The Power and Brass

It’s been a bit of a slow reading month for me perhaps because my mind has been distracted on other things, notably getting done some home renovations, officiating a tennis tournament, and absorbing the very troubling news out of the States on the latest school shooting in Parkland, Fla., and why there isn’t sensible gun control on semiautomatic rifles and who can get them. My big hope is that there will be a breakthrough on getting something accomplished, thanks to the Parkland students leading the way. Enough is indeed enough.

Meanwhile it’s been freezing here. For as mild as winter was in November and most of December, it’s been hitting hard this month with temps often in the single digits if not 0 degrees Fahrenheit, making it apparently the coldest February in nearly 25 years here. Hmm, what the heck? Surely I’m dreaming of spring days now, though it’s still quite a ways off. The only one who likes this cold is my trusty book assistant, pictured at left.

Luckily some of the Olympics has been a good reprieve this week. The women’s hockey game between Canada and the U.S. was as usual very close and exciting; it came down to the wire, needing a second OT shoot-out to decide the Gold medal. My insides were torn apart for both teams. And I was totally stoked to see the U.S. team of Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall win Gold in the cross-country team sprint (the country’s first medal ever in a women’s cross-country event). Wow it was an all-out rush and mega effort down the home stretch. And watching the downhill skiing action wasn’t too shabby either. So thanks for these antidotes. And now, I’ll leave you with reviews of what I finished this past week.

Oh yes, it was about time I got around to “The Power.” This novel by Naomi Alderman won the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction and made a lot of Best Of Lists last year, including at the New York Times.

Gracious, I had no idea what I was getting into — I just thought it was a speculative tale about teenage girls around the globe who develop the ability to send an electrical charge from their body that alters the balance of power between the sexes and on Earth — which indeed it is — but whoa, there’s a lot more to it than that. This is no simple Hunger Games action tale. This lively novel is stuffed to the gills — both thematically and satirically with an array of storylines and characters — and you’ll need to be on your toes to drink it all in.

I began listening to it as an audiobook, and though the production was top-notch, I yearned midway through for the print version so I could better follow its various directions and people. Basically its storyline chronicles the early days of matriarchy’s rise around the world through the experiences of four characters whose tribulations alternate the book’s chapters.

There’s Tunde, a Nigerian photojournalist who begins to document the global phenomena; and Margo, a U.S. politician who tries to hide her power and win over her electorate; as well Allie, an abused foster child who escapes to a convent and reinvents herself as healer Mother Eve; and my favorite, Roxy Monke, who’s the daughter of a London crime boss that finds she has a particularly potent electrical charge. These four become quite intriguing to follow and offer various perspectives that converge on the newly declared nation of “Bessapara,” previously Moldova, where the former sex-trafficking capital of the world becomes a staging ground for the new world order.

Oh my, at first I didn’t know what to make of all of what was going on and was a bit overwhelmed by the storylines that stray and converge periodically, like Whaa? It’s a bit complex narratively, and make no mistake: it’s a violent tale that does not involve a feminist utopia with a lot of peace, love and understanding. Instead there’s rampant brutality and war and the newly discovered female power is abused.

The story’s got some humor to it (thankfully), and politics, religion and sex too (with a bit of zap) to it — not to mention payback against abusive men. Early on, I almost set aside the novel as a DNF (for its sporadic-ness?) but then held on and got hooked on the character of Roxy Monke somewhere along the way, and Tunde too. Both face some rough misfortunes and journey far and wide, which kept me closely tuned in. The inventive ending surprised and amused me too, but I will leave that to you to find out on your own.

Surely Naomi Alderman drank from the kool-aid acid test in creating this novel and seems at the height of her powers. It’s a tale that’s busting from the seams with subversive ideas and satirical wisdom. It might not have held me as much as Emily St. John Mandel’s novel “Station Eleven” did, but I came to like Roxy Monke quite a bit and admire Alderman’s obviously immense talent. Her characters and vision quite literally lit up the stratosphere.

Next up, I finished reading Xhenet Aliu’s debut novel “Brass,” which is set in Waterbury, Conn., and is about the lives of a mother (Elsie) and her daughter (Luljeta), told in alternating chapters taking place when they’re both coming of age in their late teens. It’s a story that captures a once-bustling factory town — back when the brass mills were still open — full of immigrant workers that’s turned into a dead-end place (when the story starts in 1996) where people are stuck with little prospects and can’t seem to leave.

Elsie, a granddaughter of Lithuanian immigrants, is a waitress at the Betsy Ross diner when she falls in love as a teen with an Albanian line cook who comes to the States chasing dreams, but when she finds out she’s unexpectedly  pregnant she must grapple with trying to hold on to him and wondering if his heart is back with the love he left behind in Europe. Flash forward 17 years, and her daughter Luljeta makes a fateful decision to find the father she never knew on the day she gets beaten up at school and receives a rejection letter from NYU.

You get the picture of these alternating storylines, which kept my interest. The novel includes some sharp writing particularly of these protagonists trying to escape their fates in this dead-end town, though I seemed to like the chapters about the mother’s teen life more than the daughter’s, perhaps because there seemed more depth and emphasis on hers. Also I was looking for a bit more from the novel’s ending and could’ve used a little more on the mother and daughter’s relationship other than what’s reflected from their separate teen lives. Still you get the gist of what’s handed down between them from their circumstances and of their dreams lost. There’s plenty to ponder by the end and I felt the story’s many emotions.

What about you — have you read either of these and if so, what did you think?

Posted in Books | 6 Comments

Big Little Lies and The Post

Greetings. We had a big snowstorm last week and now have a lot of snow on the ground. It’s been cold too! Ouch. Nonetheless my husband and I went cross-country skiing both days this past weekend, which was fun, and now have been watching quite a bit of the Olympics. Some of the events have already been spectacular such as when the Norwegians made a medal sweep of the cross-country “skiathlon” race — in which the skier fell at the beginning, was trampled, and still got up and won the race after being in last place: Wow. Can you tell I’m already in deep watching the Games? I’ll be cheering on a couple hometown skiers — Go Trevor! — among others. I’m also wondering if the women’s Canadian hockey team will win its fifth Olympic gold in a row. You hear about such things when you live here. No pressure or anything, right? I’m also rooting for the big team down south and various other athletes as well. I’m all over the place.

Meanwhile recently I went through a “Big Little Lies” phase — not me personally — but I’m talking about the 2014 novel by Australian author Liane Moriarty and the HBO TV series that’s based on it. I finished both — as I had to see what all the fuss was about … since the TV series recently won 4 Golden Globes as well as 8 Emmys. I was curious: was it really that good? I think I hadn’t picked up the popular, bestselling novel before because it seemed to be essentially chick-lit, which in full-blown mode isn’t usually my cup of tea, but there’s a bit more to this novel than just that. For one thing it’s done well and for another it takes quite a stand. For those who don’t know what the book’s about:

It takes place in an idyllic Australian seaside town where you find out at the beginning that someone has died at the parents’ Trivia Night — a part of the elementary school’s fundraiser. You don’t know who it is or what has happened but eventually the story leads up to that. Backtrack six months earlier, and you meet the characters who appear to be the possible victims or perpetrators at the school’s kindergarten orientation.

There’s Chloe’s mom, the remarried Madeline who is gregarious and knows everyone and everything going on in town, but is having issues with her ex-husband and their teenage daughter who wants to move in with her dad’s new family. And then there’s her best friend Celeste, who seems to have the perfect life, rich and beautiful with twin boys and a hedge fund manager husband, though it’s far from the happiness it appears. And lastly Jane, who Madeline and Celeste befriend, is a young single mom who’s just moved to town with her son Ziggy and seems to have something dark hidden in her past.

All of them seem to be having family issues or have secrets that unfold as times goes on. But it’s after Jane’s son Ziggy is accused of bullying at school that sides are drawn and tensions mount among cliques of moms at school and within marriages, which eventually boil over on the night of the fundraiser.

Oh my, it’s more than you bargained for. I liked how the novel effectively takes on such serious issues as bullying and domestic abuse — as well as being a bit satirical and funny in places about the whole school gossipy scene and these well-off parents with families who behave badly. I thought it made some interesting connections and conclusions and was pretty much an easy page-turner about the three women’s lives, though the long countdown the chapters take to get to what happens at the school’s fundraiser drove me sort of crazy. It felt a bit long at 486 pages and I didn’t really care for the group narrative that acted like a Greek chorus at the end of each chapter. Those seemed to bog things down though I’m sure they’re meant to show various viewpoints and for comic relief. Despite these minor gripes, I’m glad I read the novel, and I eagerly took on the show.

The TV series follows the novel pretty closely though it adds a couple of things too. One noticeable change is that it’s set in Monterey, California, instead of Australia, though it seems to work well and the scenery is gorgeous. Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, and Shailene Woodley are all quite good as the three friends whose kids are in kindergarten together and whose lives involve some sticky family issues. Laura Dern too is great as the parent whose child is being bullied and who lashes out at the child she thinks is responsible.

The show is a bit soap opera-y about the well-off, but it makes for total escape watching and an entertaining show … beautiful people in a beautiful landscape behaving badly. You know the kind. And by the end you find out what happens at the school’s fundraiser and who dies. I enjoyed it and perhaps liked it maybe more than the book. Even my husband liked it, ha, which was a test. Apparently Meryl Streep has been cast in the show’s Season 2, which has yet to be filmed and which goes beyond the book, since that ended with Season 1.

Next up I finished debut author Karen Cleveland’s spy thriller “Need to Know.” It’s about a CIA analyst named Vivian — a wife and mother of four children — who finds out in a secret dossier that someone close to her is a part of a Russian sleeper cell and everything she thought she knew and trusted is not what it was. Oh my, this is a plot that might appeal to fans of the TV show “The Americans,” which, as you probably know, is about two Soviet KGB officers in the 1980s that pose as an American married couple living in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., with their two children. (I think I only watched Season 1, but the sixth and final season is supposed to start in March.)

Anyways, this story made me feel quite uncomfortable at first because the main character Vivian seems to be giving in to the Russians to shield the person close to her. I was afraid the whole thing was going to be about “breaking bad” and handing over classified information, which felt awful, but luckily towards the end the story takes a turn and Vivian gets more of a backbone. Thank goodness. I still had trouble believing some of her earlier decisions, but I thought her fear felt pretty palpable and the situation to be as bad as one of your worst nightmares.

It’s quite a fast-paced book, one that mixes a family drama with a spy thriller. Apparently the author was a CIA analyst herself so she knows her way around Langley and those who fight to keep secrets. I think I gave it a 3.5 on Goodreads. I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes a series, which I guess I wouldn’t mind checking out more of.

Lastly my husband and I saw the movie The Post, which we both liked. There are a few facets to the movie that make it quite a story to see, especially in the era when the press is quite often vilified and attacked under the current administration. Is it any wonder that Steven Spielberg rushed to make the film after Trump was elected and got it into theaters in six months flat.

Set during a few weeks in 1971, the movie revisits the Washington Post’s decision to publish portions of the Pentagon Papers, a classified report about America’s involvement in Vietnam. It runs through the events as they unfolded in an suspenseful fashion: about how the New York Times had broken the story but had been ordered to stop publishing the papers; and how the Washington Post then obtained them and what was at stake to publish them; and how the newspaper could’ve been ruined.

It’s an anxious ride revisiting this episode in history — and what it meant to freedom of the press, as the movie shows, and being able to hold the government accountable, which is so essential to our democracy. What I liked too about the movie is how it shows Katharine Graham coming into her own as publisher of The Post during a time when the industry and government was very male run. She had a lot on the line (she was about to take her company public at the time of the Pentagon Papers) and she held the reins and came through big time.

It’s interesting to note that Graham was an unlikely feminist pioneer of the times who was quite shy and prone to self-doubt, but she was thrust into the spotlight after her husband’s death when she took over The Post and went on to become quite a newspaper icon. I am grateful that I got a chance to hear her speak a few times when I worked at The Post in the 1990s. I recommend reading her autobiography, if you haven’t already, called “Personal History,” which is fascinating.

Indeed some of the best parts of the movie are just the quiet performances and interactions between Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham, and Tom Hanks as executive editor Ben Bradlee. Meryl is particularly wonderful in the role — she seems to be able to conjure up the late Mrs. Graham. And what’s best too are the scenes of the old linotype machines and the newspaper going to press. Ahh those were the days. I told you I was crazy about newspaper movies, and this one is no exception.

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

Posted in Books, Movies | 32 Comments

February Preview

Ahhh February. The month of Valentine’s Day and all that lovey-dovey. I hope you take advantage of it. Get out the chocolates. It’s bitterly cold here right now, criminy: stay indoors! And it appears the Super Bowl is an all East Coast matchup this year, though if you’re not into it, there’s always the commercials to watch or the halftime show or more importantly the Puppy Bowl. Hooray, go puppies! Will you be watching the Game?

Meanwhile I’ve been looking at what’s releasing this month and there’s quite a few novels competing for my attention. I usually try to stick to five to highlight, but I’m fluctuating a bit on which ones to pick. Still I got to go with checking out Tayari Jones’s new novel “An American Marriage,” which is about an African-American married couple whose lives are torn apart when the husband is arrested and convicted of a crime he did not commit. Some of the novel is told in letters while the husband is in prison and the rest is about what happens to their marriage when he gets out. It’s said to be a love story that explores class tensions as well as racial injustice in the contemporary South. It sounds powerful and one I’m up for. I haven’t read this author before but she seems like one to watch and follow.

I’m also curious about Willy Vlautin’s novel “Don’t Skip Out on Me,” which details the story of a young Nevada ranch hand who leaves his life of sheep herding to prove his worth as a professional boxer — first in Tucson, then in Mexico and then in the seedier sides of Las Vegas. It sounds like a gritty, but touching story about one man’s search for identity and belonging. I haven’t read Vlautin before but apparently he writes about those who are downtrodden and forgotten like no other. As Ann Pachett says: “The straightforward beauty of Vlautin’s writing, and the tender care he shows his characters, turns a story of struggle into indispensable reading. I couldn’t recommend it more highly.” Hmm, count me in.

Next up, I like the looks of two debut novels: Moriel Rothman-Zecher’s “Sadness Is a White Bird” and Jasmin Darznik’s “Song of a Captive Bird.” I don’t know what it is exactly about bird titles, but both novels are receiving considerably high marks on Goodreads and praise elsewhere.

Zecher’s book is about a young Israeli man who’s preparing to serve in the Israeli army while also trying to reconcile his close relationship to two Palestinian twins. It’s said to a be a passionate coming-of-age love-triangle narrative that captures the intense feelings on both sides of the conflict and offers insights, says author Geraldine Brooks, “into the holy and the broken place that is modern Israel.”

While Darznik’s novel retells the real-life story of Iranian feminist, poet, and director Forugh Farrokhzad against the sweeping panorama of Iranian history: from the rise of the 1953 coup to martial law in 1979 and the start of revolution.

It’s said to be a tale of a woman transcending the strictures of a patriarchal society and one that sounds fascinating. Forugh was apparently a poet who defied society’s expectations and went on to find her voice and her destiny. Called a stunning and powerful debut, this hailed tribute to a  brave poet sounds like it could be just my cup of tea.

Lastly in books it’s either Kristin Hannah’s novel “The Great Alone,” which is her latest since her very popular book “The Nightingale” in 2015, or Paul Howarth’s debut novel “Only Killers and Thieves” about two brothers on a manhunt in 19th-century, colonial Australia.

Both stories sound rather violent based but are said to be compelling. Hannah’s “Great Alone” includes a Vietnam vet who moves his family in 1974 to Alaska, starts to unravel, and becomes abusive to them, while Howarth’s “Only Killers” is set against a time of brutality to Australia’s indigenous people. I can only hope the protagonists of both tales escape their predicaments and set things right. They seem to be in a dicey fix, so check these out if you dare.

Meanwhile there doesn’t seem to be a lot that’s notable coming out for movies in February. But Clint Eastwood directs one called “The 15:17 to Paris” about the true story of the three Americans who stopped the terrorist attack on a train in France in 2015.

The story follows the three friends’ lives from their childhood struggles through to becoming young adults, to the series of unlikely events leading up to the attack. The cool thing too is that the real guys get to play themselves in the movie. You don’t get to see that very often unless it’s a documentary, which this one is not. Though the movie hasn’t been pre-screened yet so your bet is as good as mine as to  how decent it is.

Otherwise there’s a couple of screwball comedies to get you through the winter blues. “Game Night” looks to be quite a crazy, slap-sticky movie about a group of friends whose game night turns into a murder mystery. It stars an amusing Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams among others.

There’s also the British black comedy “The Party,” which might be more my cup of tea. It’s about a politician who throws a party at her London flat to celebrate a job promotion and things don’t exactly go as planned … when festering secrets surface that turn things into a domestic war zone. “The Party” has quite a caste especially if you’re fans of Patricia Clarkson, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Emily Mortimer among others.

As for albums releasing in February, there’s new ones by Justin Timberlake, and Australian singer/songwriter Vance Joy … as well as the Canadian band The Sheepdogs that I’ll be checking out, but my pick for the month goes to Washington State singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile for her upcoming sixth studio album “By the Way, I Forgive You.” She has quite a powerful voice and way with her songs.

What about you — which book, movie, or music releases this month are you most interested in?

Posted in Top Picks | 29 Comments

Sundance and O Pioneers!

Greetings, it’s been a while. Last week we were on a road trip to Park City, Utah, to meet up with my sister and brother-in-law there. It took two days of driving 8 hours plus, but we made it even after a snowstorm caught up to us in central Montana. Wisely we stayed over in Butte. On the road we listened to a 2011 WWII history called “Inferno: the World at War 1939-1945” by British author Max Hastings. It’s quite an epic one-volume history of the entire war (both politically and militarily) and paints the gruesome global toll of it all. We’re still only a part of the way into it but had to take breaks from the bleakness it portrays. Still it’s well done — both detailed and wide-ranging — and adds a lot of information that I hadn’t known before. We hope to finish it for a trip we’re taking  later in the year to a few WWII sites.

Meanwhile we took along our yellow Lab, Stella, so she could meet up with her half-sister, Sadie, who lives with my sister. The dogs had never met so it was fun to get them together and let them run alongside us as we took to the cross-country ski trails. They’re quite different dogs but got along well, so it was nice. (See Sadie on the left, and Stella on the right). Park City is a cool town that I hadn’t spent much time in before, but by happenstance the Sundance Film Festival, which showcases independent (and often lower budget) films, was going on while we were there — and by some miracle, considering the massive crowds, I got in off the wait list to see two movies. It turned out to be a bucket-list kind of experience.

The first one was a drama-mystery film called “Nancy” about a woman who starts to believe she’s the daughter of a married couple whose child went missing thirty years ago. Oh it’s a bit strange and dark, the thirty-something girl (played by Andrea Riseborough) is quite down-and-out and you’re not sure if she’s up to tricks but she’s also sad and you start pulling for her — as well as the couple that she seeks out to meet in hopes that she is their daughter.

It’s an unsettling tale of two affected parties who come to help each other in unexpected ways. I was impressed by the script by filmmaker Christina Choe and by the performance by Andrea Riseborough as Nancy, which is quite eerie and tough. I last saw her in “Battle of the Sexes” and now after this, think she’s quite a talent and rising star. It’s a smaller-budget film but worth its sad weight.

I also saw at Sundance the documentary “RBG” about the life and work of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Ohh it’s quite excellent and emotional too. If you get a chance: run … do not walk to see it. The path Justice Ginsburg helped pave for women’s rights, especially in the late 1960s and through the 1970s, is pretty extraordinary. Her personal, family life too is quite a story.

Which reminds me: I need to put the biography: “Notorious RBG: The Life and Time of Ruth Bader Ginsburg” on my list this year; I’ve heard it’s good. It’s no wonder RBG is capturing such a huge resurgence in popularity these days at 84. She’s rocking. A two-time cancer survivor and an icon for human rights — she has a sly wit about her too. She laughs at her portrayal on Saturday Night Live by Kate McKinnon, which does seem pretty funny. And she works out with a trainer too, who says she’s as tough as a cyborg. Is there anything, she can’t do? Go RBG, Go.

Next up, I finished the audiobook of Willa Cather’s 1913 novel “O Pioneers!.” I had remembered Cather’s book “My Antonia” fondly from my youth so I thought I would try this one out too. It’s considered the first novel in Cather’s prairie trilogy and is about a family of Swedish-American immigrants who struggle to make a life farming in Nebraska  at the beginning of the 20th century. Oh I wanted to like this one just as much, but for some reason it fell a bit short for me.

Granted, there’s much to admire about Alexandra, the daughter who is given control of the farm once her father dies. She steers her three brothers into keeping the family farm despite the hardships they face and eventually they are able to make it prosperous. Alexandra is a seemingly strong character (perhaps ahead of her time) who postpones love to devote herself to making the farm a success. I liked too how Cather’s writing about the land is quite evocative of the time and place — and life on the wind-swept prairie.

Yet at the same time the story comes off a bit plotless and meanders along sort of undramatically until … wham a violent dramatic event occurs at the end in which Alexandra sides with a jealous husband over her beloved brother and neighborhood friend. I guess the end confounded me a bit or seemed out of place, though it’s likely I’m viewing it through today’s lens instead of the societal mores of the times. Still it’s unfair how Alexandra’s ultimate turn at love and marriage contrasts with her brother’s though perhaps that’s the point. It reminded me slightly of Edith Wharton’s “Ethan Frome,” which came out just two years before this and I recently read, but that tragic story was stronger to me and put together better. But I haven’t given up on Cather. I’ll try out some of her others in the future and probably reread “My Antonia.”

Lastly, when we got back, my husband and I saw the movie “All the Money in the World” based on the true story of the 1973 kidnapping of 16-year-old John Paul Getty III in Rome whose mother tried desperately to convince his oil tycoon grandfather to pay the ransom, which he scoffed at despite his vast wealth.

Oh it’s quite a doozy of a story, played out quite expertly by Christopher Plummer as the grandfather and Michelle Williams as the mother. (I hear she’s playing Janis Joplin soon.) You might not remember the case, but it’s best to go into it blind so I won’t say much more: other than the movie moves along at a good pace and the Getty family surely was dysfunctional. Someday I plan to get to the Getty art museum in Los Angeles and visit its Villa, which is a re-creation of the Villa of the Papyri from the Roman world. Till then this movie gave me a glimpse into the man behind it.

What about you — have you seen any of these films or been to Sundance, or read any of Willa Cather’s — and if so what did you think?

Posted in Books, Movies | 22 Comments

The First Three Books of the Year

How goes it? Have you set your reading goals for the year? I hope to read and listen to about the same amount of books as I did last year — perhaps 60, or five per month, which feels a reasonable pace to me. My first three books of 2018 included one nonfiction book and two page-turners, though since then I’ve had a bit of trouble settling down. Lately I pick up one book read some, then put it down and pick up another, which is very unusual for me. Usually I just commit to a book and stick with it. It seems I need to reclaim some focus these days.

Granted, it’s been busy this month with travels. And tomorrow we’re taking a road trip of about 13 hours to meet up with my sister and her husband in the States. It’s a short trip then we will drive back, but we get to take our dog Stella, which will be fun since they have her half sister — a Yellow Lab that she will meet for the first time. Hmm. I hope to take plenty of pictures of our treks with the dogs. Needless to say this long preamble is basically to make the case I haven’t had a lot of time recently so I will put forth a few mini reviews of what I’ve finished lately.

From the publisher’s synopsis: In 1968, nine sailors set off on the most daring race ever held: to single-handedly circumnavigate the globe nonstop. It was a feat that had never been accomplished and one that would forever change the face of sailing. Ten months later, only one of the nine men would cross the finish line and earn fame, wealth, and glory. For the others, the reward was madness, failure, and death.

My thoughts: I came upon Peter Nichols’s 2001 nonfiction book “A Voyage for Madmen” because my husband, who enjoys sailing, had a copy of it on our shelves. I wanted to read it because there’s a movie coming out in February or March called “The Mercy” starring Colin Firth as Donald Crowhurst, who was a competitor in this round-the-world yacht race. And boy, the mysterious circumstances surrounding him and the race is something I had to find out about. (Rachel Weisz stars as his wife in the upcoming movie.)

I went into the book, not knowing much about the 1968 sailboat race, which was an amazing undertaking back then. It was the first solo round-the-world race, in which the sailors were not allowed to stop on land or receive supplies or food. Everything they needed had to be onboard at the race’s start and each of them had to travel alone on their boat. It was a time before GPS, cell phones, and satellite dishes, so basically one had to navigate by charts and the skies using a sextant, and communications were done through two-way radios though those often broke down. Needless to say, the sailors in this race were much of the time completely out of touch with the rest of the world and by themselves for many months at sea. Oh the dangers they faced were staggering too; 30 to 40 foot waves from storms in the Southern Ocean knocked them about senselessly.

I’m glad that I didn’t Google the race beforehand because the author let’s the story unfold as it happens, detailing the nine racers as they are underway and not giving away who wins till the end. It adds to the suspense of the book — only you know from the subtitle that nine start the undertaking but only one crosses the finish line, taking 10 months to do it. I found myself guessing along the way who it would be. The action and details of each boat at sea are quite fascinating, as well as the backgrounds of the sailors, the geography and their routes. I was hooked by the story and the incredible risks and hardships that all the competitors had to face. How they were able to recover from the damages to their boats at sea was pretty incredible too.

My only slight warning to other readers is that it takes some focus at the book’s beginning to keep track of all the different people and racers, and a bit of the history. Though after awhile you get a handle on each boat and participant. There’s also a fair amount about sailing throughout the book — terms and techniques used and a swath of information about the sea and sailors etc. — but I sort of welcomed learning about it all. For those without an interest in boats or sailing, this might not be a read for you. However at times “A Voyage for Madmen” reads like an epic survival tale and human interest story.

I don’t want to say too much about Donald Crowhurst and the other racers or what happens, but they all have their ways about them. Some drop out, some boats fall apart, others can’t handle the circumstances and only one finishes. There’s enough stuffed into this story to encompass much of the human battle and condition, making it an enjoyable nonfiction read and my first of the year.

Next up, I finished the audiobook of Alafair Burke’s 2016 crime thriller “The Ex.” I hadn’t tried her before and didn’t realize she’s the daughter of crime novelist James Lee Burke, duh! “The Ex” is about New York City lawyer Olivia Randall who comes to defend her long-ago love (Jack Harris) who may — or may not — have killed the man responsible for his wife’s death. As Olivia begins to investigate the case, details and secrets about her once relationship with Jack emerge. And as evidence mounts, she is forced to confront doubts whether he was capable of the crime and if she ever really knew him.

I was impressed by the author’s storytelling and pretty captivated by the story, particularly because the protagonist, defense lawyer Olivia Randall, is a sassy and tough, smart character. She’s appealing, especially with Xe Sands reading the part for the audio — one of my favorite narrators.

Towards the end, I figured out whodunit but still enjoyed following where it goes with it nonetheless. The storyline, too, gets a bit crazy near the end — not sure if it’s totally believable — but still Olivia Randal’s detective and legal work were well worth my time with it. I would definitely check out the author’s next book — “The Wife” — sometime, which coincidentally just came out this month.

Speaking of page-turners, I also finished the audiobook of Robyn Harding’s 2017 family drama “The Party,” which I first heard head-spinning things about from Ti at her blog Book Chatter. And she wasn’t kidding this story was hard to put down. I was wrapped up in it from start to finish. It’s about an accident at a Sweet 16 birthday party that triggers a series of traumatic events that threaten to unravel a wealthy family in San Francisco and their seemingly picture-perfect life. Oh my! You invite teenage kids over for a little celebration, and this is what you get in return. Jeepers, how alarming.

“The Party” is a novel that’s been marketed for folks who liked Liane Moriarty’s novel “Big Little Lies” — perhaps with a splash of “Mean Girls” thrown in. Oh those high school cliques, darn them. Jeff and Kim Sanders are the parents who let their daughter Hannah have a sleepover party for her 16th bday, inviting four of her friends. But good girls will be bad girls sometimes, and unfortunately things go terribly wrong. In the end, the consequences that play out over the following months come on like a train wreck waiting to happen.

I liked the character development of the parents and teens, and the story felt real to me. Everyone came off rather flawed. And I also liked how the chapters alternated narrators mainly between Jeff and Kim Sanders and their daughter Hannah; their viewpoints all differed and led down a path that you try to reckon with. It’s a quick story that kept me listening for long walks at a time and one where I felt its shattering effects.

Lastly I wanted to briefly mention we saw the Golden Globe-winning movie “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” last week, and although it’s not an easy movie, I liked it and felt it elicited strong emotions while also including dark humor and bold themes. It’s about a mother who buys ad space on billboards to challenge her town’s police to solve her daughter’s murder. One could say it’s a movie that touches on various issues, including policing and racism, viligantism, abuse and redemption.

Both Sam Rockwell who plays a racist cop and Frances McDormand who plays the mother that takes up arms are pretty rough, flawed characters — you don’t necessarily like either, but during the story they seem to undergo slight transformations, which unearth some compassion about them after all. It’s a movie that shows both the harsh and nasty side of human nature, along with the more tender. I found it quite a different kind of film and one I’m still thinking about. But if you’re sensitive to bad language, or tough themes, this one is chock full of them, so beware. It might not be your cup of tea.

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

Posted in Books, Movies | 24 Comments

January Preview

Well I’m a bit late with my look at this month’s releases, but I was out of town so now I’m trying to catch up. I was in Colorado for a memorial service of a dear friend I worked with at an indy bookstore in the late 1980s.

It was sort of a sad way to start off the new year, but the service was very heartwarming with so many amazing speeches about my friend that I feel quite blessed to have known and kept in touch with him over the years. Being a huge reader and music buff, he shared with me great books and music long ago — and pointed me in the right direction. I leave this photo of Colorado in his memory, one of my favorite places to go. Despite this shot of the backcountry, the ski areas are in desperate need of snow, which apparently is at its lowest levels there since 1977.

Now onto fiction releases. There’s apparently quite a few notable thrillers out this month, such as: A.J. Finn’s “The Woman in the Window,” Karen Cleveland’s “Need to Know,” Alafair Burke’s “The Wife,” Sarah Vaughan’s “Anatomy of a Scandal,” and Greer Hendricks & Sarah Pekkanen’s “The Wife Between Us.” Oh my, if I read all these at once, I’m sure my head would spin amid their dire situations, though admittedly I’m a sucker for such page-turners as much as the next person. I’ll probably throw a few into the mix this winter in order to get through the cold season here. And boy, is it freezing right now — with three days of below zero temps, ouch!

As for literary fiction releases, there’s a couple of debut novels that I’d like to check out, the first being: Mira T. Lee’s “Everything Here Is Beautiful,” which Celeste Ng’s says: is a “tender but unflinching portrayal of the bond between two sisters — one that’s frayed by mental illness and stretched across continents, yet still endures.”

The novel seems to be getting a lot of high praise and apparently deals with a sensitive subject with empathy and courage. As Kirkus Reviews sums it up: “the tumult of loving someone with a chronic mental illness can exhaust even the most caring person.” Count me in — as I’ve had a friend suffer from this and would like to hear how it’s handled here.

I’m also game for Xhenet Aliu’s debut novel “Brass,” which Huffington Post says “interweaves the stories of a mother and a daughter living in a fading Connecticut town they both hopelessly long to escape from.” It’s apparently very well written and told in parallel gripping narratives with a biting wit.

Kirkus Reviews calls it a glimmering debut that “reflects on mother-daughter connections, abandonment and resilience, and dreams that endure despite the odds.” I like trying out upcoming new authors — apparently she’s a native of Waterbury, Conn. with an Albania father and a Lithuanian American mother — so count me in for “Brass.”

Next up, I’m curious about Gregory Blake Smith’s new historical fiction novel “The Maze at Windermere,” which The Washington Post’s critic Ron Charles gave 5 stars to. Wow a 5-star book so soon in the season, can it be true? Apparently the novel includes five separative stories spread over three centuries that are all set in the seaside town of Newport, R.I. — from its beginnings as a British colony to its later incarnation as the playground of the very rich.

Hmm it sounds a bit complex with its many characters, eras, and broad range, but it’s received some strong hype too. I can’t tell if I’ll like the story, or if I’m just drawn to the book cover, which seems to be rather fetching — regardless, I plan to try it out.

Lastly in fiction, I probably can’t pass up Rachel Joyce’s new novel “The Music Shop,” which Publishers Weekly calls a winner with its deceptively simple love story about Frank, owner of a London hole-in-the-wall music store selling vinyl records in 1988. Apparently Frank has the ability to select the perfect song to ease each customer’s spiritual crisis… until one day a mysterious young woman comes into his store.

Hmm, I’m a bit of a sucker for music-inspired novels and this one reminds me slightly of Nick Hornby’s endearing 1995 novel “High Fidelity,” so I’m game to check it out. I enjoyed Joyce’s first novel “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry,” and this one seems similarly heartwarming.

As for movies coming out this month, I still plan to see “The Post,” which I highlighted in December, and perhaps “Molly’s Game,” which looks like a slick morality tale about a real-life woman (played by Jessica Chastain) who at one point ran the richest poker game in the world (not that I’m into that).

Chastain has played similar icy strong-willed characters before in such movies as “Miss Sloane” and “Zero Dark Thirty” and I liked those. Also since Aaron Sorkin adapted the screenplay from the book by Molly Bloom and directed the film, it should be quite decent. We will see.

Though perhaps instead I’ll see the war drama “12 Strong” about the U.S. Special Forces team that went into Afghanistan immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and joined up with forces there to battle the Taliban. I know it seems rather ghoulish to see (or like?) combat war films, but if you live with a male — and even if you don’t — you sometimes find yourself going to  these things.

I think I’ve seen my share of recent ones including: “Lone Survivor,” “Restrepo,” “Black Hawk Down,” “The Hurt Locker,” and “American Sniper” among others. They’re all rather intense and I suspect “12 Strong” will be too. The Aussie actor Chris Hemsworth leads the pack in this war flick, which seems a bit different with its modern-day mission on horseback.

In album releases for January, there’s new ones by Canadian singer-songwriters Bahamas and Jim Cuddy (from the group Blue Rodeo), both of whom I like. Also Irish songwriter Glen Hansard has a new album called “Between Two Shores,” which I’m sure I’ll check out — along with American musician Anderson East’s new album called “Encore.” He has sort of a blues-soul sound about him that I’ve been listening to recently. I’ll pick East’s  album for my choice this month.

What about you — which book, movie, or music releases this month are you most interested in?

Posted in Top Picks | 23 Comments

Favorites From 2017

Happy New Year & 2018! I’ve been looking back at what I read and listened to last year and came up with these numbers and favorites below. I finished two books during the Christmas holiday — the first being Sebastian Barry’s novel “Days Without End,” which is a pretty violent frontier saga set during the American Indian and Civil Wars that surprisingly snuck up on me in a good way. I also read classicist Mary Beard’s short book “Women & Power: A Manifesto,” which is based on a series of lectures she gave, that is very timely and astute. So alas, I ended the year having completed 61 books — not much for some per se, but perfect for me. It was a great reading year.

It’s sort of hard to pick book favorites, though for some reason nonfiction was easier for me to pick this year — as I thought Jeffrey Toobin’s “American Heiress” and Jeannette Walls’s memoir “The Glass Castle” were easily 5-star, outstanding reads. I don’t know why I waited till this past year to read them. As for my three top fiction picks, I decided to go with novels that pleasantly surprised me in ways that I did not expect. It’s always neat to come across a book where you’re not expecting much and then boom: you’re taken away by it, or awed in a way that’s way beyond what you imagined. The three picks also dealt with timely issues in clever and heartrending ways, which completely captured me. So congrats to them and to my top pick Kamila Shamsie’s “Home Fire”  for making my reading experience so awesome this year — as well as my honorable mentions.

In the final section below, I break the books I read in 2017 into categories to see what kinds of books I’m mostly picking up. And it seems I’m quite balanced between books from female and male authors, and it’s true too that I seem to be a contemporary literary fiction kind of reader that enjoys a good story no matter the genre or topic. Take a look at my 2017 lineup:

  • Books Completed in 2017 : 61
  • Fiction: 49
  • Nonfiction: 12
  • Print: 32
  • Audiobooks: 29
  • Female authors: 33
  • Male authors: 28
  • American authors: 39
  • Canadian authors: 7
  • British authors: 5
  • Asian authors: 5
  • European authors: 2
  • African authors: 2
  • Australian : 1

Favorite Fiction:

  1. Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (2017)
  2. Purity by Jonathan Franzen (2015)
  3. Brother by David Chariandy (2017)

Honorable Mentions:

  •  The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan (2016)
  • Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (2017)
  •  A Separation by Katie Kitamura (2017)

Favorite General Nonfiction: 

  1. American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst by Jeffrey Toobin (2016)
  2. The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story by Diane Ackerman (2007)
  3. The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel (2017)
  4. Women & Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard (2017)

Favorite Memoirs:

  1. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (2005)
  2.  Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance (2016)
  3.  Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening by Manal Al-Sharif (2017)
  4. It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War by Lynsey Addario (2015)
  5. Unstoppable: My Life So Far by Maria Sharapova (2017)
  6. I Had to Survive: How a Plane Crash in the Andes Inspired My Calling to Save Lives    by Roberto Canessa (2016)
  7. Reckless: My Life as a Pretender by Chrissie Hynde (2015)
  8. You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie (2017)

Favorite Classics:

  1. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton (1911)
  2. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985)
  3. Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery (1908)

Favorite Debuts: 

  1. Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo (2017)
  2. History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (2017)
  3. Holding by Graham Norton (2017)
  4. Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong (2017)

Favorite Fiction Audiobooks:

  1. The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens (2014)
  2. Holding by Graham Norton (2017)
  3. The Circle by Dave Eggers (2013)
  4. Purity by Jonathan Franzen (2015)
  5. Sourdough by Robin Sloan (2017)
  6. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (2013)
  7.  A Separation by Katie Kitamura (2017)

Satirical/Funny or Quirky Novels:

  • Sourdough by Robin Sloan (2017)
  • The Circle by Dave Eggers (2013)
  • 10:04 by Ben Lerner (2014)
  • All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg (2017)
  • Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis (2015)

Novels Made into Movies or TV shows: both read & watched:

  • The Zookeeper’s Wife
  • The Sense of an Ending
  • The Handmaid’s Tale
  • The Glass Castle
  • The Nightingale (movie coming in 2019)
  • Last Days of Night (movie coming in 2018)

Darkest Bleakest Stories or Endings:

  • American War by Omar El Akkad (2017)
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985)
  • Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (2017)
  • Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton (1911)
  • Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (2017)

Novels involving Family Ties:

  • Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (2017)
  • Goodbye Vitamin by Rachel Khong (2017)
  • Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (2017)
  • The Lightkeeper’s Daughters by Jean E. Pendziwol (2017)
  • Benediction by Kent Haruf (2013)
  • A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (2013)
  • Noah’s Compass by Anne Tyler (2010)
  • Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan (2017)
  • Before the Wind by Jim Lynch (2016)
  • Everybody’s Son by Thrity Umrigar (2017)
  • The Locals by Jonathan Dee (2017)

Coming of Age Novels:

  • History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (2017)
  • Brother by David Chariandy (2017)
  • Miller’s Valley by Anna Quindlen (2016)
  • The Unseen World by Liz Moore (2016)

Mysteries and/or Crime Novels:

  • The Dry by Jane Harper (2017)
  • The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld (2017)
  • Holding by Graham Norton (2017)
  • The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens (2014)
  • Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane (2017)
  • Bear Town by Fredrik Backman (2017)

War, Terrorism & Immigration Novels:

  • 

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (2017)
  • The Girl in Green by Derek B. Miller (2017)
  • The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah (2015)
  • The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan (2016)
  • American War by Omar El Akkad (2017)
  • The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck (2017)
  • Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (2017)
  • Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (2017)

Relationship Novels:

  • White Fur by Jardine Libaire (2017)
  • The Hopefuls by Jennifer Close (2017)
  • The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon (2016)
  • Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebeyo (2017)
  • The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (2011)
  • A Separation by Katie Kitamura (2017)
  • Outline by Rachel Cusk (2015)

Historical Fiction & Science Novels:

  • Last Days of Night by Graham Moore (2017)
  • The Last Neanderthal by Claire Cameron (2017)
  • Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (2017)

Short Story Collections:

  • Fresh Complaint by Jeffrey Eugenides (2017)
  • The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel (2016)

Favorite 2017 Movies I’ve seen so far:

  1. Darkest Hour
  2. Dunkirk
  3.  Mudbound
  4. Battle of the Sexes
  5. Get Out
  6. The Glass Castle

(I haven’t seen “Lady Bird,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” or “The Post” yet among others)

Favorite 2017 Albums:

  1.  U2: “Songs of Experience”
  2. Rose Cousins: “Natural Conclusion”
  3. The Weather Station: “The Weather Station”

What about you — did you like or dislike any of these? Or what were your favorites for 2017?

Posted in Top Picks | 23 Comments

Little Fires Everywhere and Fresh Complaint

Happy Holidays to my blogging compatriots! We recently arrived in Southern California after spending a few hours sitting on a plane at a closed snowy Vancouver airport. It finally let up enough to make a mad dash (after de-icing the wings) for the border and hence we were on our way.

It’s lovely to be back home for a week. At the moment there’s sun, a brisk wind and a deep blue Pacific Ocean with little whitecaps across it. There’s no smoke from the wildfires apparent today, but while flying over Santa Barbara County, we could see the “Thomas” fire in the back hills and I felt like throwing a pail of water out the window to help douse it. It’s quite a troubling sight from the air. Godspeed to all the firefighters out there; may your hard work be over soon. Meanwhile I will leave you with a couple reviews of what I finished lately.

Judging by some of the literary novels in 2017, it seems that “child adoptions that go awry” was a popular topic. Most often the storylines involved biracial or immigrant kids who are fought over by their biological and adoptive parents — or where the kid doesn’t feel like he/or she belongs to one side or the other. I’m thinking of such novels as: “Lucky Boy” by Shanthi Sekaran; “Everybody’s Son” by Thrity Umrigar; “The Leavers” by Lisa Ko; and “Little Fires Everywhere” by Celeste Ng, among others. Oh my, and I keep being drawn to these novels. I just finished Ng’s book and almost dived into Ko’s book before thinking: ‘you know, maybe I need a small break on this subject matter before plunging onward.’ It’s good stuff, but the themes get somewhat similar.

As for Celeste Ng’s popular novel “Little Fires Everywhere” what more is there to say? It was named the 2017 Goodreads Choice Award Winner for Fiction and seems to have been blogged about everywhere. I guess what you need to know is that it’s about an itinerant artist mother (Mia) and her 15-year-old daughter (Pearl) who become tenants of a rental house in Shaker Heights, Ohio, owned by an affluent couple, the Richardsons, who have four kids: Lexie, Moody, Trip and Izzy. Soon enough, the two different families become enmeshed with each other — the kids as friends and Mia as a cleaning lady at the Richardsons — and all seems peachy with them in the perfectly knit, manicured suburban town. That is until an adoption case in the community puts Mia and Mrs. Richardson on opposing sides, prompting Mrs. Richardson to dig into Mia’s past and find out things that offend her sense of suburban order. Oh no, it’s curtains then, with all hell breaking loose.

Once again Celeste Ng shows she’s quite a good storyteller. I listened to the novel as an audiobook and felt it moved along swiftly and held my interest with its large cast of characters and its viewpoints into each of them. I liked too how its themes and characters became intertwined and how it explored issues of class and privilege and what constitutes being a mother from just about every angle. Amid this one novel, there’s a character who’s been a surrogate; another who’s given a baby up for adoption; one who is unable to bear children, and another who undergoes having an abortion. It seems to run the gamut surrounding pregnancy and begs the questions: are the bonds of motherhood forged by blood or love? And are money and class the most important prerequisites, or culture and ethnicity?

While I liked the novel’s questions, I thought some of its characters got a bit annoying — what a heap of busybodies and suburban stereotypes. The story seems steered to one family being more decent than the other — Mrs. Richardson in particular takes the brunt of being the bad one, but Mia as a mother doesn’t seem so enlightened either. Each of the characters comes off rather tarnished in the story, which seems the purpose but made me want to strangle them at times. While I liked the details of the author’s storytelling, sometimes I think it’s a bit over-the-top too. There’s not a lot of subtly to it; most often you know what she’s steering you to think. Still I will continue to read her works — as there’s enough good to outweigh my small qualms about it. I like Celeste Ng’s sensibilities on Twitter too; she’s on the right side of the resistance movement.

Next up I finished Jeffrey Eugenides’s collection of short stories “Fresh Complaint.” Granted I don’t read a lot of short fiction collections, but I probably should. Eugenides is one such writer — as talented as he is —who can lure me to read whatever format he’s writing in. “Fresh Complaint” includes 10 of his stories that were written over nearly 30 years. I liked how the collection seems to showcase his journey as a writer. The earliest story “Capricious Gardens” from 1988 — about two American female backpackers who spend the night at the home of a recently divorced Irishman — originates from Eugenides M.F.A. thesis and will make you think about having artichokes for dinner for a long time.

There’s also two stories — “The Oracular Vulva,” from 1999 and “Air Mail” from 1996 that include characters that later appeared in his novels. There’s Dr. Peter Luce from “Middlesex” and Mitchell from “The Marriage Plot” who both meet unfortunate circumstances in these stories — one from doing field work in the Indonesian jungle, the other from dysentery on a Thai island.

Interestingly two stories from 2017 bookend the collection: the first being “Complainers” about a long friendship between two women who face challenges when the elder one gets dementia –which was likely influenced by the recent passing of the author’s mother — and the last story titled “Fresh Complaint” about a young Indian-American woman’s scheme to escape an arranged marriage by entrapping a married man and charging him with rape. This one I noticed on Goodreads didn’t sit too well with readers of the #MeToo movement that’s going on in the country. Was Eugenides choosing a side with this, or writing a story to provoke?  I don’t really know.

Quite a few of his stories involve relationships that hit the skids, such as “Early Music” about a couple whose artistic ambitions flame out when they have money troubles; and “Find the Bad Guy,” about a green-card marriage gone awry. But my favorite story in the collection is “Great Experiment” about a poet/editor in Chicago who contemplates defrauding his wealthy employer who’s having him publish a pocket edition of de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. It’s quite clever how it plays out and it includes a ripe ending — as does the story “Baster” about a woman who throws herself an Insemination Party only to have the goods switched without her knowing. Not all the stories are as great as these ones, but they were all pretty engaging to me. I was glad to have glimpsed the journey Eugenides has taken with his work over the years.

What about you — have you read either of these books, and if so, what did you think? Until next time, have a wonderful holiday season!

Posted in Books | 22 Comments

Brother and Unstoppable: My Life So Far

It’s been quite a week, has it not? In addition to all the crazy news out there, it seems the weather around North America has sort of flip-flopped. Some of the South saw snow and the temps in western Canada have been balmy and spring-like, with most of the snow being gone here. I was even able to bike around this week, which is hard to believe. Biking in December? Unheard of. I might even rake up leaves today in the yard.

Yet all the news of fires and wind in Southern California has been alarming. We are heading there for the holidays (not close to any of the fire zones), though it seems the whole area could use a big rain dance right about now. So sorry to those whose homes are threatened and the lands that are being charred. Not too Christmas-y. Still we hope to do our Christmas shopping once we get there. How are you enjoying the holiday season so far? Hope all is well where you are. Meanwhile I will leave you with a couple reviews of what I finished last week.

Oh this is a beautifully written and moving story. It’s one of those novels you can sense within the first three pages it’s going to be good because of how it’s written — just how good surprised me quite a bit because I didn’t know anything about Canadian author David Chariandy or what his novel “Brother” was about. But it’s one of those shorter novels (just under 200 pages) that packs a quiet wallop to the heart. How it didn’t win this year’s Giller Prize, or get shortlisted for it, I don’t know. Just being on the longlist didn’t do it justice. But luckily it just won the Rogers Writers Trust Fiction Award in Canada so I was pleased to see that.

It’s a novel about two brothers, sons of Trinidadian immigrants, who are coming of age in the simmering summer of 1991 and raised by a single mother in a housing complex along a busy street. Their neighborhood is one of concrete towers and strip malls in the disparaged outskirts of sprawling Toronto.

Michael is the younger one who tells the story and looks up to his older brother Francis and they both dote on their hard-working mother who commutes by bus to cleaning jobs around the city. Early on, you learn something has happened to Francis but you don’t know what until the end. The story jumps back and forth in time — from the present while Michael takes care of his grieving mother — to the past where Michael and Francis are kids navigating their surroundings filled with gangs, bullies, and prejudice.

They often escape to the one hidden green area — the Rouge Valley — that runs under a bridge through their neighborhood, where they feel free to imagine better lives. Francis dreams of a future in hip-hop music, while Michael dreams of Aisha, the smartest girl in their high school, who seeks a future elsewhere. But in the end a tragic act of violence thwarts their hopes and changes their family forever.

It’s quite a powerful story. I liked it because the writing wields so much feeling within it. Right away you know the closeness of the two brothers, and their mother, and the marginalized community that they’re living in. It’s a story about kinship and family ties — and a portrait of the author’s own hometown. I found it quite moving and one of my favorites for 2017.  It’s funny how I seem to come across these strong novels right in the last month of the year. Sometime in 2018 I’ll have to look for David Chariandy’s first novel called “Soucouyant” from 2007, which apparently is also a coming-of-age novel that explores similar themes of family ties and race. He apparently wanted to explore his themes further with this book. Surely he’s a writer to watch and one to read.

Next up I finished the audiobook of pro tennis player Maria Sharapova’s memoir “Unstoppable: My Life So Far.” You didn’t think I was going to miss this, did you? I’m a tennis junkie: I play the game, I follow it … like the lines on a yellow ball. It wasn’t that I’m particularly a Sharapova fan, I’m not really, just a fan of the game. I know what you’re thinking: athlete stories, like celebrity stories, are flimsy, lightweight things not worth serious consideration. But they’re not all like that. I actually didn’t expect much from this one, but then was pleasantly captivated by Sharapova’s life story, which she reads for the audio. (Okay, she’s only age 30 now, but somehow she seems much older. She was born the year I graduated college, ouch.)

It’s quite a rags-to-riches story that hooked me from the beginning. Her parents fled the city of Gomel, which is now Belarus, shortly before Maria was born due to the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident. She was born instead in Siberia where her grandparents lived, and later the family moved to the resort town of Sochi, Russia, where she began to hit a tennis ball at age 4 on gray clay. Her father saw a determination in her to play for hours and got her lessons early on. Thereafter she briefly met Martina Navratilova at a tennis camp in Moscow who told Maria’s father she could play and to get her out of the country to the U.S. where she could develop her game. Incredibly, after interviewing for it, they were granted three year visas to come to the U.S., which were almost never given.

It’s tidbits like these that make the story compelling — all these chance encounters and lucky breaks that happened that made it possible for Maria to pursue tennis; they multiply as things go on. Stuff I didn’t know too — like Maria’s real name is actually Masha, but she changed it when she came to the U.S. because she didn’t want to be “Marcia.” She had to leave her mother behind (for a couple years), boarding a plane at age 6 with her father, arriving in Miami with $700 left and unable to speak the language.

But they were determined to get coaching in Florida, and follow their dreams. Ultimately it paid off when Maria beat Serena Williams at age 17 and won Wimbledon in 2004. Thereafter it changed her life and she went on in the years later to win four more Grand Slam titles, despite having a layoff due to shoulder surgery in 2008, which forever changed her serve. For quite awhile she’s been one of the most recognizable and richest female athletes in the world.

All of that I already knew, but what I liked about the book was hearing about the journey — all the details of how she made it, which coaches she worked with, what it’s like on the pro tour, and the rivalries, especially with Serena Williams, who has a 19-2 record over Maria. Maria is quite complimentary of her chief opponent but says they aren’t friends, nor does she really have friends on the tour because she says her job is to play them as opponents and she wants to beat them all.

Surely her competitiveness shines through in the book as well as her single-mindedness to win tennis matches and her ability to paste the ball, but what I liked was how she told her story seemingly honestly and quite openly; she’s not afraid to speak her mind. She’s a bright girl and a fine storyteller, much better than you’d imagine of a world class athlete. Her book is an engaging listen.

Though some might find her controversial (she’s not exactly popular among other female players) and she was suspended from the tour in 2016 for 15 months for using a banned substance. She owns up to this mistake, but argues that it wasn’t a malevolent intentional act and that the drug (often used for heart conditions) had always been legal before 2016 — she just didn’t know it wasn’t any longer. I guess from what I’ve read the drug doesn’t seem to be a steroid and she admitted right away to using it and served a suspension for it so I’m not one to ultimately condemn her forever, but many on the tour vehemently did. Oh my, you would’ve thought she was another Lance Armstrong, but that doesn’t seem actually to be the case. For those who liked Andre Agassi’s autobiography “Open,” I’d think you’d find Maria’s book interesting too.

Lastly, I just want to quickly say we saw the movie “Only the Brave” last night at the $5 theater in town. It’s based on the true story about the 19 Arizona elite firefighters who lost their lives fighting a wildfire near the town of Yarnell, Arizona in June 2013. It’s reenacted quite well in the movie by a large cast with Josh Brolin, Jennifer Connelly, Jeff Bridges and Miles Teller among others.

The story goes into who the firefighters were, their outfit, the fires they fought (some of the action is quite hair-raising), and what happened on that last and very tragic day though it remains a bit of a mystery too — why the unit’s members left their safe zone and moved to where they did in a canyon. The fast-moving shifting winds spread the fire right towards them and cut off their escape.

Gosh, it’s just a crushing story. The film captures the essence of who these men were, how they fought fires, and the families they left behind. It shows the real photos of them at the end. It’s a tough and somber reckoning that sticks with you — have some Kleenex ready.

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

Posted in Books, Movies | 24 Comments

December Preview

December greetings to everyone. It’s that time of year when Best Of Lists are coming out for 2017. I won’t put my favorites out until likely the week after Christmas, but I have been looking at a few of them that are out already. I especially like lists that narrow down the choices to the Top 10, which helps me focus on the best ones that I might still need to get to. If you’re curious about Best Books of 2017 lists, here are some links:

NY Times’ 10 Best Books of 2017
Washington Post’s 10 Best Books of 2017
LA Times (19) Best Fiction of 2017
Publishers Weekly Top 10 Books of 2017
Kirkus Reviews 7 Best Literary Fiction of 2017

In terms of literary fiction, I think all of these lists have Jesym Ward’s novel “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” on them, which won this year’s National Book Award, and nearly all of them have listed Naomi Alderman’s novel “The Power,” which I hope to get to soon. A few of them have listed Mohsin Hamid’s novel “Exit West” and George Saunders’s novel “Lincoln in the Bardo” — both of which I finished. Also kudos to Min Jin Lee’s debut novel “Pachinko” for landing on the coveted NYT’s Top 10 list — a nice surprise — as well as Hari Kunzru’s novel “White Tears” for making a couple of the other lists. I would like to get to those and a few others. I think Goodreads puts out its Best Of list this week though sometimes it seems to be a bit more of a popularity contest, eh? Still I’ll add the link when it’s up.

As for what’s coming out in December, there’s not a whole lot of fiction that releases this time of year, but for the few that are, I’m most curious about British writer Fiona Mozley’s novel “Elmet,” which is just coming out in North America. It went all the way to being shortlisted for the Booker Prize as a debut novel, making the author a breakout star.

The story is about a family whose harmonious way of life in the remote woods in northern England is threatened when a local landowner shows up at their door and sets in motion a series of actions that can likely only end in violence. Uh-oh. I’ve read that it’s a story that blends the pastoral and the macabre — a bit like a Grimms’ Fairy Tale — so says the Mail on Sunday. We will see. Whatever the case, it sounds a bit different and worth checking out.

As for movie releases in December, it’s the best time of year (along with those in November)! I’m looking at three that hopefully will be great. First off, director Steven Spielberg is back with “The Post,” starring Meryl Streep as publisher Katharine Graham and Tom Hanks as editor Ben Bradlee, that follows the real life story about the release of the Pentagon Papers, which were classified documents on the Vietnam War.

I’m a fan of newspaper-themed movies, seeing all the recent ones including “Spotlight,” “Zodiac” “Absence of Malice,” “State of Play,” “The Paper” and “All the President’s Men.” So there’s no way I’m missing this one. I used to work at The Post as a copy editor and I remember hearing Mrs. Graham speak there on occasion and seeing Ben Bradlee in the halls of the building late in his life, as well as Woodward and Bernstein. Those were the days … when the hardcopy of a reputable newspaper was something to behold.

I’m also curious to see the Ridley Scott-directed film “All the Money in the World,” about the real life story of the kidnapping of 16-year-old John Paul Getty III in 1973. Apparently his billionaire grandfather needed much convincing to pay his ransom, but not before the kidnappers cut off his grandson’s ear. Michelle Williams looks to be excellent as the mother in this one.

It’s also the movie in which parts of it had to be re-shot just last month after the sexual misconduct allegations came out about Kevin Spacey. Ridley Scott pulled the plug on Spacey as J. Paul Getty and put in Christopher Plummer instead, which cost millions to re-shoot fast enough to keep its Dec. 22 release date. Oh my, it’s been down to the wire, but apparently Ridley has pulled it off just in time. We’ll see.

Lastly for movies, I’m also game to see Guillermo del Toro’s movie “The Shape of Water,” starring Sally Hawkins and Michael Shannon. Set in 1962 during the Cold War era, it’s about a lonely, mute woman, who along with her co-worker, discovers a secret classified experiment going on at the government lab where she works.

After watching the trailer, I’m reminded a bit of “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” — not that I really saw that — but there seems to be a creature like that in this one whom Sally Hawkin’s character befriends. Oh, it’s an otherworldly creature with a heart and soul — and a storyline like that can usually get to me. I really like the movie’s poster too, ha. It might be worth seeing for the poster alone.

As for albums out this month, it’s a no-brainer — I’ll pick U2’s newly released album “Songs of Experience,” which apparently is intended to be a companion piece to the band’s previous record “Songs of Innocence” from 2014.

I’m a long-time fan so whatever U2 puts out is a must-get for me. I enjoyed watching the group perform on Saturday Night Live this past weekend. It’s very cool that they’re back, after Bono was injured in a bad bicycle accident in Central Park in 2014. The band is awesome live, but I’ve only seen them once in concert, back in 1986 in Austin, Texas — where they sang “Pride (In the Name of Love)” with a lot of energy, Wow.

As for what else — it’s only Christmas music from here on out for 2017. Enjoy.

What about you — which releases are looking forward to this month? And what Best Of list do you think is right on?

Posted in Top Picks | 20 Comments