February Preview

February is already here and trying to escape me. Tomorrow I leave for D.C. and Virginia for a week to visit friends and my old digs. It should be fun but what’s this talk about a chance of more snow there? Meanwhile I’ve been looking at what’s coming out in February releases, and it appears such well-known authors as Joyce Maynard, Ethan Canin, and Yann Martel have new fiction out. After how good “Life of Pi” was, I was really looking to grab Martel’s latest novel “The High Mountains of Portugal,” which I still might, but it seems it’s been getting some lukewarm reviews. Hmm. Could it be true?

So instead I’m looking at a few other fiction releases. Kristopher Jansma’s new novel “Why We Came to the City” might be just the ticket. It’s supposed to be both funny and heartfelt about a group of twentysomething friends in New York whose lives are upended by tragedy. Author Emily St. John says it’s an “elegant and deeply moving meditation on friendship and mortality” and Publishers Weekly calls it a “compelling paean to New York City” about “post-college friends who manage the vagaries of love and friendship against the backdrop of living in the big city.” Hmm I’m game, as long as it’s not Sex and the City Part 2.

Then there’s Dawn Tripp’s new novel “Georgia” about the life of artist Georgia O’Keefe. I know I’ve said in the past I’m not big on novels that fictionalize the lives of famous real people, but this one is getting a lot of strong reviews, and how can I resist reading about O’Keefe’s life, once again? Author B.A. Shapiro says “Georgia” is a “dazzling, brilliant work about the struggle between artist and woman, between self and the other, between love and the necessity to break free of it.” Hmm. Count me in.

Also February wouldn’t be complete without a good survival tale to add to the TBR pile so I’ll mention Diane Les Becquets’s debut novel “Breaking Wild.” It tells the story of a missing woman in Colorado and the female ranger who’s hellbent on finding her before it’s too late. Author Andre Dubus III says “what sets this novel apart is how deeply its author dares to venture into the psyches of her two unforgettable protagonists.” It’s also touted by authors Wiley Cash and Tana French among others. So it might be the perfect thing for a quick winter read.

Lastly in new fiction, I’m curious about Canadian author Peter Behrens’s historical epic “Carry Me” about a complex love affair of a non-Jewish man and Jewish woman hovering precariously between the two World Wars. They grow up on the Isle of Wight and later reunite in Frankfurt and Berlin, where, after Hitler’s rise to power, they look to escape. I don’t know too much more than that, but the novel has received quite a few five-star reviews from readers on Goodreads and Amazon, many of whom say Behrens is a master storyteller and one not to miss. I have not read his two earlier novels, so this may be my chance to try his writing out.

As for movies in February, I’m probably not going to be rushing to the theater for any. There’s a couple of comedies such as “Zoolander 2” and “How to Be Single” that might have a few laughs — and two sports movies “Race” about runner Jesse Owens and “Eddie the Eagle” about the U.K.’s first ski jumper, but it’s not like I’m looking to see these on the big screen. So for my movie pick this month, I’ll choose the Coen brothers’ spoof of old Hollywood “Hail, Caesar” because it looks absurd and fun at the same time — and it’s hard to resist the makers of “The Big Lebowski” and “Fargo” among others. I usually can’t.

Lastly for albums out this month, there’s some big names with new releases: Kanye West, Elton John, Bonnie Raitt, Vince Gill, Lucinda Williams, and Wynonna Judd among others. I’ve really liked both Bonnie’s and Lucinda’s music in the past. They’re Giants. Titans. Masters. Of course I’ll listen to their albums. But for something new, I’ll pick the talented young Canadian singer Basia Bulat’s album “Good Advice” as my choice this month.

What about you — which books, movies, or music are you looking forward to in February?

Posted in Top Picks | 3 Comments

The Wright Brothers and The Paying Guests

I wish I could say that I have some distant relation to the famous Wright brothers but all I can say is that we share a surname. Still this was good enough for me when I was little when I could pretend these inventors of the airplane and the first successful pilots of powered human flight were of some distant relation to me. Though of course Wilbur and Orville were lifelong bachelors, so they couldn’t exactly be my great grandpa or some such, but still their mother’s married name was actually Susan Wright, so that’s pretty cool. For these and other reasons, I’ve always been curious about these famous Wrights so I’m glad to have plowed through David McCullough’s 2015 book about them.

There’s so many details in the book that I had either forgotten from my grade school days or never knew about the Wright brothers. All I recall was that the Wright brothers owned a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio, starting in 1892, which was cool of them to begin with, and eventually began experimenting on building a flying machine along the beaches of Kitty Hawk, N.C. First they piloted gliders above the sand dunes and then eventually they equipped their plane with an engine, and made four history-changing flights in Dec. 1903 and more a couple years later, leaving behind some really neat photographs of their flying days there. Voila that’s most of what I knew.

But it’s clear from McCullough’s book that the Wrights were much more impressive than I had thought or had taken for granted. For one thing, as the book makes evident: the brothers were high school dropouts, they had no formal technical training, no financial backers, no government subsidies, and little money of their own. To emulate flight, they watched and studied the wings of birds, read books, and made things from scratch. They were industrious, brilliant, and persistent to the core; they worked on their projects from sun up to sun down, using the little profit from their bike store to buy supplies. Almost six years older Wilbur was their leader, but both brothers worked, lived, and spent all their time together. Holy smokes in comparison to the Wrights, most of us seem pretty darn lazy.

I guess I didn’t realize that after their flights in 1903 and more in 1905 that the brothers accomplishments were quite overlooked or ignored, especially by the U.S. government, which showed little to no interest in their invention. Most couldn’t believe their machine could actually fly, and in France as in other places they were accused of bluffing. They were ridiculed to a great extent for quite awhile. Then came the official trials where Wilbur went to France to demonstrate their Flyer and Orville flew another at Fort Myers in Virginia. At each place they were successful, setting flying records and wowing crowds with their planes. But during one flight Orville crashed and broke various bones, and a passenger onboard was killed. His sister Katharine, a teacher, would spend many months nursing Orville back to health.

Who knew? And who knew: they made various flights in Europe in 1909, spent so many hours in the air, and that Wilbur flew over the ocean liner the RMS Lusitania in New York harbor, circled the Statue of Liberty, and continued up the Hudson River to Grant’s tomb and back. Moreover who knew their family was so close-knit (though their mother died when they were young) and that both Katharine and their preacher father would fly as passengers on their plane on at least one occasion, and that they would all continue to live together in Ohio when they weren’t traveling. Katharine didn’t marry till she was 58! (Apparently Orville stopped talking to her after that. He must have wanted her to remain unmarried like they did as bachelors, or some such nonsense.) Wilbur tragically died so early in 1912 at age 45 from typhoid fever. Curiously the book doesn’t dwell or elaborate on how that affected Orville who outlived him for another 36 years! The book also doesn’t go into a lot about the lawsuits that the Wrights were involved in over patents, their accomplishments, and planes. It merely mentions that aspect.

All in all McCullough’s book was enlightening in its details. I never realized how much the brothers overcame in doing what they did, and how much work went into it. How patient they seemed with the public. This book paints the Wright brothers not as two guys out for fame or glory but rather as two brothers wanting acceptance for what was rightfully theirs — for something they had done. One caveat I had with the book is that although it follows their story chronically with many facts and interesting details, sometimes I wished it breathed more life into them. It often quotes the brothers’ letters but still I felt a bit distanced from the Wrights, like they were cut-outs. Sure they could be enigmatic, modest, and shy but something seemed a bit missing in McCullough’s account. I guess it goes to show we often can not fully know such iconic historical figures.

Meanwhile this past week I finished British author Sarah Waters’s 2014 novel “The Paying Guests” on audiobook after a couple of friends had told me about its wonderful narration by actress Juliet Stevenson. They weren’t kidding! Stevenson expertly breathes life into each character and Sarah Waters’s storytelling is masterful in this absorbing post-Edwardian tale. I know the novel made positive waves when it came out a couple of years ago but for whatever reason I hadn’t taken the plunge till just now. And boy, did it transport me. I was caught up in the story’s setting of a big house in 1920s London that had seen better days, in which a widower (bereft of her sons and servants) and her 26-year-old spinster daughter take in a married couple as lodgers. In time an illicit love affair begins and eventually a crime (or accident?) happens which changes everything.

It’s an intense love story and period drama (Sarah Waters’s most potent novel so far!) that seems to hit its dialogue, descriptions, and interactions just right. Many of Waters’s novels spotlight lesbian protagonists and this one is no different — for those who need a warning. It’s a book with plenty of atmosphere, high anxiety, and suspense, but my only criticism is that it goes on far too long. Towards the end, the investigation into the crime and trial goes repetitively round and round a bit too much. (The audiobook is 21.5 hours long, which I could have listened to on a drive perhaps from here to Vegas.) I only wish the novel had been shorter and tauter, but still it’s a tale whose characters and haunting predicament get into one’s bones and one that I won’t soon forget. Bravo to the author.

What about you — have you read “The Wright Brothers” or “The Paying Guests” and if so, what did you think?

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The Last 5 Movies

This past week I’ve been enjoying David McCullough’s nonfiction book “The Wright Brothers” and Sarah Waters’s novel “The Paying Guests” and will report back once I finish both. Have you read these? Meanwhile over the past few months I finished seeing the eight Oscar nominees for Best Picture and a few other films as well. Here are the last five movies I’ve seen:

“Room” — I wasn’t sure I’d be able to see this movie about a mother and son held captive in a shed for years, but I knew (even though I haven’t read the novel by Emma Donoghue yet) there must be something redeeming about the story, or else what’s the point of watching so awful a plot and subject matter. Indeed it’s the mother’s bond with her son and how she shields him from the horrors of the situation, creating an imaginative world in just a tiny room, that makes it special. The movie is reminiscent of the 1997 film “Life Is Beautiful” in which a father protects his son from the dangers in a WWII concentration camp. “Room” is not exactly an easy watch, but it’s definitely one of the most moving and heart-wrenching films of the year. My nails didn’t exactly survive in tact.

“The Revenant” — This revenge film — about a frontiersman (played by Leo DiCaprio) left for dead on a winter fur trading expedition in the 1820s — is brutal! Make no mistake about it! I’m not exactly sure I knew what I was getting into. What’s for sure is that Leo’s character has about nine lives in this movie. It’s rough to say the least, but for Leo I survived its Indian attacks, animal attack and its harsh conditions to make it through. But in reality I wouldn’t have survived one night in the frozen woods or five minutes in the river. “The Revenant” reminded me a bit of the 1972 film “Jeremiah Johnson” but had many more hardships to tackle. While I’d support Leo getting an Oscar for his performance, and liked the film’s cinematography, I’m not really rooting for the film to win Best Picture, though with its 12 nominations it’s likely the favorite.

“Carol” — While I liked and appreciated this film — about two women who develop an intimate relationship in the 1950s — for some reason for me it didn’t totally live up to all the hype I had heard about it. The performances by both Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett are undoubtedly strong as is the direction by Todd Haynes, but somehow I didn’t get totally ramped up about the power of the story, or didn’t feel I knew the characters too well. I guess I wanted to like “Carol” perhaps more than I did.

“Mad Max: Fury Road” — This high action sequel set in post-apocalyptic Australia was definitely quite a wild ride. It features big truck and motorcycle chases across the desert going full blast amid a lot of gunfire, and has Charlize Theron teaming up with Tom Hardy, which isn’t too shabby. It’s action-packed for sure with a tyrannical bad guy, but it sort of made me long for the old Mad Max days of Mel Gibson. The first “Mad Max” movie in 1979 scared the heck out of me. And while “Fury Road” is a decent action flick, does it really deserve a Best Picture nomination? I guess I didn’t think so.

“The Big Short” — The funny thing is I really didn’t want to see this film about four guys who predicted the U.S. economic collapse of 2008. I just thought a financial film about the credit and housing bust might be drudgery to revisit those days. Did I really want to return to “the worst downturn since the Great Depression” again? But how wrong I was! “The Big Short” takes quite a creative approach to get to the bottom of the complex fallout; it’s entertaining and the performances by the well-known cast of Steve Farrell, Ryan Gosling, and Christian Bale, in particular, are outstanding — as is the soundtrack. It seems either the film or the book by Michael Lewis should be required for all Americans. What a disaster for the country! I wouldn’t mind if it won a few Oscar awards including the big one, even though I don’t think it will.

What about you have you seen any of these movies — and if so what did you think? Or do you have a favorite film of 2015?

Posted in Movies | 20 Comments

First Books of the New Year

I’m off to a pretty good start in 2016, recently finishing Mary Lawson’s 2002 novel “Crow Lake” followed by Paula Hawkins’ runaway 2015 bestseller “The Girl on the Train” and completing the audiobook of Elisabeth Elo’s 2014 mystery-suspense novel “North of Boston.” All of them were quite decent in their different genres.

Mary Lawson’s 2002 debut novel “Crow Lake” was given to me by my S-I-L (sister-in-law) who said it had been one of her book club’s favorite reads of all time. In fact my book club — before I joined the group — liked it a lot too. Apparently it’s a universally popular book-club choice (if you’re in need of one), especially in Canada. And now I can see why.

It’s about four kids living in a remote farming community along a lake in northern Ontario, Canada, who struggle to stay together after their parents die in a tragic accident. The two teenage boys try to cope, sacrificing to make ends meet to raise their two younger sisters. One of the girls, the narrator, idolizes one of her older brothers who passes along to her a passion for the natural world and the pond beyond their house, inspiring her later educational and career pursuits, but eventually things come between them and she must fight her disappointment over her brother’s fate.

It’s a poignant, quiet story about family dynamics, sibling rivalry, and sacrifice in which the northern landscape and poverty are prominent. The girl’s narration cuts to the bones over her thoughts looking back over her childhood, her family’s struggles, and where she came from. The farming aspect and tone slightly reminded me of John Williams’s novel “Stoner,” which I just read last year, but “Crow Lake” is more about the relations between siblings that can affect one forever. It was published apparently when the author was in her mid-50s and is a bit biographical. I admired its rich authenticity and look forward to reading Mary Lawson’s other two novels sometime.

As for Paula Hawkins’ 2015 psychological thriller “The Girl on the Train,” everyone knows what that one’s about, right? The runaway bestseller has sold four million copies in the U.S. and more than 6.5 million globally. I’m surely the last blogger to read it. I put it off for as long as I could because I wasn’t really looking for another “Gone Girl” type of book, but now I’m glad to have finally read it for my book group, which plans to discuss it soon.

It’s a quick page-turner no doubt and pretty well constructed. I only wanted to throttle the main character Rachel Watson a few dozen times. She’s purposely flawed to the max and continually getting involved where she doesn’t belong. She’s annoying too. But then the character of Meagan seems a bit worse. She’s morally devoid. And Anna is no great shakes either. All of the characters are pretty inept or contemptible (guilty of something), but I guess that’s what makes the book’s motive and killer more up for grabs.

The big reveal though at the end sort of petered out for me. I don’t know what I was expecting but I guess I was expecting something else or a bit more. Regardless I’ll hand it to the author for coming up with Rachel — the sad sack alcoholic who regularly blacks out — as a possible witness and suspect. Is Emily Blunt really going to play Rachel for the movie, which is due out in October? She’s seemingly so sensible! For this character, she’ll have to forswear sobriety (and her looks?) in 2016. I’m not sure whether I liked “Gone Girl” or “The Girl on the Train” better for this genre. “Gone Girl” was crazier and more diabolical but perhaps “Train” more rooted in everyday realities (?) — which one did you like better?

Lastly Elisabeth Elo’s 2014 crime suspense novel “North of Boston” made for a pretty good audiobook listen this past week. I liked the main character Pirio Kasparov, a sharp-witted sarcastic Boston girl who’s involved in a collision at sea when the fishing boat she’s on is rammed in the fog by a freighter. She somehow survives four hours in the water before being rescued, but her friend, the boat’s owner is killed. In time she becomes suspicious that the boat’s sinking and her friend’s death were no accident. With the help of a journalist, she begins unraveling a lethal plot involving the whaling grounds off Baffin Island.

Like much crime or suspense fiction — I often get weary mid-way through as the plot’s intricacies unfold and I find parts quite unbelievable, which I did a bit with “North of Boston.” It reminded me a bit of a Nelson DeMille novel with more to it. It’s not exactly my favorite genre but nonetheless these types of books often make good audios and this one did as well. Marguerite Gavin does an excellent job of narrating it. The sharp-witted lead character Pirio (of Russian descent) and the setting of Boston and northern whaling waters made the book worthwhile for me, and it had enough action to keep the pace flowing. If the author continues with Pirio for her next book, I plan to tune in again.

What about you — have you read either “Crow Lake,” “The Girl on the Train” or “North of Boston” — and if so what did you think?

Posted in Books | 33 Comments

My 2015 in Review

Looking back on 2015, I had quite a good reading year. While my stats below don’t seem that impressive, I was happy with the quality of books and the array of literary gems I found. I’ve never been a speedy reader, I like to mosey and hold on to books that I’m reading for a while, dreaming about their worlds and narration, noting passages I like etc. Nor do I rush on to the next book very quickly. I need a down day or so before leaving one behind for the next author’s voice or book’s setting that enters my head. It’s just my meandering way I guess, and I always like to take time to write a review for each book.

I’m not sure if everyone saw the New York Times article about looking back on the year in book publishing, but I found it pretty interesting. It seems e-book sales surely tapered off this year, which is true for me as I don’t read many e-books compared to regular books, and audiobook sales soared, which is also true for me, since I started to regularly listen to audiobooks for the first time ever. I found them quite nice for dog walks, commuting, gardening, and even doing laundry, though they are a different experience than the process of reading, which is impossible to replace or enumerate all of its magic ways. Anyways, the article also mentions the proliferation this year of coloring books for adults, which is a trend I haven’t understood well or can’t fathom for myself, though they do seem a de-stresser for some. What an odd trend — don’t you think? The rest of the article speaks for itself. Now on to my 2015 stats and book favorites (which weren’t necessarily published in this year.)

44 Books Completed
30 Read books
14 Audio books
11 Nonfiction
33 Fiction
25 Female Authors
19 Male Authors

My Top 5 Favorite Nonfiction Books in 2015

The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of the Donner Party by Daniel James Brown
My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff
Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris
On the Move: A Life by Oliver Sacks
Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg

My Favorite Novels in 2015

The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Sweetland by Michael Crummey
Euphoria by Lily King
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
The Transcriptionist by Amy Rowland
The Dinner by Herman Koch
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh
Circling the Sun by Paula McLain
A Sudden Light by Garth Stein
Painted Horses by Malcolm Brooks
A Constellation of Vital Phenomenon by Anthony Marra
Stoner by John Williams
The Secret River by Kate Grenville
The Jaguar’s Children by John Vaillant
Long Man by Amy Greene

As for my rating of movies below: 3 stars means they were pretty good in places; 3.5 star movies are ones I found quite enjoyable; 4 stars means there was something special about the movie, and 5 means there’s various things I found that made it one heck of a film. I plan to see more movies that are nominated before the Academy Awards airs on Feb. 28.

Notable 2015 Movies I’ve Seen:

The Big Short (5 stars)
Spotlight (4.5 stars)
Steve Jobs (4 stars)
In the Heart of the Sea (3.5 stars)
Brooklyn (3.5 stars)
The Martian (3.5 stars)
The Lady in the Van (3.5 stars)
Bridge of Spies (3.5 stars)
I’ll See You in My Dreams (3.5 stars)
Woman in Gold (3.5 stars)
While We’re Young (3.5 stars)
The Intern (3.5 stars)
Ex-Machina (3 stars)
Trainwreck (3 stars)
Remember (3 stars)
Z for Zachariah (3 stars)
Clouds of Sils Maria (3 stars)
Mad Max: Fury Road (3 stars)

Notable 2015 Movies I Have Not Seen Yet:

Carol
The Revenant
Room
45 Years
The Danish Girl
Concussion
Son of Saul
Youth
Macbeth
Learning to Drive
Suffragette
Far From the Madding Crowd

Lastly, below are albums I liked this past year. I guess the genre I generally listen to these days might be labeled adult alternative or folk/country rock or whatever else have you. Three of the ones below are from Canadians so you might not recognize them; I never did before moving here.

My Favorite 2015 Albums

Coldplay’s “A Head Full of Dreams”
Brandi Carlile’s “The Firewatcher’s Daughter”
Glen Hansard’s “Didn’t He Ramble”
Tobias Jesso Jr.’s “Goon”
Jason Isbell’s “Something More Than Free”
The Weather Station’s “Loyalty”
Great Lake Swimmers’ “A Forest of Arms”
Rhiannon Giddens’s “Tomorrow Is My Turn”
Alabama Shakes’ “Sound and Color”
Florence and the Machine’s “How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful”
Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds’ “Chasing Yesterday”

How about you — are any of my favorite books, movies, or albums from this year — ones that you have liked as well? Or would you suggest others? (As for the photos above, they were taken over the weekend when we went to the mountains to go skiing.) Here’s to more good releases in 2016!

Posted in Books, Movies, Music | 23 Comments

January Preview

Happy New Year everyone. It’s hard to believe it’s 2016. I hope everyone had fun and safe holidays. We just arrived home from California and were met with about six inches of new snow here in Canada, which will be good for cross-country skiing this weekend.

Over break we saw the movie “Brooklyn” (adapted from the 2009 Colm Toibin novel), which turned out to be a perfect film to take my parents to — not violent, not racy, not action-packed, just nostalgic, and who can pass up that? Set in the 1950s, it’s about an Irish girl who comes to New York City and ultimately must choose between the two countries, boys, and the lives that exist within. Actress Saoirse Ronan does a great job as the innocent-eyed, conflicted immigrant. She seems to shine in these roles adapted from well-known novels; besides “Brooklyn,” Ronan’s also been in “The Lovely Bones” as the murdered girl in purgatory, and in “Atonement” as the tattle-tale, lying sister — who can forget that role? This time she’s quite a bit less nefarious and has grown up since those days. Have you seen “Brooklyn” and what did you think?

Meanwhile I’ve been looking at what’s coming out in January releases. This month, there’s new books by such popular authors as Melanie Benjamin, Sebastian Faulks, Joyce Carol Oates, Lawrence Hill, Chris Bohjalian, and Bill Bryson among others. Quite a good lineup, but I’ll probably need to narrow my sights, so I’ll likely grab Elizabeth Strout’s slim new novel “My Name Is Lucy Barton” as I’m a fan of her books and have read all of them so it’s not like I can pass this one up.

Besides Strout, there’s three books by debut novelists that have received considerable praise that I’m curious to check out. First, Sunil Yapa’s novel “Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist,” which is set amid Seattle’s 1999 World Trade Organization protests. Apparently it involves seven characters whose lives change forever over the course of one afternoon. From blurbs I’ve seen, the novel looks to be a pretty powerful and visceral read; some are calling it the first great read of 2016. Is it? Author Smith Henderson says it’s “a story that is as tragic as it is relevant, as unflinching as it is humane.” Hmm. I’ll have to read it to see.

“The Lightkeepers” by Abby Geni is another debut novel that I’m curious about. It’s about a nature photographer who takes a one-year residency on the exotic Farallon Islands off the coast of California. Need I say more? The Farallon Islands, people! I haven’t gotten over the Farallons since Susan Casey’s 2005 nonfiction book “The Devil’s Teeth.”) Anyways, the photographer’s only companions there are a group of scientists who are studying the birds and sharks. But after an assault and death occur on the island, each member falls under suspicion. “The Lightkeepers” sounds like a haunting adventure set against the backdrop of a wild and incredible habitat. I likely can’t pass it up.

Lastly in debut novels Garth Greenwell’s novel “What Belongs to You” is apparently about an American teacher who finds himself caught in a relationship with a hustler that causes him anguish and forces him to confront his fraught past and Southern childhood. Kirkus Reviews calls the novel “a luminous, searing exploration of desire, alienation, and the powerful tattoo of the past.” It might not be for everyone, but author Hanya Yanagihara hails it too — as well as all the reviews so far on Goodreads, which says it’s beautifully written. Hmm dark but worth a read?

As for movies in January, I’ll likely see Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Revenant” which is based partly on the 2002 novel by Michael Punke. I know it looks like a grisly (get the pun?) survival/revenge story set in the 1820s, but it was filmed near where we live — in our local mountains — so of course we’re going to see it; it’s full of nature scenes. I’ve heard the filming was quite hard on Leo; he was out there standing in freezing water and weather, gripes. And how did they film that scene with the grizzly? I’d like to know. Holy smokes I don’t want bad dreams of running into bears in the woods — as just this fall we had a grizzly on the trail up a ways in front of us. Luckily we went our own separate ways.

The other movie I might need to check out is the action-adventure with Chris Pine, Eric Bana, and Casey Affleck called “The Finest Hours,” which is about a death-defying 1952 Coast Guard rescue in stormy seas of workers on a couple of oil tankers. I’m not sure if the special effects of the high seas will ruin it and make it look too fake, but I usually have to revisit Eric Bana in anything he’s in, ever since his role in the film “Munich.” Add in Pine and Casey and you basically have a film. But we will see. And for now, I’m skipping the Benghazi film “13 Hours” because director Michael Bay has put out some terrible flicks over the years and I’m afraid that this might be more of the same.

Lastly for January, there’s not a lot of new album releases for the month: David Bowie is putting out “Blackstar,” Sia is putting out “This Is Acting,” and the Tedeschi Trucks Band is releasing “Let Me Get By.” All of which could be good, but I’ll pick little-known Tennessee bluegrass artist Sierra Hull with her fourth album “Weighted Mind” for my pick of the month.

What about you — which new books, movies, or albums are you most looking forward to this month?

Posted in Top Picks | 22 Comments

Tender Is the Night and A Sudden Light

Hello. Just a quick post as we are still visiting family in Southern California and there’s no time to be on the computer or blog … in this land of milk and honey. I hope everyone had a lovely holiday break and are continuing their festivities with a very happy New Year’s.

Last week I finished F.Scott Fitzgerald’s 1934 novel “Tender Is the Night,” which I was reading with Ti over at Book Chatter. Thanks Ti, I’m glad to make it through this famous book, which was Fitzgerald’s last completed novel and apparently his most autobiographical. Interestingly, Fitzgerald considered the novel to be his greatest work. As he wrote to a friend: “If you liked The Great Gatsby, for God’s sake read this. Gatsby was a tour de force but this is a confession of faith.”

For those unfamiliar with it, “Tender Is the Night” tells the story of a glamorous American couple living at a villa in the French Riviera in the late 1920s — Dick and Nicole Diver whose marriage over time hits the rocks. Dick is this brilliant guy, a promising psychiatrist who makes the fatal choice of marrying one of his patients; Nicole is beautiful and wealthy but also mentally unstable. She’s left a treatment facility but still has episodes, and Dick is floundering with work and feels trapped by Nicole’s wealth into a lifestyle that is not his own. Into this comes the hot young actress Rosemary Hoyt who is enamored by Dick and whom he can’t resist. Oh sorry day! What once seemed so idyllic and glamorous — Dick and Nicole’s life together (along with their two kids) — turns out to be a recipe for demise.

I wanted to like “Tender Is the Night” as much as Fitzgerald’s novel “The Great Gatsby,” but alas, I struggled through parts of it and found it uneven and episodic. There were sections that I thought were brilliantly written and other parts that I found quite tedious. I had trouble getting into and sticking with the story, which starts with an array of expatriates staying and partying at a hotel along the beach.

It’s slow-going at first, but luckily “Tender Is the Night” picked up for me half way through and towards the end as I wanted to find out how Dick and Nicole’s lives would play out — if they would they stay together, or if they would go their separate ways — and what would become of the fling with Rosemary. I needed to see if the characters would find happiness so I stuck with it and plunged further on toward its final dark horizon.

It wasn’t exactly easy reading, but I found the novel quite interesting in how it apparently mirrored Fitzgerald’s own life at the time — with his mentally ill wife Zelda, his troubles with alcohol, and the real-life affair he carried on with a teenage actress. The social milieu the novel describes of the times is also rather fascinating. It includes little details about expats and different nationalities, about rich and poor, blacks, gays, women and children — and marriage. You definitely get a glimpse into Fitzgerald’s 1920’s world and what was going through his mind during the last stages of his life — and I, for one, couldn’t pass that up. He’s too intriguing and talented a figure in literary history to miss reading, even if it’s not my favorite work of his — the story of the Divers is illuminating.

Meanwhile, I listened to Garth Stein’s 2014 novel “A Sudden Light” on audiobook this past week and quite enjoyed it. A multi-generational tale set in the Pacific Northwest, it’s about a 14-year-old-boy (Trevor) who comes to unravel the mysteries of his father’s rich timber baron family when he visits their decaying old mansion — Riddell House — for the first time in the summer of 1990. Trevor accompanies his father who’s supposed to resolve a family dispute over what to do with the large Northwest estate.

Part coming of age tale, part historical logging expose, and part mansion-ghost story, this family drama held my interest till the very end. It has a few twists along the way and an ending that crashes with a crescendo. I guess I liked it just as well as Stein’s prior novel “The Art of Racing in the Rain” and found it more intricate and slightly more interesting than the first in its larger scope. Like “Racing in the Rain,” the narration is easy and lured me in. Kudos to Seth Numrich for a terrific job in his narration of the audiobook.

“A Sudden Light” is one of those novels you can’t say too much about because it will give it away. Suffice it to say, I liked hanging out with the book’s protagonist, Trevor, who’s a bit of a truth and mystery seeker and is as determined as the boy detective in the series Encyclopedia Brown. By the end, he gets to the heart of the mysteries of his timber baron family and what’s behind the selling of the mansion — and it’s not exactly pretty. Stein is an entertaining author, and I look forward to seeing what he writes next.

What about you — have you read “A Sudden Light” or “Tender Is the Night” and if so, what did you think?

 

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The Transcriptionist and Movie Briefs

Well winter has fully arrived today as it’s 10 degrees Fahrenheit out with a wind chill of -3. Ouch. They say this “Arctic blast” should be over by tomorrow though. We have about five inches of snow on the ground. My dog loves it of course and still wants her long walks, sigh. It’s okay though because next week we’ll be celebrating the Christmas holiday with family in Southern Cal, enjoying balmier temperatures.

My reading has taken a hit this month as the Christmas season has prevailed over all things. Though Ti over at Book Chatter and I are doing a read-along of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1934 novel “Tender Is the Night.” I’m struggling a bit with it and trying to hang on to the story of Dick and Nicole Divers set amid the French Riviera and Switzerland. Perhaps they’re a kind of flip side to Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan. Of course Ti has zoomed through the novel and is done, waiting to discuss it. I will see “Tender Is the Night” through or else be damned.

Meanwhile I continue to have good luck with audiobooks from the library, which I listen to while on my frozen walks with my dog. I finished the audiobook of Amy Rowland’s 2014 debut novel “The Transcriptionist,” which I very much enjoyed. It’s about 33-year-old Lena, who works as a transcriptionist for a big NYC newspaper called The Record. She sits alone in a room all day with a headset and Dictaphone transcribing stories from reporters out in the field — until one day she comes across a story so shocking that it gets under her skin and eventually unravels her world.

Wow, this little gem of a novel is both funny and heartfelt, though dark too. It’s apparent from it the author worked at a major newspaper and indeed she was a transcriptionist at the New York Times for a few years from 2001, before transferring to the book review section. Like the character Lena, she sat in a room transcribing the words from reporters’ calls and tapes. I remember those days, now obsolete, when I was at The Post. So old school but good. Funny to think back on the by-gone newspaper days when transcription and newspaper paste-up and typesetting were commonplace.

In “The Transcriptionist” the author nails the experience of a low-life newspaper employee and how the job and the tragic stories she transcribes begin to fray her soul. The other newsroom employees she comes in contact with are wonderfully drawn and caricatured. In time, Lena plays her card at the paper, which has its consequences, but not before raising ethical journalistic infractions going on there.

The book rang true for me, which was cool. You don’t necessarily need to have been at a newspaper to be engaged by “The Transcriptionist,” but it’s sort of a kick if you have. Anyone might like how the novel touches on themes of the written word, isolation, technology, ethics, and the discontentment with a job.

This audiobook was expertly narrated by Xe Sands. One sign of a good audio is that you want to read the print version as well soon afterwards, and you likely want a copy of the book for your shelves too. So far, I can say that about “The Transcriptionist” and “Station Eleven.”

As for movies, the husband and I saw “Spotlight” about the Boston Globe’s 2002 uncovering of the sex abuse scandal of minors by priests and the cover-up within the local Catholic Archdiocese. It’s hard to turn investigative newspaper stories into dynamic movies but the screenwriters pulled this one off. It’s a powerful rendering of the explosive scandal and focuses on how the journalists pieced the story together. The cast is superb, and the victims stories are horrific (a couple cases are briefly described, the rest implied). It’s hard to fathom the scale of the abuse and the cover-up even now long after it’s been made public.

We also just saw the movie “In the Heart of the Sea” about the sinking of the whaling ship (Essex) in 1820 by a giant whale. Much of the movie focuses on the captain and the first mate (played by the hunky Chris Hemsworth) who don’t see eye-to-eye over the ship’s destination or seamanship — and how the ship’s surviving crew are pushed to the brink to stay alive. We liked the film, though it received just a 41% favorable critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It deserves better! Be forewarned: it’s not easy to watch majestic whales being hunted and killed, but it’s hard to deny whaling was a considerable part of U.S. history. The film’s visual effects may seem unreal at times, but the story of the real-life maritime disaster is well worth seeing, as well as for its role in inspiring Herman Melville’s epic “Moby-Dick.” Melville, played by British actor Ben Whishaw, has an interesting part in the movie.

What about you — have you read “The Transcriptionist” or seen the movies “Spotlight” or “In the Heart of the Sea” — and if so, what did you think?

Till the next time, have a happy holiday season!

Posted in Books, Movies | 24 Comments

Sweetland and Painted Horses

Quite a few of the protagonists in the books I’ve read this past year have been pretty lonely characters, such as: the teenage boy in “My Sunshine Away,” the Russian scientist in “Us Conductors,” the English anthropologist in “Euphoria,” the lady investigator in “The Enchanted,” and of course who can forget the sad professor in “Stoner,” among others. Holy smokes, these people linger on the edges of society — trying to make due by their lonesome selves.

Now I have one more to add to the group: Moses Sweetland, the 69-year-old man in Canadian author Michael Crummey’s 2014 novel “Sweetland.” He’s a crotchety codger who lives among an island community off the coast of Newfoundland and refuses to leave the island with everyone else when the government decommissions the place and offers compensation for all to leave. Sweetland’s pressured to take the offer but after an accident occurs he decides not to. Left on the island alone, he struggles to survive and ruminates over his life and past memories of the community, his relatives, and the place he so clearly loves.

Wow “Sweetland” is a slow-burning novel that’s evocative and a bit haunting. It’s about the loss of a way of life and one man’s inability or willingness to go along. Some of the novel’s best parts are the descriptions of his everyday life on the island doing chores and getting by, and his relations with his relatives and others there in the community who eventually leave. I was caught up in Sweetland’s story though it’s rather sad and his struggle to keep on after everyone on the island goes away.

It’s one of those books that moves slowly in places but gets under your skin. It fully engaged me and never seemed dull. Bravo to author Michael Crummey — my new favorite Canadian author? I immediately looked up his bibliography to see what else I need to get my hands on and it appears his 2009 novel “Galore” was highly praised as well. I will put it on my list. Have you read it?

Meanwhile I also finished the audiobook of Montana author Malcolm Brooks’s 2014 debut novel “Painted Horses.” Wow it’s a bit of an epic novel in its scope and storytelling, which I didn’t realize when I first picked it up. Set in the 1950s, it involves two main characters whose paths cross at a Montana canyon slated to be flooded by a proposed dam. Catherine Lemay is a young archaeologist hired to survey the canyon for historical artifacts before the dam project gets the green light; and John H., is a rugged horseman and artist who served in WWII in the last cavalry unit. They come together over secrets in the canyon, but stakes in the community for the dam run high, and the power company and big business stand in their way.

The ending gets a bit crazy but all in all the storytelling is quite good. The story flashes back and forth between the past and present of Catherine’s and John’s different histories and how that shapes them in their view of the canyon. There’s a bit of everything in this novel: drama, romance, cowboys, Native Americans, WWII, art, archaeology, feminism, nature, a vanishing way of life vs. the future and new technology. At times, I thought perhaps the author bit off more than he could chew, but still the novel comes together and holds one’s attention with interesting facets and dilemmas.

I think I was drawn to “Painted Horses” mostly for its premise set in the American West of the 1950s, and for the author’s descriptions of the Montana landscape, animals, and the canyon. He definitely knows the ins and outs of horses — mustangs, mares, stallions — you name it, and I empathized with the characters. I also can’t resist a novel involving archaeology. If you like any of these things, you’ll want to check out this novel.

What about you, have you read the novels “Sweetland” or “Painted Horses,” and if so what did you think? Their book covers look pretty nice, too!

Posted in Books | 14 Comments

December Preview

We had a fun time in the Bay Area for Thanksgiving at my sister’s. It was warm enough to go for some scenic walks, ride bikes, and take a boat ride — in addition to eating plenty of turkey and stuffing and visiting with my relatives. What a great place!

But it was a short, world-wind trip and now we’re back amid December with the whole Christmas season upon us. I’m hoping it won’t be too much of a mad rush, but it likely will. How was your Thanksgiving?

For books this month there’s only a couple coming out that I have my eye on. First off, I’m curious about Italian author Paolo Giordano’s new novel “Like Family” as a few years back I liked his offbeat debut novel “The Solitude of Prime Numbers,” which I heard the author read from at our city’s annual book festival. I would also like to read Giordano’s Afghanistan war novel “The Human Body,” which I missed somehow. But this new one, his third novel, is about an older woman who becomes a nanny and housekeeper for a couple about to have their first child. Over time she becomes essential to their small household but then later gets a cancer diagnosis that affects each family member in different ways. It sounds like a heartrending story and I’m game to find out more.

Secondly, I’m interested in checking out Matthew FitzSimmons’ debut thriller “The Short Drop” since a lot of readers have given it high marks for a suspense novel. I typically don’t read suspense thrillers but every once in awhile I’ll take the plunge if something is said to be a great ride — so to speak. This one is about the U.S. vice president’s missing daughter, which is a case that has remained unsolved for a decade. But now new evidence surfaces just as a legendary hacker and Marine is set to covertly investigate the case, while the VP is campaigning for the presidency. It sounds pretty juicy and might be a good fast read during this busy holiday season.

Meanwhile major movie season is upon us and this month brings a slew of new offerings to theaters. Much of the talk is about the return of “Star Wars” after a number of years absent with “The Force Awakens,” but I haven’t seen the franchise since “Return of the Jedi” in 1983 and I don’t plan to venture again to the galaxy far far away — even though the old crew of Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher are reuniting for it. Who knows what shape they’ll appear, or what this latest script will bring forth.

After checking out the December film list, I don’t think there’s one movie that sticks out majorly to me but perhaps I’m most curious to see “In the Heart of the Sea” and “Macbeth” with Michael Fassbender. I hear some critics are ticked that Shakespeare’s lines have been cut in the new Macbeth film and that it focuses a lot on atmosphere and style but still I’m drawn to see it. I’m game to see most of the films Fassbender is in. He rocked in the “Steve Jobs” movie and so if he’s in this too, then all hail Macbeth that shall be king!

As for “In the Heart of the Sea,” most of Ron Howard’s films are usually quite good, and it’s based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s 2000 award-winning nonfiction book about the loss of the Whaleship Essex in the Pacific Ocean in 1820, so what more do you need? It’s an event that inspired Herman Melvin’s “Moby-Dick.” I still hope to read Philbrick’s book beforehand, which I should have done years ago. Chris Hemsworth as the lead character is not too shabby to look at either. I once sat through an entire rental of the crazy “Blackhat” movie because of Hemsworth, though I never got around to seeing him in “Thor” or “Rush.”

In other December movies, “Concussion” and “Joy” could be worth seeing, though it appears “Concussion” has received only a 65% critic approval rating so far on Rotten Tomatoes, so go figure. Bloggers seem to be liking the “Concussion” book though by Jeanne Marie Laskas. I’m not sure what to think of the movie “Joy,” which appears to be another David O. Russell film starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper (more Silver Linings plus American Hustle stuff). Surprisingly the financial movie “The Big Short,” based on the book by Michael Lewis, has received high praise and a 78% critic approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I’m not sure about wanting to see a financial flick at Christmas but the all-star acting cast of Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Steve Carell, and Ryan Gosling could be worth seeing. There’s also a Michael Caine-Harvey Keitel buddy retirement movie set in the Swiss Alps called “Youth” that looks to be poignant and have a few laughs.

Lastly I will save talking about the Leo DiCaprio movie “The Revenant” till January when it comes out nationwide. Suffice it to say, the trailer of it slightly reminds me of the film “Jeremiah Johnson,” which I’ve seen half a dozen times, but on steroids perhaps, and I will likely have to see it. It looks pretty intense. But if you’re looking for a small but pretty entertaining film in December and January, you might check out “The Lady in the Van” with Maggie Smith. I saw it at our city’s film festival a couple months back and it’s a nice sleeper hit. Written by British playwright and author Alan Bennett, it tells the true story of an elderly woman who lived in a dilapidated van on Bennett’s driveway for 15 years. The movie is one of those quiet gems that’s not to be missed either as a home rental or as a matinee at the theater.

Lastly for new albums in December, I’m sure there’s a lot of great Christmas music out to get in to the holiday spirit. I usually play the same Christmas albums every year by Sarah McLachlan, Chris Isaak, and the soundtrack to “Love Actually” along with classical pieces to get me in the right mind-set. But for new, non-Christmas albums, I’ll pick Coldplay’s seventh studio album “A Head Full of Dreams” as my pick for the month.

What about you — which books, movies, or albums out this month are you most looking forward to?

Posted in Top Picks | 26 Comments