July 9th, 2012

early 20th century

Book 89: The Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

UK Cover
Book 89: The Rules of Civility.
Author: Amor Towles, 2011.
Genre: Period Fiction. 1930s USA. Relationship Drama.
Other Details: Paperback. 342 pages.

This was a delightful novel: sparkling, sophisticated and intelligent with a real feel for its late 1930s NYC setting.

The novel's narrator, twenty-five year old Katey Kontent, is a charming and witty protagonist, passionate about making it on her own. She had grown up in Brooklyn as 'Katya' but on moving to Manhattan she changes her name to 'Katey', aspiring for inclusion among Manhattan's smart set. We are first introduced to her in 1966 as she and her husband visit a photographic exhibition by Walker Evans at MoMA of the series of photographs he had taken on the New York City subway in 1938 with a hidden camera. Two of the images stir a memory in Katey and we are then taken back in time to New Year's Eve in 1937 as Katey and her room-mate Evie see in the New Year at a Greenwich Village bar. A chance meeting with Tinker Grey, an affluent young banker, changes the course of their lives.

US Cover
The novel is broken into four seasonal parts beginning with 'Wintetime' and chronicles the events of this watershed year in Katey's life. The title refers to George Washington's 'Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation', which plays a role within the story. The novel contains an Appendix containing these rules along with a reading guide.

At first glance this might well appear to be a slice of period chick-lit with its emphasis upon the fashion, gossip and the antics of the young darlings of Manhattan's Upper East-Side, a Gossip Girl circa 1938. However, it is one of those novels that on reflection has a number of layers, examining the nature of friendship and love as well as the role played by chance in our lives.

I didn't have any particular expectations for it when it was selected for one of my reading groups and so was delighted when it proved such a rich read. Within the group it drew favourable comparisons with modern classics such as The Great Gatsby. I loved it from the start and was impressed with how well Towles had woven his story, characters and setting. I find that I did prefer the USA edition's more atmospheric cover and though I read a library copy decided when ordering my own copy to opt for the imported paperback.

Amor Towles' page on 'The Rules of Civility' - includes links to excerpt, podcast, Q&A and reading guide.

Book #43: Yellow Dog by Martin Amis

First off, “Yellow Dog” is not an easy read, mostly because the Martin Amis’ style of storytelling, as a lot of the story involves conversations with not a lot of explanation of what is going on, so if you read it, be prepared to read very carefully.

The main story revolves around Xan Meo, who is a typical anti-hero, which Martin Amis seems to like to put in his stories (like Keith Talent in London Fields); Meo is brutally assaulted at the start of the book, and suffers a personality change; as the book progresses, you get hints that he has a bit of a murky past, but also he struggles to be a good husband, and father to his children.

The book also contains a series of vignettes with their own storylines, which seem loosely connected to the main story – Clint Smoker, the reporter, and corpse who seems to be somehow causing a plane crash and a fictional King of England who seems disinterested in his position.

This book is blackly comic throughout, with a lot of satire about the press and even the porn industry, and becomes almost surreal at times. The tone is also very adult, with a large number of sex references and profanities, so is not for the easily offended.

This is worth reading, but don’t expect to make complete sense of what is going on.

Next book: Pop. 1280 (Jim Thompson)