Friday, October 28, 2011

‘Rules of Civility’ is impressive first novel

This is a book review from 'Balancing the Books' by Michelle Karas, who graciously published my first-ever book review on her blog. She's the expert book blogger; I'm just an avid reader. Thanks to my sister-in-law JoAnne Egolf for the book recommendation.

Amor Towles’ first novel, “Rules of Civility,” (Viking, released July 26, 2011; $26.95; 352 pp) is a fresh, brightly-written tale of a young woman’s coming of age in New York as the Depression is ending and before America realizes the world’s greatest war is beginning.
As the story begins, protagonist Katey Kontent (pronounced like the state of being, not the table inside a book) is looking back at her youth from a fulfilled place in the future. Visiting a photographer’s exhibit opening with her husband, Katey stumbles upon photographs from 1938 of a rich banker in his prime and then in his decline. She recognizes the face in the photos as that of Tinker Grey, a man she once knew, and the recognition takes her back.
The years in which the story is set, from the last night of 1937 to the last night of 1940, are significant in Katey’s life as the start of a career in publishing. At the time, Katey is working as a stenographer in a law office, living in a woman’s boarding house and going out on the town with her friend Eve to meet men, listen to jazz and experience the city.
Katey and Eve are pursuing careers and looking for love in a city that’s coming of age along with them. In a small jazz club on New Year’s Eve, they meet successful banker Tinker Grey, who befriends the two women and introduces them to New York’s high society, flirtly publicly with Eve and falling in love privately with Katey.
The story of Tinker and his relationships with first Eve and then Katey winds through the book and brings with it a cast of interesting characters: Wallace Wolcott, the reserved millionaire whose courtship of Katey becomes not a romance but a sincere friendship that gets both of them through their time of self-discovery; Dickey, a rich and delightful suitor who enjoys his life and takes Katey along for the ride, beguiling the reader because he is spoiled by his mother’s wealth , not in spite of it; Henry Grey, Tinker’s struggling artist brother, who lives on the seamier side of New York, coming in and out of Katey’s circles with reality checks on the state of mind and circumstances surrounding his brother.
Tinker is not always what he seems, and his relationships – with his godmother, his brother, Eve and finally Katey -- appear uncomplicated, but each one hides the truth on some level.
Katey makes bold choices throughout the book – quitting a job just when she is promoted to pursue another career in which she has no experience, eventually taking her into the publishing world of Conde Nast.
The book’s title comes from George Washington’s “rules of civility” printed at the end of the book in their entirety. The rules are introduced as a standard by which Tinker claims to live.
Asked about how he claimed to focus on a document from an era 150 years before the book’s setting, Towles says, “I imagined Tinker as an avid student of the (colonial) period. But once into the book, I happened to pull a collection of Washington’s writings off my shelf, which led off with his ‘Rules of Civility’ – and I knew right away that the ‘Rules’ should be the primary thing that Tinker had studied.”
He calls the rules “Washington’s youthful list … at the heart of the whole crazy matter.”
While introduced as Tinker’s rules, they also blueprint Katey’s search for identity during a time in which New York and the nation are striving to recover from the Great Depression and preparing to face a horror beginning in Europe that they don’t yet know exists. The hopefulness of a young woman setting out on her life’s course matches that of a city and nation. Towles’ protagonist is a woman of ambition whose encounters and actions above all serve to protect her integrity.
The novel joins “The Postmistress” and “Sarah’s Key” as books set around the time and mood of a pending World War II, and Katey Kontent joins those books’ heroines as another woman of self-sufficient means and inspiring strength.
“Rules of Civility” is that rare combination of good storytelling and exacting prose from a first-time novelist that predicts Towles is a writer we will hear more from in the future.

Monday, October 3, 2011

It's National Newspaper Week: Celebrate the commitment

As a fitting prelude to National Newspaper Week, a news story Saturday quoted police crediting a published account in The Mercury with providing tips that led to the arrest of a child rape suspect.
According to Pottstown Detective Heather Long, police had been trying for months to locate a man wanted for sex assaults on children. The day a story was published in the newspaper with that information and the suspect’s photo, the phone started ringing at the police department at 8 a.m.
Long said the tips led to the suspect’s arrest.
Despite all the doomsayers out there writing obituaries for the nation’s newspaper industry, 150 million Americans — two out of three adults — read a local newspaper last week.
And the case of the child rape suspect shows they often take action on what they read.
Newspapers still represent the most trusted source of news in America. And local newspapers like this one still provide readers with information they can’t get anywhere else.
Here’s another example:
On Sunday, The Mercury published a news story that revealed area members of Congress collect state legislative pensions while earning a congressional salary of $174,000.
The gist of that information came from a recent USA Today analysis on how state legislators around the nation boost their own pension benefits, often unbeknownst to voters.
Staff reporter Evan Brandt took that information and localized it with five congresssional reps from the tri-county area, soliciting explanations from them and reaction from readers.
Without that initiative by this local newspaper, the report’s impact on local voters and their opinions would go unknown.
Local newspapers are still the best and in many towns the only source tailoring information to a community or neighborhood level.
This is National Newspaper Week, and this year’s theme, “Newspapers — Your Number One Source for Local News,” underscores the importance of the nation’s newspapers in the daily lives of citizens.
Newspapers certainly have competitors out there: a hundred million websites, hundreds of thousands of bloggers, Facebook, Twitter, billboards, radio and television. And that competition is formidable.
But the vast majority of the “authoritative” news coverage that other media outlets utilize comes from daily and weekly newspapers.
Every day, some 20,000 households representing about 60,000 people read the print version of The Mercury. During the course of a month, our website will be clicked more than 2.5 million times.
That’s a lot of traffic for an industry that some call a dead-end road.
Newspapers are the number one source of local news in every city and county in America because we show up each and every day and cover those stories. It’s what our readers have come to expect.
And it’s what we do better than any other news source in America.
Newspapers matter -- in print and online. If you doubt the power of a newspaper, just ask Pottstown Detective Heather Long.

Doug Anstaett, president of the Newspaper Association Managers, contributed to this Opinion.