From pumpkins to Christmas Curtains

My non-orange pumpkin patch.

How elaborate is your “fall decorating?”

When my son was 3 he asked if we could do some Halloween “decoration-ing” like his friend Brian’s mother did. So, we bought a few of those colorful pumpkin/black cat/witch cutouts to hang in the windows and a smiling skeleton (because you wouldn’t want to scare the 3-year-old) to hang on the font door. Done!

After a few years, we upped the ante, using a bale of straw as a seat for a scarecrow and “artfully” propping cornstalks in a few places. That was outside. I began to collect a variety of over-size dried gourds for inside. Then I traded the bale of straw and scarecrow for my own pumpkin patch, adding several of them to the landscape in early October.

Now we have morphed into pumpkins inside and out, especially decorative if they are not orange but rather green or white. (I even have a large pink one this year!) And we go to great lengths to get them to last until, hopefully, Thanksgiving. And I do fuss over a fruit and/or vegetable and/or floral centerpiece here and there. But I don’t make  point of adding seasonal throws to the furniture or even own fall pillows for the sofa. I don’t even have a single potted mum this year.

One “real” pumpkin with my ceramic ones from a Kentucky artisan.

Is this some sort of rebellion on my part? I am after all the person with files — electronic and paper — on her favorite rooms and decorators. (Thanks to Pinterest I can efficiently call up gallery walls, tabletop vignettes and mantels.) And I can spend hours rearranging books, collectables, and whatever on a shelf.

The Christmas Curtains

I was mentally making fun of all this when I remembered my grandmother’s seasonal change of curtains. Sometime in early November, she would start plotting the hanging of the Christmas Curtains. (And I say “plotting,” because the change of curtains required the assistance of my mother and/or my uncle to accomplish. My grandparents lived in an old, shot-gun cottage in Chicago, with high ceilings and tall, narrow windows. Grandma no longer did ladders, but it was fine with her if someone else did.)

The Christmas curtains I remember were sturdy barkcloth with red poinsettias and deep green leaves on a white ground. (And in truth, if my adult self had seen them on their way out, I would have rescued them and found a way to use them at my own house!) First, the living room and dining room windows and woodwork needed to be washed and/or polished before hanging the curtains, because who would hang nice, clean curtains on a window that could be dirty? (Thus making it even more of a project.)

Because these were Christmas Curtains, the process had to be repeated in January to hang the Winter Curtains. Then in the Spring, came the Easter Curtains. And, I think, there were separate Summer Curtains, though she may have eventually given them up. This was Julia’s salute to the seasons, so perhaps I come by this seasonal urge genetically.

No images of Christmas curtains, but here are my Grandmother and Grandfather with a Christmas tree in 1943 or 1944. This is a favorite photo. I love those smiles. War-time holidays were melancholy, but these two always made the most of every holiday.

I’ve been thinking about my grandmother and her curtains. To us it may seem an odd choice. If she knew how infrequently I wash or otherwise freshen up the few curtains I do have and how many of my windows are frankly unadorned, she would be wagging her finger at me. But in my grandmother’s day curtains were one of the few ways she could indulge in a little decorative pizzazz. And she liked that.

So I’m thinking that though she would have found my alternatively-colored pumpkins a little odd, she would have liked the idea of a pumpkin patch and maybe even a scarecrow.

My pumpkins will stay outside at least until the squirrels devour them. The gourds will remain in place inside until Thanksgiving weekend, when ready or not my husband will start bringing up Christmas boxes. And we’ll probably eat turkey leftovers on the Spode Christmas Tree plates.

What about you, are you holding off on Christmas until after Thanksgiving?

Thanks so much for stopping by! See you soon.

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To the class of ’67

With “besties” Laura, left, and Pris, middle. I’m on the right.

I have hinted in the past that I had a big, BIG reunion coming up, the kind with a stunningly large number attached — 50. (If you are doing the math please bear in mind that I graduated when I was 7 years old!)

I enjoyed our 25th reunion and we had a mini 40th event that was fun. Although I passed on a few of the 50th reunion events, I was excited to attend the Saturday night dinner. I just felt lucky. Lucky to have a reunion and lucky to be able to attend.

First and most important, this reunion was a huge success. It was fun, heartwarming, and a little bittersweet since we missed those who could not attend. It was also, as one friend pointed out, oddly comforting to be with these people who had shared so much of our daily lives, often from kindergarten or first grade all the way through high school graduation. We weren’t all best friends, or even friends for that matter, but we were classmates. In it together.

Framing those four years

One of many group shots, here are junior high classmates. But I think most of us attended the same grade school as well.

Frankly, the Class of ’67 has always thought itself a little special. Our high school years were book-ended with the Kennedy assassination in the fall of our freshman year (when we were old enough to grasp the historic aspect but too young to really put it into perspective) and a deadly tornado that devastated our community late one Friday afternoon a month before our graduation.

We all have our own stories of seeing or hearing the funnel cloud; many of the boys were still at school for athletic events and, after taking cover inside, walked back out to total devastation. Nearby buildings flattened, cars and buses tossed around like toys, and even some loss of life. Now, of course, we know to call this traumatic shock. Fifty years ago we walked around in a fog for weeks, eyes to the sky for signs of another storm.

Because the same tornado heavily damaged the high school itself, our graduation was held outside. (Our choice, as I recall, as opposed to holding it at another school.) At some point late that day, clouds began rolling in. By the time the evening event was underway, the sky was ominous and only a handful of students (including me, because I was a Brown) actually received our diplomas, before everyone ran for cover in the building. It was a real downpour. Most of the class received their diploma from a teacher, standing on a cafeteria table, calling out names. No speeches, no Pomp and Circumstance. Just a lot of wet students and parents milling about.

One more thing to make us feel special, the graduation that wasn’t.

Back to this weekend…

If happy hugs, shared memories, and iPhone photos are any evidence, this reunion was a great success. But many of us agreed the reunion also had a comfortable and comforting warmth to it. We were all middle class baby boomers, the sons and daughters of the “greatest generation.” We communicated using the family phone, had Friday night curfews, and were happy to drive a well-used car. We graduated into the Vietnam era and its accompanying angst.

Life got increasingly more complicated.

Some of us have traveled farther from those roots — literally and figuratively — than others. There are no rock stars in this group, no zillionaire titans of business (at least that I know), just a bunch of older baby boomers who have done the best we could. Where we have been didn’t matter one bit this weekend. We were sharing time together.

To classmates I reconnected with this weekend who may be reading this, am I on to something here? Or am I over-thinking it? Thank you for your warmth and friendship and a great time (and extra, double-huge thanks to the hard-working committee that put this together). To the classmates who missed this event, we’ll see you next time.

To the rest of my readers, if you have a reunion opportunity, I hope you just go.

 

New reads and a great new recipe

One way to soothe my September/back-to-school nostalgia is to look ahead to a year of good reading with my AAUW book group. This group has met for decades, long before Oprah launched her book club and the Internet spawned bloggers (like me!) with all manner of lists.

I have already shared with you (here) that we meet on the first Friday morning in September to select eleven books for the year ahead. Nominations are submitted in advance and additional options from the floor are not accepted. Since so many blog readers and bloggers are avid readers, I thought I would share our choices and invite your comments.

Not surprisingly, A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles and Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly are on the list. (They’re on everyone’s list, and for good reason. I blogged about Gentleman here and recently finished Lilac Girls, which is based on a true story of a New York socialite who brought to light the details of Polish detainees at Hitler’s women-only concentration camp.)

We’re also reading The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion by Fannie Flagg, another nod to WWII. Lisa Ko’s The Leavers recounts the life of an undocumented Chinese immigrant, and The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See takes on the lives of a U.S. adopted Chinese girl and her birth mother.

The Other Einstein, by Marie Benedict, about Einstein’s wife, and The Stars Are on Fire by Anite Shreve, about a fire in Maine in 1947, are both considered historical fiction. News of the World by Paulette Giles, set in post-Civil War Texas, may also fall into that category.

We also chose So Much Pretty, by Cara Hoffman, a murder mystery told over 17 years. (A bit of a surprise since we don’t often choose mysteries.) The protagonist in An Unnecessary Woman by Almeddine Rabih is a 72-year-old woman looking back on her life and her books. (I’m very curious about this one!)

We always try to include at least one classic and this year it’s Sister Carrie, by Theodore Dreiser. I read this in college and I’m anxious to delve back into it. But we decided against Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust. Maybe I’ll have to put that on my personal list. We also did not have room for LaRose by Louise Erdrich or The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. I’ll have to add them to my non-club list as well.

So, what do you think? Are any of these on your list? I’d love to know what you’re reading this Fall. And if you need more ideas, check out Katie Clooney’s picks at The Preppy Empty Nester.

(Actually, between Katie’s book, movie and TV recommendations, Mocadeaux’s wine picks, and Everyday Occasions recipes, one could enjoy a genuinely delightful time this fall!)

An easy, elegant appetizer

Last week I was searching for a new appetizer recipe, something simple, and maybe make-ahead, to simplify a midweek dinner for friends. My solution to these dilemmas is often to cruise my collection of Ina Garten/Barefoot Contessa cookbooks. (Ina never disappoints!)

The recipe as pictured in Cooking for Jeffrey. I think mine looked almost as good!

What I settled on was this easy and delicious pot of herbed goat cheese. In addition to the cheese, the only ingredients were fresh dill and basil (both plentiful in our garden right now), olive oil, salt and pepper. I used a cute jelly jar and a log of fresh goat cheese that I cut into four portions and flattened them a bit to make appropriately-sized disks for the jar. I made this a day ahead. Before my guests arrived, I let the jar of cheese come to room temperature before adding it to a small cheese tray, serving it with a choice of hardy crackers and toasted baguette slices. Yum! I loved it, but more importantly, my guests did too. You can find the recipe here.

I’d love to hear what you’re reading and cooking these days. And by the way, I hope you’ll follow me on Instagram to you can get a peek at a new adventure.

Thanks for stopping by! See you next time.

In the space between summer and fall

I’ve thought a lot about what to write this week. This is a blog about the fun stuff, “the looks, books, cooks, and travels of a somewhat curated life.” But then the scenes from Texas start playing in my brain and everything I’m thinking seems trivial and even inappropriate.

Home is at the heart of everything for so many of us. It’s our haven and our safe place. This is where we come at the end of the day, where we reconnect with our families, where we share some of life’s best moments. Harvey has stripped that safety, that comfort, from its victims. Getting it back is going to take a long, long time, and it’s going to be hard, really hard. They deserve our love and support, however we can give it, and our thoughts and prayers, whatever is our custom, for months to come.

Back to the space between summer and fall.

This can be a challenging time, a yin & yang season. If you love summer, it’s coming to a close. If fall is your favorite season, it’s just around the corner. If you’re feeling sentimental, it’s the start of a new school year. If you loved school, it’s new friends, new books, new classes. Your summer vacation may be behind you, but, hey, the holidays are yet to come.

See what I mean? Yin & yang.

I’m a glass half-full girl, so although my garden is frankly tired and the lawn has some nasty brown spots, I’m cooking up a storm with the tomatoes, cucumbers, beets, basil and dill running wild in the vegetable and herb gardens.

I can’t help myself.

This is the season of closing one chapter and opening another. I think it’s the back to school mindset. I loved school, as did my kids (well, at least they would say they “liked” school). I have to confess that I’ve always felt a little stymied by moms who are so sad at the start of the school year. (You know, the ones who are forced to wear dark glasses to hide their teary eyes.) I understand that whether you are sending a preschooler off to kindergarten or your “baby” off to college, the start of the school year marks off another year on the calendar, perhaps even a stage of your life. But still…

On the first day of school, long ago.

No matter how I felt inside on the first day of school (and it wasn’t always good), as a mom I always took a deep breath and forged ahead, not because I’m especially brave or wise, but because I thought I owed my kids all the optimism and excitement I could muster. And in all honesty, since both my son and daughter hopped on the bus, ran into the building, pushed us out of the dorm, maybe it was the right thing to do.

 

Where do you stand on the first day of school?

Bill with my daughter and a birthday cake.

I’m writing this on August 31st, always a bittersweet day for me. It was my Uncle Bill’s birthday, my favorite uncle, the uncle by which all other uncles should be measured. This is the uncle who took my seven-year old self ice skating in January, then out for a banana split. In fact, he skated with me and with my Aunt’s many nieces and nephews for decades. This was Bill. He taught us all to swing a bat and a golf club, and to catch a fly ball. He and my aunt never missed a birthday, baptism, confirmation, graduation, etc. They were the champions of milestones and carried this on to the next generation. Bill was the same uncle to my kids as he was to me, sometimes with comic results. He missed an entire quarter of my son’s state championship football game because he went to get coffee (Translation: He was way too nervous to sit in the stands) and ended up helping the crew in the refreshment stand brew the first pot!

In a week where tragedy has helplessly unfolded before our eyes, in this yin & yang season, remembering Bill is a genuine comfort. He would be saying a prayer for hurricane victims, telling me what to do about the brown spots in the lawn, complaining about the Chicago Bears, and cheering on my grandson’s first weeks of first grade.

I hope you have a Bill in your life.

See you next time.

 

 

More from my miscellaneous file

So, I have been thinking about the pictures of our life lately.

If you follow me on Instagram, this photo of the Chicago River is not new. I took it last week, walking down Madison Street from the train station to the Art Institute. This is workday Chicago, part of what the commuters see (or maybe don’t even see any more) on their daily travels to work or school. It’s not as glamorous as Michigan Avenue or the lake front, but it’s very much the city.

As I was flipping through a week’s worth of photos, I was thinking about how they capture life. We all get cameras (or phones!) out for the big moments: birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, etc. And then there are the vacation photos: the beach, the mountains or even the backyard. But lately I’m thinking about daily life, like this photo of construction at Madison St. and Wabash Ave. My challenge is to capture that.

Last week started on a tough note with the pictures from Charlottesville, Virginia, animated by a sound track my mother would describe as “ugly talk.” Yesterday the country was captivated by the power of Mother Nature and a total eclipse that stretched from coast to coast.

Resilience may be one of life’s most valuable assets.

When I took the shot of the Chicago River, my husband and I were headed to the Art Institute in Chicago to see a current show, “Gauguin: Artist as Alchemist.” (If you’re a regular reader, you know this is my idea of a great day and it seemed like a good antidote to the noise of Charlottesville.)

Most of us think of Paul Gauguin as the painter of vibrant and exotic scenes like “Tahitian Women on the Beach.” But this exhibition took a much closer look at his creative process, especially his ceramics and wood carvings. (I know, who knew he even worked in these mediums?)

 

Gauguin actually began his artistic expression as a wood carver, something he was easily able to do as a youthful sailor. Before he was a painter, before he was a businessman, before he was a husband and father, he was a commercial sailor and traveled the world more than once. The experience had a significant impact on his artistic expression. This single figure, right, is something a sailor would carve.

A number of the wood carvings in the exhibition  were flat, including some that were applied to pieces of furniture. We were impressed with the way Gauguin married the finished carving with the rough texture of the original wood.

 

 

I also think it’s interesting that this piece and the one below both feature figures similar to many of his south seas paintings, but in the carving, below, he has added color.

 

In addition to working with wood, Gauguin also created several pieces of pottery, though not all remain due to the fragile nature of the material. Doesn’t the design on this bowl reflect the colors and designs in his paintings?

 

 

This smaller vessel with added decoration and figures and all done in a free-form manner is representative of a number of ceramic pieces in the exhibition. The amount of color and detail he added is also reminiscent of many of his paintings.

 

 

Regrettably, I did not capture images of his printmaking. I really got caught up in the processes he used. Typically woodblock or woodcut prints are made to create identical copies of a single design. However, in Gauguin’s hands process was different. He purposely tweaked each print, with a wash of color, with different papers and inks.  In many cases the prints were displayed as progressions of a design, but not duplicates. Still searching for a better expression.

Steve and I were both struck by how much more Gauguin did than his paintings and about how much more there is to his artistic vision. He tested, experimented, and tried new mediums, always searching for a better way to express himself.

When you think about it, challenging ourselves to progress — in our work, our art, our life — is pretty essential. In this “back to class” season, what are you challenging yourself to do?

Thanks for stopping to read. See you next time!

 

 

 

 

A hit, a miss, and a tradition rolls on

This was my morning walk to the beach on Kiawah Island.

My husband and I, along with our children and grandchildren, spent last week on Kiawah Island, South Carolina. It’s safe to call this a family tradition since we have taken this same vacation for almost all of the last 25-plus years. (Some people might call that a rut, but I like to think of it as a home away from home.)

We look forward each year to familiar days at the beach, bike rides on the island, and favorite restaurants, but each trip also seems to have its own adventures. (On the first morning of the first year my daughter-in-law joined us a baby shark was discovered swimming along the beach. We really worried that she’d never come back!) It’s the kind of place where a waiter in your favorite restaurant turns out to be the boy who lived across the street 20 years ago and an old friend from those mommy-and-me days walks by on the beach where you’ve settled in with a book.

Part of the charm of Kiawah (apart from 10 miles of pristine beachfront, protected dunes and a lush, protected landscape devoid of chain stores or restaurants) is that it’s just 20 miles from Charleston, recently named (again) one of the top destinations in the US. We knew this early on. Charleston is ground zero for American history, foodies, and charm.

I am totally charmed by Charleston’s many gardens, some of them public, some more private, and some completely hidden. At this time of year they are very lush and green.

A hit.

This year my husband and I were in Charleston a day ahead of the rest of the family and stopped for lunch at one of his favorite restaurants. We’d barely settled into our booth when another diner stopped by our table and asked if we were visitors.

Why, yes, we are.

Well, said the diner, I was just given two free passes for Fort Sumter but we’re leaving now. Can you use them? (A bit of history: Charleston’s harbor, where the Cooper and Ashley Rivers merge with the Atlantic Ocean, is also home to Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired.)

This is one of the tricks of Charleston. The sense of polite, genteel hospitality Charlestonians are known for just starts rubbing off on everyone. And for history geeks like us, the passes were like finding money in the street.

The boat to Fort Sumter offers a good look at the U.S.S. Yorktown, a decommissioned aircraft carrier. It’s another great side trip when you need a beach break.

We had been to Fort Sumter years ago, on one of our first trips. Our kids were in grade school then, and it was a very hot day. The best part was the boat ride out there and back; there was very little left of the fort. This time, our daughter, my husband and I made the trip one afternoon. It was not as hot and the boat ride was still fun, but we also appreciated the fort far more. We could not remember if there was a Park Ranger talk the first time around, but there is now and although it was short, we learned a lot.

Fort Sumter was actually the site of two Civil War battles. As a result there is very little left of the original fort.

Fort Sumter was built on a manmade island positioned to guard the all-important Charleston Harbor. After the War of 1812 the U.S. Army realized existing fortifications on either side of the harbor could not stop an attack on the city. Despite the fact that there is very little left of the fort, it was originally pretty large — three stories high and designed to accommodate a substantial number of men and even officers’ families. (It was not yet staffed except for Union troops who had secretly moved there from Fort Moultrie after Lincoln’s election.) After those legendary shots were fired April 12, 1861, and subsequent shelling, the Union Army was ultimately forced to surrender. However, this was still a “Gentleman’s War,” so, until he surrendered, U.S. Army Major Robert Anderson was allowed to receive supplies from the city and use telegraph lines there to communicate with his commanders. (This is, after all, Charleston.) After the surrender Anderson and the remaining soldiers were allowed to leave on a supply ship. They went to New York where they received a hero’s welcome.

And that’s how history unfolds…

A miss.

Look at the detail in this brickwork! From our walk around Charleston.

For the last few years, my daughter and I have made a point of going into Charleston early one morning so we can walk and photograph the streets. Last year we did this on a very hot, humid Charleston morning and, after an hour or so, we were desperate for cool air. We turned a corner and there was the Nathaniel Russell House, one of the “house museums” operated by the Historic Charleston Foundation, so we went in and took the tour — again. We are “repeat offenders” because although houses like this are historic, they are not static. Continuing research, based on excavations, paint analyses, or even newly discovered documents or furniture often lead to changes in the house as well as its interpretation. (We really are history geeks!)

 

These tiny front gardens, often bordered by boxwood, are so pretty and make the most of small spaces.
Another garden bordered by beautiful wrought iron fencing. This fence is very elaborate, but it still allows the homeowner to show off her garden.

 

A view of the Calhoun Mansion’s piazzas, or side porches.

Last year we had passed the Calhoun Mansion and decided we should visit it next, so this year, after a walk that was far more comfortable (and at least 10-degrees cooler), we headed down Meeting Street in time for the first tour. We knew the house, built a few decades after the Civil War, was different than others we have toured (all pre-Civil War, often by many years). What we did not realize was just how different it would be.

A bit more history: the 23,000 square-foot house was built in the 1870s by George W. Williams, who had made a fortune as a merchant-turned-Civil War blockade runner. The docent who showed us around said the house was constructed in the early years of the Gilded Age (think Vanderbilt and Carnegie), when building mansions to hold vast collections of art, furniture and collectibles was common among men of certain stature. It became known as the Calhoun Mansion when Williams died, leaving the house to a daughter married to Patrick Calhoun, grandson of John C. Calhoun.

Calhoun House gardens featured beautifully tended boxwoods, brick paths and a number of water features.

I wondered, out loud to the docent, how Charlestonians accepted this mansion in their midst. The city’s residents, once successful landowners and professionals living privileged lives, had suffered terribly during the Civil War and the city had struggled to survive. Post-war society was so polite that those who did have the means to repair or repaint their homes, did so sparingly, not wanting to embarrass friends and neighbors who could not afford to do the same. The docent pointed out that the construction employed hundreds of unemployed citizens for years.

The mansion is packed with furniture and collectibles, but almost none of it is original to the house. Those belongings were auctioned off after Calhoun suffered financial setbacks. The current owner, however, is an avid collector and has filled the house with the same vast quantities of “stuff.” The floors, the woodwork, the Tiffany chandeliers and the glass ceiling in the music room are all beautiful. But I found it hard to focus on most of it, along with the lovely collectibles, just because there was so much stuff. The collection ranges from Tiffany glassware and a Wedgewood-decked chandelier to Kibuki armor and English footstools made from the feet of real elephants. It’s dizzying.

People love it, but I was confused by the clutter and frankly a little “turned off” that a family really lives here part of the time and charges admission to allow tour groups. Am I weird? Probably. Perhaps I just want a “purist approach” to 19th-Century houses.

The gardens were beautiful, but on the whole I’d call this a miss. Interesting, but maybe not for the right reasons.

On the other hand, here are a few more shots from that morning in Charleston.

 

A lot of Charleston houses are stucco . I especially like the black iron and trim. I know, here I go with fences again, but look at how the vines have woven themselves into this wrought iron. Finally, I love this window box. Nothing fancy, but so lush!

Whether you are traveling or staying close to home this season, I hope your summer features far more hits than misses!

Thanks for stopping by and see you next time!

PS: You can follow me on Instagram here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the intersection of bestseller and headline news

Do you have a favorite hotel? I’m talking about a legendary, grande-dame of a place that may or may not be showing its age but remains elegant, with discrete service, a five-star dining room and the requisite, legendary bar. The Ritz in Paris or the Plaza in New York may come to mind. In Chicago it would probably be the Palmer House or the Drake. In Moscow it is the Metropol Hotel.

According to its website, the Metropol was built in “1899-1907 in Art Nouveau style, with contributions from some of Russia’s greatest architects and artists of the day.” Its location between the Bolshoi Ballet and the Kremlin makes it ideal for travelers and as a setting for A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.

This is my new favorite book. 


It would be a great read at any time (and obviously it has been for many since it spent 20 weeks on the New York Times best seller list since its release in 2016). But now, with Russia dominating our headlines, it seems almost too perfect. Do not, however, expect A Gentleman in Moscow to bear any resemblance to current events. Rather this is a tale from inside Russia in the first half of the 20th century. In fact, it’s a novel set almost entirely inside the Metropol Hotel.

Briefly, the novel tells the story of Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, a Russian aristocrat arrested by the Bolsheviks in 1922, but saved from execution because as a student he had written an influential revolutionary poem. Instead of the Gulag, he is sentenced to permanent house arrest in Moscow’s Hotel Metropol. The Count had been living in a posh suite in the Metropol, where he had installed a variety of cherished family heirlooms and established a comfortable routine. However, under house arrest, he is forced to move what he can into a garret room in the Metropol’s attic and go from there.

The Count, being the Count, adapts.

That’s the charm and the challenge of the story. I must admit that I knew the premise of the book before I started reading, and I was intrigued about how Towles would handle the limitations of the hotel. Not to worry. The count’s former worldly circle is replaced by a new one within the Metropole: the cook, maitre’d, seamstress, bartender, and even an orphan for whom he assumes a paternal role. Towles deftly introduces hotel guests to bring the world to the Metropole and the Count, whose diplomatic skills and knowledge of history, literature, music, art, food and drink eventually make him a valuable mentor to high-ranking party members, netting a whole new range of relationships.

And then there are the dramas that play out. This is, after all, post-WWI and revolutionary Russia. There is the depression, the party’s struggles, WWII, Stalin’s death, the Cold War. The book spans nearly four decades, giving the count plenty of time to adapt while never losing his dignity or his sense of right and wrong.

Although the focus is on the Count, it’s impossible to overlook the challenges the other characters experience. The cook isn’t just losing access to ingredients in a time of shortages, he’s losing access to the tools of his trade, to his artistic expression. When the hotel manager — “the party’s” representative in the hotel — inserts himself into the daily restaurant meeting, the Count and his cohorts lose their autonomy. The losses may be incremental, but they mount. Life in Moscow is not easy, but these characters soldier on, assuring their guests the Metropol’s traditional service and style, and assuring themselves of their values and traditions.

This is much more than a survival story, it’s about thriving in the midst of adversity, never losing one’s “center” (and in fact, having a moral center). And this is the part that brings me to current headlines. Without sounding too political, what does it mean today to have a moral center? What does it mean to be an American in 2017? I’ve been thinking about that a lot.

This book would be a great read at any time, but right now, I think it’s perfect.

Bonus! Saving — and celebrating — a bit of every book

My daughter is an avid reader. (Hence her blog, What Maggie Read). We talk books a lot: what we’re reading, why, what’s next on our list, what our respective book groups thought about recent reads, and on and on (as my husband would say). One recurring topic of this conversation is documenting what we have read.

Maggie keeps a reading journal. (I’d like to be that disciplined, but I’m not.) She recently told me about a friend who keeps a kind of “annotated” list of books. As Adele finishes a book, she adds the title and the first sentence of the book. Cool, huh? We both think this is a great way to keep a record of what you have read. (Thanks, Adele.)

Do you track what you have read in a journal or a list or just by looking at your bookshelves? I would love to hear from you.

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time!