Between the Lines: You’ve gotta read this!

| November 1, 2012 | 1 Comment

I’ve always thought it a bit presumptuous, also risky, to recommend a book to someone unless I know their reading tastes very well. And even then, “You’ve gotta read this!” can cause discomfort. That said, here goes.

In late September I went to a reading and signing at Warwick’s in La Jolla. The speaker was Amor Towles, the author of my favorite book of 2011, one of my most-loved contemporary novels ever, “Rules of Civility.”

I can’t do it justice in a summary, but it follows the fate and fortune of Katey Kontent, a working-class Brooklynite, as her life becomes caught up in depression-era, jazz-age Manhattan and entwined with some of its eccentric inhabitants. It’s a love letter to New York, as the city lives and breathes in every scene, as much a protagonist as Katey herself. The story develops in fascinating detail, the characters richly realized. It delivers laughs and tears, pathos and suspense, and a keen sense of vicarious affinity. And the language is sublime.

Here’s one brief taste, since last month I talked about food writing. At lunch with a friend, Katey orders a salad, “a terrific concoction of iceberg greens, cold blue cheese and warm red bacon. If I were a country, I would have made it my flag.” And if I had written that line I’d put down my pen and die happy—it doesn’t get any better or more evocative.

“Rules of Civility” received rave reviews—it was described as “brilliant,” “magnificent,” and compared to Fitzgerald and Capote. It appeared on the lower rungs of the New York Times bestseller lists for a few weeks last summer, but it was still a bit of a sleeper, and I thought of it as my own precious find.

So I was surprised to find Warwick’s packed when I arrived a half-hour early for the event. One of the staff told me that it was the store’s hands-down favorite last year; they were so enthusiastic that they sold it by word of mouth and created a big following. The fan club was present in full force that night, eager as groupies at a rock concert.

Amor Towles (pronounced “Aymer Tole”), is a bit of a Tom Hanks-lookalike with similar mannerisms too. Charming, witty and wise, a natural story teller. He shared some of his own experiences of New York in his twenties, showing the uniqueness of the city, then and now, and how this story couldn’t have happened anywhere else. He read a couple of passages, launching me on my third reading of the book, which I found as fresh and exciting as the first time around.

I was recently in Portland and Seattle, both acclaimed “book cities,” their landmark stores, Powell’s and Elliott Bay, respectively, popular destinations of authors on west coast promotional tours. Few get as far south as San Diego. A friend said, “Envy their bookstores. Don’t envy their weather.” I’m not so sure about that, but I do know that with the disappearance of most of the independent book stores, make that most of the book stores, period, in San Diego, we don’t have too many chances like this to see and hear important writers. And if we don’t support these businesses, they’ll fall by the wayside too.

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