Book Review: A Gentleman in Moscow

This was a book club pick, and as I hadn’t finished the last four books we read (oops), I was determined to finish this one.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

This was a book club pick, and as I hadn’t finished the last four books we read (oops), I was determined to finish this one.

Description (from Amazon)

“In 1922, Count Alexander Rostov is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, and is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. Rostov, an indomitable man of erudition and wit, has never worked a day in his life, and must now live in an attic room while some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history are unfolding outside the hotel’s doors. Unexpectedly, his reduced circumstances provide him entry into a much larger world of emotional discovery.”

Character

The Count, as he’s often referred to, is the kind of man everyone wants to befriend, but nobody would want to parent. One can tell that his youth was filled with mischief, and not even gray hair and joints that no longer like the Metropol stairs can dampen that spirit. What I liked most about him was that, though formerly an aristocrat, he treats everyone the same—from the barber to the seamstress to the hotel’s waiters, whose ranks he eventually joins. Seeing the Count adapt to his ever-changing circumstances was inspiring.

Plot

The plot meanders through many seemingly pointless side trips as the tumultuous events in the outside world impact the microcosm of the hotel. Eventually, the author tied these things together, giving them purpose within the broader storyline, but it demanded patience from the reader. I must confess that I almost didn’t finish. The plot is not well suited for the modern attention span, and the points it made were too subtle for a distracted reader.

Writing Style

The author’s writing style is really the only reason I kept reading. His prose is gorgeous, with creative descriptions that bring the story to life. The reader truly gets a feel for life in the Metropol.

Miscellaneous

Another strength of this book was the myriad of philosophical reflections sprinkled throughout the story. However, I was often too bogged down by the seemingly pointless side stories to appreciate them. Many of the more dramatic implications of the oppressive Russian regime were so subtly depicted that I nearly missed them.

Conclusion

If I were a generation older, I think I may have enjoyed this book more. As is, the subtle philosophy and meandering plot are not well suited to readers accustomed to the instant gratification offered by modern technology. This book is beautifully written, and it tells an inspiring story of resilience and resistance. I really want to love this book, but the best I can say is that I don’t regret finishing it, even if it took a bout of insomnia binge-reading to do it.


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English in the Gutter

Profanity is an integral part of the human lexicon, processed in the part of the brain related to fleeing danger rather than processing speech. However, which words a culture considers profane and to what degree uttering them warrants a bar of soap in the mouth varies over time.

Book Review: Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever

Though I don’t curse (often) myself, profanity fascinates the wannabe linguist in me. I’m also a fan of John McWhorter’s podcast, Lexicon Valley, so when I heard he was releasing this book, I was number one on the library’s waitlist.

Description:

For as long as mothers have existed, they have scolded their children for saying naughty words. Profanity is an integral part of the human lexicon, processed in the part of the brain related to fleeing danger rather than processing speech. However, which words a culture considers profane and to what degree uttering them warrants a bar of soap in the mouth varies over time.

In this pithy yet thorough account, John McWhorter delves into the historical, sociological, political, and linguistic development of today’s most prevalent curse words. With his genteel style and not a small amount of humor, he examines what gives curse words their power, and why we like them so much.

My Review

This book was everything I wanted and more. It details the cultural changes that caused profanity to shift from religious terms to bodily functions to identity slurs with many cogent examples. That my ancestors may have contributed the f-word to the English language makes me inexplicably giddy. That whole chapter had me laughing out loud, which was rather difficult to explain to my husband.

More than how we anglophones use these nine words today, McWhorter explains how the previously innocent words became nasty. Moreover, he describes how their meanings expanded, and how most of them now serve as pronouns. For grammar nerds feeling rebellious, I highly recommend this book. That said, I will caution that McWhorter types out all the words, and reading the stronger ones (e.g. the racial slur) repeatedly was a little uncomfortable, even for me. Readers with delicate sensibilities beware.

Writing Style

McWhorter’s writing style is as smooth and precise as one would expect from a professional linguist. His prose is as elegant as a fine wine. I am a huge fan of his writing, but if you have the chance, I recommend the audiobook as John McWhorter has a lovely voice. That is, assuming you don’t have small children at home.

Conclusion

Nine Nasty Words is not for the faint of heart, but for those with an interest in English’s saltier side, I highly recommend it. With humor and detail, McWhorter tells the story of sailor talk with the elegance and detail of a professor.


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Nine Nasty Words

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Word by Word

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Dryer’s English

For the wannabe line editor


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