Friday, June 21, 2013

Review: Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

A depression era novel that is chaotic and joyful.

 Katya “Katey” Kontent (that’s Kon-TENT as in content as a purring cat) comes from a Russian family and seems to be the only one of her family to have made it to the Great Depression intact. She has a partner in crime, one Evelyn “Eve” Ross, who is blonde perfection from the Midwest running away from her wealthy family and their expectations (marriage, kids, farm) and determined to make it on her own.

 When Katey and Eve descend on a low rent club New Year’s Eve 1937, they cross paths with Theodore “Tinker” Grey, ostensibly looking for his brother Hank, and begin a threesome that will change all their lives.

 It would seem to be a strange choice to base a novel on George Washington’s 110 Rules of Civility, but this is a strange novel, a comedy of errors with little comedy and quite a few errors. Amor Towles takes his characters through the tail end of the Great Depression when booze flowed freely, everyone smoked, and no one really knew where they were headed . . . at first. Take two poor young women (one by choice and the other by birth) determined to have a good time during one of the most chaotic and free wheeling times of the early twentieth century and add one rich and handsome young man from old money and a secret in his past, that is not so secret, and errors will follow.

Gate crashing at wealthy homes where the booze is free, jazz clubs in the wee hours, car crashes, blighted romantic triangles, sex and the single wealthy woman with unusual tastes, and love doing someone wrong and those are just the high points of Rules of Civility. A handy guide at the end of the book lists the rules that Washington tried to live his life by, and a handy guide it is for Tinker and for Katey, both of whom seem not to be able to get out of their own way.

Towles infuses jazz age novel with the brash and carefree attitude that the twenty-something on their madcap way to something different from what their parents intended for them much like the movies during that pre-war era when Prohibition was out and the frantic life was in. Katey and Eve are one half of the famous foursome of Sex and the City and they did it first. It is as if Towles intended to show New York City as it is and has always been with youth at the helm.

 Men come and go, but Tinker remains, at least on the sidelines and in Katey’s heart, like a thread of melody in a symphony reminiscent of its humbler origins.

 “Some people are born with the ability to appreciate the serene and formally structured music like Bach and Handel. They can sense the abstract beauty of the music’s mathematical relationships, its symmetries and motifs. But Dicky wasn’t one of them.”

It is through Dicky and his affinity for the seeming chaos of jazz and his inability, despite his money and opportunities, to toe the upper crust line, that Katey faces the reality of what she wanted from the beginning and threw aside.

Rules of Civility isn’t Handel or Bach. It is jazz and booze and free love and the desire to be something better, something more, something new, in a New York City that changes its face but never its heart. This is the Great Depression of jazz babies cruising through the morass of youth to the next summit 

Monday, June 17, 2013

Guest Post: D. Kai Wilson-VIola

Reading and writing – hand in hand, refilling the well
One of the major things that I’ve discovered is that if I don’t read, I can’t write.  So it’s absolutely mystifying when I speak to writers who tell me they don’t have time to read any more.  Or even more astounding – those that don’t read ‘at all’.  And while I respect that there are probably good reasons for it, I can’t get my head around the idea that writers aren’t reading – beyond the obvious stuff on social networking and blogs and newspapers and more.
Reading when you don’t have time
There’s no such thing as ‘no time’, unless, from the moment you open your eyes, until you fall into bed in a heap, you’re on the go.  Many writers that I speak to tell me that they’re picking up their kids, and then talk about the half an hour they waited for their children – or the ten minutes in the queue at the post office.  I read!  I’ve got an app on my phone, and if I know I’m going to be somewhere with any wait, I grab one of my tablets.  I’m lucky – I have a Kindle Fire and an iPad, plus the Kindle app on my phone (and Audible too!)  so I’ve always got something to read (and something to amuse my kids if we’re travelling), but if you can’t do that for any reason, there’s nothing wrong with taking a paperback with you – it’s the act of reading itself that’s important. 
Why?  Because directing your imagination and actually experiencing the events that someone else has created is the single best way to formulate and understand how to do something similar yourself.
Really dissecting a piece, to see why it works, and why it might not is good for your critical skills  and most importantly – it gives you a chance to experience and enjoy something else.
Studies show….
Reading fiction is good for you – not only does it lower stress levels (yes, I know; it doesn’t always feel like that when we’re rooting for a character!) but it teaches you to cope with and explore ambiguity – at least according to a study by two researchers from Toronto.  Literary short stories in this case, but I’m sure it extends to reading in general.
Anecdotally, but those that read more in class on my degree in Creative Writing seemed to cope better with the workload and create the best stories, and, at the end of the day, got the best grades.  I’m not sure what would have happened if we’d have said that we don’t read on the course, but we were encouraged to devour books whole, and so we did.  I held down a full time job as a copywriter, parented two children, ran a house AND did a 40 hour a week degree, and still fit in reading time – it might not have been much (in the bath, or in bed in the morning before everyone else got up) but it was doable.
Never have, never will?  Seriously?
I totally get the idea that we’ve got to make sure that our time is allotted properly, but aside from considering reading as a downtime pursuit, you can also make it double duty – research your genre, relax your mind, learn and find things that resonate with your voice.  It doesn’t have to be a chore – reading is fun.  And yet, I still encounter writers, all the time, who say that it’s not something they’re interested in even doing.
At the end of the day though, if all you’re doing is writing, and not refilling your writerly well (however you do it) you’re going to struggle – but I do think that anyone that isn’t reading isn’t doing themselves any favors.  And as writers, we have to make sure we’re preserving and protecting everything we can, and giving ourselves every tool and opportunity to be a success.
And if you really can’t face reading – Audible is about the same cost as a couple of eBooks a month  and you can listen to that anywhere, with the right equipment.  Most phones support it now, as do all of the major tablets/computers.

D Kai Wilson-Viola is a long-time blogger, writer, parent, photographer, graduate, mental health advocate and cat lover.  When not writing, editing or holding down a day job in Public Relations, she can be found offering advice on her groups and sites, reading or chasing her teen and tween and two cats.  You can read all about her adventures in publishing and writing at Author Interrupted or Language and Print.
Image credit – Mourgefile -