An Excellent New Book, and a New President-elect

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Tomorrow I’m hosting our monthly book club lunch. I should be frantically cooking and cleaning, but I have the Latvian Stew on simmer and my book club friends will probably forgive me a bit dust. Besides, we’re all aging and it’s possible they may not see the dust. (I like to think that my aging friends don’t notice my wrinkles either.) Anyway, we know each other very well and they will understand that I had to take the time to write this now, on this day after the election of Donald Trump.

First, let me tell you about the book we’ll be discussing. The protagonist in “A Gentleman in Moscow” by Amor Towles, is Count Alexander Rostov who has returned to Russia after the revolution to help his grandmother escape. He succeeded in getting his grandmother safely away, but he is tried as a “unrepentant aristocrat” by a Bolshevik tribunal who might have had him shot or sent to Siberia. However, a decade earlier he was credited with having written a “revolutionary” poem, so he is instead sentenced to spend the remainder of his life living in an attic room at the elegant Hotel Metropol in Moscow.


If he leaves the hotel, he will be shot on sight. I won’t give away anymore of this mesmerizing and atmospheric novel except to tell you that in the end, the Count manages to live a very large life despite his house arrest.  Amor Towles, who also wrote the marvelous “Rules of Civility” is a masterful writer. His language is beautiful, his characters nuanced, his plot perfectly paced. I expect this new book to be an award-winner as well as a best-seller. But you should read it because you will gain insight into not only what it was like to live in the Soviet Union during the turbulent decades of Lenin, Stalin and Khrushchev, but how love, and kindness and true nobility of spirit will triumph in the end.

So, yes, I’m excited about this book, but hosting is always a lot of work because my book club friends are over-the-top entertainers. These are lovely women—each and every one of them—but mother-of-pearl they are hard to keep up with.  And, goodness, I try.  I think it started when we read “Poisonwood Bible” and Roberta transformed her dining room into an African jungle. Then Boots created an island out of parsley and had a life-sized stuffed tiger on her side-board when we read “Life of Pi”.

And the food? Plan on dieting for a week after our monthly Thursday meeting. I still remember Susan’s caramel cake when we read “The Help”. (I know my thighs do—some people have muscle memory; my body has fat memory.)

So, when it’s my turn, I stress a bit. Not only do I have to dust, but there are linens, napkin rings, centerpieces and most importantly, a menu to consider. But I feel good about tomorrow. Because Count Rostov was not only erudite and witty, but a gourmet, and the Hotel Metropol had the best restaurant in Moscow, so there is an abundance of food and drink in the book.  I chose the Latvian Stew with pork, apricots and caramelized onions because it looked do-able and I could find a recipe on-line. I’m a little worried that the dark beer will make the gravy too hoppy, but the flavors will mellow after a night in the refrigerator and the addition of roasted sweet potatoes should be perfect. I’ll also serve an anise and orange salad, some caviar canapés, Russian Tea Cakes for desert, and, of course, champagne. The Count always had a glass of champagne at lunch.

My book club started in 1993. There used to be eleven of us, but Linda moved to Seattle. Now there are 10. What I’ve learned over the years is that how people react to books reveals their core character and quite a few of their secrets.  After all these years, I can almost always predict who will like the book and who won’t and why. From an outsider’s perspective, we’re not very diverse. We’re all white woman of a certain age and privilege who have the luxury of being able to spend a bit of  time reading novels and entertaining.  But, we run the spectrum of deeply religious to atheist, very liberal to quite conservative. And there is almost a generation of difference in age from youngest to oldest. Each of us has been shaped over many years by many factors. We have seen our children grow—and some die—we have married, divorced and widowed. We have shared a lot; we understand each other. But we do not always agree.

So, I, probably the most liberal of the group, have been treading lightly the last few months. I was appalled at even the candidacy of a man like Donald Trump. And it was beyond my comprehension that he could win. It’s true I wasn’t a huge Hillary fan, but she seemed by far the best alternative to me. Last night I watched the election returns with disbelief turning to horror. I barely slept last night.

I got up, drank coffee and read the details of the debacle.  And now it’s time to move on. We will abide by the election results and hope for the best. Despite my many doubts and misgivings, we will see what he can do. Hopefully the office will make the man.  And I respect the office. I will call him Mr. President and I will not refer to his orange-ness or his hands.

And I will do what I can do. Tomorrow, as we begin our lunch, I will raise my glass of champagne, and in the spirit of Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, I shall propose a toast: Here is to surviving and thriving—regardless of regime.

Hollyn Chase
Since her retirement, Hollyn Chase has served as VP of operations at Chez Chase--she also cooks and vacuums. Darling Jack, her husband of forty-two years, gets to be President; they agree that this is because he works much harder than she does. Being the VP is not all glitz and glamour, she does many mundane things. But she does them happily since she discovered that listening to audiobooks makes the boring bearable. Because her mind is always occupied, she's stopped plotting to overthrow the government. Her children, who rarely agree on anything, are both happy about this. Besides her addiction to fiction, she's fairly normal and sometimes even nice.
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19 Responses

  1. Avatar Judith Smith says:

    Hollyn, once again you’ve nailed it.  Today I also host a book club–ours a group of 8, with only 5 who have been together since the 80’s.  I always enjoy the books you recommend as well as your on-point, engaging reviews.  You are a gifted writer and thinker, and I appreciate today’s reflections on the book you read AND the political process, flawed though it is, that is the cumbersome mechanism called democracy.

  2. Avatar Eve Berg-Pugh says:

    Oh, Hollyn, you’ve done it again. Why aren’t you writing novels? You have such a gift of engaging your reader, and then weaving words to keep them tightly enmeshed.  I loved Rules of Civility, and now will hurry to add this new novel to my “must reads”.  Reading and discussing this book juxtaposed against our newest election highlights is also an interesting example of civility…and maturity….and democracy!


  3. Ah – What a lovely read.  I see NO dust — but man, oh, man – what a gorgeous library you have. Thank you for bringing graciousness and civility to this table.

  4. Avatar Linnea PERRINE says:

    Smart, touching and generous. Your articles are always beautifully and skillfully written, with just the right amount of humor. As others have stated, you have a gift. I wish I could be at your table today. I know it will be another special experience as it always is on book club day.  Enjoy!

  5. Avatar Auntie Bee says:

    As someone who frequently benefits from your book recommendations, I thank you for A Gentleman in Moscow.  Although the first 50 pages were a little slow, once the story takes off, it is hard to put it down.
    Regarding your view of the election, I wish I had your optimism that the office will make the man.  I think this election will negatively impact future women’s rights, the environment and human kindness.
    Can’t wait to hear what your book club thinks of the book.  Your table looks gorgeous, I hope I get to taste one of your Russian Tea Cakes!

  6. Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

    Beautifully written, as always.

    I’ve thought about it, and there’s no delicate way to say this…

    While the protagonist of the novel was finding ways to thrive in his luxury prison—something afforded to him because of his station in life—millions of people who either didn’t have his wealth or were not fortunate enough to be judged somewhat redeemable were murdered by the authoritarian Soviets.

    Many of us will carry on with our book clubs, golf and tennis club memberships, and VRBO weekend get-aways, comfortable in our—ugh, I can’t stand this overused bit of liberal jargon—privilege. That’s what I intend to do as well.  But God help us, including (maybe especially) liberals of privilege, if that leads to complacency when the barbarians have already breached the gate.  The authoritarian mindset that has led us to where we are freaks me out. In my essay on another page here on, my final prediction was that there won’t be a second term for President Trump.  It occurred to me as I wrote that last prediction that it could have either of two meanings. Here’s some über-paranoia for you regarding the second possible meaning: President-for-life Trump.

    You don’t have to worry about the dark beer making your stew too hoppy if the beer is a typical porter or stout. There are mildly hoppy and dark German maibocks out there that you might want to avoid if you don’t want a hint of bitterness. Thankfully, the imperial stout (heavily hopped, like an IPA) craze beget by hop-mania was a brief phase. That stuff was awful.

    • Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

      My husband is a home brewer and shakes his head about the over-hopped IPA’s that seem to have taken hold. Even their names or descriptions are off-putting:  Triple Hopped IPA!  Instead of trying to drink some of these concoctions, one might as well just chew on some hops.  Craft brewers must have listened because they seem to have dialed back on the hops in many cases.

      • Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

        Beverly — I like my IPAs, but I’m over the double- and triple-hopped stuff.  I like a nose full of citrus and pine, and I even like the faint smell of skunk musk in the night air, but a triple-hopped IPA is way to skunky for my palate.

    • Steve, as you often do, this comment took me on a mental roller coaster ride. I don’t have enough emoticons between 🙁 and 🙂 and :/ to express how many levels you reached and tapped into with your words and wisdom.

      You are the king of critical thinking, and I appreciate you. Thank you.

      • Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

        Doni — I actually dialed it back by not including the 2nd Amendment angle, even though it’s central to my concerns about the so-called “alt-right.” I absolutely believe that the 2nd Amendment was intended purely as a hedge against tyranny, both external and internal. It could turn out to be the opposite of a hedge against internal tyrrany if the authoritarians decide to consolidate their power. Guess who has nearly all of the guns and ammo?

        Interesting times.

    • Avatar cheyenne says:

      Steve, as much as I rant against liberal privilege I really do respect them and say it was an earned privilege.  While I was seeking the excesses of the 60’s and 70’s the liberal educated were seeking degrees in education which was a lot more important than knowing when happy hour was and who served the best snacks.

      As far as Trump having a second term I think, at 70 plus, he will decide there are other courses he would like to pursue.  2020 could be another open year for presidential elections though Trump will wait until the last minute to let everyone knows because he enjoys the conspiracy theories that are spun about his every move.  And HRC is done, if she can’t beat a candidate like Trump she can’t beat anybody.  At this point she would probably lose to The Hat.

  7. You know someone is a writer at heart when she is supposed to be cleaning her house for guests but she manages to pause long enough to write and submit a thoughtful column that is part book review, part social commentary. Thank you, Hollyn. You rock.  🙂


  8. Avatar pam Alexander says:

    Reading has always been a diversion for me and A Gentlemen in Moscow is already on my list.  An avid lifelong reader I expect to break reading records for the next four years.  Hollyn, keep cranking out titles and book reviews.  I have enjoyed all your suggestions.

  9. Avatar Lori says:


    We’ve know each a long time and you are like fine wine, yes, better as you age.  You continually amaze me and when is the book going to be published?    A nice article bringing the past and present, fictional and nonfictional together.  Nice article.

  10. Avatar Joanne Lobeski-Snyder says:

    What a beautifully crafted piece!    I so enjoyed reading it and will add a new book to my reading list.  I imagine  this story will differ greatly from the ones written by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn about that same era.

  11. Any possibility you would share the stew recipe? I just loved your post!

  12. Avatar hollyn says:

    I spent some time googling Latvian Stew and this is seemed to be the best. I followed the recipe pretty much as stated–and no, the dark beer did not make it too “hoppy.” I browned the meat and used my slow cooker to let the stew simmer for about 6 hours. I recommend soaking the apricots in apple cider–when I added them they really soaked up the gravy. I considered what kind of carb to serve this with–rice, noodles, groats? But what worked brilliantly (if I do say so myself) was roasted cubed sweet potatoes. I added them them just before serving, but since I had leftovers, I reheated the whole stew that night for our dinner and it was even better.

    Thanks Leanne!

  13. Thank you so much, Hollyn! I had found this one but will definitely use yours! This post was the best medicine in the world after the contentious election and post-election emotion. I was thinking of maybe trying the duck in reduced wine sauce with champagne (of course) and blinis for Christmas eve. I love the count!

  14. Ooops this