Siracusa and The Girl on the Train

Well it’s been a fairly calm week. I am behind on carving pumpkins and getting the candy stocked for Halloween, but wait, there’s still time! The snow is gone here but most of the leaves are down. I raked them into bags for a couple hours this week and was able to finish the audiobook of Delia Ephron’s 2016 novel “Siracusa,” which is a doozy of a story about two married couples that vacation together in Italy along with the enigmatic 10-year-old daughter of one of the couples. They go to Rome first and then on to the city of Siracusa on the coast of Sicily, where things quickly unravel and something happens that changes their lives forever.

Narrated from the two wives’ and two husbands’ perspectives, this story is pretty hard to put down. There’s Lizzie and Michael who are writers from New York, and Taylor and Finn, who own a restaurant in Portland, Maine and have a daughter named Snow. Lizzie and Finn had once dated back in their 20s, but now that’s over and this is the second vacation in later life they’ve taken together with their spouses. I’m not sure that this would necessarily happen in my household but … I was willing to go with it.

I think I heard about the novel “Siracusa” from Catherine over at The Gilmore Guide to Books, who liked it quite a bit, and I found it didn’t disappoint. I particularly recommend the audio because the four parts are read by four different actors who do a heck of a job with these different characters. You’ll find them an interesting mix with each their own secrets. Taylor, for one, is a helicopter mom from hell who cares only for her shy, beautiful daughter, Snow. And Finn still holds a flame for Lizzie, while Michael’s affections have turned cold towards her. Lizzie though is looking to win Michael back in Italy and jump-start her career as a journalist. But then in Siracusa all goes to hell in a handbasket.

The descriptions in the book and the characters make it an enticing read, but the story is pretty dark and cynical. It reminded me slightly of Herman Koch’s eerie novel “The Dinner,” which is also about two couples in Europe whose families go through something disturbing. But the stories also differ a bit. “Siracusa” is not totally without flaws, you likely will be able to forecast what will happen long before it does, though I still liked hearing how the characters played out their parts, and the ideas they came away with.

I had not read much from Delia Ephron before, though I knew of her from from her 1998 movie “You’ve Got Mail” and of course her famous sister Nora Ephron whose books often made me laugh. I had read parts of Delia’s nonfiction book “Sister, Mother, Husband, Dog: Etc.,” which for some reason I had put down, but nothing like “Siracusa.” It is much darker than I would’ve guessed of her fiction. It’s not exactly fit for an early Meg Ryan type of role: such as “You’ve Got Mail” and “Sleepless in Seattle.”

Speaking of which, I dragged my husband to the movie “The Girl on the Train” this week. (He said when we were leaving the theater he was the only guy in there. Ha ha ha, gotcha.) But “The Girl” was good, if you like this kind of movie. It followed Paula Hawkins’s blockbuster-selling novel closely.

Luckily Emily Blunt starred in it, which made all the difference. She made one hell of a messed-up Rachel Watson, hooray. Just like Rachel is in the book. I’m not sure the movie was all that suspenseful since I already knew what was going to happen — even my husband figured it out pretty early on without having read the book — but still I’m glad I went. Come on, I wasn’t going to miss it.

And the fact that they change the novel’s setting from London to New York for the movie didn’t seem to make much difference. Blunt pares down her English accent quite a bit, and there’s a couple of beautiful shots of the train along the Hudson River, which seemed good to me. While “The Girl on the Train” might not be as good as “Gone Girl,” it still was entertaining in a wacky thriller kind of way.

What about you, have you read “Siracusa,” or seen the movie “The Girl on the Train,” and if so, what did you think?

Posted in Books, Movies | 22 Comments

Book Festival Days and 3 Mini-Reviews

This past week I’ve been busy attending Wordfest, the annual weeklong book festival here. I went to eight events and heard more than 20 writers give readings and interviews.

See authors: Peter Behrens, C.C. Humphreys, Steven Price, and Peter Robinson at left. It’s been great, listening to a wide variety of authors, from such well-known fiction writers as: Emma Donoghue, Yann Martel, Affinity Konar, Lisa Moore, and Madelein Thein, who’s novel is on the short list for this year’s Man Booker Prize, to many lesser-known authors as well. The talks have been interesting, and one thing’s for certain: I need to read more “CanLit” among other things.

Before moving to Canada full-time over six years ago, I didn’t really know much about CanLit other than reading Margaret Atwood and Carol Shields. But since then I’ve read a sprinkling of novels that fit the mold from across this vast country (including a few from the great Alice Munro), but I need to get to a lot more.

I picked up some Canadian books from the festival and had signed: Lynn Coady’s fiction “Hellgoing” and “The Antagonist,” Lisa Moore’s novel “Caught,” Julie Salverson’s book “Lines of Flight: An Atomic Memoir,” and Jowita Bydlowska’s memoir: “Drunk Mom,” which looks pretty harrowing. (Unfortunately Jowita was sick and did not speak at the event or sign books.) I also heard from and picked up copies of Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s debut novel “Harmless Like You” (she’s from England) and U.S. authors: Jim Lynch’s novel “Before the Wind” and Alexander Maksik’s “Shelter in Place.” So I have a new pile of books, which I’m sure wasn’t totally necessary on top of my other piles, but it’s good nonetheless so I can read some new voices. Have you read or heard of any of these?

Meanwhile I finished Andria Williams’s debut novel “The Longest Night,” which came out earlier this year. Any military brats out there? This one is set in Idaho Falls, which was a remote military town in the late 1950s when the book begins. It’s based on the true story of the only fatal nuclear reactor accident to occur in the U.S.

It’s about a married couple that moves to the town with their two young kids. The husband Paul is there to help oversee one of the country’s first nuclear reactors, but soon finds out that the reactor is compromised and the higher-ups would rather delay fixing it. Meanwhile his wife Nat is struggling to adjust to their new life, which is stifling amid the societal mores of the times. As troubles mount with the reactor, so too do cracks surface in their marriage.

I completely fell into this novel and could feel the Army base lives of these characters and the remoteness of where they were and the staid times in which they were living. The mores and gender roles of the late 1950s and early ‘60s are pervasive in the story and feel suffocating. I felt particularly thankful not to be a woman living there at the time, and sympathized with the wife, Nat, for having trouble fitting in. I liked how the book alternated chapters between the husband Paul, Nat, and Jeannie, the wife of Paul’s boss. You get a wide range of perspective and feeling for their lives and situation.

“The Longest Night” is quite a believable story and one that I did not want to put down despite it being a slow-burn of a read. The story and characters develop and develop until finally at the book’s end things boil over (quite literally with the accident and aftermath). I hadn’t heard of this historical event — the 1961 nuclear reactor accident near Idaho Falls — so I was very interested to read the novel and look up the accident online. Among other things in the story, it’ll make you think twice about nuclear energy.

I also finished the audiobook of Suzanne Rindell’s 2013 novel “The Other Typist,” which is set at the height of Prohibition in New York City. It’s about a police department stenographer (Rose) who becomes obsessed with a newly hired glamorous typist named Odalie. They become friends and soon Odalie lures Rose into the underground world of speakeasies and jazz, which ultimately has dire consequences.

Oh where to begin with this one?! I was engaged in the story, but it also wore me out quite a bit. I tired of the narrator Rose, who describes herself as a pretty insular woman who grew up an orphan and was lucky to get a job with the police, typing crime reports and confessions. She waxes on about Odalie, the stylish well-off woman whom she has met from the typing pool.

You wonder what’s going to happen to these two — and if their lives at the police department will catch up with their underworld parties. The story has some vibrant touches, but I also thought it rambled extraneously at times, was repetitious, and piles on a heavy dose of foreshadowing. I thought the Big Reveal in the book was quite drawn out and when it finally came at the end it was confusing. Perhaps a couple realities could be possible of what happens at the end, but I know what I think happens. It’s one of those switcheroozy types of novels, which you can’t say much about without giving stuff away. In this respect it reminded me a bit of Dennis Lehane’s novel “Shutter Island,” but that story had more action and suspense. There’s still plenty for me to think about with “The Other Typist,” but I guess I’m not a huge fan of this type of book twist. Maybe it depends on the novel. What about you? If you like such twists, you might like this one.

Finally last week, my husband and I saw and both liked the movie “Deepwater Horizon.” Wow I almost had to be picked up off the floor afterwards. This one is much better than I had expected going in. My husband wanted to see it as he’s an engineer and I was glad I tagged along. The movie is not your typical fluff Hollywood reenactment but rather takes a gripping look into the 2010 disaster of the offshore drilling rig that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, resulting in the deaths of 11 people. It’s a hair-raising movie. I couldn’t believe most of the 126 workers on the rig made it off alive. Kudos to those who made the movie — amid all the legal maneuvering that had to be done just to bring it to the Big Screen. It may not honor every single detail accurately but shows that when human beings with various incentives interact with complex systems, sometimes bad things happen. It’s also a moving tribute to those who died on the rig and is well worth seeing.

What about you, have you read either of these books or seen the movie “Deepwater Horizon,” and if so — what did you think?

Posted in Books, Movies | 22 Comments

Snowflakes and Shrill

We had our first snow day on Friday, which is always a bit of a shock to a Californian living in Canada. On Thursday I had been out raking leaves for hours, which aren’t all down yet. Then Friday it dumped a couple inches. The snow should melt away this week, but we could be in store for a long winter. Gripes, I guess it’s best to stay in and curl up with a book near the fireplace. While I do, my thoughts go out to all the people in the path of Hurricane Matthew. What a monster storm. It’s going to take quite awhile to recover. I remember Hurricane Isabel from 2003, which I experienced while living in Virginia, and I think it took about a week to get my power back on. So stay safe and hang in there.

This week I finished the audiobook of Lindy West’s 2016 nonfiction book “Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman.” Admittedly I didn’t know much about the book or the author before starting it, other than reading that it included feminist essays, and Shannon over at River City Reading had praised it back in May. What I did know was “Shrill” had come up on my queue at the library and I was game to check it out.

And oh my, the author Lindy West, 34, is quite a force. I had no idea, and hadn’t thought about some of these issues like she has. It’s perfect that she reads her book — a collection of personal essays about her life and what she believes — for the audio as she enlivens it and adds perspective. In “Shrill,” Lindy details the derision she grew up with as a “fat person” and her move to become an advocate for fat acceptance and other issues. She talks about her family, self-esteem, boyfriends, stints in stand-up comedy, and jobs in journalism, and how she came to speak out about: fat shaming, anti-abortion views, internet harassment, misogyny, and rape jokes. It’s all told in a way that seems incredibly open, honest, and quite funny as well. I couldn’t help but laugh in places.

I don’t think you have to agree with every opinion or thing Lindy West does in “Shrill” to be open or agreeable to the book. At first, I wasn’t sure it was the type of book for me, and I almost set it aside, but I’m glad I stuck with it. All in all, I commend Lindy for her courage and fight, and found her book to be thought-provoking and different than what I typically read. While some bits of “Shrill” might take one out of his or her comfort zone, other parts shine on its humanity.

Meanwhile, I’m midway through reading Andria Williams’s 2016 debut novel “The Longest Night,” which is based on a true story in 1961 of the only fatal nuclear reactor accident that took place in the U.S. It’s about a young couple who move to a remote army base, whose marriage is tested, and a cover-up that ensues at the base. I’m loving the story so far and plan to review it next week. I’m also midway through reading Hope Jahren’s 2016 nonfiction memoir “Lab Girl” about her life as a scientist studying trees and plant life in her laboratories. It’s interesting and enjoyable in a unique way. I’m liking her quirky sensibility so far. Lastly, I’m listening to the audiobook of Suzanne Rindell’s 2013 debut novel “The Other Typist,” which is set in 1920s New York. Keira Knightley is reportedly set to produce and star in the movie adaption of it, but apparently it’s still in the development stages.

Also last week, my hub and I saw and liked the movie “Sully.” You might have already seen it about the pilot who landed the damaged plane on the Hudson River in 2009 to save the passengers and crew. I found the structure of the movie — how it goes back and forth in time from the investigation to the flight to be quite interesting. You find out details you might not have already known about the crash and the pilots. And despite already knowing what happens from history, the movie is still quite a heart-pumping — and thankfully pleasing — watch.

What about you have you read any of these books, or seen “Sully,” and if so, what did you think?

Posted in Books, Movies | 26 Comments

I Let You Go and October Preview

Happy October. Hard to believe — there’s only three months left of the year. It’s time to make haste with one’s reading goals. I’ve been enjoying the fall colors and got out last week for a bike ride, see photo at left. Oh it was nice and I hope to get a few more rides in before the snow flies. This month looks to be a busy one with our city’s annual book festival taking place the week of the 10th. It highlights mainly Canadian authors and has them here for readings, interviews, and book signings. I plan to see quite a few of the author events including those with: Emma Donoghue, Andre Alexis, Madeleine Thien, and Affinity Konar among many others. I will let you know how it goes.

Meanwhile last week I finished the audiobook of Clare Mackintosh’s 2015 debut thriller “I Let You Go,” which held me from start to finish so I give it high marks for that. It reminded me a bit of Paula Hawkins blockbuster “The Girl on the Train,” or at least it’s in the same vein as that. Though this one is about a hit-and-run car case that leaves a 5-year-old boy dead and sends the book’s protagonist (Jenna) fleeing the memory of the accident by moving to a small cottage on the remote Welsh coast. What’s her story? You only find out little by little, but midway through the book there’s a big twist that spins the story on its head. Wow I walked into it like falling through a trap door.

The chapters alternate between the detectives pursuit of the case to Jenna’s life — past and present — both of which I found enticing. Just a forewarning: the villain in the novel is truly disturbing, and the plot gets a bit crazy (or unbelievable?) near the end, but I had to see it through. I was impressed by “I Let You Go” as a thriller, which made for a captivating audio and is quite visual, particularly of the Welsh coast. I can see a movie being made of it. Have you read it?

Meanwhile there’s a lot of good fiction coming out in October. At least eight novels are on my radar, all of them by women this month, though I need to narrow down my picks. The first one I’m considering is a post-Civil War western called “News of the World” whose plot reminds me slightly of “True Grit’s.” It’s about two mismatched individuals who come together to make a long, arduous journey through Texas in the 1870s. This kind of story might not always appeal to me, but apparently “News of the World” is told with such heart that it’s gained a lot of high marks and popularity on Goodreads. So I will check it out. I could use a good western at this point.

Next up is Brit Bennett’s highly anticipated debut novel “The Mothers.” Set within a black community in Southern California, it’s about a teen romance — and the subsequent cover-up that results from it — that makes an impact that goes far beyond the protagonists’ youths. The novel has been called one of the most exciting debuts of the fall by various publications, and according to Amazon is a “powerful novel about motherhood, female friendship and finding love with a broken heart.” From all the hype I’ve read about the novel, count me in for it.

I’m also curious about Margaret Atwood’s forthcoming book “Hag-Seed” which is another in the Hogarth Shakespeare series that pairs eight of today’s authors with the retelling of Shakespeare works. While Anne Tyler’s recent book “Vinegar Girl” took on Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew,” Atwood’s latest is a remix of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” And from what I can tell, the plot of “Hag-Seed” appears to involve a clever play within a play of the story. The Hogarth series seems fun, and in the capable hands of Atwood, it’s likely her take on “The Tempest” is a real winner. So I need to check it out.

I will also likely pick up a copy of Madeleine Thien’s latest novel “Do Not Say We Have Nothing,” which has been shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize and the Giller Prize, and is an author I will hear at our city’s upcoming book festival. Her novel has been hailed as an “extraordinary” epic of recent Chinese history, which involves two generations of a Chinese family — those who lived through Mao’s Cultural Revolution and their children, who became the students protesting in Tiananmen Square. I’m keen about finding out more about this novel and trying out Thien’s writing. Apparently Thien is the daughter of Malaysian-Chinese immigrants who was born in Vancouver and now lives in Montreal.

Other novels out this month that might be of interest are: Maria Semple’s “Today Will Be Different,” Caroline Leavitt’s “Cruel Beautiful World,” Tana French’s “The Trespasser,” and Marcy Dermansky’s “The Red Car.” My, the month is jam-packed full of enticing new books.

As for October movies, I will definitely see “The Girl on the Train,” which I read in all its inebriated glory last year. The Paula Hawkins thriller surely took in a chunk of change since it was published in early 2015. I want to see how Emily Blunt handles Rachel Watson; she’s definitely not heavy, but she appears to accurately conjure the messed up Rachel. The trailer looks sufficiently crazy, so I’m sure it follows the book well. It seems to ask the pertinent question: what happened that night in the tunnel?! I don’t think it’ll match the movie of “Gone Girl,” but I am looking forward to it nonetheless. One needs a wacky thriller every once in awhile.

There’s also another “Jack Reacher” movie coming out as well as another Robert Langdon / Da Vinci Code follow up — “Inferno,” but I will likely wait to see those when they come on pay-per-view.

Though I likely plan to see “The Birth of a Nation” at a theater. It’s based on the true story of Nat Turner, a slave who led a rebellion in Virginia in 1831. It looks to be a powerful movie judging from the trailer, though it’s been mired in controversy lately due to the resurfaced 1999 rape charges against the filmmakers while at college, notably the director and lead actor Nate Parker.

The film apparently interjects a brutal fictional rape scene into it, for which it alludes is one of Nat Turner’s reasons for the rebellion. This has caused the victim’s sister from 1999 to respond in a recent column by writing: “Given what happened to my sister, and how no one was held accountable for it, I find this invention self-serving and sinister, and I take it as a cruel insult to my sister’s memory.” Yikes. It’s not exactly an issue I can forget now that I know about it.

Lastly for this month, there’s a lot of albums by popular artists coming out, such as Green Day, Kings of Leon, Bon Jovi, The Pretenders, Michael Buble, and Lady Gaga among others. That’s Gaga, people, you heard it right. I have no idea what her new album “Joanne” will sound like. It comes out Oct. 21. But I heard that Lady Gaga will be headlining next year’s Super Bowl. So there is a Gaga resurgence. Meanwhile I will pick Norah Jones’s latest album “Day Breaks” as my pick this month. I like her music. Enjoy.

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

Posted in Top Picks | 27 Comments

Everyone Brave Is Forgiven and Underground Airlines

Hi, I’m back now after a lovely trip to the Basque Country of northern Spain and southwestern France. Wow, what a great region. I will leave you with some photos of our visit, in which we met up with relatives and bicycled in the Rioja region and some of the western Pyrenees. Some of it was dry and windy wine country (hooray) and other parts were green and lush sheep-herding country (awesome).

Despite all we saw, I feel it was just the tip of the iceberg and there’s much more to explore for another time. Still I’m glad with what we managed to fit in on this excursion, which turned out great as well for catching up with siblings and in-laws. The weather was good at the start but then rained the last five days or so. It was a bit cooler and wetter than we expected but still warm enough to bicycle comfortably. Next time I plan to bring a better raincoat! That is key.

The last few days we were along the coast, looking upon the waves of the Atlantic Ocean. The city of Biarritz where we stayed for a night is known for it’s surfing. Unfortunately a storm greeted us there and we did not get much beach time. As George Costanza once said: “the sea was angry that day my friends.” But instead my hub and I took some nice walks under an umbrella, one of which was a few days later along the Camino del Norte pilgrimage trail in Spain, which in its entirety goes from San Sebastian to Santiago (about 825 km or 513 miles).

We hiked the trail for just a few hours from one beach town over a mountain to another. It was scenic and lovely, and has us considering whether we want to return sometime to hike more of it. I think so. But for now, we are back home, trying to adjust to jet lag and a time zone change of eight hours — as well as the imminent Canadian winter. I’m so confused. 🙂

While on the trip, I finished Chris Cleave’s WWII novel “Everyone Brave Is Forgiven” and the audiobook of Ben Winters’ novel “Underground Airlines.” Both of which came out this year and are pretty good. Here are my takes on each:

The main character of Cleave’s latest novel is a young socialite (Mary) who takes up teaching a small group of children in London who have been left behind from the evacuated school kids taken to the countryside at the onset of WWII. A few are mentally disabled and one is a black boy whose father performs in the racially typecast minstrel shows of the times. Socially, Mary begins a relationship with Tom, the education administrator who got her the job, but when she meets his roommate Alistair, home briefly from the war, something between them seems to develop. But then Alistair is sent back to serve on the island of Malta under siege from the Axis Powers, while Mary takes up driving ambulances (along with her friend Hilda) during the heavy bombing of the Blitz. All suffer greatly due to the war, and it’s not until the book’s end do you discover if Alistair and Mary, who’ve corresponded through letters all the while, get together, or if their lives are too shattered and changed at war’s end.

Oh it’s the usual suffering in a Chris Cleave book. If you’ve read his other novels “Incendiary” and “Little Bee,” you know his characters often endure terrible grief and human suffering. Though I liked those books, I wonder if I’m tiring of all the tragedy inflicted on his characters a bit. What is enticing is that the novel was inspired by the real letters the author’s grandparents wrote to one another during the war — apparently they had become engaged in 1941 and then didn’t see each other for three years until the end of the war. His grandmother had lived through the Blitz in London and his grandfather was stationed on Malta during the siege, both of which come to life and are quite vivid in the book. I had not read much about Malta in WWII before and it made me curious to look it up online to learn more, which I did.

I also found interesting that the novel brings up the minstrel shows, apparently of the times, which were a form of entertainment — basically skits that peddled in racial stereotypes. I had not thought too much about these before, or the unfortunate children who were left behind in London and not evacuated to the countryside. The themes, too, of forgiveness, fighting inequality, and conjuring what changes the war would bring were well done. On the whole, while I liked the novel, I didn’t overly love it. The story held my interest but the unevenness of the telling perhaps didn’t engross me in it as much as I had hoped. Some parts I found could’ve been sped up, other parts more developed. Still “Everyone Brave Is Forgiven” rang true for me with some poignant lines about living through such life-altering times.

A novel that gripped me more was Ben Winter’s latest thriller “Underground Airlines,” which likely is one of my favorite books of the year so far. I listened to it as an audiobook and was held by it every step of the way. Something about its narration and creativity reminded me a bit of the novel “Station Eleven,” which I had liked a lot last year. Though this book’s subject matter is quite different. It’s an alternative history story about a black man called Victor who’s a bounty hunter in a modern America that includes slave states as well as free states. (It’s a book that imagines the Civil War never happened, and what the U.S. would be like if it hadn’t.) Victor was once a slave but the government gave him the option of freedom by coercing him into finding runaway slaves and having them returned. But during one such case Victor finds himself in crisis over what he’s doing, and soon all hell breaks loose.

“Underground Airlines” is a thriller that’s provocative, riveting, and well done. It manages to speak to both America’s past (slavery) and present (racism) — and is a timely harsh critique of both. Yet it does it in such a way that is utterly fresh and compelling. I’ve never really been into novels that dwell on alternative history imaginings before, nor would I have thought a thriller would be among my best-of-year kind-of books, but this one proved its worth. My only slight criticism of it perhaps is that towards the end its story goes through quite a few twists — perhaps one too many for my liking. It doesn’t need that many — a reader can get a bit lost, but still on the whole I found the novel quite excellent. I haven’t read Ben Winters’s other novels, namely his “Last Policeman” trilogy, but since I liked this one quite a bit, I plan to read them in the future. I also want to check out Colson Whitehead’s highly praised recent novel “The Underground Railroad,” which is similar in its topic but with a different style.

Also last week my hub and I saw the movie “The Light Between the Oceans” and I thought it represented the book quite well. Usually I find movie adaptations don’t live up to the books they’re taken from but this one I thought was pretty close. The cinematography was wonderful and Michael Fassbender, as usual, was excellent. It’s a story that portrays such a tragic, difficult situation. You empathize with both sides, and the loss they go through feels brutal. I found watching it was squirm-worthy in parts.

What about you — have you read these books, or seen “The Light Between the Oceans” — and if so, what did you think?

Posted in Books | 18 Comments

The BFG and September Preview

Ahhh September. My favorite month of the year despite having to say goodbye to summer. It’s true it’s my birthday month, but I just like it because it’s usually a beautiful time of year (see photo at left). On Friday, the hub and I are headed on an overseas trip, which actually has been in the works since spring. We are going to the Basque Country — in the western Pyrenees that borders France and Spain, where we will meet up with relatives for an organized bike excursion. It should be interesting no doubt. I have not been to the region before, so I’m sure to take in an eye full. I will let you know how it goes once I get back in a couple weeks. On the plane, I plan to take Chris Cleave’s WWII novel “Everyone Brave Is Forgiven,” which I’m currently reading, as well as the audiobook of Ben Winter’s recent novel “Underground Airlines,” which is a work of alternative history that is quite a humdinger so far. Have you read either?

Before these, I finished the audiobook of Roald Dahl’s 1982 children’s book “The BFG,” which was fun. I needed something a bit charming after the heavy books in my last post. And indeed it was. I had missed the story when I was younger but wanted to find out what all the fuss was about over The Big Friendly Giant. Though apparently the recent movie of “The BFG” has been called one of Steven Spielberg’s rare flops because it took in 160 million globally but cost 140 million to make. Hmm. Not sure what made it a “flop,” but the book — about an orphan named Sophie who becomes friends with a Giant skilled in catching dreams and blowing them into the heads of others — is pretty endearing. I particularly enjoyed their trip to Buckingham Palace to win the Queen over to their plans to put an end to the deeds of the nine evil giants. While it may not be my favorite Dahl book of all time — that still goes to “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “Danny, the Champion of the World” — I’m still glad to finally have met The BFG. It was long overdue.

Meanwhile a lot of appealing September releases are coming out to fawn over and discuss. There’s new novels by two of my favorites Ann Patchett and Ian McEwan, which I’m psyched to get to, as well as new novels by Emma Donoghue, Jonathan Safran Foer, Ron Rash, and Herman Koch among others. But wait, I must narrow down my picks. For this month, I’ll go with four — two memoirs and two novels. It’s unusual that I include nonfiction in my monthly previews, but heck when you have John le Carre and Bruce Springsteen with rare books coming out, you have no choice!

Le Carre’s book “The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories From My Life” is one that has me curious. He seems so enigmatic; the British spy master was in the British Secret Service once upon a time, which later fueled his illustrious literary career. It’s my husband, not me, who has read almost all of his books and championed the master of the espionage thriller. But alas, some of that has rubbed off on me, and now I’m interested to read and find out what this secretive man has chronicled in his life story.

I also need to check out Bruce Springsteen’s upcoming 528-page autobiography “Born to Run.” Are you kidding me?! I’ve been a long-time fan of the Boss and saw my first Bruce concert in 1981 at the L.A. forum (I began following him in 1975 with the release of his third album “Born to Run.”) That night he came out on stage by himself and started into “Thunder Road” and I was forever transfixed. And I have remained so, seeing him with the E Street Band many times over the years. As you may know, the excitement of a live Bruce show is like nothing else. And while there’s been various biographies of him in the past, which I’ve read, this is the first book by Bruce himself. So I will not miss it. No way, no how. It’s like with Bob Dylan’s book “Chronicles,” you must get your hands on a copy as if you were in need of it yesterday.

As for novels this month, I’ll pick Amor Towles novel “A Gentleman in Moscow” since it’s received a lot of high praise and because I snapped up a copy at BookExpo America, and met the author there, who pleasantly signed the book for me. I’m a newbie to Towles and still plan to read his popular 2011 debut novel “Rules of Civility,” which many loved. His new novel is about a Russian count who is sentenced in 1922 to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. Apparently this count is a colorful character and the book includes quite a glittering cast. That’s about what I know of it so far, but Catherine over at The Gilmore Guide to Books has already devoured the novel and says it’s one of her favorites of the year. Hmm. So a Russian count it is!

Lastly in books, Affinity Konar’s novel “Mischling” is likely one I plan to check out soon. The author is coming to our city’s book festival in October and I want to read it in time for that. It’s a book that definitely involves a tough subject matter and one I’m admittedly in trepidation about. The story involves twin sisters struggling to survive in WWII and forced to take part in Nazi Josef Mengele’s horrific human experiments. Need I say more? It sounds truly nightmarish, though apparently it’s also a tale of great beauty and courage that has been highly praised by various authors including Anthony Doerr, Karen Russell, and David Wroblewski among others. I’m not sure if it’s my kind of story, but I will see what I think.

As for movies in September, I think there are two that I’m most interested to see. Of course, I can’t pass up Michael Fassbender in “The Light Between the Oceans.” Sure it’s a movie that’s likely a cry-fest — I read the book by M.L. Stedman, I remember it well — but with the lighthouse and landscape cinematography along with Fassbender, there’s no way I plan to miss it. This film includes an epic post-WWI tale of love, loss and sadness off the coast of Western Australia, so what are you waiting for?! Get thee to a theater and witness those dreamy eyes. (Not to disappoint anyone but Mr. Fassbender is off the table so to speak, as apparently he is in deep in real life with co-star Alicia Vikander. I guess it helps being a talented, not-shabby looking Swedish actress.)

The second movie I’m curious to see is “Sully,” starring Tom Hanks and directed by Clint Eastwood. Most remember the true story about the pilot who landed the disabled commercial plane on the Hudson River in 2009, saving all 155 aboard. It was the “Miracle on the Hudson.” The feat is sure to be riveting on the screen. But what many might not remember is that the pilots were grilled by investigators for months afterwards. The following hearings apparently play out in the movie. I’m thinking “Sully,” with Tom Hanks in the lead role, will likely be a winner, but don’t ask me about seeing it before my flights this month. Good grief I don’t need any new airplane nightmares.

Lastly for September there’s a lot of great artists with albums coming out, including Kristin Chenoweth, Dwight Yoakam, Van Morrison, and Bob Weir among others. I also plan to check out new albums by The Head and the Heart, as well as Passenger. But I have to go with Springsteen’s upcoming album “Chapter and Verse” as my top pick this month. It’s said to be the companion piece to his autobiography. Most of the 18 songs have been previously released on other albums, which I have, but there’s five tracks that have not been released before. To get my full fix of Bruce, I need to experience the book and audio together, right? Right.

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

Posted in Top Picks | 23 Comments

The Sympathizer and When Breath Becomes Air

On Saturday, somewhere across the middle of Canada at 38,000 feet up I victoriously finished Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Sympathizer.” I was on the plane returning from the Senior Tennis Nationals in Ottawa, which was competitive but good fun too. (See the clay courts at left.) I had spent a couple of weeks studying “The Sympathizer” and underlining its key passages. I’m sure one could write his or her dissertation on this novel about the Vietnam War and its aftermath. It’s that type of “important” book, one told from a Vietnamese perspective — on the other side of the war — that’s rarely ever heard.

Over the years I’ve read my share of Vietnam War and refugee stories and seen the American Vietnam War movies, but I haven’t experienced anything like this book, which holds all sides accountable. It’s unsparingly angry and satirical, especially towards the U.S. involvement in the war and American culture. In an interview at the back of the paperback, the author says he wanted “readers to be rattled by the book” and provoked to “rethink their assumptions about this history, and also about the literature they’ve encountered before.” Well no doubt he succeeded: I was rattled anew.

The novel is a bit unusual in that the entire story is told as a confession. The narrator is detailing what has transpired in his life and his thoughts to someone called the Commandant. You don’t really figure out everything about this and the Commandant until the book’s end. But needless to say, it’s a bit ominous. You wonder: what’s all this confession about?!

The Vietnamese narrator is a bit different too, he sees himself as a revolutionary who’s working at the end of the war for a South Vietnamese general, but he is secretly feeding information to the communists. He seems both humane and inhumane. On the one hand he’s utterly loyal and protective of the blood brothers he grew up with and fighting for the people, on the other, his actions to cover up his spying results in the deaths of innocent civilians.

The narrator’s story, you come to find out, is quite a journey. He barely escapes the fall of Saigon in 1975, only to join the General as a refugee in Los Angeles. There he continues to spy for the communists, passing along info on the General’s plan to mount a secret invasion via Thailand to get Vietnam back. Eventually this lands the narrator on a dangerous reconnaissance mission in Laos that results in scary repercussions.

Oh my! You won’t escape the war’s suffering in this book, or how it pulled people apart. It’s a story that lambastes U.S. imperialism, but it doesn’t absolve the communists or South Vietnamese either. There’s one section of the book that’s particularly satirical in which the narrator gets hired as a consultant on a Vietnam War movie called “The Hamlet” being filmed in the Philippines. On set, there’s an egomaniacal director and no speaking lines for the Vietnamese, represented in the film by Korean and Filipino actors. Need I say more? What follows is a dark spoof of what in reality is a takeoff of “Apocalypse Now.” Whoosh, it’s a must read.

In the end, I thought “The Sympathizer” was not exactly an easy book — it was dense in its delivery as one’s person confession without much in the way of dialogue or paragraph breaks. Its unbreaking text often stretched the length of a page. It was also confrontational (in a good way), upending assumptions about the war as it went along. But it was also a novel that had a lot of good lines in it and important things to say about ideology, identity, and the history of the war. By the end, my copy was completely marked up and underlined. I found “The Sympathizer” one of those rare, “big” books that comes out only once in every blue moon.

As an encore to that, I listened to the audiobook of Paul Kalanithi’s popular nonfiction book “When Breath Becomes Air,” which had finally come off hold at the library. Many know this is about a 36-year-old doctor’s battle with lung cancer, which he is diagnosed with during the last year of his residency to become a neurosurgeon.

Oh this is a sad book, but it’s told rather beautifully and matter-of-factly. From the story within, Paul seemed a very bright and outstanding person. After a decade worth of training, he was finally on the verge of becoming the doctor he had always wanted to be — only to receive such a horrendous diagnosis. How he finished his last year of residency while undergoing treatment — and managed to write this book too — is nothing short of miraculous. I found his battle with cancer and his efforts to help others very courageous.

Somehow I had mistakenly thought this book would be mostly about the choice he and his wife made to have a baby after he received his diagnosis. And though it touches on their decision and the baby, the book focuses mainly on Paul’s battle as well as his medical career. He details what made him want to become a doctor, his medical practice and his medical cases to quite an extent. (If you’re really squeamish about hospital stuff, just a slight warning.)

Although Paul didn’t get the chance to finish writing his book, his wife’s very well-done epilogue really brought his story together for me and also made me lose it. How very sad it is, but his story and battle are also strangely comforting and inspirational, too. I think others would benefit in reading or listening to Paul’s book. I’m sure I will think of him & his fight for a very long time.

Now I could use something happy and light next. What about you — have you read either of these books, and if so what did you think?

Posted in Books | 24 Comments

Late Summer and Us

I have been MIA lately on the blog, but that’s not too unusual in the late stages of a busy summer. I’m still riveted to watching the Olympics, too. Tomorrow I’m flying to Ottawa to participate in the Senior Tennis Nationals, which divides competition into age groups. Hey, who are you calling senior?! I’m sure it will be fun with the friends I am going with.

While on the plane, I will continue on with reading Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Sympathizer.” I’ve reached Page 200, and I’m underlining sentences in it with a black pen. It reminds me of one of those war or foreign policy novels (such as “The Ugly American” and “Catch-22”) that you read in university English or History class and have to come up with a profound and coherent essay discussing. It’s a book that’s pretty critical of the U.S. no doubt. So far it’s interesting but not exactly a summer read, if you get my drift. (It makes me slightly wonder if my book club might shoot me over assigning it during the summer vacation season.) But I will see what happens in “The Sympathizer” …. and get back to you on it. The narrator is quite unusual — an atypical truthsayer of sorts.

Meanwhile I lightened things up by finishing the audiobook of British author David Nicholls’s 2014 novel “Us.” This one seems to fit the category of a fun summer read, though I was surprised to see that it was actually long-listed for the Man Booker Prize a couple years back. Huh, are you kidding me?! Nicholls is definitely popular after his novel “One Day” was such a success in England. I haven’t read it, but I did see bits of the movie of it on cable. It was a relationship kind of flick, with Anne Hathaway — you might recall, where she and a guy she knew check in with each other on the same date of each year to see where they are in their lives. Hmm, what a ploy …. hasn’t something similar been done before?

On the other hand, Nicholls’s novel “Us” is also a relationship-kind of novel about a wife (Connie) who tells her husband (Douglas) that she is thinking of leaving their marriage after 25 plus years. Still they decide to take one final European trip together along with their 17-year-old son, Albie. Douglas, who narrates the story, hopes that during the trip that he can change his wife’s mind not to leave him, and that he can get closer to his son, too.

It’s a novel whose story and characters didn’t initially appeal to me — the scope of it is meandering at first — the wife Connie is an artist and Douglas is a nerdy scientist. They are opposites in various ways — she is passionate and a bit flaky and he is uptight and practical. Their teenage son is moody and problematic and doesn’t see eye to eye with his dad. The story jumps back and forth between the present day and the days of when Douglas first met Connie. Yada yada yada. The characters can at times be annoying.

But somewhere during their family European vacation, which goes terribly awry, the story and characters grew on me as things became more humorous and endearing. Oh it’s supposed to be Douglas’s Grand Tour for his family of Paris, Venice, Amsterdam, Florence and Rome. But it doesn’t exactly turn out that way. Oh the troubles of the modern family! Pretty soon Albie, the son, wants to pack it in and goes missing, the wife heads home, and Douglas is off on a trek across Europe to find wherever Albie went. So much for winning over his family.

“Us” is pretty amusing at times. I especially liked the wacky Kat Kilgore, the New Zealand busker whom they meet in Amsterdam and befriends Albie. She made me laugh. I also liked their misadventures and the European stops along the way. There’s some good culture and descriptions in the book. I felt for Douglas, who desperately tries to make things right with those he loves. I probably would’ve edited the book a bit shorter; it’s sort of an exhaustive read with these characters. You spend so much time traveling with them. And I can’t say that I liked the ending too too much. It was a bit perplexing after all of that. But still on the whole I enjoyed “Us” and found it quite entertaining.

It’s another novel that touches on marriage, which reminds me of Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel “The Marriage Plot” and Lauren Groff’s “Fates and Furies,” both of which I found interesting. Hmm what other similar books am I missing?

How about you — have you read “Us” or other similarly themed books, and if so what did you think?

Posted in Books | 24 Comments

The Olympics and Shelter

It was a busy weekend. I was away competing at a provincial tennis tournament, which I won at the 5.0 level — my second tournament win of the summer. It’s quite a wonderful surprise in middle age as I can’t recall winning anything like this since my youth. So hooray. I must be doing something right recently. I arrived home and pretty soon became consumed with watching the Olympics. It’s addicting stuff and a refreshing change from the political campaign circus. I’m constantly flicking channels to see the various sports, particularly swimming, gymnastics, tennis, soccer, volleyball, and late in the week track and field will start. I won’t miss it.

Meanwhile this week I’m starting Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Sympathizer,” which I assigned for my book club to read and discuss in September. Thanks to Judy at Keep the Wisdom for her enthusiastic review of it earlier this year. I don’t know if it will be a challenging read (it doesn’t seem to have much dialogue), and being sort of slow, I need to get into it pronto. I’ve also started the audiobook of Kevin Kwan’s novel “China Rich Girlfriend,” which seems like a catty satirical romp. Hopefully it’ll be a fun book for late summer. Have you read either of these?

Meanwhile last week I finished Jung Yun’s debut novel “Shelter,” which JoAnn over at Lakeside Musing had recently really liked. I didn’t know what to expect going in to it, but soon found out it’s about a 36-year-old Korean biology professor (Kyung) living in suburban Boston with his wife and 4-year-old son — and his parents who he takes into his home after a horrific crime takes place at their house. Kyung has had quite a rough past with his parents from his childhood (which includes domestic violence) so taking them in proves to be very tension-filled. Making it more complex, Kyung and his wife are severely in debt and his parents are wealthy, which he wants no part of. While the criminal case is being pursued, Kyung’s anger and emotions with his parents living at his house comes to a head, and what follows includes some wrenching twists and secrets along the way that kept me pretty glued to the book’s ending.

I found “Shelter” to be captivating in an understated way — it simmers beneath the surface until, like any good suspense story, it boils over at the end. I thought it was very well done, although the story might not appeal to everyone. The main character Kyung is a pretty unhappy person, seemingly on the verge of a breakdown with hang-ups from his childhood and house bills he can’t pay. And the tone of the story is rather grim and a bit graphic involving the crime. It’s unsettling for sure — a family drama in which a man struggles to come to terms with his relationship to his parents — and how he wants to be with his own son. It’s a novel, too, that touches on cultural differences of immigrants in the U.S., and how the American Dream of home ownership is no guarantee for happiness. Like Celeste Ng’s novel “Everything I Never Told You,” which also touches on ethnicity issues in the U.S., “Shelter” left me pondering its themes and story long after its last pages.

What about you — have you read this novel, or are you watching the Olympics — and if so what do you think?

Posted in Books | 22 Comments

August Preview

I didn’t get much reading done this past week as life was busy, but I did finish the audiobook of Michael Koryta’s 2014 crime thriller “Those Who Wish Me Dead,” which is about a boy who witnessed a murder and is on the run from the killers. Instead of a witness protection program, the boy is placed “off the grid” into a wilderness survival program for troubled teens, which is run by an expert in the remote Beartooth Mountains of Montana. But it’s not long before the ruthless bad guys find out where the boy is, and try to flush him out by starting a major wildfire.

Oh there are some scary scenes in this, and the Blackwell Brothers are two murderous brutes. I liked the survivalist aspects of the book and the chase up the mountain to the fire lookout tower and beyond. There’s some suspenseful action and twists along the way. The characters, too, are quite well realized and interesting to follow, especially the man who runs the wilderness program and his wife who try to save the boy, along with the girl who mans the desolate fire tower and excels as a firefighter. My only quibble with the story was that the plot seemed a bit unbelievable in spots — particularly that these killers were so concerned about this one boy witness while leaving themselves open to other witnesses along the way. The killers were brutes who didn’t exactly hide themselves — I’d hope law enforcement would be on to them sooner! For all of our sakes.

Meanwhile it’s August and I’m hanging on to summer for as long as I possibly can. I wasn’t sure there would be much notable fiction out this month, but indeed there is. First off, Eowyn Ivey’s second novel “To the Bright Edge of the World” is on my radar as I’m a sucker for expedition / adventure kinds of books set in the 1800s. This one is about a war hero’s expedition with a small band of men up the Wolverine River into Alaska’s northern interior with the intent of collecting data for future enterprises. Oh I can tell it’s going to be a harrowing journey. Publishers’ Weekly says the novel is an “entrancing, occasionally chilling depiction of turn-of-the-century Alaska,” which captures its “beauty and brutality, not just preserving history, but keeping it alive.” Count me in for this one, especially since I missed Ivey’s popular debut novel “The Snow Child” from 2012, which I still hope to devour in the future.

Next up I’m eyeballing Tim Murphy’s debut novel “Christodora” since it’s been receiving a lot praise for vividly recapturing New York in the 1980s and ‘90s during the AIDS epidemic. Amazon calls it a “spellbinding” novel that revolves around an East Village apartment building (the Christodora) whose tenants (particularly a bohemian family) bear witness to the ever changing city through the decades. Author Hanya Yanagihara says it’s an “impassioned, big-hearted, and ultimately hopeful chronicle of a changing New York that authoritatively evokes the despair and panic in the city at the height of the plague.” I’m no New Yorker but from the praise I’ve read about it, the “Christodora” seems worth checking out.

Another New York novel out this month — Jacqueline Woodson’s “Another Brooklyn” looks enticing to me as well. Publishers’ Weekly says “Woodson…combines grit and beauty in a series of stunning vignettes, painting a vivid mural of what it was like to grow up African-American in Brooklyn during the 1970s.” Woodson, who won the National Book Award for her memoir-in-verse book “Brown Girl Dreaming,” apparently has a spare but beautiful poetic writing style, which I’m looking forward to in this coming-of-age story about four best friends in Brooklyn. I have not explored Woodson’s many young adult and children’s books in years past, but I’ve heard such impressive things. It’s about time I checked out her work.

And because the Olympics are about to start I likely can’t pass up Giuseppe Catozzella’s Italian bestselling novel “Don’t Tell Me You’re Afraid” based on the real life story of 21-year-old Olympic runner Samia Yusuf Omar of Somali who competed in the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and set off on a grueling migrant journey across Africa and the Mediterranean Sea in 2012, with her sights on freedom and competing in the London Games. Ugh, I hear this novel is truly heartbreaking and tough to read in sections as Samia travels as an exiled refuge through Ethiopia, Sudan, and Libya. Kirkus Reviews says “The first-person narrative … gives the story a spirit and urgency that readers won’t easily forget. Catozzella’s novel is both an intimate portrait of a heroic young woman and a disturbing look at the horrors many migrants face today.” I’m afraid about it already…

If that’s too much for you, you might want to pick up a totally escape read such as Jay McInerney’s novel “Bright, Precious Days” about a marriage tested by an affair — and New York during the looming days of the economic collapse. I met McInerney at BEA this year, which was pretty cool after liking his debut novel “Bright Lights, Big City” so many years ago. He was a star author back then, remember? I also read his novels “Brightness Falls” and “The Good Life” both of which feature the same characters (Russell and Corrine Calloway) as does this latest novel. Oh theirs is a pretty juicy marriage, one of true love that at times hits the rocks. How can I stop now? I must see the Calloways through. If not them, then I’ll likely plunge into Rae Meadows’s new novel “I Will Send Rain” about a woman fighting for her family’s survival in the early years of the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma. This book’s storms are sure to leave dirt and sand in your mouth. I hear it’s the real deal.

As for movies in August, I couldn’t find much that I really want to see. Of course, there’s the new Meryl Streep movie, highlighting the life of “Florence Foster Jenkins” — an American heiress who wanted to become an opera singer despite having a terrible singing voice. Granted, I’m a bit curious about the history of Florence who I didn’t know about before this, but I’m not sure about the movie. I do think the movie “Anthropoid,” based on the true WWII mission to assassinate SS General Reinhard Heydrich, the main architect of the Final Solution, seems compelling. I don’t recall knowing much about this top-secret plot in history, but the trailer for this movie looks quite hair-raising, and the real-life outcome affected things in Europe forever, so count me in.

Speaking of movies, I finally saw “Me Before You,” the adaptation of Jojo Moyes’s 2012 novel about a quadriplegic man and the woman who becomes his caretaker, which came out earlier this year. Despite my apprehensions and doubts about seeing the movie, I thought it followed the novel quite well and hit the right notes of the book without being too fluffy or ridiculous. It treads a fine line on that and quality of life issues the man faces. Surprisingly the actors seemed to fit the characters quite well. I was won over by them. Overall the movie met my expectations and wasn’t overly blubbery, though it’s a love story that raises some thought-provoking questions. It’s a bit charming and touching but not overly intense.

As for albums coming out in August, I didn’t see many worth checking out — though there’s new ones by Ingrid Michaelson, and Dolly Parton, which could be interesting. But I think I’ll try Amos Lee’s new album “Spirit” for my pick this month.

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

Posted in Books, Top Picks | 22 Comments