Spring Days

Leaves and buds are just opening here, and it’s been a productive couple of weeks of home and yard projects. I’m excited that I might be able to do my spring planting earlier this year as the weather is being fairly cooperative. I almost forgot how nice spring can feel. We plan to take a long bike ride in the backcountry on Sunday.

The town here is all abuzz about the NHL hockey playoffs since our team can clinch a first-round series win tonight at home, if only they would. I’m hoping it doesn’t prove elusive. In terms of playoff hockey, it’s been a long dry spell here and the dream of another round is within reach. And from what I’ve learned: never underestimate hockey in a northern country.

Meanwhile this week I want to congratulate author Anthony Doerr for winning the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his World War II novel “All the Light We Cannot See.” My Dad gave me this book for Christmas, and I’m excited to dive into it this spring. It’s waiting for me on the shelf, and I’ve heard from others how good it is. Set in occupied France, it interweaves the story of a blind 14-year-old French girl and a young German soldier whose lives cross paths toward the end of the book. I hear it’s terrific. Have you read it?

Also congratulations to Siri Hustvedt who just won the 2014 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction for her novel “The Blazing World.” According to the publisher, it tells the story of an enigmatic artist who, after years of having her work ignored, ignites an explosive scandal in New York’s art world when she recruits three young men to present her creations as their own. Yet when the shows succeed and she steps forward, one of the men betrays her and they get involved in a deadly game. I remember Barbara over at the blog wellwell touting this novel, and I’m sure it’s great as years ago I recall being pretty blown away by Hustvedt’s 2003 novel “What I Loved.” Her latest one seems to be brimming full of ideas, and Booklist calls it a “wrenching novel of creativity, identity, and longing.” Count me in for it.

In other book news, I came across a few cool articles this week that I thought I’d pass along. The first one in The Washington Post titled “I read books by only minority authors for a year. It showed me just how white our reading world is” by Sunili Govinnage definitely caught my eye. It makes a lot of strong points about the importance of reading diversity, and it seems like a great idea to take a year and read such a book list. I expect I’d explore novels in a number of countries and learn a lot. It seems a worthy, interesting goal.

The next article, “Owning a bookstore means you always get to tell people what to read,” is another good one by Ann Patchett, which was in The Washington Post. It extols the many joys of recommending books to people. I’m sure that’s why so many people like blogging about books. And many of today’s bloggers, like me, also worked in bookstores or the publishing industry along the way. Many still get a kick from pushing good reads.

The last article, “Romanticizing the Reader” by Diane Ackerman in the New York Times is a neat one about how “readers and writers provide a kind of outside family for one another” and that she sees the “reader as a collaborator” who “leaves individual imprints on a book they have read.” Just as a reader might romanticize an author so too does an author romanticize a reader. There’s “something inevitable and touchingly human about it,” she says. If you have time, you might want to check these articles out.

Meanwhile, the Noah Baumbach indie movie “While We’re Young” just made it to our neck of the woods and we saw it Friday night. It’s quite an enjoyable comedy about a mid-forties New York married couple — played by Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts — whose staid lives change when they start hanging out with a young hip couple they meet — played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried. Oh the film is funny, but it also touches on some truths about parenthood, friendship, ambition and aging that its viewers likely have had. It speaks to middle-agers mostly, but can be enjoyed by a variety perhaps. It reminded me a bit of an old Woody Allen New York comedy about married couples, and I liked it more than I thought I would.

It’s definitely my favorite Noah Baumbach movie so far … if you’ve seen “Frances Ha” (2012), “Greenberg” (2010), “Margot at the Wedding” (2007) or “The Squid and the Whale” (2005). They’re all sort of quirky, but in those earlier ones the protagonists are usually sort of grumpy and not very likable. “While We’re Young” is more accessible and the main characters are more sympathetic. It’s both funny and interesting and includes a great cast. Kudos to Ben Stiller for his best role in years? Something tells me I should go back and rent “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” — just to see his facial expressions.

What about you — have you read any of these books or seen any of these movies — and if so, what did you think?

A Recap and Fleetwood’s Story

Well tax week came and went — I survived it. April 15 is definitely a dreaded time each year. I have the joy of filing returns in two countries. Historically it’s not a great day either as both President Lincoln was killed and the Titanic sank on what’s become tax day. Also it’s the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing today (April 19), which was simply horrifying. I remember where I was when it happened — I was at work in the Longworth House Office Building in Washington D.C. where I interned for a Congressman when I was on a break in between jobs. We turned on the TV when we heard. It was awful and shocking. After that, legislation was passed to increase protection around federal buildings to deter future terrorist attacks. Today, 20 years later, it’s sobering to remember the 168 victims, including the 19 young children who were in the building’s day care facility. Who can forget. It’s a sad day to remember.

In much brigther news, this weekend is the Los Angeles Festival of Books. I’ve always wanted to go, but I’ve never gone! I simply must G-O some year soon. I checked the schedule and here’s just a smattering of authors they have at various book discussions going on: Hector Tobar, A. Scott Berg, Meg Wolitzer, Maggie Shipstead, Mona Simpson, Per Petterson, Peter Heller, Viet Thanh Nguyen, T.C. Boyle, Bich Minh Nguyen, Lisa See, Jenny Offill, Laird Hunt, Dennis Lehane, Jonathan Lethem, Kimberly McCreight, Jill Alexander Essbaum, Joyce Carol Oates, Malcolm Gladwell and Atticus Lish. Ugh I can’t believe I’m missing it once again. I need to plan in advance next time and get a flight to SoCal to visit my folks and attend the festival. There’s such literary star power there. Have you ever been?

In other book news, the shortlist for both the Baileys Prize for Women’s Fiction and the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction were announced this past week. The Baileys shortlist includes the two heavyweights: Anne Tyler for “A Spool of Blue Thread” and Sarah Waters for “The Paying Guests.” Could it be Sarah’s year? The rest of the shortlist authors include — Ali Smith, Rachel Cusk, Laline Paull, and Kamila Shamsie — who aren’t too shabby either. I have Shamsie’s novel “A God in Every Stone” on hold at the library. The PEN shortlist includes Cynthia Bond’s “Ruby” and Phil Klay’s “Redeployment” along with three others. Have you read any of these? Stay tuned for the winners in May and June.

Meanwhile in reading this week, I picked up Jane Smiley’s novel “Some Luck” and 20 pages later I put it down. It felt staid to me though I’m sure I need to give it more time. I struggled with its style, though I wanted to read the trilogy its apart of. It’s sort of a bummer like Janet Maslin of the New York Times saying of Ann Packer’s new novel: “So the long, aimless slog through “The Children’s Crusade” begins with not that fascinating a family. And it ends with not that revelatory a resolution.” A slog?! Oh no, I so wanted to read Packer’s book too!

But instead of Smiley, I picked up a rock autobiography by Mick Fleetwood that I received for Christmas and consumed it. My brother gets me a good one almost every year. Over the years I’ve read books by or about: Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Janis Joplin, the Doors, Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Graham Nash, and Neil Young among others. I’m still saving Keith Richards’ autobiography and Patti Smith’s “Just Kids” for a super storm weekend in the future.

Anyways, Mick Fleetwood’s book with Anthony Bozza “Play On,” which came out last fall, did the trick. This week, I relived the years of Fleetwood Mac and the mega-selling albums the band put out especially with its self-titled album in 1975 and with “Rumors” in 1977, which sold more than 40 million copies worldwide —one of the best-selling of all time. This was before the days of CDs or iTunes. Back when people still bought albums. You might recall? On vinyl too. Both albums include such an array of hits which have become ingrained in the brain from all the radio airplay they received decades ago.

Fleetwood’s book follows his life with the band and the many incarnations and highs and lows the band went through from its inception in 1967 through to the present. There were quite a few different musicians in it over the years, but the same 1975 members are still touring as Fleetwood Mac today. I missed seeing them in concert a couple times over the years. But their history as a band is quite notorious from their early days —because of their epic touring, various relationships, endless recording sessions, non-stop drug habits, and rock-star lifestyles.

Mick’s lucky to be alive for sure. His book touches upon each period the band went through as well as his personal life that included: three failed marriages, two bankruptcies, and a two-year affair with Stevie Nicks of which he said: “in terms of the intensity it was a proper Hollywood affair on a par with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.” (Really? Come on). You name it, he went through it. Though in the book he seems rather at peace with it all. Like he’s making amends to people and himself for the crazy life he’s been through. As if it’s all pudding under the rug for a legendary rock ringleader who did his best to keep the band together.

So “Play On” is definitely very readable. You claw your way through it rapidly, reliving the band’s years, albums, and foibles. I especially liked when he discusses the songs and which band members created them and what they were about and how the band made the various albums. A song like Stevie Nicks’s “Sara” for example was apparently about how Mick took up with Nicks’s best friend Sara (she became wife #2) and it also might be about an unborn child she conceived with Don Henley. Oh my, you figure it out. Each band member brought such different things to the table, which in the end made the collaborations so successful. It was cool to read about their hit songs that so flooded the radio airwaves back then.

But unfortunately at times “Play On” seems to gloss over certain aspects of the band’s story and reads in places like a general outline of its trajectory. Some decades fly by while others are discussed more carefully. I only realized later that apparently much of Mick Fleetwood’s story was told in an earlier autobiography in 1990. This is his second one, which apparently goes over much of his and the band’s same history. How strange. He wanted to tell the story twice, this time it appears more sobered up and a bit more apologetic perhaps. It’s an entertaining read, but didn’t break a lot of new ground for me. As far as rock biographies go, it’s pretty standard fare but not as exemplary as perhaps Keith Richards’ or Patti Smith’s will be. Hooray the rock book genre will never die. They’re perfect reads for when you’re in between novels, or just curious about rock legends, their catapulted lives in the stratosphere, and classic songs of the rock era.

What about you do you recall the heyday and songs of Fleetwood Mac, or do you have a particular music autobiography that’s been a favorite?

The Weekly Recap

This week I was sad to read of the death of acclaimed author Ivan Doig of cancer at 75. Most of his books are set in Montana where my brother lives and he was one of my brother’s favorite writers. Doig was known for such novels as “Dancing at the Rascal Fair” from 1987 and the memoir “This House of Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind” from 1979. He was referred to as “the dean of Western writers,” but he didn’t like being limited as a regional author. There’s still a slew of his novels that I want to read. Have you read any of his books, and if so, what did you think?

Also this past week congrats to author Atticus Lish for winning the 2015 Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction for his novel “Preparation for the Next Life.” I had not heard of this book before — it’s from the small press Tyrant Books — but I’m very glad to be introduced to it. Set in New York City, the novel follows the unlikely love story between a Chinese Muslim immigrant and a traumatized Iraq War veteran. It’s been called a stunning debut, so I’m eager to check it out. Have you read or come across this title yet?

Meanwhile we’ve had some spring-like weather here and I was able to go for a few bike rides this week (see attached photo). I love it! Bicycling the backcountry is tough to beat. Now I’ve got the Masters golf tournament on and will tune in on Sunday to see if youngster Jordan Spieth will be able to hold on to his lead despite the various other contenders knocking on the door. It should be tense and fun to watch. Moreover it’s always nice to see the azaleas blooming in Augusta.

This week I finished Heather O’Neill’s 2014 novel “The Girl Who Was Saturday Night,” which was discussed at our book club. It’s about a brother and sister who are 19-year-old twins, navigating the mean streets of Montreal in 1995. They were raised by their decrepit grandfather since their young mother left and their father, a famous folksinger, wasn’t around much. Hence the Tremblay twins are both a bit hellions with no money to spare. The girl is trying to straighten her life out (she finds love, marriage, and is taking classes to go to university), while the boy is sliding into more trouble. It’s the time of Quebec’s 1995 referendum, which asked voters whether the province should proclaim its national sovereignty and separate from Canada. The twins and their relatives are all in favor of Quebec’s separation, but when the vote loses by a minuscule margin, it seems at the same time there are consequences in all the characters’ lives.

I thought “The Girl Who Was Saturday Night” was quite a wonderful novel, vibrantly told from the twin sister’s point of view. I read its 403 pages quickly in three days. It’s compulsively readable, and as my friend in the book club said, its story “gets under your skin.” It seems to paint Montreal at the time to the core. Set among the poor and grubby, the twins are trying to find themselves and pave their ways. It’s a coming-of-age story that is a bit of a different take. I found it to be darkly funny with some terrific sentences that I wanted to underline throughout. However a few in our book club said they didn’t care for the author’s writing style. For one thing, she uses an overabundance of similes (as well as metaphors and cats) to get her descriptions across, which can get a bit taxing along the way, but despite that I thought her writing on the whole to be lively, fresh, and noteworthy. I don’t know much about Montreal but definitely got an interesting flavor for it in this homage to the author’s home city.

I’m quite certain the novel will make the short list for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize) when it’s announced this Monday. So far there are 20 books on the long list, which will be cut to 6 books for the short list. From those, the winner will be announced on June 3. I’d be very surprised if “The Girl Who Was Saturday Night” doesn’t make the cut on Monday. If I were a gambler, I’d bet on it, but what do I know?

How about you — have you read this novel or author before? If so, what did you think? Or what are you up to or reading this Sunday?

April Preview

It’s hard to believe: March is over and done with. Now on to April and the transition to spring. As I will be away this weekend in Victoria, B.C., I am posting this early and wishing everybody a very Happy Easter! Perhaps some of you will be watching the Final Four college basketball finale, or maybe even the Miami Open if you follow tennis. Others will be at church and then maybe hiding or eating Easter eggs. Whatever it is, enjoy this lovely time of year!

March was a fairly good reading month for me so I hope to continue that into April. Next up is a novel I’m reading for my book club called “The Girl Who Was Saturday Night” by Heather O’Neill. So far, all I know about it is that the story is set in Montreal about a sister and brother who are twins who are trying to outrun the notoriety of their folk singer father. Booklist calls it “a marvelously intriguing novel of a family in dissolution.” Hmm. I better get going on it quickly as we are meeting to discuss it soon.

As for April, there’s a few big-name authors with books coming out this month, notably Toni Morrison will be releasing her 11th novel called “God Help the Child,” which apparently is “about the way childhood trauma shapes and misshapes the life of the adult.” Also there’s books coming out by Jon Krakauer, Larry Kramer, Matthew Pearl, Per Petterson, and Lisa Genova among others.

After weeding through the April list, I’ve narrowed my sights on three novels that I probably can’t resist. First off, I must check out Ann Packer’s new novel “The Children’s Crusade,” which examines the bonds of a Northern California family over many years. I’ve heard so many good things about Packer’s 2002 novel “The Dive From Clausen’s Pier” that I need to find out firsthand if Ann Packer is the real deal, which I’m sure she is.

Next off, I’m curious about the novel “The Sympathizer” by Viet Thanh Nguyen, which deals with the fall of Saigon and its aftermath in 1975. So many seem to have high regards for this debut. Author Maxine Hong Kingston calls it “a novel of literary, historical, and political importance” and T.C. Boyle says it’s “destined to become a classic and redefine the way we think about the Vietnam War and what it means to win and to lose.” Judging from the stream of other praise-worthy comments, I’m going need to find a copy.

Also I don’t think I can pass up the upcoming novel by Jane Smiley called “Early Warning,” which is the second novel in a trilogy that will span a century about the Langdon family from Iowa. I received the first book “Some Luck” for Christmas and I haven’t delved into it just yet, but plan to soon. The trilogy has been getting generally favorable reviews, but I won’t know for sure until I crack the spine, so to speak. Admittedly, I haven’t read Smiley since her award-winning 1991 novel “A Thousand Acres,” but goodness was that a killer.

As for movies in April, I’d like to see Noah Baumbach’s latest comedy-drama “While We’re Young,” which stars Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts as a middle-age married couple whose lives are disrupted when they start hanging out with a young couple who enters their lives. It looks quite funny though officially it came out last weekend in March so it’s not really an April film, but I still need to see it. I liked Baumbach’s quirky other indie films “The Squid and the Whale” from 2005 and “Greenberg” from 2010. Have you seen these offbeat ones?

Other than that, I know they’ve advertised the heck out of the movie “Woman in Gold” as the trailer has been everywhere for months. It does look like an interesting story about a Jewish refugee who comes to sue the Austrian government to recover Gustav Klimt’s masterpiece painting that she believes belongs to her family. It stars Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds, too. Though I’m surprised to see the movie’s rotten-tomato ratio isn’t too good, so I might wait to see it on pay-per-view.

In the meantime, I’m thinking the teeny-bopper romance movie “The Longest Ride” will probably win the box office in April. It’s another Nicholas Sparks’ novel adapted for the big screen, none of them I’ve seen or been really interested in — too much melodrama and drippiness. Instead, I’ll pick the film “Clouds of Sils Maria,” with Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart, about an older actress who apparently is going through a crisis. I don’t know too much about it, but it seems to be getting some positive buzz. And judging by the trailer and the actresses in it, it could be an entertaining drama.

As for albums, there’s a lot of good ones coming out in May, but for April not as many notable ones. Still I’m looking to check out the new album from the Canadian indie band the Great Lake Swimmers called “A Forest of Arms,” and I’ll select the Alabama Shakes album “Sound & Color” for my pick this month. It includes the single “Don’t Wanna Fight,” which the Shakes performed quite coolly on Saturday Night Live recently.

So that’s what I see for April releases. How about you — which books, movies, or albums out this month are you most looking forward to?

Neverhome

Laird Hunt’s acclaimed 2014 novel “Neverhome” starts off simple enough. It’s narrated by a housewife and farmer named Constance from Indiana, who in 1862 decides to disguise herself as a man to enlist in the Union Army. She takes the name Ash Thompson and leaves behind her meek husband, Bartholomew, to care for the farm. The story follows her journey as she endures soldier life and harrowing battles of the war while trying not to be found out as a woman.

The novel’s prose is simple and stark but rich in its descriptions, especially of the battle scenes, and the syntax takes on the vernacular of the times, which seems a bit awkward at first, but gives a vivid feeling of being in the Civil War era and its settings.

The character Ash proves to be an excellent shot and sure fighter. She seems heroic and able to outmaneuver and shoot her way out of trouble. But there’s also baggage from her past that comes to her in dreams: her mother’s death haunts her, as well as the death, we learn in time, of her newborn son. There’s also letters from Bartholomew hoping for her return and fearing that she will not.

Along the way, Ash witnesses horrific bloodshed and is injured in battle. A nurse heals her, only later to give her over to authorities who chain her up in a prison, where she’s abused. The book is a bit of a page-turner as you wonder whether Ash will make it back home alive and what unfinished business will be awaiting for her once she gets there.

At first glimpse “Neverhome” appears to be a straightforward heroic story about a strong woman who overcomes great odds but not too far into it you become aware that Ash is carrying around secrets, which she doles out only here and there, and is talking to ghosts. Amid the war, her mind starts to unravel, too, and what is real or not real becomes hazy. She seems to undergo a transformation, and you have to wonder whether she’s telling the truth. The dark ending brings everything home, so to speak.

Judging by comments on Goodreads, quite a few readers thought the story’s ending went off the deep end, or they didn’t get it. I was one of those who had to reread it a few times to understand what it all suggested. I think I was lulled into the story going a certain way, and then it took a turn quite other than that, which left me a bit puzzled and not pleased. Ash is a character who definitely is more complex than she seems. Though I might not have wanted the story to go in that direction, I thought the novel’s writing was quite visual and beautiful in places. For a slim book, “Neverhome” wields a large takeaway.

It also makes me want to read more books about the Civil War, including last year’s nonfiction book by Karen Abbott called “Liar, Temptress, Soldier Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War.”

How about you — have you read “Neverhome” and if so what did you think? Or what books set in the Civil War era are your favorites?

Dark Rooms

I picked up Lili Anolik’s debut novel “Dark Rooms” at the library for a quick suspense read, a transition after a couple of denser books. I didn’t really know anything about it other than it appeared to be among the popular genre of crime novels set at private high schools. The publisher touted it as Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” meets Gillian Flynn’s “Sharp Objects” with twists of Megan Abbott’s “Dare Me” along the way. Okay, okay, I think I get the picture?! I snapped it up and read it quickly this past week ready for something a little berserk.

“Dark Rooms” takes place at a private high school in Hartford, Connecticut, where one morning student Nica Baker, age 16, is found murdered in a nearby field. Her parents, both teachers at the school, and older sister Grace, who recently graduated, are grief-stricken and foggy amid the media circus that follows. The police though are able to close the case quickly when a student commits suicide a couple weeks later, leaving what appears to be a confessional note to the crime. Grace though begins to have her doubts about it. She puts college on hold, stays at home, and becomes obsessed with finding out the truth about her sister’s murder. Though in the process, she opens a can full of worms about her family, herself, and those who knew her sister.

Nica, it turns out, was no angel; she was beautiful and also promiscuous — different than Grace, who sets out to tackle a long list of Nica’s admirers to find out what really happened. Meanwhile Grace finds herself pregnant after a drunken grief-laden escapade and with little time left to solve the murder. Oh my. One thing’s for sure: There’s considerable sleeping around going on at this high school: among the faculty, the kids, you name it. It’s a high school on hormones. The so-called adults or parents in the book aren’t exactly role models either; a few are downright creepy, so Grace must make her away through some pretty messed up, disturbing stuff to find out the truth. She’s a Nancy Drew of sorts. I can’t say much more though I’m sure I’d like to.

Admittedly the book held me till the very end. The author did a good job painting the scenes, giving vivid details, and moving the story along. It’s the kind of suspense story I was looking for when I picked it up. It’s done well, both the writing and plot as well as the twists kept me guessing, although there were a couple times I had to suspend my disbelief and I’m still wondering if the ending fizzled just a bit. Still if you’re on a flight from L.A. to New York, or even on a beach this summer, I’d say this is a suspenseful, well-done novel to hold your attention and pass your time with. Who knows, it might even make you a bit more grateful for the folks and family you have.

How about you — have you read “Dark Rooms” and if so, what did you think? Or what if any are your favorites in the genre of high school/crime novels?

Us Conductors

“Us Conductors” is one of the more unusual novels I’ve read in a long while. It follows the true life story of a Russian scientist (Lev Termen) who I’d never heard of, who made among other inventions a strange musical instrument (the theremin), which I’d also never heard of. Lev came to the U.S. in the 1920s and 30s and was a big hit, especially in New York, and then he returned to Russia where he was imprisoned in various gulags till 1957. It’s not a book I think I would’ve picked up on my own, but I was curious since the author had won the Giller Prize for it last November for $100,000 — not too bad for a debut novelist.

In the first half, I struggled with “Us Conductors” as I didn’t feel very invested in the character of the scientist Lev. The novel jumps around, too, to different places in time — in flash backs as he’s telling the woman he loves about his life in two letters. The novel though is quite readable. The pages go by quickly as Lev at first arrives in New York and is the toast of the town with his patented musical box — the theremin.

Have you heard this instrument’s sound? Its eerie high-pitched notes make it seem straight from The Munsters or Star Trek. No one even touches the box to play it but uses their wavering hands in the air to manipulate the electrical field between its two antennas to make a shrill sound. Check out this example. [embed] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pSzTPGlNa5U [/embed]
Strange but true, I think companies once had big plans for making the theremin a popular instrument in homes everywhere, though in the end that didn’t really pan out.

Somewhere along the line “Us Conductors” crept up on me. As the book goes on there’s so much of this scientist’s life that turns out to be incredible — his successful inventions and work with U.S. companies, how he gets involved in being a Russian spy, his marriages and the one unrequited love of his life, and his imprisonment in the Soviet gulags. Wow. His life story encompasses the Bolshevik Revolution, the swinging night life and music of New York City in the 20s and 30s, and later the Soviet gulags under Stalin.

It’s quite a riches to bust story with an amazing scope that made me rush online the minute I finished it to find out if indeed certain parts of Lev’s life story were true. I especially found his involvement in espionage and the whole Cold War era to be quite captivating, as well as his lifelong love for this woman Clara (an expert theremin player) who he’s addressing throughout the book. Eventually I wanted to know everything about what really happened, which obviously is a sign of an engaging book.

Apparently, the author Sean Michaels kept to the actual biographical sketch of what happened in the scientist’s life, but then reimagined it by filling in the scenes, details, conversations, and people Lev came in contact with. As Michaels said on a radio show, he filled in Lev’s “emotional progress.” It’s not unlike other recent novels have done with the Fitzgeralds, Hemingway’s spouse, or Frank Lloyd Wright’s spouse.

It’s a bit weird because I’m not usually enticed by novels that use actual historical figures to put words in their mouths, but for “Us Conductors” I actually think it served a worthy or interesting purpose.

Not only does it bring life to the era, places, feelings of this scientist who has long since been forgotten by many (Lev only just died in 1993, at the age of 97), but I also liked how the espionage in the book raised questions of Lev’s patriotism, duty, and responsibility, which Michaels talked about on a radio program as being relevant today in such places as Russia and in America’s NSA/Snowden case.

It’s cool, too, that the musical instrument the theremin can be seen sort of as a metaphor in the book. As the theremin uses invisible forces to make players or listeners feel a particular way, so too does Lev feel an invisible force working, for instance, through Clara and him. He writes letters to her in his mind over time and distance as if it’s almost telepathy.

I was struck by the novel especially during the second half of the book. There’s a lot of different things at work in it, such as: love, music, inventing, spying, and surviving the gulags. The story of this scientist’s life is rather remarkable — he went through so much — and that’s what ultimately won me over. The book’s research into bringing his story to light is quite compellingly done and left me wanting to know what was fact or fiction about the scientist Lev Termin and the theremin long after its last pages.

What about you have you read Sean Michael’s book and what did you think? Or have you ever heard of a theremin before this novel?

March Preview

The Hub and I have been in Palm Springs this week enjoying a little spring break before heading back to the real world and winter. Ahh it’s nice to feel the sun and wear short selves again. Hooray for the desert. We’ve been doing some hiking, biking, and reading by the pool (of course), and taking time off from the TV and computer, which feels nice. Though my reading hasn’t been great of late as I put two books down after the first twenty-five pages or so. Argh I hate when that happens. First I set aside Asali Solomon’s 2015 novel “Disgruntled” and then Marilynne Robinson’s 2004 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Gilead,” which I know many people love. For whatever reason I couldn’t focus on either of these books or they just didn’t capture me. Now I’m mid-way through Sean Michael’s 2014 Giller prize-winning novel “Us Conductors” and liking it but not loving it so far. What I could use right about now is a book that’s killer enticing.

For books coming out in March, I really thought that would mean racing through Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel “The Buried Giant” and Erik Larson’s nonfiction book “Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania.” Both authors’ books I have loved in the past and both have been perhaps the most highly anticipated books of the year.

Set in 6th century Britain, “The Buried Giant” follows the story of an elderly couple who undergo an illuminating journey to find the son they have not seen in years. It’s said to include themes about lost memories, love, revenge, and war. While “Dead Wake” explores the devastating sinking of the luxury ocean liner, the Lusitania, by a German U-boat in 1915.

Both seem fascinating and I was so ready to pounce, but apparently these latest works out this month have been receiving some tepid reviews. How surprising. Both authors are masters, are they not? I still plan to read both books, but so far the feedback has made me put them a bit lower on my reading pile — on the back burner for now. If you already jumped to read these, what did you think?

Meanwhile I’m curious to check out Christian Kiefer’s second novel “The Animals” about a man who manages a wildlife sanctuary in rural Idaho, caring for injured animals that are unable to survive in the wild. All is well apparently until his past comes back to haunt him; a friend is released from prison and returns to avenge the aftermath of a crime that involved the two of them. Publishers Weekly calls it a “mesmerizing literary thriller” and author Edan Lepucki says it’s a “startling and beautiful novel about friendship, grief, and the urge to start over.” Hmm, count me in.

As for movies out this month, I probably won’t dash out to the theater for any of them (I’m still coming off my Oscar splurge). The second installment of Veronica Roth’s young adult dystopian series “Insurgent” is likely to be the biggest blockbuster of the month, though Disney’s latest “Cinderella,” by director Kenneth Branagh, hopes to rain on that parade. I like Shailene Woodley but I can’t exactly see me watching “Insurgent.” I did read Roth’s first book “Divergent” but haven’t followed through with the two remaining books. Are you a big fan of the series and do you plan to see the movie? Meanwhile, I’m surprised by how much advertising has been thrown at “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” Holy smokes they’ve really tried to ramp up this follow-up, but seeing the first Marigold Hotel movie was likely enough for me.

Lastly in albums out this month, there’s some big new releases from Noel Gallagher, Death Cab for Cutie, and Modest Mouse, which I’m geared up to check out. So far I’ve heard songs from them here and there but still need to hear more of them. I’m also game for new albums by Mark Knopfler and Brandi Carlile. Carlile’s latest “The Firewatcher’s Daughter” will be my pick for the month. Enjoy.

What about you — which books, movies, or albums are you most looking forward to this month? And do you plan to take a spring getaway trip?

The Uninvited Guests

I was glad to fall into Sadie Jones’s 2012 novel “The Uninvited Guests” for my book club read this month as it’s a far cry from the mayhem of “American Sniper,” which I had just read before it. Alas, I found “The Uninvited Guests” to be a good remedy and a quick escape from today’s world.

It’s set in the early years of the twentieth century at a grand old manor house in the English countryside. (Think Downton Abbey era.) The lady of the household, who’s remarried after the death of her first husband, resides there with her new husband and three children, the oldest of whom (Emerald) is celebrating her twentieth birthday with a couple of friends on a rainy evening. But then a terrible train wreck nearby propels a group of survivors from the train’s third class to seek shelter at the house, throwing the household into chaos and mischief. The uninvited guests turn Emerald’s birthday upside down as well as her younger sister who decides it’s time for a dubious undertaking and a mysterious male survivor from the train wreck who divulges a shocking secret from their mother’s past. Shenanigans at the rickety old manor ensues with a touch of the supernatural thrown in.

What starts as a tale quite stuffy and amusing comes splattering down like the rooms and wall at the manor. The characters undergo a reckoning that although harsh seemingly does some good, shaking them from their lofty pedestals.

The writing reminded me of a Dickens tale and I found it quite enjoyable. “The Uninvited Guests” definitely makes me want to read other titles by the talented British author Sadie Jones in the future. Apparently Jones’s first novel “The Outcast” from 2008 is coming out as a television drama on the BBC sometime this year. I likely will have to pick up that novel before then.

It made me wonder what other recent novels take place in big spooky houses and I’m thinking perhaps of Sarah Waters’s novel “The Paying Guests” and Garth Stein’s novel “A Sudden Light.” Both of which are from last year and are ones I still have to read. Are there others? It seems spooky old houses are popular settings once again.

How about you have you read “The Uninvited Guests” or any others by Sadie Jones? And if so, what did you think?

Oscar Night

I was just reading in the newspaper about how no one really cares about watching the Academy Awards anymore and that the winners are all so predictable and the nominee choices are sexist and without diversity. Has the Oscars grown old, stale, and out of touch with society? Perhaps so. I’m not exactly sure why I still watch the entire drawn-out broadcast each year, but I guess I still enjoy the hubbub over the year’s best films and discussing films of interesting substance. And though the Best Picture nominees this year might be filled with predominantly white, male protagonists, the films offer quite an array of subject matter. Similar to a good book, I like how the best films can transport one to a place or situation that is not our own and draw us into remarkable stories. The list below is of the nominated films I’ve seen over the past months in the order of when I saw them.
 

“Begin Again” I loved this little movie about a singer-songwriter in New York who collaborates on an album with a disgraced music executive. It’s by same writer and director as the movie “Once,” whose story also captured the magic of music. Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley shine in “Begin Again,” and I can’t believe Knightley actually sings the songs for the movie. That takes guts. The film is nominated for Best Original Song for its tune “Lost Stars” and I’m hoping it will win.  
 

“Gone Girl” This film adaptation did a great job replicating the suspense and creepiness of the popular suspense novel by Gillian Flynn. Kudos to the filmmakers and to Ben Afflect and Rosamund Pike for getting the flawed Nick and Amy so right. Pike is nominated for Best Actress, deservedly so. I’m just a bit worried she’ll be forever typecast in my mind as the diabolical Amy no matter what roles she takes on next. “Gone Girl” received 1 nomination for Best Actress.   
 

“Interstellar” Funny, I didn’t like director Christopher Nolan’s other film “Inception,” but I thoroughly enjoyed this time puzzle story about a group of astronauts who travel through a wormhole in outer space. The film is thought-provoking and elegantly shot with some cool special effects too. My husband and I thought it much better than the prior Oscar space flick “Gravity.” “Interstellar” is up for 5 Oscars: Original Score, Production Design, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, and Visual Effects, and I’m hoping it’s going to win a couple.
 

“Birdman” I loved this clever black-comedy film about a washed up actor who tries to revive his career by staging a Broadway play. There’s a lot of cool actors and performances in this. And along with “The Imitation Game,” “Birdman” was my favorite film of the year. It’s up for 9 nominations: Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Picture, Best Cinematography, Best Director, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, and Best Original Screenplay. I particularly want it to win for Screenplay, if not also for Best Picture.

“The Imitation Game” Another favorite film of the year for me. What an amazing story! About a team of mathematicians, including Alan Turing, that break the Nazis’ Enigma Code during WWII. Benedict Cumberbatch is terrific as Turing and any other year would likely win Best Actor. But I’m a bit afraid that he and the film will be snubbed out of many awards because much of the attention seems elsewhere. “The Imitation Game” is nominated for 8 Oscars: Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Picture, Best Director, Film Editing, Original Score, Production Design, and Adapted Screenplay.

“Unbroken” This film based on Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling book about Louis Zamperini’s life, primarily in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during WWII, wasn’t nearly as good as the book but did have compelling parts to it. I’m a bit surprised it was snubbed in nominations, receiving only three: Cinematography, Sounds Editing and Sound Mixing. It wasn’t even nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay which was done by the Coen brothers. But perhaps it’ll win for Cinematography.

“Boyhood”  I saw this nearly three hour film on pay-per-view TV. Much has been talked about how it was filmed over 12 years. It’s pretty down to earth but it surprisingly engaged me even though it’s simply a look into the life of a family and particularly of a boy’s growing up. The family doesn’t have a lot of money and struggles through the mom’s relationships and divorces; it ends once the boy gets to college. “Boyhood” comes off feeling quite real, which interested me. I didn’t find it my favorite but I know many others think it should win Best Picture. Patricia Arquette is expected to win for her role as the mother. It’s up for 6 nominations: Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Picture, Best Director, Film Editing and Original Screenplay.

“Wild” Based on the bestselling book by Cheryl Strayed, this film, about a woman trying to overcome her grief over the death of her mother and the end of her marriage by walking the Pacific Coast trail, seemed to live up to the book. It has some solid performances along with a scenery that’s tough to beat. It’s up for 2 nominations: Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress. Hooray for the return of Laura Dern.

“The Judge” I saw this film recently on pay-per-view TV. It’s about a son who returns to his hometown to defend his father, a judge, against a murder charge. I like Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall but this film has irksome characters that didn’t really resonate with me. Though there was a sad sense of a family’s missed opportunities which came through. It’s up for 1 nomination: Best Supporting Actor for Robert Duvall’s performance, who last won an Oscar for “Tender Mercies” in 1983.

“Selma” I was geared up to see this film about civil rights icon Martin Luther King’s campaign for equal voting rights in Alabama in 1965. It’s a moving, interesting account though I did find the actual footage of the march in Selma, which is included at the end, even more so and could’ve watched more of that. I was surprised that actor David Oyelowo who plays King didn’t receive a Best Actor nomination. The film did get 2 nominations: Best Picture and Original Song.

“American Sniper” I’ll be interested to see if this film receives any Oscars as there’s been considerable controversy swirling about it, as well as the ongoing murder trial of its protagonist. I recently reviewed the book and movie, see the post below. I’m not sure it will win any awards though it already won at the box office, becoming the top war movie of all time. It’s a stunning feat for sure. “American Sniper” is up for 6 nominations: Best Actor, Best Picture, Film Editing, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, and Adapted Screenplay.

“Theory of Everything” This film, about the life and struggles of physicist Stephen Hawking and his wife, grew on me as it went along and I ended up liking it quite a lot. It had great performances by Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne and I’m glad I didn’t pass up seeing it, which I almost did. It’s perhaps the sleeper hit of the year and is up for 5 nominations: Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Picture, Original Score, and Adapted Screenplay.

“Still Alice” This film is based on Lisa Genova’s bestselling book, which I reviewed in January about a successful woman who is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s at age 50. It’s sad but also thought-provoking. Julianne Moore is considered a shoe-in for Best Actress. I found her performance quite good but perhaps no more extraordinary than others in her category. Though she gave the role a realness and dignity which I hope will succeed in bringing more attention to sufferers of Alzheimer’s. “Still Alice” is up for 1 nomination: Best Actress.

“Nightcrawler” I watched this crime thriller about a freaky L.A. crime-accident TV cameraman Friday on pay-per-view TV. Wow is this dark and creepy. Jake Gyllenhaal plays weirdo roles so well. I recall the other dark role he played in “Enemy” in which he portrays a professor and a look-alike man who he pursues. Strange. This film too is disturbing — but well worth a Friday night rental. Hooray, too, for the return of Rene Russo. “Nightcrawler” is up for 1 nomination: Original Screenplay.

So far these are the nominated films I’ve seen. 14 in all. I was going to see “Foxcatcher” starring Steve Carell, Chatum Tanning, and Mark Ruffalo but I never made it there. It looks like a good rental for later. Anyways, what were your favorite films or performances of the year? And do you think you’ll watch the Academy Awards?