unexpectedly reveals its grand scale.

The Signature of All Things
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
Viking, 2013
499 pages

Producing Television Masterpieces   Leave a comment


Although I think Rebecca Eaton, long-time producer of Masterpiece (formerly known as Masterpiece Theatre) is an interesting person, I am thankful the focus of her book, Making Masterpiece, is on the series. To be honest, I knew nothing about Eaton before reading her book, but that’s how I discovered she’s so charming. Still, the show’s longstanding quality programming is what drew me to the title.

Eaton shares enough of her life to explain how she became executive producer in 1985. From there, she recounts anecdotes involving actors, producers and writers; many of whom share their own memories of their involvement in the series.

I remember when Alistair Cooke used to introduce the Sunday night programs; I also recall that Sesame Street created Alistair Cookie and Monsterpiece Theatre which mimicked the austerity often associated with classic British literature.


Eaton incorporates self-deprecating humor, which is most evident when she confesses to initially rejecting Downton Abbey as a possibility for Masterpiece. Of course, she soon realized the error of her judgment.

Masterpiece Theatre first aired in 1971. On Eaton’s watch several changes have occurred: the name has been altered and there are now three seasons: Classic, Contemporary and Mystery. She explains how this came about and also details, as much as is possible, the day-to-day duties of being an executive producer.

Among the book’s pleasures is being reminded of past programs, or learning of ones I missed. Most of all, if it’s possible, it’s made me even more excited for the next episode of Downton Abbey and Sherlock and …

Making Masterpiece
Four Bookmarks
Viking 2013
291 pages