Work Like Any Other – on the Man Booker Longlist

9781501112492_p0_v3_s192x300    Virginia Reeves delivers a “scared straight” message in her Man Booker long listed tale of a man sent to prison in Alabama in the 1920s – Work Like Any Other.  With vivid realistic descriptions of Roscoe T. Martin’s harrowing prison life and the toll he pays for rewiring electricity into his farmhouse, Reeves spares no mercy on the reader.

Martin, an electrician by trade, who enjoys reading about Faraday’s principles of electromagnetic conduction, resentfully leaves his job to live on his wife’s farm when his father-in-law dies. His solution to the farm’s decline is to siphon electricity from the mainline onto the farm, and his initial efforts are successful until a company man dies from checking a live line on his property.  Suddenly, he is in prison serving ten to twenty years, and his accomplice, Wilson, the Black farmhand who has worked the land for years, is consigned to working the mines.

Reeves cleverly maintains the suspense by alternating chapters from Roscoe’s prison experience to life on the farm.  His wife, Marie, bereft from not being able to have more children after her difficult delivery of their son Gerald, blames Roscoe for everything and refuses any communication with him.  She is not present at the trial; she does not answer his letters; she refuses to allow their son to visit him in prison.  Her cold anger seeps through the narrative when Roscoe imagines her damning him to death in prison.  Later, her vengeful attitude threatens to destroy Roscoe’s future.

Reeves uses electricity as the conductor of Roscoe’s dreams of a better life.  He is forced to reinvent himself in prison as he works in the dairy, in the prison library, and finally with the dogs chasing down escapees, yet he defines himself as an electrician, even offering to wire the new electric chair built for executions- an offer the parole board does not appreciate.  He suffers beatings, near death stabbings, cruel torture, yet he connects with a few other inmates and Taylor, the guard who recruits him to work with dogs.  Amazingly, he survives.

But Reeves has more to say, and she continues in her Part Two to examine life after prison.  Roscoe faces an uncertain future with the years he has lost and the toll on his body, yet he longs to see his wife and his son.  Reeves offers a realistic and redemptive ending but not until she scares the reader one more time with possibilities.

Work Like Any Other is a powerful story full of caution, revenge, and forgiveness, and with a glimpse into a time when electricity began to change everything.






A Gentleman in Moscow

9780670026197_p0_v4_s192x300    With subtle humor and philosophical asides worthy of Montaigne, whose book is referenced in the story, Amor Towles records the life of Count Alexander Rostov, under house arrest in Moscow’s luxurious Hotel Metropol in A Gentleman in Moscow. The story follows the Count from 1922 to 1954, embellishing Russian history with the Count’s determination and sophisticated view of his situation.

Prison can be anywhere – sometimes within our own walls – but knowing escape is possible can make life less forbidding.  Rostov is spared the execution many of his wealthy royal contemporaries suffered in the overthrow of the monarchy because of a poem he has written. His exile is in the hotel he has frequented, but his suite is replaced by a one hundred foot closet.  If he dares to leave the hotel, he will be shot on sight.

For a while, Rostov manages to continue a leisurely lifestyle, reading his papers in the lobby, taking his meals in the hotel restaurants, drinking brandy at the bar.  The gold sovereigns stashed in his Archduke uncle’s desk help, but inevitably the limits of the grand hotel become claustrophobic.

Throughout Rostov’s tenure at the hotel, a series of characters change his view and save his sanity.  Just as each person we meet adds something to our lives, each of Towles characters appears just as he needs them.  The first, Nina, is a precocious little girl in a yellow dress, a guest at the hotel, who gives him a new purpose and a new view on his restrained circumstances.  Later in the book, her daughter repeats the favor, and becomes his surrogate daughter. The workman on the roof, who offers him coffee, saves his from despair, and his three friends – the chef, the maitre’d, and the seamstress – and Anna, the actress who becomes his lover –  give him a sense of purpose.  Others come and go – bringing with them the history that continues outside the hotel doors, and, at times, offering their influence.

Although Rostov makes the best of his circumstances, it’s hard not to want him to escape or perhaps use his access to spy on the Politburo members who frequent the hotel.   Towles punctuates Rostov’s yearning to see the apple trees of his youth, sit in the opera or stroll around the city again.  Citing the Count of Monte Cristo, Towles reminds the reader that the mind can break free of any prison, and Rostov, ever the gentleman, makes the best of his circumstances, eventually insinuating himself into the fiber of the hotel’s workings.

Sadly, politics is changing the city and the country; inevitably, these changes seep into Rostov’s domain.  Some are funny – when the Bolsheviks remove all the labels from wine bottles; others are painful – when Rostov’s friend is sent to Siberia for challenging a phrase in a text.

Towles divides the story into five “books,” cleverly lulling the reader to a sense of satisfaction at the end of each section, then creating a new set of characters  and a new adventure in the next “book.”  Just as in The Rules of Civility, Towles uses language to transport the reader to a more sophisticated style of living.  It would be difficult to be reading this book while slurping soup; the reader would be more inclined to sit quietly with a glass of wine at hand.

A book to savor – A Gentleman in Moscow left me with a better sense of Russian history, a yearning to have known a man like Count Rostov, and a determination to command my own circumstances.

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The Devil in the Marshalsea

9780544176676_p0_v8_s260x420Finding Antonia Hodgson’s The Devil in the Marshalsea in Heathrow terminal was the bonus to my recent trip.  This historical thriller has elements of Zafon’s swashbuckling Prisoner of Heaven and Charles Dickens’ attention to detail, with characters who actually lived and survived the horrors of  the eighteenth century debtors’ prison in England.  The hero, a handsome rake who has strayed from his family’s upstanding and wealthy status, finds himself in debt from gambling, and confined to the debtors’ prison in the Marshalsea.  The prison is more of a city community with the poor suffering horrible conditions (chained to dead bodies for punishment the least of them) and the rich who can afford patrons with money to buy daily necessities and comforts enjoying a better, yet still confined, existence.  All are in prison, nevertheless, and at the mercy of the turnkey (warden).

Hodgson’s research brings the time and place to life, creating a murder mystery and thriller as Tom Hawkins, our handsome hero “with great calves” finds himself confined within the infamous debtors’ prison as the roommate to the “devil,” Mr. Fleet, a well-connected former spy, who supposedly killed his former roommate, Mr. Roberts, who now roams the halls as a ghost.  Tom enters into a pact to prove how and who killed Roberts, before he becomes the next victim.  The story twists and turns, maintaining the suspense, while revealing horrors and conditions that are based on real happenings and people. Even the ghost is based on historical data.

Hard to believe conditions were so miserable, yet Hodgson proves her research in an afterward.  The book reads like a thriller, while educating the reader.  Perhaps most pointedly, Hodgson manages to convey, through the connivance and betrayals, that people back then were the same as some today.

As an added bonus, the book offers an invitation to a book club – The Richard and Judy Thornton Book Club – through WHSmith, with lists of books and discussions.  I found some enticing titles.

The Wizard of Lies

Bernie Madoff is in jail for being a crook; Diana Henriques makes that clear before she begins to report with a steady staccato beat on The Wizard of Lies – Bernie Madoff and the Death of Trust.  Liking this man is not an option.  He is arrogant, scheming, manipulative, and greedy.  And, clearly, his focus has always been on his own best interests.

Henriques uses a detached reporter’s tone to unveil his background as well as his rise and fall in the business world, but her skepticism and disdain filters into the facts.  I’ve only just begun to read the book, and already I have the urge to wash off the slime.  The book flap promises “the most complete account of the heartbreaking personal disasters and landmark legal battles triggered by Madoff’s downfall – the suicides, business failures, fractured families, shuttered charities…this timeless scandal.”

Not sure I want to read that far, but I like knowing he’s in jail.