Dabbling and Boundless

I’ve always been a monogamous reader. I read one book at a time while giving it all my attention. I know it sounds pretty boring, right? But I thought it helped with my focus and speed of the book at hand. However just this week while I was slowed in the middle of a nonfiction book, I picked up both a novel and an audiobook. And voila, I became a multi-book reader. Not only was I breezing through a couple newspapers a day, but I was also dabbling in three books at once. Ohh it was nice! How did I not do this before?! My focus seemed undeterred, and even felt heightened, and my speed had me moving through three books at a good pace instead of languishing in one. I was able to finish the nonfiction that had dropped off for me, which was a relief. I plan to continue on with reading one nonfiction book, one novel, and listening to one audiobook at a time. I think it might be the right mix to keep things moving. How about you — are you a monogamous or polygamous reader? And how has it worked for you?

This week I finished Kathleen Winter’s 2014 nonfiction book “Boundless: Tracing Land and Dream in a New Northwest Passage.” I had liked Winter’s last book, a 2010 novel called “Annabel,” about an intersex child that is raised in a remote coastal town in Labrador, which was shortlisted for the Giller Prize. She’s an English-Canadian author who signed a copy of “Boundless” for me at our city’s book festival last fall.

The book is about a two-week summer journey Kathleen Winter took in 2010 through the storied Northwest Passage. She went aboard a ship with many others including marine scientists, historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists. With them, she visits Greenland, Baffin Island, and all along the passage, noting what it’s like in the far North and the changes going on there. It’s a travelogue of what she sees and what she learns from other passengers, a couple of whom she bonds with have Inuit backgrounds. Her book also delves a bit into her personal life and journey: emigrating from England to Canada as a child, becoming a widow with a child from her first marriage, and having another daughter in her second marriage.

“Boundless” had all the ingredients I thought I would love: part travelogue of an intriguing place, and part memoir of a successful author. Are you kidding? How many Arctic and Antarctic explorers’ books had I read over the years? A handful on Shackleton alone and a number of others as well. Gosh I was envious of Kathleen Winter going on a voyage like that. Darn her, I don’t think it even cost her much because she was the writer-in-residence onboard, but normally it’d have cost a sizable chunk of money to go. I’d need to win the lottery.

Till then it’d be Kathleen Winter’s book. And while I liked “Boundless,” it wasn’t as great as I thought or hoped it would be. It seemed uneven, some parts were quite interesting and other parts not so much. I got the gist of her outlook of trying to view things not in terms of the White Male Explorers and their northern conquests, but more in terms of the land and the Inuits or Natives. She does talk about Sir John Franklin’s lost 1845 expedition to find the Northwest Passage, especially since their ship follows his route, but her focus seems to be more on the land and Natives along the way and their cultural ways and words, which was interesting but also seemed in glimpses.

In general the book came off more as her impressions or reflections while in the North. I guess I was looking for it to be a little more substantial. It felt a bit flimsy in parts, or dreamy, as she tries to describe throughout how it feels being at one with the environment, how the land affected her, or what conversations she was having with other passengers. The book was okay but I wanted or expected more. Still many on Goodreads rated it high, and I think it would appeal to nature readers among others.

How about you — have you read any great travelogues, or natural history kinds of books? If so what were they and what did you think?

Audiobooks and Long Man

I don’t often listen to audiobooks although it’s not because I don’t like them. I do. It’s just that I’m either not in one place long enough (I don’t have a long commute), or I don’t have a system worked out of listening to the endless hours behind them. There are remnants of audiobooks I’ve started (five discs in, five more to go) that I have not finished over the years. Perhaps I could remedy this by listening more to audiobooks on my iPod while gardening and dog walking.

I find audios enjoyable but also different for me than reading books. I either experience them differently, or focus differently, or use different muscles :-). Sometimes I worry I’ll miss small details if they’re spoken and not in print, or else I’ll lose my place when I put an audio aside. For various reasons I guess I much prefer reading over audios but every once in a while I’ll treat myself to listening to a production of a good narrator breathing life into a novel. What are your thoughts on audiobooks? Do you find them as effective as reading books? When do find the time to listen to them? And do they count in your book totals?

Last week I (finally) finished the audio of Amy Greene’s 2014 novel “Long Man,” which we had started in June while driving to Glacier Park in Montana. It consisted of just 9 CD discs but somehow those seemed to last a lifetime. Still I was transfixed at times to the story and actress Dale Dickey’s voice who told it. She was the perfect narrator with her Tennessee accent where the story is set and by giving all the characters such an emotional authenticity.

The novel takes place over a few days in 1936 as the government plans to dam the Long Man River in East Tennessee and flood a small Appalachian town to bring electricity and jobs to the region. Just a few holdouts remain, notably Annie Clyde Dodson, who wants to keep her family’s mountaintop farm and is protesting the power company from driving her out. But as the deadline looms for her to leave, a storm rages and her three-year-old daughter, Gracie, goes missing.

Did Gracie drown amid the rising river, or did Amos, a drifter who’s returned home to wreak havoc on the government’s plans, take her? You won’t know till the very end. But meanwhile the book is quite a bit more than just the one storyline. It’s very descriptive and goes into the whole Appalachian town and community and what’s happened to it during Depression times.

There’s various characters, too, that the story gets into the heads of, namely Annie Clyde, and her husband James Dodson, her aunt Silva, Amos the drifter, and the woman who raised him, the town’s sheriff, and the man from the power company. It takes a little while to keep them all straight, but including them all infuses the story with a fuller picture of it from various angles. Just a few times I wanted to clobber the ever-stubborn and at times crazy Annie Clyde for not getting out and saving her family before the flood. Though she doesn’t seem to listen.

Still I’m quite amazed by author Amy Greene’s gift for storytelling and writing in “Long Man.” The amount of detail she uses in itself is luminous. I haven’t read her first novel “Bloodroot,” which was highly praised as well, but I’m thinking I need to. Surely no one paints a more thorough picture of East Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains and its characters than Amy Greene does in her books. She’s from there, and packs a wallop in everything she describes. I thought the suspense in “Long Man” was pretty good too, though at times all I wanted was the story to get back to finding out where the child went. Did the river swallow her or not? I listened long and hard to the audio to find out and was rewarded with an interesting and fulfilling ending. Now I will eagerly await whatever book Amy Greene does next.

What about you have you read either of Amy Greene’s books, and if so what did you think? Or what are your thoughts about audiobooks?

Watchman and Mockingbird

Yes, Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” is out Tuesday and the Twitter-sphere is awash with the news that Atticus Finch is now a racist who once attended a Klan meeting etc. When I read Michiko Kakutani’s New York Times review of it on Friday I just about fell out of my chair. I couldn’t believe it. I about gagged. Obviously I wasn’t expecting Atticus to be turned into a racist and Jem to be dead in the new book. I’m not sure what I expected but surely it wasn’t a complete reversal of things in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Just last week I reread “To Kill a Mockingbird” to get myself ready for the new book. I revisited Jem, Scout, Dill, Atticus, Calpurnia, Boo Radley, and the small town of Maycomb, Alabama in the 1930s, and I thought the novel held up from when I read it in school. Scout as the six-year-old narrator is funny but sincere. She’s a tomboy who butts heads with authority and gets into fights at school with name-callers. I identified with her when I was younger. So many did. Atticus, too, was someone you looked up to. He stood for equal rights, justice and being a devoted father. He was a lawyer, defending Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of rape against a white woman. It wasn’t an easy time; the story is set in the Deep South during the Depression and times of racial inequality.

As soon as I finished the book, I rewatched the 1962 film of it, with Gregory Peck as Atticus. I had to see if everything was the same. The film condenses the book but maintains the essentials and keeps the ending. But while the novel deals more with the daily life and adventures of Scout and Jem in Maycomb, the film focuses more on Atticus and Tom Robinson’s trial. I mean if you had Gregory Peck for the role, wouldn’t you? Gregory Peck is Atticus, or was to me. The kid actors are wonderful too; I still laugh at Dill. The characters in the book are so relatable, and who hasn’t come upon a Boo Radley house or person? The story long ago had sunk into the American psyche, and I made myself familiar upon this second reading with even its smallest details.

And now — somehow — I need to wrap my head around everything surrounding Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman.” I’ve calmed down a bit since my initial reaction a few days ago. I must say since I just read “Mockingbird” and have good feelings from that, I feel less inclined to read “Watchman” right away. If Atticus is a racist and the story is a bit of a mess (from what I hear of the second half), do I really want to go down that path immediately?

I’m aware that apparently “Watchman” was a prototype or an early draft of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” though “Watchman” picks up the characters’ lives 20 years later. It’s hard to even reconcile how this early draft morphed into the eventual classic “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which indicted racism and became associated with the civil rights movement.

For now I’ll look at these novels as two separate creations of Lee’s. It seems she explored ways in which she sought to write her narrative — first, as an adult in New York coming home to a segregated South — and second as a child who hadn’t left her hometown yet. I sort of see the two Atticuses as separate people in the two books, and not one and the same person. (Maybe that’s just my way to deal with how opposite Atticus is in “Watchman” from “Mockingbird” — a transformation that obviously is bizarre and bewildering to so many.) If Lee’s goal was to write about the racial injustices she grew up with, the narratives in the “Watchman” and “Mockingbird” are definitely two different ways of doing it.

I still plan to read “Go Set a Watchman” but maybe not while “To Kill a Mockingbird” is so fresh in my mind. I’m curious about Lee’s theme of the alienation of a daughter returning home — as apparently, the main conflict in “Watchman” is Scout’s struggle in coming to terms with a father who is not who she believed he was. This could be an interesting theme — or then maybe not — if it fails to compel or is not done well.

Though many believe “Watchman” will forever change how we read or view “To Kill a Mockingbird” and Harper Lee, I still value the 1960 version for what it is on the page and the story it portrays.

What about you — what do you think about the two books and will you be reading “Go Set a Watchman”?

Tiny Little Thing and Suite Francaise

Happy 4th of July weekend to all those in the U.S. I hope you enjoyed some fireworks and barbecues. We had a nice Canada Day here on July 1, hiking in the mountains, see photo at left. On Sunday, we plan to go for a bike ride and then watch the U.S. women’s soccer team hopefully win the World Cup against defending champs, Japan. Go team!

Meanwhile this week, I did some “beach” reading, though I live no where near the ocean. I wanted to lighten things up with a good summer read, so I snapped up an e-copy of Beatriz Williams’s latest novel “Tiny Little Thing” from the publisher via NetGalley.

This is the first book I’ve read by this author, and though it was fine, I wasn’t overly taken with it. Maybe I had heard so much about this author and how her novel “A Hundred Summers” is a favorite beach read of so many people that I was expecting beach magic. Or alas, maybe this genre of fiction isn’t exactly my cup of tea? Would you call it commercial historical fiction or historical romantic fiction or something else? Whichever, I have a feeling that Williams’ fans, despite any of my misgivings — I am likely in the minority here — will like this novel just as well.

Set in the 1960s, “Tiny Little Thing” is about a woman (Christina “Tiny” Schuyler) who thinks she’s doing the right thing by marrying Frank Hardcastle, a man from a wealthy Cape Cod family who’s apparently destined for political greatness. He’s running for Congress and Tiny is the perfect “trophy” wife. They make an attractive power couple and have a promising future.

But as the campaign gets underway, various occurrences lead Tiny to doubt her life’s direction and the relationship with her husband. Her volatile sister arrives for a visit, as well as her husband’s cousin, Caspian, who became close to Tiny two years before. Tiny’s also being blackmailed by somebody who has incriminating photos of her. It appears everyone has a secret of some sort which plays out toward the end.

The characters felt a bit dopey to me in this “Mad Men”-era tale, but after awhile enough was happening to keep me going. I typically like political novels, and this one had a Kennedy-esque feel of a privileged wealthy family gone wrong. “Tiny Little Thing” was all right as a beach read — I liked how Tiny questions her identity of always having to be the good girl and doing what’s right because of her family’s expectations — but I felt the story seemed sort of contrived at times with not a great deal of depth.

I didn’t realize it’s one of three novels by Beatriz Williams about the Schuyler sisters — the first being “The Secret Life of Violet Grant” about Vivian Schuyler, then there’s “Tiny Little Thing” about older sister Tiny, and in November the last one will be about sister Pepper Schuyler called “Along the Infinite Sea.” I probably just need to go back sometime and read Williams’s bestseller “A Hundred Summers,” which everyone seems to talk about.

Meanwhile our small artsy theater in town is playing the film “Suite Francaise,” which we enjoyed seeing last night. Do you remember the novel of it by Irène Némirovsky, which was published in France in 2004 and became an international bestseller? It’s incredible that the story was written during the Occupation of France in 1940 and ’41 and was only read and published by the author’s daughter some fifty or sixty years later. Nemirovsky tragically died at Auschwitz in 1942, but her writing carried on and made quite a mark.

In the film, American actress Michelle Williams plays Lucile Angellier, a French villager who’s husband has gone off to fight in the war. Lucile lives with her well-off mother-in-law (played by Kristin Scott Thomas) who’s a landlord of several properties. As Germany takes over, they are billeted with a German soldier who shows them kindness. Over time, Lucile and the soldier start to fall for one another, but harsh wartime events intercede.

It reminded me a little of the recent novel “All the Light We Cannot See,” since it involves a young French villager and a German soldier, but “Suite Francaise” takes place earlier in the Occupation and is more involved in ways. You get an idea of how villagers snitched on one another, stole, and did what was necessary to stay alive under the scary circumstances. It’s a pretty powerful movie with a bit of action that’ll put you on edge. I didn’t realize this important book had been made into a movie, but I’m glad it did. It broadens my horizons once again on WWII events and made me feel the humanness of people even under war.

What about you, have you seen or read “Suite Francaise” and what did you think? Or what did you think of “Tiny Little Thing” or other Beatriz Williams’s novels?

July Preview

Taking a cue from Laurel over at the blog Rainy Days and Mondays, my hub and I set out last week to see the small, slice-of-life movie “I’ll See You in My Dreams.” It’s definitely the opposite of the action blockbuster fare that is out nowadays for summer, but in that way we found it to be a refreshing change.

As its distributor, Bleecker Street, puts it: “I’ll See You in My Dreams” is about a widow and former songstress, Carol, played by Blythe Danner, who’s everyday activities lose their luster after her beloved dog passes away. With the support of friends, she decides to branch out socially, starting an unlikely friendship with her pool maintenance man, going on dates with a new love interest, and reconnecting with her faraway daughter.

“I’ll See You in My Dreams” is a heartfelt, touching movie about people who feel their lives are lacking in purpose and feel pushed aside. Though it’s geared toward older audiences, it won’t only appeal to retirees. Blythe Danner, of course, really makes the movie, and does one heck of a job singing “Cry Me a River” at karaoke. I’ve always liked her in movies. I’m sure many know her from “Meet the Fockers,” but I remember her more from “Prince of Tides” in 1991 and “The Great Santini” in 1979. She always seems to play the shafted wife, which she does very well, but this time she’s a bit different in this leading role.

Anyways, I’m sure “I’ll See You in My Dreams” is not for everyone. There’s not a lot of action or drama in it and it’s a bit slower paced. But though it may seem to be simply a glimpse into an older woman’s life, it has some laughs and just the right ingredients that make for an uplifting and delightful movie. So catch it if you’re so inclined.

Besides that, I’ve been caught up in watching the Women’s World Cup soccer, which is going on throughout Canada now. The games are getting pretty close so I’m sure it’ll come down to the wire on who will win the final on July 5. I’ve been pulling for the USA and Canada, but then England had to rain on that parade by beating the host country. Still, go USA!! Then of course there’s Wimbledon, which starts this week and will trap me, too, for a couple of weeks.

But it’s not a bad way to start July. It’s hot here! Hot and dry in the West. We could use some rain. In looking ahead to books out this month, the most hotly anticipated one of course is Harper Lee’s newly discovered novel “Go Set a Watchman,” due out on July 14. Need I say more? Atticus, Scout and Jem. GET thee a COPY. I plan to reread Lee’s classic TKAMB (better known as “To Kill a Mockingbird”) before that date so I’ll be ready.

I also plan to grab Paula McLain’s new historical novel “Circling the Sun,” set in colonial Kenya of the 1920s, about record-setting aviator Beryl Markham. Are you kidding me? Ever since I read Markham’s book “West With the Night,” (one of my all-time favorites), I’ve been a huge fan of anything Beryl Markham. So this new book is very welcomed. Undoubtedly Markham was a complex person, who had a slew of love affairs; she also was a racehorse trainer, and one of the first bush pilots in Africa before becoming the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west. As Jojo Moyes says of Markham, she was: “a woman who persistently broke the rules, despite the personal cost. She’s a rebel in her own time, and a heroine for ours.” Well said.

Lastly in books out in July, Shannon over at the blog River City Reading sparked my interest to get “The Last Pilot,” a debut by Benjamin Johncock set during the early days of the Space Race about a test pilot who’s family faces a sudden tragedy that haunts them and strains his marriage. Shannon says it’s “wonderful but also incredibly heartbreaking,” which has me thinking since I just read the saddish novel “Everything I Never Told You” maybe I should hold off and pick up something a bit happier and summery —

— such as William Finnegan’s memoir “Barbarian Days: a Surfing Life,” which could be a perfect read during this hot weather month. Finnegan’s a staff writer at The New Yorker, and this memoir is about his addiction to surfing and his lifelong adventures, chasing waves all over the world. It seems like an interesting read, and maybe could shed some light on my youth at the beaches in California.

As for movies in July, there’s another “Terminator” and “Mission Impossible” coming out, as well as another “Magic Mike.” All of which I won’t see. There’s also a new Woody Allen film called “Irrational Man” with Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone, and a movie adaptation of John Green’s book “Paper Towns.” Do you plan to see it? I’m still looking, however, for something I can sink my teeth into, perhaps Jake Gyllenhaal’s upcoming boxing film “Southpaw” will do the trick. It looks rough and down-and-out and Jake is ripped for the role. I might be sorry later but for now it’s my pick of the month.

Lastly in new albums for July, I don’t see much coming out. Singers and songwriters are already busy on the road playing concerts and summer festivals. But I do like Jason Isbell, the former member of the Drive-By-Truckers who has his fifth solo album coming out. So I’ll pick Isbell’s new album “Something More Than Free” as my pick this month.

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

Everything I Never Told You

Last weekend, the Hub and I drove to Glacier National Park in Montana, staying for a few days to celebrate our anniversary. It’s a beautiful place where we love to bicycle and hike. The Going-to-the-Sun Road, which winds through Glacier Park for about 52 miles, is an awesome journey that makes its way over the Continental Divide at Logan Pass at 6,646 feet.

Near the top, the road narrows and tightly clings to the mountainside while taking you around some high tight turns. It’s a ride in places that’s not exactly for the faint of heart (like me). If you’ve ever seen the movie “The Shining,” the opening scenes and aerial shots are of this epic road, which sets the movie’s beginning perfectly, both for being isolated and a little ominous.

Luckily our trip didn’t include any spooky moments like those in “The Shining.” I did not run into Danny talking about “redrum” or see any twins in the corridors of our lodge. Thank goodness. Instead check out the photo at left of Lake McDonald, which is serene and beautiful and along which we lodged and spent most of our time. Just don’t fall in. I’m sure it’d be rather chilly.

While there, I read Celeste Ng’s 2014 highly acclaimed debut novel “Everything I Never Told You,” which I picked for my book club to read and discuss after the novel was selected on many best-of lists last year. Perhaps I’m one of the last bloggers to read this quite sad but notable book? Luckily it generated a good discussion last night at book club. I think it’s because it delves into various issues that are still relevant today and consists of some characters and drama that can be argued over for quite a good long gathering.

It’s not giving anything away to say “Everything I Never Told You” is about a teenage girl (Lydia) who goes missing and is found drown in the local lake. That’s at the beginning of the book. The rest of it goes back in time, gradually laying out how she got there and why she died.

Set in a small Ohio town in the 1970s, the story explores Lydia’s close ties within her Chinese-American family who all feel like outsiders in their Midwest community. It delves into her parents’ backgrounds (her mother’s unachieved dreams of becoming a doctor, her dad’s humble and unpopular youth as a son of immigrant workers) and the views of her older brother and younger sister who are often ignored. In her parents’ eyes, Lydia is the favorite child who gets all the attention and is expected to achieve the unfulfilled dreams that they did not.

It’s an intense little book (292 pages) of an unraveling family and is a quick read. The author seems a natural, getting into the heads and backgrounds of all, while the pages flip by easily. It’s a sad and tragic story. Everyone in the family fails to communicate truthfully with one another, keeping secrets that ultimately have such regrettable consequences. I liked the many issues that this book touches upon which felt real to me, namely: the pressures kids and parents put each other through; women’s roles in society and unfulfilled dreams; being an outsider and feelings of inadequacy for those of mixed-race ethnicities — and on the flip side of that — the whole stifling, homogenized world of 1970s small-town America is effectively displayed in the book.

It’s agonizing at times how aggravating the characters can be and how suffocating the setting is. If only they would do this and this and this! — you think. But no, they don’t. Still you feel compelled by where their lives have taken them. You sympathize. It’s impossible not to. Despite whatever your minor quibbles, you must hear this novel out. For a slim debut, I felt it packed a lot of issues in. I’ll definitely be looking for whatever novel author Celeste Ng puts out next.

What about you have you read “Everything I Never Told You,” and if so what did you think?

All the Light We Cannot See

Wow the trailer to “The Martian” came out this week and Matt Damon is Mark Watney! For those who read Andy Weir’s 2014 bestselling book, you know what I’m talking about … The red planet. The astronaut left behind. The rescue plans he comes up with. With Ridley Scott directing, the movie adaptation, coming out at Thanksgiving time, is going to rock! I reviewed the novel “The Martian” in April 2014 and was sure it’d make a heck of a movie. I just didn’t realize how quickly it would be made. Check out the preview

and let me know what you think.

Also this past week, congrats to Scottish author Ali Smith for winning the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction for her 2014 novel “How to Be Both,” which the New York Times describes as “an innovatively structured novel about a young girl in modern-day England and a painter in Renaissance Italy.” I’ve heard mixed things about the book, which apparently is poetic and challenging and not for everyone. Author Sarah Waters was the odds-on favorite to win the prize for her bestselling novel “The Paying Guests,” but alas didn’t win it, which surprised me.

Also congrats to Jack Livings for winning the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction for “The Dog,” a collection of short stories set in China. New York Times writer Michiko Kakutani says the collection opens a “prismatic window on China, showing us how part of the country is rushing to embrace the 21st century, even as its history continues to exert a magnetic hold over people’s thinking and expectations.” Hmm. I haven’t heard if many bloggers have read this collection yet, but it sounds like one to behold.

Meanwhile though it seems I’ve been away from the blog for a while, it’s just that summer has become busy and I was up to my eyelids in Anthony Doerr’s 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel set during World War II “All the Light We Cannot See.” Need I say more? It’s a long war. Awful. I was on the sixth floor of the house in Saint-Malo, France, hiding with blind 14-year-old girl Marie-Laure and hoping she was going to make it. She was at her reclusive uncle’s house so close to the sea, where she liked to visit a nearby grotto that had barnacles and snails on its walls, which I could see blind Marie running her hands over. I was also imagining 16-year-old orphan, German soldier Werner in the Opel truck driving across the Occupied countryside tracking the resistance through his radio receiver. But the toll the results take on him, sets him off on a different course. I knew these two protagonists’ paths would cross towards the end, but heck what would happen to them then?

I had to hurry to find out, but it took awhile to get there. Anthony Doerr’s book is quite an epic read (530 pages) that goes back and forth in time and alternates Marie-Laure’s story with that of Werner’s into short chapters. There’s also a storyline about a large valuable diamond — apparently cursed — that Marie finds from her father after he is arrested and a Nazi who is pursuing the gem.

I liked the book quite a bit (though maybe didn’t love, love, it) and found it vivid and visual of the historical time period. It’s excellently weaved together with some elegant prose. I felt for the characters and finished the book as if I had endured the war too — emaciated, sleepless, and a mess from death, bombs, and trying to avoid Nazi capture. I particularly liked the radio aspects of the story — how radio transmitters were used by both sides — and how Werner’s passion for radios and science and Marie’s passion for Jules Verne’s “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” eventually brings them together. It’s wonderfully imagined. I liked how it transported me to these young characters lives behind enemy lines. Although I think it could have been cut 80+ pages shorter and put into longer chapters. I’m still wondering too about the ending — was it enough? It feels quite fleeting and maybe not what you want but perhaps that’s exactly the way pivotal things in life go sometimes.

What about you have you read “All the Light We Cannot See,” and if so what did you think?

June Preview

Ahhh summer, my favorite time of year. Being so far north here, the days stay light till quite late and are warm. June usually brings a fair amount of rain to these parts, but it’s been much drier than normal this spring so we will see. Already there’s been a problem with wildfires, which is worrisome. At left is a photo from our recent bike ride through the local mountains.

For those who attended Book Expo 2015 in New York City this past week, I hope you had a great time and will dish on what happened there. I’m thinking of going next year when Book Expo hits Chicago, May 11-13. Mark your calendars. It should be great.

In books coming out in June, I haven’t been exactly sure what I want to sink my teeth into. There’s new ones by horror authors Stephen King ( “Finders and Keepers” ), Paul Tremblay (“A Head Full of Ghosts”), and Sarah Lotz ( “Day Four” ), if that’s your cup of tea. There’s also a notable spy thriller from Jason Matthews (“Palace of Treason”), his second with CIA agent Nate Nash. But what about “Tiny Little Thing” the latest from popular author Beatriz Williams? People loved her novel “A Hundred Summers” and this one could be a perfect beach read. Right?

I also have my eye on Jami Attenberg’s “Saint Mazie” which is set during the Jazz Age at The Venice, New York’s famed movie theater. Attenberg last wrote “The Middlesteins,” which drew quite a bit of attention, and this one is getting high praise too. Then there’s Fredrik Backman’s new novel that comes after his big success with “A Man Called Ove,” which is apparently terrific. His second novel “My Grandmother Sent Me to Tell You She’s Sorry” is about a precocious seven year old whose grandmother leaves her some letters upon her death that sends the girl on a journey into a world of the grandmother’s fairy tales. It sounds like a touching and warm tale, though I’m still hoping to read Backman’s novel “Ove” first.

But perhaps the two June books I’m most curious about are Mia Alvar’s short-story collection “In the Country” and British author Sarah Hall’s novel “The Wolf Border.” I don’t often read short story collections, but the high praise about Alvar’s book has caught my attention. Its stories apparently are about people who’ve been displaced by the Filipino diaspora as seen through the eyes of expats living in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. According to Knopf: Alvar’s debut: “explores the universal experiences of loss, displacement, and the longing to connect across borders both real and imagined.” I’d like to see if this one is as good as critics say.

As for Sarah Hall’s “The Wolf Border,” it’s about a zoologist Rachel Caine who is called to spearhead a controversial scheme to reintroduce the Grey Wolf to the English countryside. As she contends with the modern-day realities of the return of the wolf, her own regeneration is unexpectedly sparked. Booklist calls “The Wolf Border” : “An absorbing portrait of a woman and her conflicted relationships with family, homeland, and identity,” and the Economist says it’s a “compelling, psychological drama.” I’ve heard much about Sarah Hall’s writing so count me in for this one.

As for movies out in June, there’s the usual splatter of summer fare with the action-adventure “Jurassic World,” the animated “Inside Out” and the comedies “Spy” and “Ted 2.” And fans of the TV series “Entourage” can look forward to a film version with super agent-turned-studio head Ari Gold. But my pick this month is “Love & Mercy,” the biographical film about Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys fame. I’ve heard it’s innovative and interesting, and for anyone who likes the music of the 1960s, it should be an entertaining look back at the man who created “Good Vibrations” among other songs.

Lastly in albums for June, there’s new ones coming out by Of Monsters and Men and the Indigo Girls that should be worth checking out. My pick is the new one by British band Florence and the Machine, which is called “How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful.” The band played two singles from it on Saturday Night Live on May 9, which sounded pretty cool.

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


I didn’t realize I had been sucked into Lily King’s 2014 novel “Euphoria” until the end of the book — and then I was a sad wreck for the characters, as if it were a true story and I had lost touch with people I had known quite well.

Interestingly, author Lily King bases the characters on a brief time out of American anthropologist Margaret Mead’s real life story. It was a period of five months in 1933 when Mead and her second husband took a field trip to study the native people along the Sepik River, in New Guinea. There, they collaborated with the man who would become Mead’s third husband, the English anthropologist Gregory Bateson. See the photo of the three of them below, as they were in 1933.

King takes this situation and setting and then develops a unique story for three anthropologists that is all their own. In the book, it’s Fen and Nell that are married, and Englishman Andrew Bankson who meets them while researching a tribe alone in New Guinea in 1933. Much of the novel delves into the three anthropologists hard at work, and their professional ambitions, studying the human behavior of the river tribes in the jungle. To me it was helpful to have an interest in anthropology to be intrigued with the book as it spends considerable time on the tribes’ behavior.

At the same time the story is also about the love triangle that develops between anthropologists Nell, Fen, and Bankson, and this undoubtedly is the most alluring part of the story. It’s cleverly done: how they’re exploring human behavior while dancing around their own. It’s raw and primitive in the field, and at times, sickness, remoteness, and ambition tightly bring together the three anthropologists and at other times cloud their judgements.

The novel’s well researched and vividly conjures up the settlements, the insects, the dirt, the native peoples, the scientists’ dress and equipment in 1933. The imagery is so visceral it’s as if you’re with them amid the jungle and can breathe the dense humid air.

It’s lonely Bankson, too, that makes the story come to life. A bright, sympathetic soul, he narrates the book mainly — combined with some field notes from Nell — and inevitably draws you into their world one step at a time. You feel him falling for Nell from the day he meets her. But she’s with Fen, who he’s also close to, and their lives and work are complicated. It’s a threesome that works, but also doesn’t. Three makes a crowd so they say.

I don’t think I foresaw the exact ending of the novel. Would Bankson and Nell wind up together, Fen and Nell break apart, or any of them make their mark from their research on the tribes once they returned to civilization? I went down their path, hoping for the best for each, but was quite saddened by the end, which is all I can say about it.

“Euphoria” is a vivid, real-feeling story that moves along faster toward the end. Its denouement will definitely stay with me for a long while. No wonder the New York Times chose it as one of the 10 best books of 2014. The novel takes a historical setting but then creatively flies off in an another direction, all the while touching on some of the drives and desires of the human experience. See Lily King’s illuminating essay on how she came up with the story here.

How about you have you read “Euphoria” and if so what did you think? And by the way, what are you up to this Memorial Day weekend?!

Woman in Gold

We’re off to participate in the Golden Triangle bike ride this Canadian long weekend and will be unplugged from gadgets. I’ll be bringing a paperback copy of Lily King’s 2014 novel “Euphoria” with me to finish. So I plan to review that next week.

Meanwhile the hub and I finally saw the Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds movie “Woman in Gold” last night, which came out in April, and we both really enjoyed it. It’s much better than all the previews made it seem, or the reviews for that matter. I was surprised that the Rotten Tomatoes’ summary called it a “disappointingly dull treatment of a fascinating true story.”

I didn’t find the movie dull in the least, and was utterly absorbed by Maria Altmann’s real life story. Most know by now, that the “Woman in Gold” is about an elderly Jewish woman living in Los Angeles who embarks in 2004, along with her inexperienced young lawyer, on a battle to reclaim her family’s paintings seized by the Nazis during WWII. Among the paintings was Gustav Klimt’s famous portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, who was Maria’s aunt and lived with her family while Maria was growing up in Austria.

Helen Mirren, who plays Maria, is once again terrific in her role as is Ryan Reynolds as her nerdy lawyer, Randol Schoenberg. Both give dynamic performances in their quest of court cases to get the paintings back. Though what really makes the movie come to life are its frequent flashbacks to Maria’s younger years with her aunt and family in Austria and what happens to them when Nazi Germany takes over the country in 1938. There’s chilling and heartbreaking scenes that make the latter story of the paintings reclamation all the more significant.

It’s truly a remarkable story about remembrance and justice for Holocaust victims and one that continues to play out for other Jewish refugees and heirs who are reclaiming possessions and art works from the war. Just today the New York Times reported a Matisse painting was returned to a descendant of Paul Rosenberg’s, a leading art dealer of the times whose collection was looted by the Nazis. See the story here.

For more on Nazi Germany’s plundering of Europe’s great art works during WWII, I would also like to see the 2006 documentary “The Rape of Europa,” which was adapted from the prize-winning 1994 book by Lynn H. Nicholas, and I’ve read is good. I have seen George Clooney’s 2014 movie “The Monuments Men” and unfortunately that movie didn’t seem half as good to me as “Woman in Gold.”

What about you — have you seen the “Woman in Gold,” or any films on that similar topic? And if so, what did you think?