Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Half Dozen Books That Blew Me Away in 2011, continued


Really. Is there anything nice to be said about other people's vacations?” --Amor Towles

If my first pick, Téa Obreht's The Tiger's Wife, scratched my magical realism itch, my second, Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, skips the magic and goes straight for the real. But it does so with restrained prose, amiable wit, and a setting—New York's Café Society of the 1930s—with a built-in sense of the unreal and over-the-top. Narrator Katey Kontent is a smart young secretary living in a boarding house in lower Manhattan. Equipped with the mouth of Dorothy Parker (though not as caustic) and the eye of F. Scott Fitzgerald (so observant of the telling detail, especially in matters of class), she tells a story of ambition, of what people are willing to do for love and money and status. At a Greenwich Village jazz bar, Katey and her roommate Eve meet, charm, and fall for a handsome youthful bachelor well out of their league. On their third drunken outing together, the bachelor drives the three of them into a milk truck, and Eve, the only one requiring surgery, emerges with permanent cosmetic damage, a maiming she uses to her every advantage in the love triangle. The rest of the book follows an eventful year in the life of the threesome—and numerous other engaging characters from both the secretarial pool and the upper echelons—as they navigate the new “rules of civility” being invented by a mixing of the classes in a time of financial extremes (sound familiar?).

The time and place— the lingering Depression, the aftermath of Prohibition, the impending war—give rise to rollicking scenes of carousing and lamenting, of working girls and millionaires and the desperate charades both sets play. I especially loved reading the vivid details of women's work—the offices, the steno pools, the backstabbing, the care-taking, and how hard it was for a woman to rise out of the secretarial ranks no matter how intelligent, talented, and educated she was. But it's the voice of the narrator—clever but kind; sensitive but sensible, with a pinch of audacity—that makes the novel so delightful. I shouldn't be impressed by this, but I am: author Amor Towles, a middle-aged man who works as a principal in an investment firm, has created one of the juiciest, most nuanced and believable female heroines I've read in a while. Both Katey and Rules of Civility are brisk, sharp, and engaging—smart with heart.

See what I mean:
Since first meeting Dicky at the King Cole bar, I had tagged along with his traveling circus a few nights. For a group freshly spilled from the country's finest schools, they were surprisingly aimless, but that didn't make them bad company. They didn't have much spending money or social status, but they were on the verge of having both. All they had to do was make it through the next five years without drowning at sea or being sentenced to jail and the Mountain would come to Muhammad: dividend-paying shares and membership at the Racquet Club; a box at the opera and time to make use of it. Where for so many, New York was ultimately the sum of what they would never attain, for this crew, New York was a city where the improbable would be made probable, the implausible plausible, and the impossible possible. So if you wanted to keep your head on straight, you had to be willing to establish a little distance now and then.”

Next up: an almost in the L.A. music scene...

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