The Road from Coorain, by Jill Ker Conway

The Road from Coorain revealed layer after layer of fascination. The cover notes let you know what to expect: young woman grows up in the Australian outback, goes on to a distinguished academic career, and ultimately serves as President of Smith College.

Jill Ker Conway is a thoroughly engaging writer.  She brings to this already exotic outline evocative description of time and place and penetrating analysis of herself and others.  She puts us on the sheep station where she grew up and makes us feel the landscape, the characters that inhabit it, and the highs and lows of life at the margins of the social and economic world of Australia in the 1930s and 1940s. She memorably describes the Australian national myth as exalting “epic failure,” typified by her family’s struggle against natural forces that would inevitably prevail.

Against that often bleak landscape, Conway shows the evolution of her family’s complex relationships and her own growth in awareness and competence.  When extended drought pushes her family to move into the city, she has already formed a solid base of independence and curiosity.  Building on that, Conway vividly describes her experiences through high school and university that impelled her into a distinguished academic career as a historian.  Ultimately the limited academic opportunities and sexual discrimination she encountered in Australia led her to leave for graduate school at Harvard.

The Road from Coorain is the first of three autobiographical works. It is followed chronologically by True North, covering a decade of academic work in Toronto, and A Woman’s Education, dealing with her time as the first female President of Smith College and a reinvention of women’s education.

— Bill Smith

[*]Full disclosure:  My mother, sister, and daughter attended Smith.

A Gentleman in Moscow By Amor Towles

By the end of this novel, I admired the amount of information packed into this title.  

First, it places us in Moscow, a place somewhat mysterious to most of us, and immerses us in layers of Russian history from the end of the Czarist days, through the revolution, through the tenures of Lenin and Stalin, and into the infighting over the next period of leadership. Towles recreates the period effectively through details of furniture, books, menus, and meetings.  

Second, the title draws our focus onto the gentleman, Count Alexander Rostov. We grow to admire how he uses the more admirable traits of the old aristocracy to adapt to his lengthy house arrest in the fading glamor of the Hotel Metropol, which is richly developed as a setting. We come to know its layout, décor, and personalities.  Rostov maintains possessions and habits when they conform to his higher goals; he avoids letting ideology prevent him from cultivating friendships among many levels of the hotel’s staff and guests. His “gentleman’s” traits allow him to act as a mentor to two remarkable young girls. Without his established character, some of these relationships might seem improbable. But though these relationships, he seems remarkably to be engaged in society though physically limited to the hotel.  

Of course there is action in the novel, but its languid pacing echoes the decades of Rostov’s arrest and suits his expansive and reflective nature. He is allowed to express a philosophical digression from time to time. We always suspect the house arrest must come to an end, but that ending is brilliantly tight and pulls together a number of crumbs that have been left along the reader’s path – some carefully constructed by Rostov and others provided by opportunity but cleverly exploited. We are amazed how he contrives Sofia’s escape from Soviet Russia and his own escape from the Metropol, and we are left to speculate on his future. A surprising number of details are left for us to surmise, but I’d like to think that we are urged to emulate the gentleman and not ask too many unimportant questions and instead focus on the important ones. 

—Bill Smith