Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Rules of Civility: Amor Towles

I found Amor Towles' Rules of Civility to be an excellent book. It was one of those that took me at least a quarter of the book to settle into and enjoy, and then, as I got close to finishing, I didn't want it to end.

The book starts with a Preface set in New York City in 1966. Katey, who narrates the story, tells of an art exhibition she attended with her husband Val.

On the night of October 4th, 1966, Val and I, both in late middle age, attended the opening of Many Are Called at the Museum of Modern Art—the first exhibit of the portraits taken by Walker Evans in the 1930s on the New York subway with a hidden camera.

At that exhibit, Katey sees two photos of Tinker Grey, a man she knew well when she was in her twenties. One was taken in 1938 and he is well-dressed in expensive clothing; the other photo was from 1939 and his clothes are worn and threadbare. 

The story then jumps back to New Year's Eve in New York City in 1937, when Katey and her roommate Eve met Tinker at a jazz bar. Very quickly the three become friends, even though Katey and Eve are living in a boarding house and have low paying jobs and Tinker is a part of New York society. There is a big turning point when the three of them are in a serious automobile accident and only Eve has significant injuries.

From that point, the story mostly focuses on what happens to Katey in the next year. She is ambitious and resourceful; she works toward having a more rewarding job while still mingling in New York society. There are some wonderful minor characters: Wallace Wolcott, Tinker Grey's wealthy friend, who teaches Katey how to shoot and ends up going to Spain to fight in the Civil War; Anne Grandyn, an older woman (also wealthy of course) who encourages Katey to do bigger things with her life.

The book is divided into four sections, one for each season of the year. At the end of each section, there are a few pages told from Tinker Grey's point of view. There are also many changes in his life in 1938. At the end  of the book there is an Epilogue that ties together with the Preface. 

My thoughts:

I think a lot of what I liked in this book is due to Amor Towles' gift of storytelling. I also enjoyed A Gentleman in Moscow by the same author. It was set in Moscow starting in 1922 and continuing through the next three decades, and had a more unrealistic, fantastical feel, but I loved reading that one too.

Katey is a reader. I always love a book where reading plays a part. She reads and rereads Dickens. Her reading keeps her grounded. At one point she starts reading Agatha Christie's mysteries and has interesting comments on them. 

Photographs also play a role in the story. There are the subway photos at the beginning, photos along the walls at various homes, school photos.

Appearances can be very deceiving in this book. There are many surprises in store as the book progresses. 


Publisher:  Sceptre, 2012 (Orig. pub. 2011)
Length:     335 pages
Format:    Trade paperback
Setting:     New York City
Genre:      Historical Fiction
Source:     Purchased in 2020.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Short Story Wednesday: American Christmas Stories from the Library of America


Today I am featuring an anthology of Christmas short stories from The Library of America Collection. American Christmas Stories was edited by Connie Willis, and she has provided the introduction. There are 59 stories included.

From the dust jacket of this book:

Library of America and acclaimed author Connie Willis invite you to unwrap this diverse collection of fifty-nine enchanting and uniquely American stories about Christmas, literary gems that will delight and surprise.

Ranging from the advent of the American tradition of holiday storytelling in the wake of the Civil War to today, this is the best and widest-ranging anthology of American Christmas stories ever assembled. Ghost stories and crime stories, science fiction, fantasy, westerns, humor, and horror; tales of Christmas morning, trees, gifts, wise men, and family dinners everywhere from New York to Texas to outer space: this anthology is an epiphany, revealing the ways Christmas has evolved over time—and how the spirit of the holiday has remained the same.

I have only read one of the stories in this book so far. It is a story by Pete Hamill, titled "The Christmas Kid." Written in 1979, it is about a Jewish boy from Poland who has come to New York City to live with his uncle, following the end of World War II. He is an orphan and lost his parents to the holocaust. The story is told from the point of view of another boy in the neighborhood. It was a very moving story. I seem to be reading more sentimental stories this December.

This was the first thing I have read by Pete Hamill. If anyone has read books or stories by Hamill, I would love to hear what you think. 

Monday, December 20, 2021

The Last Noel: Michael Malone

This is a Christmas story, as the title indicates, with a serious topic.

Following is the description from the back of the book:

The Last Noel captures the exuberance and poignance of a lasting friendship between a man and a woman from very different backgrounds. Noni Tilden and Kaye King grow up and grow close as their lives come dramatically together through four decades of tumultuous change in a small southern town.

The story begins in 1963 when Kaye first meets Noni on the eve of their seventh birthdays. On that Christmas Eve, Kaye climbs through her bedroom window to invite her to come sledding with him in a rare southern snowfall. 

The story takes place in the small town of Moors, North Carolina. Noni (real name Noelle) is the daughter of the Tilden family, a rich and privileged family that has lived in the area for many years.  Kaye is the grandson of the Tilden's black maid, who has worked for the Tildens for years. Kaye and Noni's relationship is viewed through twelve Christmases, starting in 1963 and ending in 2003. 

The two main characters are both flawed, but very sympathetic. Many secondary characters are also memorable. My favorite is Kaye's grandfather (by marriage), Tatlock, a very vocal, colorful character who later in life starts painting and gains fame for his paintings.

I don't often read books set in the South, but this one covered from 1963 through the 1990s and handled racism and politics of that time pretty well. I enjoyed it because it is well-written and touches on events that happened in my own lifetime; it covers the Viet Nam war, politics, civil rights, the moon landing, and the music over the decades. 

The description at the publisher's website emphasizes the romance in this book, which there is little of. The description on the back of my book focuses on the lifelong friendship between the two main characters.

I have read two of Michael Malone's mysteries and some of his short stories. The crime fiction stories are darker. My review of Time's Witness is here and reviews of short stories from Red Clay, Blue Cadillac: Stories of Twelve Southern Women are here and here. This book was very different; it was a much more sentimental story.


Publisher:  Sourcebooks, 2002.
Length:     292 pages
Format:    Trade paperback
Setting:     North Carolina
Genre:      Historical Fiction
Source:     Purchased in 2005.

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Short Story Wednesday: More Stories from Maigret's Christmas by Georges Simenon

Two weeks ago, I covered the title story in Maigret's Christmas: Nine Stories. "Maigret's Christmas" is  a long short story at 60 pages in my edition.  

Since then I have read three more stories in the book: 

  • "Seven Small Crosses in a Notebook"
  • "Maigret and the Surly Inspector"
  • "The Evidence of the Altar Boy"

"Seven Small Crosses in a Notebook" is a Christmas story but does not include Maigret. It is another long short story, around 60 pages.

The character at the center of this story is Lecoeur, a policeman who works in a big room where all emergency calls for the city of Paris are tracked. This is the only police work he has done and he enjoys it. Lecoeur is working the night shift on Christmas Eve, and has even volunteered to cover the next shift for another police, since he has no wife or children.

On this night, one of the cases gets personal for Lecoeur. First an emergency call reports the death of a woman that he knows, but not well. Then he puts some clues together and realizes that his young nephew is breaking the glass at various emergency call boxes but leaving no message. He isn't sure what that means but he lets Superintendent Saillard know that he may have useful information.  

The story was well written and exciting.  

The other two stories are 30 pages each. Both include Maigret but are not Christmas stories. They are good stories but don't have the punch of that first one. They both reveal aspects of the relationship of Inspector Maigret and his wife, and are more humorous. 

Now I only have four more stories to read in the anthology.

Saturday, December 11, 2021

The Moviegoer: Walker Percy


The Moviegoer was my pick for the Classics Club spin, and I am glad I finally read something by Walker Percy. 

Binx Bolling is from a wealthy family, is a veteran of the Korean War, lives in New Orleans, Louisiana, and has been set up in a stock broker office by relatives. Although Binx has plenty of acquaintances, old school friends, and relatives, he seems to be lonely and looking for answers to what life is all about. One Goodreads reviewer described this book as "existentialism Southern style" and I think that is very apt. Binx likes to go to movies and he sometimes carries on conversations in his head with favorite actors. 

He is thirty or thereabouts and his aunt is pushing him to do something more important with his life. She wants him to go to medical school and she will pay the bills for his education. Not a bad idea but I hate to see people trying to run other people's lives.

Binx has the habit of hiring a secretary, always young and appealing, and he courts her gradually. Usually the secretary want the relationship to get serious, and he doesn't, so she leaves and he moves on to another secretary. But his real love is his cousin Kate. She also is searching for something, depressed after the loss of a lover in a car crash years before. 

The first five paragraphs in the book are perfect, but that is too much too share. Here are the first two paragraphs.

This morning I got a note from my aunt asking me to come to lunch. Since I go there every Sunday for dinner and today is Wednesday, it can only mean one thing: she wants to have one of her serious talks.  It will be extremely grave, either a piece of bad news about her stepdaughter Kate or else a serious talk about me, about the future and what I ought to do.  It is enough to scare the wits out of anyone, yet I confess I do not find the prospect altogether unpleasant.

I remember when my older brother Scott died of pneumonia. I was eight years old. My aunt had charge of me and she took me for a walk behind the hospital. It was an interesting street. On one side were the power plant and blowers and incinerator of the hospital, all humming and blowing out a hot meaty smell. On the other side was a row of Negro houses. Children and old folks and dogs sat on the porches watching us. I noticed with pleasure that Aunt Emily seemed to have all the time in the world and was willing to talk about anything I wanted to talk about. Something extraordinary had happened all right. We walked slowly in step. “Jack,” she said, squeezing me tight and smiling at the Negro shacks, “you and I have always been good buddies, haven’t we?” “Yes ma’am.” My heart gave a big pump and the back of my neck prickled like a dog’s. “I’ve got bad news for you, son.” She squeezed me tighter than ever. “Scotty is dead. Now it’s all up to you. It’s going to be difficult for you but I know you’re going to act like a soldier.” This was true. I could easily act like a soldier. Was that all I had to do?

The first paragraph summarizes the story, and entices the read to learn more. The second paragraph gives a good picture of the American South in the 1960s.

My thoughts:

At first my reaction was, why read about rich people dealing with angst about life, when their life is so much better than that of most of the people around them? But I was drawn in and wanted to find out where Binx's life would go, and Kate's. They may be rich and want for little, but they are not happy.

The primary setting is New Orleans, which is a lovely city, but Binx talks a lot about other cities in nearby states that I am also familiar with. This is one of the few books I have read set in the South where I had some recognition of my own feelings and experiences. My family was at a much lower socioeconomic level than the characters in this book, though. 

I had expected more about movies based on the title. However that did not affect my enjoyment of the book. That element is just one way the reader learns about Binx and his meandering thoughts.

I don't know if the ending of the story was too easy and unrealistic, but I do know I liked it and it made me happy in the end. 


Publisher:  Avon Books, 1982. Orig. pub. 1961.
Length:     191 pages
Format:     Paperback
Setting:     New Orleans, Louisiana
Genre:      Fiction
Source:    My husband gave me his copy of this book years ago.

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Annual Book Sale 2021: My Husband's Books

In September we went to the annual Planned Parenthood Book Sale.  The sale lasts about 10 days, and we visited the sale on five of those days. 

These are a few of the books my husband found at the sale. In addition to fiction (including mysteries), he focuses on books about history (especially English history), photography, architecture, and performing arts. 

Talking Pictures: With the People Who Made Them (1994) edited by Sylvia Shorris and Marion Abbott Bundy; introduction by Robert B. Altman

Review from Publisher's Weekly:

Featuring the unvarnished recollections of producers, directors, scriptwriters, film editors, camera operators, technicians and others, these 38 interviews provide a marvelous behind-the-scenes look at the creative alchemy that fueled Hollywood's golden age. Among the interviewees are assistant director Arthur Jacobson (Miracle on 34th Street), visual effects specialist Linwood Gale Dunn (Citizen Kane), producer Jack Cummings (Kiss Me Kate), Edward Bernds, soundman for Frank Capra's movies, composer Jule Styne and lyricist Sammy Cahn. Cameraman George Folsey explains how he brought the softness of muted light to black-and-white cinematography starring Claudette Colbert, Clark Gable and Joan Crawford. Screenwriter John Bright recalls tailoring the scripts that made James Cagney a star. The reminiscences of all are spiced with shoptalk, juicy anecdotes and candid glimpses of moguls like Darryl Zanuck, Irving Thalberg, Louis B. Mayer, Harry Cohn and David Selznick–the legendary names are ever-present.

Charters & Caldicott (1985) by Stella Bingham

The first appearance of Charters and Caldicott was in Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes (1938). The characters were played by Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford. They were comic relief in that film, playing cricket enthusiasts who wanted to get home to England in time to see the results of a Test match. They were popular and appeared in three other films as the same characters. Later there was a 1985 BBC mystery series based on those characters. This novel is based on that series.

Looking for History in British Churches (1951) by M.D. Anderson

Description from the dust jacket of this edition:

English history from a new and fascinating angle—a book for all interested in religion, history, art and architecture...

For many years, the author's chief interest and delight have been the study of the visual records left in Britain's churches by invading races and social forces as a first-hand source of information on England's past. In this book, she shares her discoveries with her readers and reconstructs an enthralling and authentic picture of how men and women of an earlier day lived and worked and played.

The dust jacket of this book has a lovely illustration and there is a detailed map of the locations of churches on the endsheets (front and back).

Cat of Many Tails (1949) by Ellery Queen

Although I read a good many Ellery Queen mysteries when I was much younger, I haven't read any of them in decades so I don't know much about individual books. 

This is what I do know about Cat of Many Tails:

  • This is book 20 of 35 books featuring Ellery Queen as the sleuth. It is set in New York and features Inspector Queen, his father, which I consider a plus.
  • An early example of a serial killer novel, although not the first. 
  • Considered by many to be one of the best books in the Ellery Queen series. 

Lord Malquist and Mr. Moon (1966) by Tom Stoppard

From the back of the Grove Press paperback:

Tom Stoppard's first novel, originally published in 1966 just before the premiere of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, is an uproarious fantasy set in modern London. The cast includes a penniless, dandified Malquist with a liveried coach; Malquist's Boswellian biographer, Moon, who frantically scribbles as a bomb ticks in his pocket; a couple of cowboys, one being named Jasper Jones; a lion who's banned from the Ritz; an Irishman on a donkey claiming to be the Risen Christ; and three irresistible women.

I believe this is his only novel.

The Silent Gondoliers (1983) by William Goldman 

From the back of the Del Rey paperback:

Once upon a time, the gondoliers of Venice possessed the finest voices in all the world. But, alas, few remember those days—and fewer still were ever blessed to hear such glorious singing. No one since has discovered the secret behind the sudden silence of the golden-voiced gondoliers. No one, it seems, but S. Morgenstern. Now Morgenstern recounts the sad and noble story of the ambitions, frustrations, and eventual triumph of Luigi, the gondolier with the gooney smile.

There are lovely drawings by Paul Giovanopoulos sprinkled throughout. Cover art by Sergio Martinez.

I borrowed this from my husband and read it for Novellas in November. I enjoyed it, although I found the middle portion to have very slow pacing. 

Sunday, December 5, 2021

Reading Summary for November 2021

I read 15 books in November, which is a lot for me, but the only reason I read that many was because I read 14 novellas for the Novellas in November event. They ranged from 57 pages to 163 pages in length. The only longer novel I read was The Snack Thief by Andrea Camilleri, book 3 in the Inspector Montalbano series. 

One thing I enjoyed about concentrating on short novels this month is that I read from several genres. I also read five translated novellas, three by French authors and two by Italian authors and I enjoyed all of them.

So, here are the books I read...


Constructive Living (1984) by David K. Reynolds

This is a short nonfiction book (106 pages) that describes the author's approach to two Japanese psychotherapies, Morita therapy and Naikan therapy. I had read this years ago and found it interesting. The basic concepts were still interesting, but the sections on how they are used did not work so well for me this time.

General Fiction

The Sense of an Ending (2011) by Julian Barnes

Tony Webster, retired and in his later years, looks back on two of his relationships with women, one when he was a student at university, and the other with his wife, Margaret, who divorced him after twelve years of marriage. This 163 page book was one of my favorite reads in November. My review is here

Historical Fiction

Train Dreams (2002) by Denis Johnson 

This is a story about the life of a laborer in the American northwest from the early 1900s through the 1960s. Beautifully written, the 114-page book describes fragments of his life. Most of the time, he is living alone, a solitary life, and is struggling to support himself. The descriptions of small town and rural living were interesting. This book has been on my TBR pile for a while and I am glad I finally read it.

Tamburlaine Must Die (2004) by Louise Welsh 

The author imagines the last days of Christopher Marlowe, presenting him as a spy who is searching for the man who wants him dead. I am not sure if it was a positive or a negative that I knew so little about Marlowe going into this book. Regardless, now I am motivated to learn more about him. The book was very well written. This 140 page novella was Louise Welsh's debut book. 

Science Fiction

The Concrete Jungle (2004) by Charles Stross 

This book is part of the Laundry Files series and was written between the first and second book in that series. The series is about former tech support worker, Bob Howard, who becomes a field agent for the Laundry, a British agency that protects the world from supernatural phenomenon. I am new to this series but I read that the novella was a good place to start. The series is a real mishmash of genres, blending spy fiction with fantasy and horror, although it gets categorized mostly as science fiction. This story won the Hugo for Best Novella in 2005. I will be reading more in the series.

The Invisible Man (1987) by H.G. Wells

Most readers are familiar with The Invisible Man either via book or film, so I will just point you toward my review here.

Artificial Condition (2018) by Martha Wells

This is part of the Murderbot Diaries series; I reviewed the first one here. The protagonist is a security robot that has both human and robotic parts. It refers to itself as Murberbot (although it really does not have a sex, I see Murderbot as a he). He wants to investigate the incident, so comes up with a way to travel to the planet where it took place. Along the way, he acquires a new group of humans to assist, and realizes how important that type of interaction is, even though direct contact with humans scares him. I will be continuing with this series. I read the book on my Kindle, only the second e-book I read this year. Length was 149 pages. 


The Silent Gondoliers (1983) by William Goldman 

This novella was whimsical and fun. It is presented as having been written by S. Morgenstern, who was also the "author" of THE PRINCESS BRIDE, and the tone and writing style is very similar. It is a fable about Luigi, a talented gondolier who cannot sing. If I have any complaint, it is that the plot moves very slowly for most of the book. But the ending is wonderful and makes up for any issue I had with the preceding parts of the story. This book was 110 pages but that page count includes a number of full page illustrations.

Crime Fiction

Carte Blanche (1990) Carlo Lucarelli  

This 94-page novella was translated from Italian, the first in a trilogy. The setting is April 1945 in Italy. The story starts shortly before the end of World War II, in the final days of the Fascist regime in Italy. The protagonist is a policeman in the regular police, Commissario De Luca, who only recently transferred from another police group that worked under the direction of Mussolini. See my review here.

Montalbano's First Case (2008) by Andrea Camilleri

This short novel (97 pages) is a prequel to the Inspector Montalbano series. Montalbano gets his first assignment in Vigàta, after spending his time in an apprenticeship as a deputy inspector in Mascalippa. This was a lovely story, and it inspired me to return to the series, which I did before the end of November. See my review here.

Three to Kill (1976) by Jean-Patrick Manchette

A corporate salesman, Georges Gerfaut, married with two children, is attacked by two hit men on his way home, but they do not succeed in killing him. He goes into hiding and plots his revenge on the men and their boss. An unusual and dark story. I will be looking for more by this author. 132 pages in length. See my thoughts here.

The Front Seat Passenger (1997) by Pascal Garnier

After a man's wife dies in a car crash, he becomes obsessed with Martine, the widow of the man who died with his wife, and begins stalking her. Another strange story with a lot packed into 130 pages, and I enjoyed it very much. See my thoughts here.

Maigret in Retirement (1947) by Georges Simenon 

As the title implies, this is the story of a case that Maigret works on after his retirement. I enjoyed this picture of Maigret's relationship with his wife. This book was also published as Maigret Gets Angry. The story was about 105 pages in the edition I read. See my thoughts here.

Heartstones (1987) by Ruth Rendell 

I have read almost all of the Inspector Wexford books but I have had bad experiences reading Rendell's standalone books. Too tense for me. I was willing to try this one since it was so short, only 71 pages. It filled me with suspense and dread at times, but I enjoyed it. It is the story of a sixteen year old girl living with her father and her younger sister. She is telling the story, and we learn that she is obsessed with her father and is convinced that she will live with him all her life. The ending was a surprise, sort of, and very well done. The edition I read had a few very lovely illustrations. 

The Snack Thief (1996) by Andrea Camilleri

This was a wonderful book with a complicated plot. The primary case is the death of an elderly man who was stabbed in an elevator when leaving his home one morning. Montalbano is trying to avoid another case of a Tunisian seaman killed on an Italian fishing boat, but it keeps coming back to haunt him. Livia has a prominent role in this book. This is the third book in the Inspector Montalbano series. I was glad to get back to the series. 

The photo above is Rosie the cat. The photo at the top of the post shows succulents in pots in our back yard. Click on the images for best viewing quality.