I’m trying. I really am trying to wade through Amor Towles’ second novel, A Gentleman in Moscow. His first novel’s protagonist annoyed me. The second novel’s protagonist is placed under house arrest in the Hotel Metropol, a hotel filled with intrigue. The premise sounded provocative, and I delved into the book. Multiple chapters into it, I put down the novel and picked up my trusty, well-read copy of Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. After reading Amor’s The Rules of Civility, I re-read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. I derived more literary satisfaction reading Fitzgerald and Hemingway than I did reading Towles’ novels.
Not that I expect another writer to measure up to the literary titans of yore. I respect and admire how Towles weaves layers upon layers of detail in his novels. His turn of phrase is admirable. It is simply that his main characters interest me not much. For me, intrigue in them wanes about half-way through the narrative. I press on, thinking perhaps the flame will arise again for me in what happens to the gentleman imprisoned in the Hotel Metropol. True, he is surrounded by eccentric, colorful characters creatively drawn. Would that they were the main event throughout.
The adulation heaped upon contemporary fiction never ceases to amaze. My literary hero for these times is Jami Attenberg. Her novel Saint Mazie is a literary gem. I will share my thoughts on the wonders of that novel soon. In the meantime, I’m reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short stories, while continuing to pen my new novel series.
The days are growing shorter. Darkness descends by 7:00 p.m. A decided chill punctuates the morning air. After 5:00 p.m. I am caught off guard by the coolness in the air. Dusk begins to permeate the skies earlier than I would have it. The maple and oak trees that proliferate my town brighten the landscape with hues of crimson, yellow, and orange. Autumn casts her spell over all, giving us splashes of color evident only at this time of year.
Mugs of warmed cider and plain donuts beckon for a snack. From childhood throughout adulthood, cider and donuts take the edge off autumn’s cool temperatures. Even now the scent of apples doffs the crispness in the air. A sense of melancholy pervades my feelings these days. Autumn has that effect on me. Another year begins to descend into history soon; Thanksgiving is a month away, followed by my birthday at the end of November. Christmas follows close on the heels of my birthday month. I still question why we celebrate Thanksgiving near the end of November. It seems to me October would be a better Thanksgiving month, further removed from the Christmas festivities of December.
Perhaps it is these endings, the close of the current year, the dawn of a New Year in January, with the whole cycle revving up again, the hope of a better year, a more fulfilling one. I yearn for endings this December; I crave the anticipation of a new beginning in January in a fresh land with friendly faces around me. This is what propels me through the closing months of this year. This is what keeps the sense of autumn melancholy at bay these days. Am I only dreaming of a better New Year? If so, may the dream never end.
The back book jacket of Amor Towles’ The Rules of Civility, has a quote from Publisher’s Weekly [starred review]: “[A] smashing debut…remarkable for its strong narrative, original characters and a voice influenced by Fitzgerald and Capote, but clearly true to itself.”
Okay. Before I read this blurb from Publisher’s Weekly, I read the novel. Throughout most of my reading, I kept wishing I were re-reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, or his Tender Is The Night, or his short stories [“Bernice Bobs Her Hair” is one of my favorites]. The nuances of Fitzgerald’s writing: his turn of phrase, his sophisticated narrative, and his poignant characters always tug at my heartstrings, as well as at my literary aesthete.
At first, I anticipated a fine read, one following the protagonist through the years 1937-1940, as Katey Kontent navigated the intricacies of New York society, the upper and the not so upper stradas of it. Narrated in first person, Katey [cue Lauren Bacall in an imagined movie version minus her husky voice and slinky prowess] offers a generally clear-eyed, somewhat astute assessment of those around her and the events that affect them all in some shape or form. The one character I found intriguing was that of Tinker Grey. At first glance, he seems like a roué, yet as the story progresses, we learn he is far more complicated than that. While Katey loved him and he her, the course of true love rarely runs smoothly in this novel, not even at the end with an Epilogue. For me, an epilogue is the tidying up, the sweeping of the floor to fast-forward the reader to what happens down the proverbial road. In other words, I’m not always of fan of the epilogue, but that is more of a personal preference than a condemnation of this book’s one.
I had a hard time settling into this novel. I would read some chapters, and then put the book down for a day or so, pick it up again and forge ahead. I found I had to keep convincing myself to read the book. The reason I forced myself to return to it was that I had read laudatory reviews of it. Like quite a few new books that I read, I find myself less invested in what happens. Usually I return to a beloved book to feed my literary soul, or more often than not, I return to my own writing after reading a classic. Indeed, the details of the setting in The Rules of Civility, of the era, of the characters consuming the pages were well researched and drawn. My ambivalence had to do with the fact that I neither cared much about the characters, nor what happened to them. I had a modicum of interest in the outcome of Tinker Grey. Frankly, I cared far more about Jay Gatsby and his self-absorbed love Daisy Buchanan. Fitzgerald’s narrator, Nick, kept me wanting to read more and more of The Great Gatsby. A short novel, Gatsby weighs heavily and seems longer than it is because of the tightly woven narrative. I applaud Amor Towles and his novel, and I am going to read his latest one, in part because the storyline intrigues me. I’ll let you know how I fair with his second novel. Maybe I’ll even become a fan.
I have fond memories of spending copious amounts of my childhood and adolescence with my Aunt Adelaide and Uncle Richard in Detroit. He was a design engineer who was later inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame for having designed the 1949 Ford, “The car that saved an empire [the Ford Motor Company].” I loved my aunt and uncle dearly. My aunt still retains her radiant smile and melodious laugh. Even after my uncle’s death, I still see him, pipe in mouth, moustache neatly trimmed, in his 3-piece well-cut suits, flashing his perfect smile. My uncle was Lebanese and he was grand. Tall and dashing like a dark-haired version of the equally black-haired Omar Sharif [though Sharif was French-Egyptian] galloping across the desert in Lawrence of Arabia, although I am not sure my uncle ever road a camel in the desert. Uncle Richard had an acerbic, hilarious sense of humor, with artistic talent oozing from every pore, and an intense love of family. Small wonder my aunt fell for this romantic, handsome man. He and my father, the Italian immigrant, were close. I thought everyone had family of exotic lineage like mine, and if they didn’t, they should have.
Chief among my cherished memories of those years is Lebanese food, which I eat to this day whenever possible. My uncle’s mother taught my aunt how to cook Lebanese food and did my aunt ever learn! She served up cabbage rolls, Lebanese bread, and kibbe to beat the band. She shared her cabbage roll recipe with my mother so that we could feast on when we returned home from Detroit. My aunt’s shawarma and hummus tasted awfully good, too. Aromatic Lebanese food, coupled with light-hearted conversation over dinner during those years remains with me today. The laughter, the voices ring in my ears as I look back over the landscape of time.
This is likely why I wax poetic over the fabulous Lebanese food at Le George in Northville, Michigan. For dinner at this tantalizing small eatery, we savored every bite of the Pastry Cigarettes with 3 Herbed Cheese and 3 Spiced Meat; a Crème De Lentilles soup; the Vine Leaves Rolls Lamb with Beef & rice, simmered in a delicate lemon sauce on the side as well as Wheat à l’huile d’olive, and Lamb Shank Leg of Lamb, braised in garden tomato sauce with vegetables. We washed it all down with a fine Italian Pinot Grigio from Friuli. Truly, Le George served us a memorable repast.
This is likely why, after our Labor Day weekend, I craved Lebanese food. While one of our two local Lebanese restaurants makes a very good falafel and baba ganoush, it still cannot hold a candle to the Lebanese food creations of my aunt, uncle, and his mother.
Over Labor Day weekend we visited my darling Aunt Adelaide. She is now 97 years of age, yet she still sparkles with vivacity. Her blue eyes twinkle with laughter, and her hugs continue to melt my heart. While her health waxes and wanes, my cousins take constant care of her, diligently overseeing her medical care with love.
Aunt Adelaide holds a special place in my heart as my Godmother. As my mother’s middle sister, she shared adventures with Mama. My mother, Catherine “Kitty” loved to travel, and travel she did, inviting her younger sister along. Long after both sisters had married and bore children, they took along their offspring on trips. We traveled annually to Edge Grove, Pennsylvania, near McSherrystown, kind of near, but not terribly close to Gettysburg. My maternal grandfather’s three blissfully eccentric unmarried sisters lived in a two-story house with an outhouse wreathed in perennial flowers in Edge Grove. Those flowers attracted an endless stream of bees. One didn’t dawdle in that privy. While my grandfather offered them indoor plumbing time and again, his sister refused. The sisters, Rose, Anastasia “Anna”, and Mary “Molly” were close to their nieces Kitty, Adelaide, and younger sister Agnes. Driving from our hometown with my mother, younger brother, and grandfather to Detroit to pick up Aunt Adelaide and her two younger children, off we all went in our big blue Chevy on a lively road trip. Once with my great-aunts in Pennsylvania, we cousins roamed relatively freely in the hamlet perched on the mountainside, among extended family and friends. Mama and Aunt Adelaide’s laughter rings in my ears from those carefree visits. Reminiscing over bygone days of my great-aunts and their four brothers over copious bowls of corn chowder on warm summer nights lulled me into believing these idyllic times would last forever. Naturally, they didn’t, for the Grim Reaper ultimately demanded the last word.
One memorable road journey entailed chauffeuring Mama and Aunt Adelaide to Virginia. We had so much fun on that vacation! I had completed my undergraduate degree at Indiana University Bloomington in August. Off we drove in late September amid the early autumn color. I did all the driving, for I love the open road. We toured historic Jamestown and delighted in its pottery and artists. Williamsburg fascinated, but for me, the pièce de résistance of the trip was Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home set in the majesty of the Southwest Mountains adjacent the Blue Ridge Mountains surrounding Charlottesville. Jefferson’s inventions, Palladian design of his home, and the flower, fruit, and vegetable plantings were all the work of a man ahead of his time. We also travelled down the mountain to the plantation next door: Ash Lawn-Highland, the estate of James and Elizabeth Monroe. We also visited Orange, Virginia’s plantation home of James and Dolley Madison, Montpelier. Three U.S. Presidents who lived in Virginia intrigued me, as did the peacocks roaming Ash Lawn-Highland!
Although Aunt Adelaide is spry no longer, in spirit she is. Remembering our annual summer respite together at our family cottage on Eagle Lake with my mother’s sisters and their families, our annual Christmas and Easter gatherings, and the humor, creativity, and love of my mother and her two sisters reverberate with me still. Visiting with Aunt Adelaide last weekend only heightened the joy we shared. Her golden years continue to beam gold over all within her orb.
The earthquake that devastated the small Italian towns of Amatrice, Accumoli, and Pescara del Tronto reminded Italians, who already have it emblazoned in their minds, that the seductive charm of Italy belies an ominous truth: She is vulnerable to devastating earthquakes. The last one occurred in 2012 in the province of Emilia Romagna. 2009’s massive earthquake nearly annihilated L’Aquila in the Abruzzi.
Beppe Severgnini, who writes for the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, penned an insightful article entitledItaly’s Fragile Beauty. Tourists trek to Italy to take picture perfect photos of the glories of Rome, of the ethereal beauty of Venice, of the inspired artwork of Florence, and partake of Naples’ incomparable pizza. Yet underneath the superficial travels of tourists lurks what Italians know all too well: Earthquakes. Like the Walls of Jericho, those picturesque Italian towns balanced atop the Apennine Mountains might well come tumbling down when the African and Eurasian tectonic plates collide in Italy.
Years ago I asked my father about earthquakes in Italy. I was writing a report for a school assignment and I figured he might shed light on those massive rumblings. He had emigrated to the U.S. from Italy when he was 23, long before more sophisticated means of tracking earthquakes were in place. He explained that in his village in southern Italy, the only thing to do was to brace oneself in a doorway. This, he said, served only several members of a family of eight. There were not enough doorways for everyone in his family. The alternative was to flee into the streets, hardly appealing when large rocks rained down from the Apennine sky. A tornado was preferable to an earthquake, he informed me, for with a tornado shelter could be sought in a basement. Basements were not an option in his Italian village; it was all rocks below the houses.
The beguiling beauty of Italy and her people are dear to my heart. I have known quite a few people who stampeded through Italy to take their picture perfect photo of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, to ride in a Venetian gondola while snapping away at structures. Yet these travelers of several weeks rarely take the time to talk with the natives who live, breathe, and toil in this ancient landscape. Most of them are hastening with family and friends through the countryside, driving their way down the narrow roads. Took a quick tour of Rome – check. Trekked in Cinque Terre – check. Saw Michelangelo’s David in Florence – check. Plan next summer’s trip to another country – check. I prefer to position myself in one locale for a month or more, get to know the shopkeepers’ names, frequent the local eateries, settle in to the rhythms of the town and take in its sites. But mostly for me it is about the people; that is the true adventure.
Ergo, the most recent earthquake and its aftermath tremors reverberated with me. I wondered about those residents of Amatrice, how they had planned for the Festival Amatriciana, how within moments the rocks and structures had fallen over and around them. Yesterday I watched a news video of rescue workers pulling a golden retriever from the rubble ten days after the earthquake. The dog named Romeo emerged intact. Unlike Shakespeare’s ill-fated Romeo, this one wagged its tail as he shook off the earth’s dust. Overjoyed at finding life, the rescuers carried Romeo down the steep pile of rocks. Several days before, other rescuers had unearthed a cat alive. The cat’s name was Gioia, meaning Joy. That name captures the indomitable spirit of Italians, for they will overcome adversity and rise again, as they have always done.
In the heat of the summer, during these dog days of summer, nothing cools the brow and the psyche like a frozen delight. Think snow-capped mountains, think winter snow in general, or think clean, shiny ice. Think ice cream. Think gelato.
NPR’s Audie Cornish conducted a fascinating interview with Francine Segan, a food historian who has tracked the history of frozen treats back to 3,000 B.C. when the Chinese mixed snow with fruit and beer. In the 10th century, Sarbat or sorbet as we know it, came to Sicily via an Arab invasion. The canny Italian scientist, Giammbatista della Porta, in 1561 experimented with ice and salt, and realized that this lowered temperature allowed for a creamy concoction, thereby creating gelato!
I am indebted to Giammbatista della Porta, who also has a very cool Italian name [no pun intended, but there it is]. The Florentines and the Romans both make indescribably delicious gelato. Since I cannot trek to Italy annually for the gelato I adore, I must settle for Whole Foods own gelato, which is none too shabby. Pistachio is my all-time favorite gelato, both inside and outside of Italy, followed by Stracciatella [which includes chocolate shavings] and Fragola [strawberry]. Italian law mandates that gelato must contain no less than 3.5% butterfat, which accounts for the fact that the incomparable Italian gelato triggers my taste buds in ways most U.S. gelato does not.
My proclivity for gelato does not exclude my periodic fondness for American ice cream. I would not dare profane this ice treat because I do indulge in particular flavors such as black raspberry, when I can find it, butter pecan, and vanilla bean. Low fat ice creams interest me not. If I’m going to indulge in frozen concoctions, I’m going for those with the butterfat; otherwise, it is like drinking skim milk, which looks like it has been waved over whole milk, and then been tossed with a bucket of water. Of course, this is purely personal preference: mine. A delicious ice creamery in Valparaiso, Indiana, called Valpo Velvet, makes smooth, deliciously rich ice cream – even black raspberry. When I’m in that charming town, inevitably I stop by Valpo Velvet’s ice cream shop, sit down and savor its rich ice cream.
While my heart belongs to gelato, in the end, it matters not which frozen treat cools a person off. What matters is the variety of choices to whet the appetite. I’m planning on a return to Italy within the next year or so. I cannot wait to luxuriate in its gelato! In the meantime, Whole Foods’ own gelato sates my gelato tooth.