Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Flowers in the Metropol

Today, Amor Towles graced us with one of the most perfect books of the year - A Gentleman in Moscow.  It's my latest pick that you'll find in our September newsletter, available in finer bookstores everywhere - as long as they're ours - or of course online here.

I didn't think it possible for Mr. Towles to improve on his first novel.  That book, Rules of Civility, became a favorite of mine when it was released five years ago and not just because Mr. Towles has one of the best author signatures going. 

Seriously - authors?  Having a stamp - like that gorgeous red one, upper right - at hand to adorn your books when you sign them?  Genius move right there.  It of course helps when the book is brilliant, as Rules of Civility is, but the stamp doesn't hurt.

At all.

May we speak, for just a moment, about author signatures?  Some people don't care one way or the other.  I'm not some people.  I care a lot.  I have a book problem, that is actually a first edition problem, that is actually actually a signed first edition problem.  Here's the deal, scribes - if you want someone to commit hours, plural, to reading your book, then you can take a few moments to sign your book if someone asks.  If there are too many readers?  And it's going to take a while to sign each book?  Consider yourself lucky.  Very lucky.  Too often, big name writers can't be bothered to actually meet the public that has made them a Big Name Writer.  If they conduct a signing - of late they have fallen into the new habit of pre-signing their books.  This is what's known as an abomination.  Please - meet your readers.  Say hello.  Be gracious and offer them one second.  Or ten.  Remember - they're why you're a BNW.

Mr. Towles?  My apologies.  I didn't mean to interrupt the introduction of your drink with a screed.  But because you take such care when signing your books - care enough that you stamp them in addition to signing them - you put the issue in stark relief.

Anyway.  Sorry.  There's a drink coming, I promise.

Reading the novel in Russia certainly had its charms.
Where Rules of Civility was all New York highs and lows - beginning at the end, on the last day of 1937 - A Gentleman in Moscow is a different time, 1922, and of course a different place.  What both books share is an assured author who is able to put words on the page that are witty and graceful, who brings elegant characters to life but who isn't afraid to show the squalid motives we all possess. 

I propose a simple challenge:  pick up A Gentleman in Moscow.  Read the first three pages - a transcript of the Appearance Of Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov Before The Emergency Committee Of The People's Commissiarat For Internal Affairs.  If, after reading those pages, you don't want to keep going, drinks are on me.

I have a feeling no drinks will be on me.

Those first few pages should be dry, right?  A transcript of a courtroom proceeding?  But I can guarantee that given those pages, you'll want to follow the Count for more than the 400 pages we're given.  You'll want to follow the Count as the years accumulate outside the Hotel Metropol - where he's been sentenced to house arrest by the Bolsheviks.  And though the Count is forced to give up his suite of rooms for a cramped garret, he discovers more in his reduced circumstances than he could have discovered in his life before the revolution. 

I was lucky enough to hear Mr. Towles discuss A Gentleman in Moscow at a gathering in the Palace Hotel in San Francisco.  To hear the author talk about that grand hotel as being a sister to the Metropol - spaces that were created around the turn of the century to cater to a new, moneyed clientele, spaces that shared some of the same amenities to allow those travelers to feel at home on different continents, gave the book an extra heft.  Allowed us to feel the Metropol because we could see the Palace.

Where Mr. Towles had wonderfully created an entire country within the confines of a hotel, he allowed us a glimpse into the process that led to that creation.

There were flowers all over the Palace Hotel that July night, and those flowers evoked the reminiscences of the Count as he remembered a time when there were always flowers in the Metropol, as he remembered Fatima Federova, the hotel's florist.  She would have been the one to provide the magnificent arrangements in the lobby of the Metropol, more grand than the display in the Palace's lobby. 

Those memories gave me the name of the drink, and the Count himself gave me the body.  He enjoyed brandy, so I wanted to start there.  But then the story introduced me to Konstantin Konstaninovich, an old Greek.  A lender by trade.  Summoned by the Count to turn hidden gold into money more easily spent.  And since Greeks have their own brandy - Metaxa - I'd substitute it for the Count's own.

So, if you have the time - get yourself a copy of A Gentleman.  If you're lucky, maybe you'll see and hear Mr. Towles read from the book.  If  you ask him to sign your copy, you'll be in for a treat.  He'll give you a moment or two, probably he'll thank you for coming, and then, he just might stamp the book near his signature.

Those red, Russian rooftops don't come with the book - they're placed there by an author whose attention to detail shows in the book and on the signature page.

Again, please buy a copy of this Gentleman, take a seat, and let me arrange some Flowers in the Metropol for you.

Flowers in the Metropol 
1.5 oz Metaxa
.5 oz rose water
.25 oz simple syrup
.25 oz lemon juice
1 drop Aftelier Perfumes Rose Chef’s Essence
Rose-petal ice sphere

Stir all - except the sphere - with ice.  Strain over the sphere.

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