Book Review: Hotel Moscow

  Hotel MoscowHotel Moscow by Talia Carner ill serves the thousands of courageous Eastern European and Western women who serve in, and benefit from, the support of NGO’s—-non-governmental organizations bringing aid, training and spiritual support to post-Soviet states. It was disturbing to see the very well-portrayed narcissism of the main character attributed as an issue among children of Holocaust survivors. The gangsterism motif and chick- flick-style romance running through the story becomes tedious, although the pace does pick up after the first fifty pages.

Hotel Moscow is basically a novel about a naive Western business woman volunteering to coach women with emerging businesses in Moscow as Perestroika dawns. The main character lacks the discretion essential for volunteers working with NGOs, and so ends up encountering Moscow thugs who are taking Mafioso advantage of women striving to develop healthy businesses. Sexual aggression, torture, and destruction of hard-earned business property while graphically described, often seem inauthentic, as though imagined rather than researched. All combine to create a profound sense of distaste in this reader, as I have served safely as a volunteer with non-profits throughout much of the former Soviet Union. I find it hard to envision an NGO that would send volunteers over there without effective briefings and extensive protection.

What Hotel Moscow does begin to capture is the beauty of how woman-to-woman support and caring so readily transcends nationality.To be fair to the author, competing forces and strategies for survival do make individual choices difficult given the pioneering conditions. It’s difficult for even the most experienced NGO staff to completely avoid having their spirits, time and resources sometimes being exploited by clients for inappropriate ends. It takes many years of visiting a different culture to sufficiently grasp the nuances of the peoples’ responses and circumstances and to become truly effective. Judgments made by those bringing Western norms and values into their work early in a program can, in retrospect, seem stunningly off-base after spending a serious spate of time in the host cultures of the many ethnic, racial, religious and ideological groups across the former Soviet Union.

I have seen groups such as Project Kesher, ORT and the Joint Distribution Committee collaborate to assist in more successful entrepreneurial efforts of women in business, education and social justice than could fit in any book. Hotel Moscow exploits the worst that could happen, without ever revealing the tremendous accomplishments of NGOs through out the region, which is very unfortunate.

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  1. says

    The author responds:

    I was surprised to read Rabbi Goldie Milgram’s essay about the work of NGOs masked as a book review of my new novel, HOTEL MOSCOW. I am not in the habit of responding to reviews of my work, but this particular wishful thinking essay that you have published calls into question what your reviewer (who runs the book review section) expects a work of fiction to deliver.

    Rabbi Milgram’s regret that the novel is neither a journalistic report nor an academic dissertation of the work of all NGOs in the former Soviet Union is entirely off the mark. Had she reviewed a novel about a dysfunctional family would she have bemoaned the fact that the author failed to report about all the wonderful families out there that are loving and supportive? If a novel opens with a dead body behind a door and continues with an exploration of the causes, it needs not cover all the cases when a door opens and there is no dead body behind it. A novel is a story about one particular case, one specific story of one protagonist going through mounting difficulties. It is ludicrous to expect it to be a report about everything else that goes on elsewhere unless it impacts the story.

    Furthermore, Rabbi Milgram’s assertion that the events in the novel are not plausible and that “no NGO would send volunteers over there without effective briefings and extensive protection” is completely baseless. This novel is based upon my own personal experiences in Russia. In October 1993 I was there on behalf of the U.S. Information Agency, and some of my fellow travelers were women from other branches of the U.S. government as well as from major reputable NGOs. There was no briefing and no protection. When the uprising of the Russian parliament against then-president Yeltsin broke, our Russian handlers resorted to their Soviet ways by denying us information and lying about what was going on in the city where tanks were rolling, declaring our CNN reports from home “Western propaganda.” I was chased by the militia and was threatened with jail, and was eventually whisked out of the country by the U.S. Embassy (and the intervention of my Congressman Gary Ackerman.) These are facts that appear in background material on my website and in the back of the novel but that Rabbi Milgram’s Utopic view refuses to accept.

    The “review” reaches a new level of absurdity when it accuses this fiction author of imagining things. While no fiction writer has ever been crticized for having an imagination, as explained above, this is not even the case here.

    Rabbi Milgram also is in denial about the sexual aggression of Russian men. Both my visits in May and in October 1993 in Moscow proven it to be the most dangerous city in regards to male aggression. Not only we, the visiting Americans, were attacked in broad light, but we also watched powerless as men of authority literally pounced on the women we were counseling.

    Finally, Rabbi Milgram goes on to discuss situations that have little to do with the novel and should be reserved for her own article about the training of volunteers so they are not “exploited by clients for inappropriate ends,” which did not happen in the novel.

    Your readers would be best served by a new review of HOTEL MOSCOW by an unbiased reviewer of fiction who has no personal agenda.

    Sincerely,

    Talia Carner
    Author, HOTEL MOSCOW

  2. says

    Rejoinder by reviewer:

    My concept and practice ​in writing reviews ​for the Philadelphia Jewish Voice has long been to focus on the relevance of a book to Jew​i​s​h learning​ and Jewish groups, while offering related experiences and material for reader education. ​Novels are sometimes valuable educational tools. ​I’m sorry to hear the ​US Information Agency was so lax as to not brief participants in your group before and during work in the field, and that proper security was not provided for your visit. You most definitely were effective in your portrayal of​ the unconscionable aggressive male behavior one finds in ​so ​many countries and corporate settings​ world-wide. I apologize for not citing the pertinent passages in regard to my comment about sexual aggression, as I should have been explicit that I was referring to the rape and torture material, and particularly the portrayal of the reaction of the affected.

    With care,
    Rabbi Goldie Milgram

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