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Rules of Civility: A Novel Viking Adult 1 edition Amor Towles


12th March 2013 Literature & Fiction 39 Comments

Unabridged, 10 CDs, 11 1/2 hours

Read by Rebecca Lowman

A sophisticated and entertaining debut novel about an irresistible young woman with outsized dreams.

Amazon Best Books of the Month, August 2011 Set during the hazy, enchanting, and martini-filled world of New York City circa 1938, Rules of Civility follows three friends–Katey, Eve, and Tinker–from their chance meeting at a jazz club on New Year’s Eve through a year of enlightening and occasionally tragic adventures. Tinker orbits in the world of the wealthy; Katey and Eve stretch their few dollars out each evening on the town. While all three are complex characters, Katey is the story’s shining star. She is a fully realized heroine, unique in her strong sense of self amidst her life’s continual fluctuations. Towles’ writing also paints an inviting picture of New York City, without forgetting its sharp edges. Reminiscent of Fitzgerald, Rules of Civility is full of delicious sentences you can sit back and savor (most appropriately with a martini or two). –Caley Anderson

A sophisticated and entertaining debut novel about an irresistible young woman with an uncommon sense of purpose.

Set in New York City in 1938, Rules of Civility tells the story of a watershed year in the life of an uncompromising twenty-five-year- old named Katey Kontent. Armed with little more than a formidable intellect, a bracing wit, and her own brand of cool nerve, Katey embarks on a journey from a Wall Street secretarial pool through the upper echelons of New York society in search of a brighter future.

The story opens on New Year’s Eve in a Greenwich Village jazz bar, where Katey and her boardinghouse roommate Eve happen to meet Tinker Grey, a handsome banker with royal blue eyes and a ready smile. This chance encounter and its startling consequences cast Katey off her current course, but end up providing her unexpected access to the rarified offices of Conde Nast and a glittering new social circle. Befriended in turn by a shy, principled multimillionaire, an Upper East Side ne’er-do-well, and a single-minded widow who is ahead of her times, Katey has the chance to experience first hand the poise secured by wealth and station, but also the aspirations, envy, disloyalty, and desires that reside just below the surface. Even as she waits for circumstances to bring Tinker back into her orbit, she will learn how individual choices become the means by which life crystallizes loss.

Elegant and captivating, Rules of Civility turns a Jamesian eye on how spur of the moment decisions define life for decades to come. A love letter to a great American city at the end of the Depression, readers will quickly fall under its spell of crisp writing, sparkling atmosphere and breathtaking revelations, as Towles evokes the ghosts of Fitzgerald, Capote, and McCarthy.

Amor Towles’s Rules of Civility Playlist

You can listen to the playlist here.

While jazz is not central to the narrative of Rules of Civility, the music and its various formulations are an important component of the books backdrop.

On the night of January 16, 1938, Benny Goodman assembled a bi-racial orchestra to play jazz to a sold-out Carnegie Hall–the first jazz performance in the hallowed hall and one which is now famous for bringing jazz (and black performers) to a wider audience. I am not a jazz historian, but for me the concert marks something of a turning point in jazz itself–from the big-band, swing-era sound that dominated the 1930s (and which the orchestra emphasized on stage that night) towards the more introspective, smaller group styles that would soon spawn bebop and its smoky aftereffects (ultimately reaching an apogee with Miles Daviss Kind of Blue in 1957). For it is also in 1938 that Coleman Hawkins recorded the bebop antecedent “Body & Soul” and Mintons Playhouse, one of the key bebop gathering spots, opened in Harlem. By 1939, Blue Note Records was recording, and Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk were all congregating in New York City. From 1935-1939, Goodman himself was stepping out of the big-band limelight to make more intimate improvisational recordings with a quartet including Gene Krupa and Lionel Hampton.

My assertion of this as a turning point (like most such assertions) is rough, inexact and misleading, but it helps give shape to an evolution and bring into relief two ends of a jazz spectrum. On the big-band front, the power of the music naturally springs from the collective and orchestration. In numbers like “Sing, Sing, Sing,” the carefully layered, precisely timed waning and waxing of rhythm and instrumentation towards moments of unified musical ecstasy simply demand that the audience collaborate through dance, cheers, and other outward expressions of joy. While in the smaller groups of bebop and beyond, the expressive power springs more from the soloist and his personal exploration of the music, his instrument, and his emotional state at that precise moment in time. This inevitably inspires in the listener a cigarette, a scotch, and a little more introspection. In a sense, the two ends of this jazz spectrum are like the public/private paradox of Walker Evanss subway photographs (and of life in the metropolis itself.)

If you are interested, I have created an playlist of music from roughly 1935-1945 that spans this transition. The playlist is not meant to be comprehensive or exact. Among other items, it includes swinging live performances from Goodmans Carnegie Hall Concert as well as examples of his smaller group work; there are precursors to bebop like Coleman Hawkins and some early Charlie Parker. As a strange historical footnote, there was a strike in 19421944 by the American Federation of Musicians, during which no official recordings were made. As such, this period at the onset of bebop was virtually undocumented and thus the records of 1945 reflect something of a culmination of early bebop rather than its starting point. The playlist also reflects the influence of the great American songbook giants (Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, Rodgers & Hart, the Gershwins), many of whom were at the height of their powers in the 1930s. –Amor Towles

Listen to the playlist

“The new novel we couldn’t put down…in the crisp, noirish prose of the era, Towles portrays complex relationships in a city that is at once melting pot and elitist enclave – and a thoroughly modern heroine who fearlessly claims her place in it.”
-O, the Oprah Magazine

“This very good first novel about striving and surviving in Depression- era Manhattan deserves attention…The great strength of Rules of Civility is in the sharp, sure-handed…evocation of Manhattan in the late ’30s.”
-Wall Street Journal

“Put on some Billie Holiday, pour a dry martini and immerse yourself in the eventful life of Katey Kontent…[Towles] clearly knows the privileged world he’s writing about, as well as the vivid, sometimes reckless characters who inhabit it.”
-People

“Even the most jaded New Yorker can see the beauty in Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility, the antiqued portrait of an unlikely jet set making the most of Manhattan.”
-The San Francisco Chronicle

“The best novels are the ones that completely transport you to another time and place. This beautifully written debut does just that. With wit, wisdom, and rich language, Towles introduces a cast of unforgettable 1938 New Yorkers, who change the book’s heroine in surprising and absorbing ways.”
-J. Courtney Sullivan, author of Maine

“Terrific. A smart, witty, charming dry-martini of a novel.”
-David Nichols, author of One Day

“Part love story, part social observation, 100 percent absorbing.”
-Redbook

“It’s the Depression, and a gal Friday with a mouth like Dorothy Parker’s is dallying with the smart set…turns out she’s not the only climber. A joyride through the ups and downs of 1930s high society.”
-Good Housekeeping

“A smashing debut…remarkable for its strong narrative, original characters and a voice influenced by Fitzgerald and Capote, but clearly true to itself.”
-Publishers Weekly

“The characters are beautifully drawn, the dialogue is sharp and Towles avoids the period nostalgia and sentimentality to which a lesser writer might succumb. An elegant, pithy performance by a first-time novelist who couldn’t seem more familiar with his characters or territory.”
-Kirkus Reviews

Amazon Best Books of the Month, August 2011 Set during the hazy, enchanting, and martini-filled world of New York City circa 1938, Rules of Civility follows three friends–Katey, Eve, and Tinker–from their chance meeting at a jazz club on New Year’s Eve through a year of enlightening and occasionally tragic adventures. Tinker orbits in the world of the wealthy; Katey and Eve stretch their few dollars out each evening on the town. While all three are complex characters, Katey is the story’s shining star. She is a fully realized heroine, unique in her strong sense of self amidst her life’s continual fluctuations. Towles’ writing also paints an inviting picture of New York City, without forgetting its sharp edges. Reminiscent of Fitzgerald, Rules of Civility is full of delicious sentences you can sit back and savor . –Caley Anderson

A sophisticated and entertaining debut novel about an irresistible young woman with an uncommon sense of purpose.

Set in New York City in 1938, Rules of Civility tells the story of a watershed year in the life of an uncompromising twenty-five-year- old named Katey Kontent. Armed with little more than a formidable intellect, a bracing wit, and her own brand of cool nerve, Katey embarks on a journey from a Wall Street secretarial pool through the upper echelons of New York society in search of a brighter future.

The story opens on New Year’s Eve in a Greenwich Village jazz bar, where Katey and her boardinghouse roommate Eve happen to meet Tinker Grey, a handsome banker with royal blue eyes and a ready smile. This chance encounter and its startling consequences cast Katey off her current course, but end up providing her unexpected access to the rarified offices of Conde Nast and a glittering new social circle. Befriended in turn by a shy, principled multimillionaire, an Upper East Side ne’er-do-well, and a single-minded widow who is ahead of her times, Katey has the chance to experience first hand the poise secured by wealth and station, but also the aspirations, envy, disloyalty, and desires that reside just below the surface. Even as she waits for circumstances to bring Tinker back into her orbit, she will learn how individual choices become the means by which life crystallizes loss.

Elegant and captivating, Rules of Civility turns a Jamesian eye on how spur of the moment decisions define life for decades to come. A love letter to a great American city at the end of the Depression, readers will quickly fall under its spell of crisp writing, sparkling atmosphere and breathtaking revelations, as Towles evokes the ghosts of Fitzgerald, Capote, and McCarthy.

Amor Towles’s Rules of Civility Playlist

You can listen to the playlist here.

While jazz is not central to the narrative of Rules of Civility, the music and its various formulations are an important component of the books backdrop.

On the night of January 16, 1938, Benny Goodman assembled a bi-racial orchestra to play jazz to a sold-out Carnegie Hall–the first jazz performance in the hallowed hall and one which is now famous for bringing jazz to a wider audience. I am not a jazz historian, but for me the concert marks something of a turning point in jazz itself–from the big-band, swing-era sound that dominated the 1930s towards the more introspective, smaller group styles that would soon spawn bebop and its smoky aftereffects . For it is also in 1938 that Coleman Hawkins recorded the bebop antecedent “Body & Soul” and Mintons Playhouse, one of the key bebop gathering spots, opened in Harlem. By 1939, Blue Note Records was recording, and Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk were all congregating in New York City. From 1935-1939, Goodman himself was stepping out of the big-band limelight to make more intimate improvisational recordings with a quartet including Gene Krupa and Lionel Hampton.

My assertion of this as a turning point is rough, inexact and misleading, but it helps give shape to an evolution and bring into relief two ends of a jazz spectrum. On the big-band front, the power of the music naturally springs from the collective and orchestration. In numbers like “Sing, Sing, Sing,” the carefully layered, precisely timed waning and waxing of rhythm and instrumentation towards moments of unified musical ecstasy simply demand that the audience collaborate through dance, cheers, and other outward expressions of joy. While in the smaller groups of bebop and beyond, the expressive power springs more from the soloist and his personal exploration of the music, his instrument, and his emotional state at that precise moment in time. This inevitably inspires in the listener a cigarette, a scotch, and a little more introspection. In a sense, the two ends of this jazz spectrum are like the public/private paradox of Walker Evanss subway photographs

If you are interested, I have created an playlist of music from roughly 1935-1945 that spans this transition. The playlist is not meant to be comprehensive or exact. Among other items, it includes swinging live performances from Goodmans Carnegie Hall Concert as well as examples of his smaller group work; there are precursors to bebop like Coleman Hawkins and some early Charlie Parker. As a strange historical footnote, there was a strike in 19421944 by the American Federation of Musicians, during which no official recordings were made. As such, this period at the onset of bebop was virtually undocumented and thus the records of 1945 reflect something of a culmination of early bebop rather than its starting point. The playlist also reflects the influence of the great American songbook giants , many of whom were at the height of their powers in the 1930s. –Amor Towles

Listen to the playlist

Rules of Civility: A Novel










  • 39 responses to "Rules of Civility: A Novel Viking Adult 1 edition Amor Towles"

  • Shobir
    2:39 on March 12th, 2013
    Reply to comment

    The Rules of Civility is a stylish and penetrating novel. It is more a portrait of a fascinating time and place–New York in 1938–than it is about the various characters. In this way, it is a lot like a similar portrait of Monaco: A Novel in 1937. This is not to say that the characters are at all flat or simplistic. They are full of introspection and deep in the best sense. Rather, I found that our heroine’s central goals, which revolved around social climbing, seemed vague and thus open to interpretation. The result is that the story becomes one of its setting and the bigger ideas that are presented in the mix of people and social organizations.

    This reader found it to be a wonderful approach, and one that presents a very penetrating story. It is through these means that the author is able to really delve into the questions still relevant today–what is civility, what is propriety, what is independence and self-determination? In jumping in these questions, the book doesn’t fall into the kind of moralism seen in Monaco. The author let the reader decide the answers.

    Readers will also enjoy the various homages that the author brings out–from the title allusion (George Washington) to Walden and Hemmingway. Altogether, these help to paint a portrait of the time and place, and immerse in it. I adore the style of this work, and recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good story, and especially those who want a wonderful survey of civility. This book offers those readers a place of elevated civility if only by asking what it is and then exploring openly.

  • Ted r
    4:40 on March 12th, 2013
    Reply to comment

    The story is narrated by Lilly Bere, an 89 year old Irish cook living on the East Coast of the US, who is mourning the sudden death of her grandson. It starts off as a jumble of memories, a raw stream of consciousness and I feared that this was going to be one of those impenetrable books that Booker Prize judges always seem to like so much and which leave me feeling cold. However the story soon starts to develop and pulls you in.

    Lilly was born in Ireland and her early life is marked by her mother and then her brother’s deaths. As a teenager she is forced to flee to the US (“Canaan’s Side”), where she will live for the rest of her life. So it’s the story of her life, but anchored in the present day loss of her beloved grandson. There are themes of war, loss, racial tensions and betrayal than recur, lending the story some genuine tension at times. However what really stands out is the achingly beautiful writing. Lilly’s memories are like your own memories: sometimes events get jumbled together, sometimes events remain so acutely with us that you can still remember what the temperature was and the scent in the air and the music that was playing on the radio, even many years later. I liked the way that the writing doesn’t always spell things out but allows the reader to make connections in their own mind. And the ending is perfect. This is a book to read slowly and savor.

  • Peter james
    6:41 on March 12th, 2013
    Reply to comment

    Some books unfold at a leisurely pace and demand to be read in the same way — nibbled and savored, the better to prolong the pleasure. Rules of Civility is one of those. It’s a throwback novel, the kind in which unashamedly bright characters engage in impossibly witty conversations. The novel takes its name from the 110 rules that George Washington crafted during his teenage years. Katey Kontent eventually sees Washington’s rules not as “a series of moral aspirations” but as “a primer on social advancement.” They are the rules that shape a masquerade in the hope “that they will enhance one’s chances at a happy ending.” Ultimately Rules of Civility asks a serious question about Katey’s observation: Are the behavioral rules that define “civility” simply a mask that people wear to conceal their true natures? Or are the rules themselves important, and the motivation for following them irrelevant?

    The story begins in 1966 but quickly turns back to 1938, the most eventful year in Katey’s life. Katey and her friend Eve meet Tinker Grey, a charming young banker, at a jazz club on New Year’s Eve. Their blossoming three-way friendship takes an unexpected turn when Eve is injured in an accident while Tinker is driving. Tinker’s apparent preference for Katey shifts to Eve as she recuperates. Months later, something happens to cause a change in their relationship, giving Tinker a more important role in Katey’s life. Along the way, Katey’s career is leaping forward: from reliable member of a law firm’s secretarial pool to secretary at a staid publishing house to gofer and then editorial assistant at a trendy magazine. As Katey socializes with the well-to-do and the up-and-coming, she learns surprising secrets about the people in her life, including Tinker, and learns some things about herself, as well.

    Katey is an outsider socializing with a privileged group of people (white, wealthy, and sophisticated), but she remains the grounded daughter of a working class Russian immigrant. She treasures her female friends. She neither hides nor flaunts her intelligence. She makes choices “with purpose and inspiration” although she comes to wonder about them in later years. Like most people who use their minds, she’s filled with contradictions. Reading Walden, she values simplicity; she fears losing “the ability to take pleasure in the mundane — in the cigarette on the stoop or the gingersnap in the bath.” At the same time, she enjoys fine dining and dressing well: “For what was civilization but the intellect’s ascendancy out of the doldrums of necessity (shelter, sustenance, and survival) into the ether of the finely superfluous (poetry, handbags, and haute cuisine)?”

    To varying degrees, the characters in this novel make mistakes (who doesn’t?). As one character notes, “at any given moment we’re all seeking someone’s forgiveness.” But when should forgiveness be granted? When does love require forgiveness? Towles avoids simplistic answers to these difficult questions; this isn’t a melodrama in which characters ride out tragedies to arrive at a neat and happy ending. This is a nuanced novel that remains cautiously optimistic about life, crafted by a generous writer who sees the good in people who have trouble seeing it in themselves, a writer who believes people have the capacity for change.

    Rules of Civility offers up occasional treats for readers in the form of brief passages from the books the characters are reading, snippets from Hemingway and Thoreau and Woolf, an ongoing description of an Agatha Christie novel. When Towles introduces a book editor as a character in the novel’s second act, it seems clear that Towles shares the editor’s old-fashioned respect for “plot and substance and the judicious use of the semicolon.” Towles captures the essence of minor characters with a few carefully chosen words. In the same precise and evocative style he recreates 1938 Manhattan: neighborhoods, restaurants, fashions, and music. He writes in a distinctive voice, refined but street-smart, tailored to the era in which the novel is set. His dialog is sharp and sassy. The ending has a satisfying symmetry. If I could find something critical to say about this novel, I would, but I can’t. I recommend it highly.

  • mlb vintage
    7:31 on March 12th, 2013
    Reply to comment

    Rules of Civility tells an engrossing, fast-paced tale, punctuated with joy, hurt and pathos. Amor Towles has a way with words, framing his events beautifully and managing to lace even the most benign actions with emotional undercurrents. The details for this historical novel are just right, and the decadent New York of the 30′s and 40′s seems to come alive in the hands of this skilled author. So I will say that this book is an entertaining read, with just enough detail to elicit interest, but it doesn’t quite get beyond that.

    This book is told in flash-back, a recounting of memories so to speak; one of the many reasons I thought it unfolded like a black-and-white film. Katey is the narrator, and tells us of events from her view-point. Still she remains an enigma, not letting us into her innermost thoughts. Her character seemed a little indeterminate; she’s the staid, stoic girl, hiding it all behind a shell. She’s feisty and seems very sure of herself – which denoted confidence and contentment. But then she is also a social climber, which seemed to deprecate her better qualities. I didn’t see how all these conflicts could exist in one person, and the book didn’t shed any light on this either, reducing her believability and strength as the main character.

    Eve and Tinker, the other two protagonists also seemed clichéd; she, overtly dramatic and very, very type-A – the kinds, (and you know this because you are an ardent movie-goer) who harbors some deep insecurity or sadness within her, but masks it with forced gaiety. And he, Tinker Grey is the oft-drawn character of the borderline-weak man who knows not what he wants. Still, of the three, he was the character who seemed real and relatable.

    There is also Anne Grandyn, and she is grand – the Grand Dame of New York City, behind the scenes, but powerful nevertheless. And then there is the jet-set, the young crème-de-la-crème of New Yorkian society who come from old money, into whose circles Katey and Eve are always drawn – Wallace, and Dicky, and Bitsy. All interesting characters these, they seem a tad removed because they appeared to be made-to-order, clichéd and glib, and spouted sassy rejoinders to boot. I couldn’t quite feel for them.

    While the book has many tumultuous events, they seemed to lack emotional appeal because of their rather taciturn narrator – Katey. You think you know her, but you don’t. You know what she’s going for her but aren’t sure whether to applaud her for the path she’s taking.

    I enjoyed the book, but can’t quite deem it superlative.

  • loginging
    9:35 on March 12th, 2013
    Reply to comment

    And I am glad I did. I am a fantasy lover and there hasn’t been much out there that makes me happy lately. So I picked this up and, out of weariness and desperation actually, I bought it. Oh my gosh. THIS IS ONE BEAUTIFUL BOOK. In all ways– the writing, the descriptions of the era, the characters and their personalities. Not to leave out the fact that it is a great story. This book picked me up and put me in 1938 New York and I loved every minute of it. First class, all the way. Thank you Mr. Towles.

  • Austin Rogado
    10:12 on March 12th, 2013
    Reply to comment

    I have to say that this is, as one review notes, beautiful cinematography on paper. However, it’s not a movie. The writer knows how to write amazing description, but he doesn’t know how to develop characters or tell a story.

    I don’t want to give any spoilers, so I’ll be vague. While this is for the majority of the novel written in first person, there are weird slips and slides into omniscient narration that jar the reader and make no sense.

    The chapter where Katey meets Tink’s brother in a bar is an obvious desire by the writer to show his knowledge of art. It does nothing to advance the story, mainly because there is no story. And after the first few chapters, that’s the feeling the reader gets. The author wants to show his knowledge of art, society, history, hunting, card games, and more. But it doesn’t add up to any in-depth memorable story. It actually ends up being insulting and self-indulgent on the writer’s part. We get it, you’re smart and know a great deal about the New York landscape in the 1930s–it doesn’t mean you need to tell the reader everything you know.

    I read this because several people raved about it, and, as far as the writing goes, I can see why, but I need a story. I won’t go into the ending, but like many authors he doesn’t know how to write a viable, strong ending.

    Overall, I was really unimpressed. I novel should develop stories and characters that haunt the reader; this novel doesn’t.

  • Hal Hendricks
    10:42 on March 12th, 2013
    Reply to comment

    The previous reviewers have written very nice summaries of this book. This is my third Barry book. Loved “Secret Scripture” and felt a little let down by “A Long Long Way” probably due to elevated expectations. This one falls in between. It’s beautifully written. The plot is inventive, hits close to home and the path the characters take is full of joy and pain. All in all it’s a page turner.

    It is not a five star to me as I disagree with the two main events that bring the book to its conclusion.

    Barry has a great talent to create a story that really engages the reader. He uses Lilly to talk in her voice throughout the story. It feels like she’s in the room recounting her life to you. I honestly had the sense of time traveling back. I normally do not like out of sequence stories as they don’t work as well as authors would like to think they do. But here it is done to perfection. My test is to picture the story as if it’s told sequentially. In most cases there are no great secrets revealed and the story tends to be shorter and clearer but here the movement of time is important and flows naturally. Well done!

  • stutter step
    13:37 on March 12th, 2013
    Reply to comment

    “On Canaan’s Side”, the fourth novel in Sebastian Barry’s splendid fictional narrative of the Dunne family of Wicklow, Ireland, is the first that takes place primarily in America. Set in the long period from the end of The Great War to the time following Desert Storm, it is, more than anything else, a chronicle of Lilly’s heartache brought on by her loss from war of the men most dear to her. First her brother, Willie (World War I), then her betrothed, Tagd Bere (in the internecine Irish aftermath of WWI), later her only son, Ed (functionally disabled by his experiences in Viet Nam) and ultimately her beloved grandson, Bill, who she raised from the time he was two (driven to death by his vivid memories of the hell fires in the Desert Storm oil fields).

    Lilly tells the story in the first person over the course of the seventeen days following her grandson’s burial. Each day she adds to her story up to the last day of her 89 years on earth. Barry adroitly combines her account of the present with her recollections of those lost to her. In her pre-publication endorsement of “On Canaan’s Side”, Helen Simonson, the author of “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand” writes that “Somewhere on the second page of this book, your heart will break…” Mine did. Lilly’s stoically borne sorrow permeates the book. She carries on with grace, the courage of the afflicted, but never does she let you forget the wars’ terrible toll.

    Barry takes his title from the words of his epigraph, two lines from the chorus of the American hymn: “Livin’ on Canaaan’s side, Egypt behind/Crossed over Jordan wide, gladness to find.” The irony is that America, where Lilly sought gladness, provided it in no greater portion than the Wicklow countryside she left behind. At this level the book may be read as a parable of the American experience of the many Irish immigrants who, after years, sometimes generations here, have returned (or would like to return) to the mother country.

    Barry is a fine story teller. If he opens a drawer early in the book, he will make sure to close it later. He leaves no loose ends, although he is clever enough to make you think he is going to. Here’s one way to tell. After you finish the book, go back and reread the first chapter. And another point in the book’s favor. Barry demonstrates a remarkably firm grip on the social history of race and ethnic group relations in this country for an author who has mainly lived elsewhere. “On Canaan’s Side” lives up to Barry’s reputation as one of better fiction writers in the English language.

    End note. The book, published late this summer, has yet to make the best seller lists. One hopes it will. It is clearly worthy of wide readership.

  • Mike Gnanakone
    13:57 on March 12th, 2013
    Reply to comment

    I purchased this book without knowing much about it and I am thrilled that I did. The book is beautifully written and I quickly became absorbed in the story of Katey and her circle of friends.

    The story revolves around a short period of time in the life of Katey Kontent. She is a young, smart, and well read single girl living in NYC in 1938. We spend the next year or so with Katey and meet those people that enter and leave her constantly evolving social circle.

    The author’s style of writing is smooth and warm. He is very descriptive in his writing but does this without rambling away from the story. I also though that the dialog among the characters was extremely well written – crisp, smart and snappy.

    The characters in the story are complex and interesting and all have a mysterious quality about them that makes you want to learn more. The main character, Katey, is very likeable. She is surrounded by a good number of characters that move in and out of her life. We get to meet these people and they are as complicated and well developed as Katey.

    I highly recommend this book. I have read over 50 books in 2011 (so far) and this is at the top of my favorite reads of the year.

  • Andrew Gowans
    15:35 on March 12th, 2013
    Reply to comment

    Very rarely do I rank a book 5 stars — what can be as perfect as all that? And I don’t like hyperbole. But Sebastian Barry is such a delicate, beautiful writer that I just want to thank him with 5 stars on Amazon. The description of an 89 year old woman’s heart breaking, an almost invisible sound, like the shattering face of a china doll, took my breath away. I reread the passage over and over. Barry is so fragile with his prose, so lilting and deeply felt and yet he’s never sentimental — what an extraordinary tightrope he walks with words, how difficult that must be to achieve. He is one of my favorite writers and I wait and wait for his next novel. I guess it will be another few years now. A gift of a writer for this grateful reader.

  • jayester
    16:28 on March 12th, 2013
    Reply to comment

    I cannot fathom a poor review of this work – even taking into account differing tastes…the prose is magical, the characters sharply drawn, the setting evocative – pitch-perfect in every sense. There is wit and wisdom for the ages here. Honestly, the best book I have read since “Cutting for Stone.”

  • Chris Teo
    18:18 on March 12th, 2013
    Reply to comment

    “Rules of Civility” centers on the 1938 post-Gatsby and pre-”Mad Men” life of Katey Kontent, a single office worker who moves up the social ladder, yet continues to build a career for herself. This is no “Age of Innocence” — the women in this novel go after what they want. At first, the characters seem straight out of Fitzgerald stock, lulling the reader into an expectation of predictability, but these people soon evolve into more complex and surprising individuals, struggling to overcome — or just forget — their pasts, to have some fun, and to meet their “needs” whle pursuing their “wants.” The plot occurs within a frame story of an older Katey remembering her young adult years spent cavorting in the Manhattan fast lane, a reminiscence brought on almost 30 years later when she and her husband Val spot two constrasting photographs of an old friend in a 1966 Walker Evans’ photographic exhibit. The voice of Katey Kontent rings true and is consistent throughout the book, and the dialog is spot on and entertaining. The novel contains literary references and even some worthy aphorisms such as this warning about reflecting upon “old times:” If you’re not careful, they’ll gut you like a fish.” With memories, come the emotions associated with those memories, and sometimes, when those memories unexpectedly appear, those emotions linger in your gut for days.

    If you like novels in which an era and a city are essential to plot and characterization, you will enjoy the 1930′s New York backdrop of “Rules of Civility.” If you enjoy meaningful extended metaphors, pay attention to the rules of honeymoon bridge. As an added bonus, in the reading of this book, I learned that George Washingon kept a list of “Rules of Civility” – a guide for character and appropriate behavior. The list is interesting in itself, but is also essential to a central character’s motoivations and flaws. The novel offers much to think about while maintaining its entertainment value. One last note: The preface and the epilogue are part of the story, so don’t skip them!

  • DAmmann
    18:43 on March 12th, 2013
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    I’m very interested in the 1930′s and New York city, so the subject matter itself drew me to this book. However, I found that I really liked the story and the writing. I liked the way the author described the times, the people, and the surroundings. There are many lines that I bookmarked because they were rather prophetic and I would like to go back and look at them again. I definately recommend this book.

  • Jungle Jim
    19:16 on March 12th, 2013
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    On Canaan’s Side is a new novel by two time Man Booker shortlisted author Sebastian Barry. This novel was on the 2011 Man Booker long list but, to my surprise, did not make it to the shortlist.

    The novel is the story of Lilly Bere’s life, told over the series of days immediately after the passing of her grandson, Bill. Her story spans decades, wars and countries. Bere was born in Ireland, where her childhood was shrouded with the death of her mother and brother. As a young woman, she had to flee her country and seek refuge in the United States. Throughout her life, Bere continuously confronts loss and heartbreak; yet, she manages to love and grow.

    The writing is the strength of this book. Barry creates a wondrous intimacy with Bere through beautiful and picturesque writing. While the book is quite sad, Bere does not drown in her sadness. Barry does a masterful job carrying the story forward.

    I like stories from the Irish literary tradition, for example Colum McCann (Let the Great World Spin), William Trevor (Selected Stories) and John Banville (The Sea). Barry fits right in. Beautiful descriptions, moving stories, well-developed characters.

    Although this did not make the Booker shortlist (I have issues with the list and what is not on the list), this novel is well worth reading. Read it slowly and savor it.

  • Pietro_F
    21:27 on March 12th, 2013
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    A sad book that turns out not sad at all. “Bill is dead. What is the sound of an eighty-nine-year-old heart breaking?” is the arresting opening. Grief-stricken at the death of her grandson, Irish expatriate Lily Bere wants only to set down her memories before putting a quiet end to her own life too. Each chapter, headed simply “First Day without Bill” and so on, tells us a little bit about her present life and a lot about her past, until eventually the two meet up. She is living in the Hamptons, in a small cottage fixed up for her by her former employer for whom she worked as cook. Her memories take her back to the age of four, in the early years of the last century, when her father was a senior police officer in Dublin. Associated with the wrong side, unfortunately, for in the struggles for Irish independence, Lily and her fiancé are forced to flee to America with a price on their heads. The “Canaan’s Side” of the old hymn, the near bank of the Promised Land after the crossing of the Red Sea, is of course the USA, where Lily and her lover are forced to lead a fringe existence under assumed names. It will be long before she will feel herself truly American — but it is already clear that she ends up surrounded by caring, tactful people who respect and even love her.

    Just listen to the exuberance of Barry’s writing, as here when Lily and a fellow servant are taken by an admirer to ride their first-ever big dipper in Luna Park in Cleveland. “We poised, three beating hearts, three souls with all their stories so far in the course of ordinary lives, three mere pilgrims, brilliantly unknown, brilliantly anonymous, above a Cleveland fun park, with the wonderful catastrophe of the sunlight on the river, the capricious engineering of the tracks, the sudden happiness of knowing Joe…”. So begins a two-page paragraph, all in a single sentence, as the poise and the rush and the joy and the terror, laughing and crying all at the same time, becomes the pivot point for an entire life.

    Barry’s technique of adding facts only when truly important makes it very difficult to say much more about the plot. Suffice it to say that it will take Lily from the bloodshed of the Troubles in Ireland to an America that moves from the heady Twenties through the Depression and several wars. All the men in Lily’s life will be touched by war, from the First World War that killed her beloved elder brother to the First Gulf War that so affected her grandson Bill. The assassinations of the Sixties will also play a part, bringing to the surface issues of race that had been a dormant subtext from quite early on. I am not convinced that Barry can quite manage to sustain the story over such a long span; there are some chapters about two-thirds of the way through when the intensity flags somewhat, and a couple of revelations towards the end stretch credulity a little. But his ability to balance the epic with the intimate, as the book jacket rightly claims, is nonetheless amazing.

    Barry begins many of his books at roughly the same place, with the agonized birth of the Irish state, but extends them further in time and place with each one. A LONG LONG WAY, for instance, about Lily’s brother, addresses the paradox of Irish soldiers fighting for their country in Flanders only to be treated as traitors when they returned home (a point which Barry gently parallels to the plight of Vietnam veterans here). And THE SECRET SCRIPTURE, another memory piece, shows Barry’s remarkable ability to get into the mind of a very old woman; that is one of the true joys of this book also. For what might have turned into a despairing wail of grief becomes instead a tapestry of light and wonder: “And I notice again in the writing of this confession that there is nothing called long-ago after all. When things are summoned up, it is all present time, pure and simple. So that, much to my surprise, people I have loved are allowed to live again. What it is that allows them I don’t know. I have been happy now and then in the last two weeks, the special happiness that is offered from the hand of sorrow.”

  • X'Owl'er_
    0:56 on March 13th, 2013
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    Beautifully written, delightful to read. This book was selected as part of a book club with members aging from 26-55, and everyone was singing praises for this new author. We greatly anticipate future novels by Amor Towles. The details were enough to paint the scene, yet not overly cumbersome. Would recommend this to everyone.

  • Jacob Malewitz
    4:03 on March 13th, 2013
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    The story is explained above, so I won’t cover that territory . . .

    The biggest issue: I had a hard time believing that the narrator was a young twenty five year old woman in New York. It was also not credible as being told by an older woman in retrospect/ flashback either. Actually, none of the female characters reflected the convincing thoughts, emotions, dialogue and behavior that a woman would have likely felt or displayed- regardless of the era. There was some level of emotional disconnect in the characters as well . . . not sure if the author intended to do that; I would think that because it was first person, you would identify in some way with Katey as the narrator. Alas, I could not “get into her head” because there were so many obstacles to me believing that a woman actually thinks this way, feels this way, behaves this way . . .

    The other thing that drove me crazy- the wittiness of the author and repartee of some of the other characters . . . it was overkill and also seemed too slick for something to spontaneously roll right off in the dialogue. I felt like the author saw too many movies from the golden age of hollywood and tried to impart that atmosphere, and it was not successful . . . In fact, it was irritating.

  • Poor Xoom
    4:41 on March 13th, 2013
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    Amazing how words can paint a moving portrait, how little things at the time can add up to big things.
    Wonderful characters struggling to be honest and “civil”, some more successfully than others. Loved the recurring references to George Washington’s treatise, which is included at the end, all 110 rules. Bravo, Mr Towles, this is a success.

  • futhmblsbxl
    5:23 on March 13th, 2013
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    When it comes to achingly beautiful prose, completely formed and complex characters and an eloquent portrayal of the murderous shadow of history, there are few that can compare with Sebastian Barry. Which makes it all the more jarring that he persists in concluding his novels with worthless and frankly incredible little plot “twists”. For what purpose, I have no clue. He did it in The Wherabouts of Eneas McNulty, he did it again in The Secret Scripture. And here we go again, in On Canaan’s Side. The one exception to this regrettable trend was A Long Long Way, which stayed completely true to itself and did not stoop to any such trite device.
    Without revealing the plot of On Canaan’s Side, it’s not possible explain further, but those who read the book will recognize it. One of those “oh, come on!” moments. It’s a minor complaint, I know, but it is in such stark contrast to the rest of the book which is everything that other reviewers have said. In a lesser book it would matter less. Barry simply betrays his towering talent – and the trust of his reader – when he permits himself such gimmickry.
    Had it not been for that, 5 stars without a doubt. Magnificent.

  • Tac Anderson
    7:08 on March 13th, 2013
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    Hmmm. I really wanted to like this book, having purchased after reading reviews of what appeared to be a great storyline, the key factor for me the NY setting. I was offended by the review by Chris Roberts – but can understand his rating. I gave this 3 stars, but on the Amazon scale my rating would really be 2.5.

    The book is about a year (1938) in the life of 20-something Katey Kontent, ‘written’ (narrated) in 1966 as the now middle-aged Katey has a flashback memory of this period in her life when seeing a photograph of an old flame at an exhibition.

    The book started off well enough, with enough description of NY, and character development (Eve, Katey & Tinker) to keep me interested. But suddenly the characters stopped developing, the action lagged and then the story ended abruptly followed by a few pages (on my kindle) of post-1938 summary, narrated 2-ish years later. Finally at the end the author, rather than Katey, appears to take over the ‘narration’ with several pages on ‘the meaning of life’…..

    Specifically, my gripes are these:

    Quite a bit of the start of the book is devoted to developing the characters of Eve & Tinker – and then they just disappear out of the storyline! While Tinkers disappearance at that stage I admit is integral, I found it hard to fathom why I no longer had anything to read about Eve, having invested quite a bit of time on reading about her to that point. When Katey follows up the disappearance of Tinker with 2 separate romantic involvements (Wallace & Dickey), neither of those characters are at all developed either, with Wallace signing up for duty just when things get interesting (and I’ve spent an eternity laboriously reading a descriptive but ultimately superfluous passage on gun handling) and Dickey being passed over and written out of the story when Tinker makes a brief reappearance toward the end (before disappearing again). Wallace gets killed whilst on duty in a later 4 line piece with no emotion. It was at that point I became confused as to who Katey actually was and what she was thinking!

    I need to cut this short.
    The summary ending! I couldnt believe it -like a movie that ran out of time, several of the ‘minor’ characters were summed up with approximately 3 sentences each on life after 1938. Just so we know. And the information wasn’t really ultimately satisfying either, not at all endearing Katey to me further. I sort of understand it, but I don’t really like it, or the way it was written.

    Finally The Meaning of Life passages at the end. Suffering a bit of a mid-lifer at the moment due to a shock diagnosis, a lot of the authors words rang a bell with me, which made me wonder if this is really what the book is all about? It might be a bit harsh, but I’m thinking this is a bit of a self indulgent expression of something wistful going on in the authors head, which started off as a great idea, but gradually petered out to a loss-of-interest conclusion. A bit like this review probably! I don’t write book reviews….

    Anyway, as others have written, I really wanted to like this book due to its promised storyline & location, and while it’s not a bad book it’s certainly not great. Not for a regular person like me. But then again, I’m struggling with Treasure Island right now also…

  • DeanF
    7:57 on March 13th, 2013
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    I absolutely love this book! The author almost paints a picture as she writes. The details of classic Manhattan, gloved hands, and gin and tonics will sweep you away. Perfect book! I read it twice in a week!

  • Somnath
    8:36 on March 13th, 2013
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    Full of exquisite writing and compassion, this is a remarkable story from a believable narrator to whom unbelievable things have happened. Each chapter of “On Cannan’s Side” represents a day after the death of the narrator, Lilly Bere’s, grandson, Bill. Initially the reader is bombarded by a stream of half thoughts but soon Lilly begins to outline her own life story from being the daughter of a police officer in Ireland at the end of the First World War, her subsequent flight to the USA, to ultimately living in retirement as a domestic cook to a wealthy American. It’s a remarkable story, full of tragic events, but for all its hardships, Lilly is from a time when such things are to be endured rather than dwelt on.

    If you are looking for a book with a fast plot line, then this isn’t for you. However, if you enjoy sumptuous prose and compassionate stories then this is an absolute joy to read. The opening lines, “Bill is gone. What is the sound of an eighty-nine-year-old heart breaking?” give you a strong sense of the beauty of the prose and the sadness of the narrator’s life. I was hooked from that point on.

    Lilly and her beau (Lilly is of an age where she might indeed use such a term) are forced to flee Ireland and to disguise their identities on arriving in the US. Indeed, poor Lilly doesn’t have a great track record with her choice of male friends it turns out, not least because she is so keen to hide her own past that she is often blind to the fact that the men she encounters are usually hiding something of their own, and often this is far more damaging than Lilly’s own secrets. The loss of her grandson is the final straw though. Now, she’s ready to tell her story.

    What is striking is the apparent authenticity of the narrator’s voice. She’s not just any elderly lady, but her voice is completely consistent with her past and her perceived status in life. Arguably this comes as a cost in that although we get her life story, we don’t always get much of her character, but the point is that is who she is. She is of a time when problems were kept private and the difficulties of life were to be endured.

    As with all good literary fiction, there are deeper questions and issues here. Various relatives fight in a series of wars (World Wars One and Two, Vietnam and the Gulf) all in the name of their country. But to what extent do their countries represent their interests? Moreover, while the USA is the land of Canaan of the title, where identities can be changed, no one ever escapes where they came from in life.

    While the experiences of Lilly’s life are pretty horrific, and there’s plenty of sadness in her life, it’s not a depressing read as such. Yes, you feel for her, but she often recalls the moments of happiness in her life. She is often a victim, but never sees herself as such.

    The most striking thing about the book though is the quality of the writing. It’s unmistakably “Irish literary fiction”, full of beautiful descriptions and stunning use of the language. You might feel that some of the descriptions slow down the pace of the book, but when they are that good, it’s easy to forgive the author this minor observation.

    My heart fell slightly at the publisher’s blurb that used the old cliché that the book is “at once epic and intimate”, but I have to say that this perfectly sums up this book for once.

  • Laine Ardrey
    10:05 on March 13th, 2013
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    The intensity of the writing is the first thing noticed about this book. This is not a fast passed plot driven novel, but rather one that requires thought. It follows the life of Lily and is epic in nature, spanning 70 years. Lilly endures much pain and loss but the overall ambiance of the novel is not dark because of the author’s ability to pull the reader into the life of Lilly and gain her perspective of events. It also gives voice to some deeper life issues especially those surrounding war. Forgiveness and the importance of truth are also explored.

  • heehaw
    10:40 on March 13th, 2013
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    Great characters, a good story, well-told and well-written; transporting the reader to another time. That world, seen through the eyes of the wonderfully spunky, 25 year old Kate Kontent, is late 1930s New York City. A wonderful story of the impact that meeting someone has and the footprints they leave on your heart.

  • Tom Cole
    12:26 on March 13th, 2013
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    The first chapter of this novel had me at ‘Hello’. A woman and her husband viewing a display of photographs taken in the New York City subway twenty some years ago. They recognize an old friend. He looks sharp, crisp, well off as they remember him. Further down the wall they see him again. He seems to have fallen from grace.

    The story that unfolds is Katey Kontent’s version of the downfall of Tinker Grey. And I loved most of this story. The author is gifted in setting the scenes and bringing the characters to life. It just seemed to drag on too long to get to the end. The majority of this book is lively and entertaining. I felt let down by the time I reached the end. I understand that life doesn’t wrap up and get tied up in a neat little bow. But Rules of Civility left me unsatisfied in the end.

  • Dee Francis
    14:31 on March 13th, 2013
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    This is a beautiful novel. I notice it is not getting particularly respectful attention from book reviewers in the major publications, although the notices it does receive – such as in the NY Times Book Review of October 2, 2011 – are favorable. I wonder why, and can only surmise that the novel is in between genres in a way. It is first and foremost a story. A lyrically told story. It is supremely well crafted, and certainly rewards a slow reading. Some of it – especially the ending – reads more like poetry, but not of the sort that slows the story down or fogs it up at all. If it has a fault it might be that the characters are not fully developed, their interior lives are revealed mostly through action. The main character is also perhaps a little underdeveloped in terms of interior life.

    But why quibble…it is a great story and the writing is gorgeous. It is engaging and illuminating. Engaging – you do indeed want to know what happened (the action has all occured in the past and is being relived by an older woman at the end of her life) and why. Illuminating because it ties historical drama into personal drama very effectively.

    It is an anti-war novel. It questions stridency, zealousness, and ideological purity – and gives an accounting of the costs of same. The men are walking wounded from various wars fought on distant or not so-distant shores and still fight the interior wars that result from procesing it all.

    I have read a previous novel by Barry, “A Long, Long Way,” also very powerful, which shares some of the same ground and characters as “On Canaan’s Side.” I look forward to reading Annie Dunne and the others that mine the same territory.

  • Sneak Peaker
    16:13 on March 13th, 2013
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    Katey is a legal secretary living in New York City in 1938. 1930s New York is a giddy world of self re-invention, full of smoky jazz bars, elegant apartments and glamorous Gatsby-esque Long Island parties, a collision of working class immigrants and the moneyed elite. Katey and her best friend Eve share an affinity for gin martinis and partying until late. One New Year’s Eve they meet an elegant, moneyed banker named Tinker Grey and he will play a key role in both their lives over the next year.

    This is a very enjoyable book. It’s receiving raves and while I enjoyed it, I did feel it’s a little overhyped. There are idiosyncrasies and occasional inconsistencies in the writing style, which I found annoying, along with some of the characters’ silly names (eg Katey Kontent, Carrie Clapboard, Happy Doran). I also felt that the conclusions were a little heavy-handed towards the end.

    However, I loved the way the book well and truly pulled me into the glamorous world that was pre-WW2 New York and I really enjoyed Katey – she makes a witty, brave and intelligent heroine, even if she never truly opens up to the reader about her inner most feelings. There are shades of F Scott Fitzgerald but it also reminded me of The Bonfire of the Vanities: A Novel in the way that it captures different aspects of the city at a specific place in time. A good read, though it falls short (for me) of being a great one.

  • Marianne Klock
    18:15 on March 13th, 2013
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    F. Scott Fitzgerald is one of my favorite authors, so I was immediately attracted to Amor Towles’ “Rules of Civility.” And the book did not disappoint. It’s a glittering portrayal of a lost time in a magical city (New York) with a woman … Katey Kontent … taking the role of Nick Carraway. Towles has the dialog down pat and paints a vivid picture of New York during the pre-WW II years. His characters are flawed and searching, but entirely believable. And the book leaves you with a sense of the despair and the possibilities of the times, including what it was like for young women who were trying to invent careers and lives beyond the traditional bonds of marriage and children … probably the first generation to do so. This was one ripping good read, one of those books that was difficult to put down and will stick with you for a long time. I might not quote it in the future, like I can do with “Gatsby,” but I won’t forget it, either.

  • Erin Bury
    19:01 on March 13th, 2013
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    To put it simply: Sebastian Barry writes so beautifully, so poetically, that when I read his books I find myself almost ashamed to admit that I’m also a writer – and a jealous one at that. His prose is so deeply humane and so well-crafted that almost reads like verse; verse that makes you want to cry; no, not from sorrow, but from joy, for having the privilege of reading it. I’m not implying that the subject matters with which the good author is preoccupied are pleasant, quite the opposite, they float in sadness, yet the way he narrates them do not bring much sorrow to the reader’s heart. He seems, in a magical way, to grab the latter by the hand and lead him on to a journey through the wide paths of history, a history that touches everything and everyone in different ways; personal and impersonal at the same time.
    This is the story of Lilly Berre, an eighty-nine year old woman, whose grandson Bill just died, and who now just sits and writes down her memoirs, reliving through them a long life full of sorrows and a few touches of joy. The narrator talks in a direct and almost oral way about love and war, about country and home, and about loss, old age and death. And she doesn’t complain about anything, even just a little bit, although she has every right to do so, given the way the fates have treated her.
    Her memories, despite her age, are crystal clear, as they are deeply engraved on her tortured soul. She remembers a father whom she loved too much, but whose choices have caused her endless troubles but also saved her life. She remembers her first big love, the man with whom she escaped from Ireland to America, just after the First World War, and whose face reminded her of a Van Gogh painting. She remembers her brother, like a hazy picture of times long gone and who died during that very same war. She remembers everything, and everything she writes, like a living testament, even though she says she hates writing. She needs to tell everything, to get it out of her breast, because: “We are not immune to memory.”
    Even though “the past is a crying child”, as she writes somewhere in this seventeen day long monologue, she never cries: “I am cold because I cannot find my heart,” she’s quick to point out. However, she’s not really cold, she’s just hurt, as she’s lived an eventful life, but nevertheless poor where results were concerned. She worked a lot, she fought hard for a better tomorrow, she spent years and years in fear and whatever she won she lost, whomever she loved she buried. And yet not a single word of complain ever escapes her lips. Lilly is a woman full of patience, one of those unique and rarely met souls that can only feel compassion for the others, and who know how to forgive. One could say that her way of thinking and living sounds kind of fatalistic, and one would be wrong. Her memories are sad, but not bitter, and her memories are her life. Writing them down is what keeps her alive; her resilience is her power.
    “Tears have a better character cried alone,” she thinks, and that’s why she mourns her loss on her own and in the quiet. And her tears turn into pearls of wisdom and humanity. As Joe, one of the main characters says, we “live in a big box of fear.” Lilly takes this fear and turns it into power; she takes that power and turns it into a story – the story we are now holding in our hands.
    Absolutely brilliant.

  • cowboy
    19:38 on March 13th, 2013
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    I’m very interested in the 1930′s and New York city, so the subject matter itself drew me to this book. However, I found that I really liked the story and the writing. I liked the way the author described the times, the people, and the surroundings. There are many lines that I bookmarked because they were rather prophetic and I would like to go back and look at them again. I definately recommend this book.

  • Big Peter
    21:49 on March 13th, 2013
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    Looking back in one’s life can be triggered by a chance glance at a photograph. Visual reminders of a person or place can – if the subject of the picture was of importance – take you back in an instant to both painful and joyous times. Amor Towles first novel, “Rules of Civility” is the story of one such journey back for Katharine Kontent, who, while viewing a photo exhibit by Walker Evans in 1966, spots two pictures of a young man she had known and loved in the late 1930′s. One picture in the exhibit was of the young man in prosperous circumstances and the other was of him in much poorer ones. As Kontent tells her husband about her life in those years, memories triggered by the pictures, she talks about the young man – Tinker Grey – and her best friend, Eve Ross, and the other friends and acquaintances she had then.

    “Rules” is written in the first person, for the most part, and that voice is of Katherine Kontent.

    Katharine was a social chameleon. Born from poor Russian immigrant parents on the Lower East Side, the reader doesn’t learn til the end of the book her exact background. But Katey is a smart gal, a “comer” in terms of social advancement, and she wants very much to fit in with the Social Register crowd. She has a respected job in a law firm as a secretary and she manages to promote herself and her best friend and roommate, Eve Ross. A “meet cute” moment by Katey and Eve with Tinker in a bar launches them both into a wealthy group of 20-somethings. She meets – and melds – with many of the crowd and she tells their stories, along with hers. Most people weren’t what they first seemed to Katey, but that’s true of most of society. We all put on a “face” and tell a “story” of who or what we’d like to be, even if we’re not quite that person.

    Amor Towles writes about the same crowd the late author Louis Auchencloss wrote about. Auchencloss was a lawyer at a “white shoe firm”, who wrote many novels and short stories, and Towles is an investment banker. This is his first novel. Both are very precise writers and pay attention to their subjects and their times. The only thing I think might have been lacking in Towles’ book – might have been – was an examination of how easily Katherine Kontent, she of definitely murky parentage, was accepted so completely by the wealthy crowd she became involved with. That was the one part of the book that struck me as a might false, but I think it could have been a book in itself, if really taken out and looked at. Maybe Towles’s next book…

    “Rules of Civility” has received a lot of press and praise. As a novel, I think it deserves it.

  • MajorGeek
    23:49 on March 13th, 2013
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    I was easily drawn in both by the characters and the era. Towels did a great job of capturing a Manhattan that still lingers as both an exciting and sad time in our history. With a strong sense of setting and society, I was transported into Katey’s world of another time, another place. Definitely worth the visit, along with superb writing and great metaphors.

  • JoseinAventura
    3:22 on March 14th, 2013
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    Sebastian Barry’s novel, “On Canaan’s Side” is a beautifully written story about how love and loss follow us all through life. Changing location, setting sail and fleeing from the troubles on one shore, does not always resolve those problems. While, on the other hand, even if we have to leave a place where we have loved ones, we don’t leave those bonds of love behind.

    Lilly Bere looks back on her long life in the early 1990′s when she receives word of her beloved grandson’s suicide after returning home from the first Gulf War. Lilly, an immigrant from Ireland in the early 1920′s who fled to the US with her fiance because of threats to him from members of the IRA. However, tragedy in the form of a political assassination follows Lilly and Tadg to Chicago when Tadg is gunned down in public. Lilly flees to Cleveland, where she goes into domestic service and meets the man who becomes her husband and who fathers a son with her. Her son, Ed, is born to the newly-single Lilly after her husband is reported missing and presumed dead in an accident. The rest of Lilly’s life is devoted to raising her son by continuing in domestic service in the employ of a Kennedy-like family. Ed sees duty in the Vietnam War, and contributes another generation to Lilly’s line with his son, who he turns over to Lilly to raise. It is this grandson’s – Bill’s – death who Lilly is mourning when the book opens.

    Lilly Bere has lost much in her 89 years of life. Her mother died at Lilly’s birth, and her beloved older brother, Willie, died in the fields of Picardy in WW1. Her father, a Dublin policeman, sends Tadg and her off to supposed safely in the United States, but, of course, Lilly loses Tadg. Sebastian Barry writes with great tenderness and tact about how the ties that bind us with one another are expandable and can remain with us even after our loved one’s earthly presence has gone. “Canaan” is a relatively short book, but the wisdom contained in its pages is astounding. An excellent novel.

  • trader_x
    5:19 on March 14th, 2013
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    This was a very interesting and enjoyable book. It was written in a fresh voice that in some ways recalled F. Scott Fitzgerald, but was uniquely its own. The characters were well developed. It was a unique perspective that felt like it came from a different age.

  • Juanita Yono
    8:13 on March 14th, 2013
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    A beach read. Nothing taxing. Nothing eloquent.

    Make no mistake. This is popular fiction not literature. Standard love triangle in the glitzy setting of pre-WWII New York City. No snappy dialogue of the era. No unpredictable plot twists. No ironic winks. Just an entertaining read.

    Makes one wonder where the editor was on this first novel. The plot turns on the primitive device of “what would you take to a desert island?” There are annoying quirks. Quotation marks are inexplicably replaced by dashes – certainly not due to snappy dialogue. There are multiple anachronisms and incorrect geography. Names are annoying: the narrator is named Miss Kontent pronounced miscontent to rhyme with discontent. Most annoying was the dialogue by a very nice character who had an unusual speech pattern in that he paused at odd moments mid-sentence. Instead of allowing the reader to imagine where such pauses occur, it is exposed as in stage direction. No other character gets such treatment whether they have lilting, accented, or slurred speech. Other oddities includes unnecessary offset poetry quotations, selected chapters in italics, change of perspective, and finally the inclusion of all 110 George Washington’s Rules of Civility.

    A perfectly nice read. Fitzgerald and Capote or even Wolfe it is not.

  • Crash and Burn
    8:41 on March 14th, 2013
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    “Gaze not on the blemishes or marks of others and ask not how they came by them. What you speak in secret to your friend deliver not before others.”

    Rules of Civility or should we say rules of Decent Behaviour was absorbing and held my attention well, throughout.
    Depicting New York’s social strata, this book entertains, shocks, makes you laugh and perhaps some may cry. Of the young and Upper Crust of the Jazz era, we are introduced to Kate Kontent of a Wall Street secretarial pool and her boarding partner, the beautiful Evelyn Ross who meets up on New Year’s Eve quite by accident with Tinker Grey a handsome rich banker.
    The threesome stick together for a time turning New York and everything else in the way upside down as they paint the town and country various shades of red.
    This book is a page-turner and should not be missed for the fun and amusement it brings to the deep heart.
    Highly recommended.
    Reviewed by Heather Marshall Negahdar September 13th, 2011

  • real star
    9:53 on March 14th, 2013
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    “Rules of Civilty” written by Amor Towles is a “human interest” novel. It is the tale of the lives of several young adults during a year in 1938 when they were in their mid to late twenties.

    The story is narrated by one of the characters, Katey Kontent, and is written in conversational style. The Novel begins with a prologue in 1966 about two candid pictures of one Tinker Grey, displayed at a photo showing in a museum display. The story then begins as a flashback to 1938 inspired by reminescence about the character.

    The novel is written about the lives and associations of several “twenty something” young adults who meet as accidental acquaintances while enjoying the nightlife of New York City in 1938. The character engagement is replete with all the false loyalities, fierce frendships, desires and failings of young adults. The story pivots about the manipulation of Tinker Grey and his false persona that he conditions by adhering to the teachings of the novel’s namesake “Rules of Civility & Decent Behavor in Company and Conversation” by George Washington.

    I found the book to be only of my general liking. The author did not build any particular inspiration with me about any of the characters such as to leave me considerating any memorable aspects of the discourse or character development. I was initially piqued at the use of the extended hyphen to denote conversation. It felt like a finger continually poked in my eye. I did get over it, but it annoyed me for awhile. Otherwise the book is well written and the conversations natural. The descriptions of New York City and other locations were sufficiently well done in as much as the novel was about people not places.

    In all, the book was not memorable for me. If I had put it down, I may not have ever finished it. There just wasn’t anything that beckoned to spur me on with curiosity or otherwise. At times the conversation seemed boring.

    Of my three classifications:(forgettable, pleasurable-not memorable, and memorable) I would rate it as pleasureable-not memorable.

    I

  • Sarah Gorry
    13:09 on March 14th, 2013
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    This was a feast for New York-philes. Historical landmarks, real estate sharply drawn in its hey day of the late 30′s. I’d love to have known more about Evie, Valentine and the doormen’s stories. Some gratuitous stuff but generally a slice of life in the late 30′s Village, Jazz, Swell scene.

  • Nikki Willhite
    13:42 on March 14th, 2013
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    On the opening page of this emotionally powerful novel, Lilly Bere, age eighty-nine, begins the grand story of her seemingly insignificant life, a story in which she speaks directly from her heart, begging to know “How can I get along without Bill?” her grandson who has just died following the First Gulf War in Kuwait. Each of the next sixteen chapters is one more numbered day “without Bill,” but we also learn through flashbacks that Lilly and her family have suffered deaths connected to three earlier wars – the Great War (1914 – 1918), the Irish War for Independence (1919 – 1921), and Vietnam (ca.1965 – 1975). Lilly becomes, in many ways, the prototypically devastated wife, sister, mother, and grandmother, a mourner who is equally a victim of the wars that have taken her men.

    Lilly, born around 1903, in Wicklow, Ireland, was forced to escape to America in 1920 with the love of her life, to avoid a contract placed on him for choosing the wrong side in the Irish War for Independence. Settling in Cleveland, she had thought, at first, that she had reached the land of Canaan, the Promised Land, but she soon discovers that Canaan is always just out of reach. Because Lilly feels far more deeply than she thinks, she succeeds in involving the reader completely as she tells her story, and it is to author Sebastian Barry’s immense credit that he is able create this identification on the level of feelings without resorting to easy sentimentality or maudlin imagery.

    Barry creates perfect, vivid details, with images and descriptions filled with hypnotic rhythms and the cadences of poetry. Refrains and repeating symbols (Canaan, a dancing bear, Homer’s Odyssey, the wayward calf), which are more associated with poetry or music than with biography, keep the reader’s eye on the universal even while succumbing to the power of the moment. One remarkable passage in a Cleveland fun park, for example, consists of a nearly five-hundred-word single sentence which recreates the movement and speed of the rollercoaster on which Lilly rides while simultaneously revealing her feelings for the two other people who accompany her. Even Barry’s “ordinary,” much shorter descriptions are memorable: Lilly’s husband Joe “in his civvies…was all spark and tornado”; at one point Lilly’s heart “lifted like a pheasant from scrub…its wings utterly opened in fright and exulting.”

    Ignoring a linear narrative, Lilly provides free-form reminiscences about her escape to the United States after the Irish Revolution and a wide variety of world events. We learn that Mr. Dillinger’s mother and sister died in Dachau. Cassie Blake, who was her best friend, suffers life-long prejudice for her race, and the death of Martin Luther King is a reference point here. The death of a U. S. senator, shortly thereafter, provides another reference point. Barry scope is enormous, his focus being on the universal as seen within Lilly’s personal experience.

    As the eighty-nine-year-old Lilly contemplates her own imminent death, she feels a small sense of victory, whether or not she ever reaches Canaan: “I stood there, an utterly old, ruined, finished woman….The darkness was so dark that it looked to me like light…It was the insides of something, like pips, like kernels, hard poems and items of God that God keeps his own counsel on, keeps secret and marvelous, almost selfishly, greedily, but who can blame him?” Mary Whipple

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