The First Three Books of the Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Books, Movies | 12 Comments

January Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Top Picks | 21 Comments

Favorites From 2017

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

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

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

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

Favorite Fiction:

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

Honorable Mentions:

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

Favorite General Nonfiction: 

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

Favorite Memoirs:

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

Favorite Classics:

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

Favorite Debuts: 

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

Favorite Fiction Audiobooks:

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

Satirical/Funny or Quirky Novels:

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

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

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

Darkest Bleakest Stories or Endings:

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

Novels involving Family Ties:

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

Coming of Age Novels:

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

Mysteries and/or Crime Novels:

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

War, Terrorism & Immigration Novels:

  • 

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

Relationship Novels:

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

Historical Fiction & Science Novels:

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

Short Story Collections:

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

Favorite 2017 Movies I’ve seen so far:

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

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

Favorite 2017 Albums:

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

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

Posted in Top Picks | 23 Comments

Little Fires Everywhere and Fresh Complaint

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Books | 22 Comments

Brother and Unstoppable: My Life So Far

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Books, Movies | 24 Comments

December Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Top Picks | 20 Comments

The Last Neanderthal and Sourdough

It’s almost December — can you believe it? I hope everyone has finished as many books as they wanted to this year. I’m shooting for 60 books completed in 2017, but who knows if I will make it there. It depends how crazy this month gets. ‘Tis the season of Christmas parties and events that can often consume a person. Meanwhile after a couple weeks of mild temps for these parts, most of the snow has melted away and there’s no storms on the horizon — just blue skies and leftover ice on the ground. I’ve been trying my best not to wipeout while walking the dog, but it’s dicey in places. As for books, I will leave you with two reviews of what I finished lately.

The first one is Canadian author Claire Cameron’s novel “The Last Neanderthal,” which alternates chapters between the stories of two female protagonists 40,000 years apart. One character is a Neanderthal girl who’s part of a small depleted family that comes to interact with early Homo Sapiens, and the other is an archaeologist who unearths the girl’s bones in the modern day. As the stories go on, parallels between the two through time and space become evident: both are navigating difficult pregnancies and both are brave and independent at times, also both contemplate the interactions between the species.

I enjoyed the story as it took me far away into a prehistoric world and gave me a different view of Neanderthals perhaps than I had remembered them from my school days. They probably weren’t as vastly different from humans than we once thought. This novel makes you realize how close and similar Neanderthals were to early humans. In fact the author says she wrote the book after reading an article in 2010 about the Neanderthal genome that found that people of European and Asian descent have between 1 to 4 percent Neanderthal DNA in them. Wow we’re all a little bit Neanderthal, which means the species overlapped during a portion of time on the planet and they interbred.

It’s a fascinating scenario: just conjuring the interaction between the two similar beings some 40,000 years ago. The story touches a little bit about the hypothesis of why Neanderthals died out and humans didn’t, but mostly it brings to light their similarities. And I’m not sure I fully recalled that like us Neanderthals: made and wore clothing, controlled fire, used tools, lived in shelters, hunted animals for food but also ate plants, and occasionally made ornamental objects. There’s even some evidence they buried their dead and might have marked graves with offerings. But their physical features were different from ours: their skulls included a large middle part of the face with bigger noses and their bodies were shorter and stockier for living in colder environments.

Do you remember all this? Anyways, I was caught up in both segments of the story and wondered what would happen to the Neanderthal girl, and what the archaeologist from the modern day would find out, or whether she would lose control of her dig site and the upcoming exhibit of it due to her pregnancy.

There’s points that I probably felt the story of the Neanderthal girl — and her interactions within her family and her cognition about the world around her — was perhaps total conjecture and maybe goes out on a limb beyond science, but I don’t think you have to believe every smidge of it to be engaged by the possibility of the story and have your thoughts piqued about Neanderthals and their interaction with early Homo Sapiens. The author I think did quite a lot of research into it (apparently 5 years worth she recently told me), which was evident when I heard her speak about the book at our city’s book festival back in October. It was enough for me to be taken away by her story to these beings in prehistoric times. The inner-archaeologist/paleontologist within me liked it quite a bit.

ps. I admit I haven’t read any of Jean Auel’s “Earth’s Children” novels, which were so hugely popular back in the late 1970s and ‘80s. Like Cameron’s book, they explore prehistoric times and the interactions between early modern humans and Neanderthals. From what I’ve heard, they seem like lively sagas with ongoing characters in the books. Apparently there’s a huge market for all things prehistoric as Auel’s books have sold more than 45 million copies worldwide, Oh my. Have you read any of hers? I’m not sure how they compare exactly to Cameron’s book, but Auel’s are apart of a six-part series. Surely, more findings and science about early humans have come to light since the 1980s, which Cameron has picked up on for her book “The Last Neanderthal.”

Next up, I finished the audiobook of Robin Sloan’s second novel “Sourdough,” which came out in September. Oh my, I don’t even know how to explain this whimsical story, though I’ll try to take a stab at it. It’s about Lois Clary, a programmer at a robotics company in San Francisco, whose working life has left her exhausted and joyless. But then one day after work she orders some spicy soup and bread from a take-out place and she flips over how good it is. Night after night, she keeps ordering from the place, which two brothers own, but not long after they have to flee the country due to visa issues and end up entrusting her with their sourdough starter mixture.

Though Lois has never spent much time making food in her kitchen, she begins to bake using the mixture, creating pretty great sourdough loaves. She soon finds she excels at it and begins giving her loaves out to her co-workers who encourage her to try out for the local farmer’s market. Instead she gets involved in an underground secret market that wants her to use her robotics knowledge to help with her sourdough creation. Oh it gets a bit crazy as it goes on.…

In other words, the story is sort of about a magical sourdough mixture that transforms this girl’s life and leads her in various directions. It’s a bit “out there,” for sure, or far-fetching at times but also a bit of a hoot. At times I thought how did the author think this up?! It must be his ode to the taste of great bread and food or something. I found it pretty entertaining and light-ish fun and the narrator of the audio quite excellent.

What a kooky story it is, but now I’m looking to get a hold of the author’s first novel “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore,” which seems to have some of the same magical and amusing sensibilities to it. I remember that it had been a bit of a hit when it came out in 2012 but somehow I missed it.

When I checked out the author’s website I see that it says: “When not writing, I dork around with technology,” which apparently means he’s a bit of a programmer and has done experiments with machine learning, according to his site. He also makes olive oil from a leased grove not too far from where he lives in Oakland, Calif., so he’s a bit of a renaissance man it sounds like.

I plan to keep an eye for what he writes next as I sort of like how his stories get a bit crazy and are out there. Perhaps he’s a cross between authors Daniel Handler and Dave Eggers — two other Bay Area writers who he seems to share some things with. “Sourdough” feels a bit like Lemony Snicket infiltrating “The Circle,” ha!

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

Posted in Books | 28 Comments

The Stranger in the Woods and Goodbye, Vitamin

For those in the U.S., I wish you all a very Happy Thanksgiving. I hope your turkey day and weekend are filled with plenty of good food, cheer and family gatherings. We’ve already had the holiday here, back in October, so alas, it’s the usual workweek in Canada (see my book assistant at left, napping with her dolly). Still, times feel festive and Christmas parties and decorations are already upon us. The forecast is calling for a warming trend here in which it’s supposed to reach 50 degrees Fahrenheit on U.S. Thanksgiving Day. That will definitely help us thaw out quite a bit and might melt away much of the snow by the weekend. Hooray, now all I need to do is not wipe out on the ice that’s leftover.

In book news, I want to congratulate author Michael Redhill this week for winning Canada’s biggest literary award, the Giller Prize, for his novel “Bellevue Square.” I haven’t read it just yet, but I heard the author read from it just last month at our city’s annual book festival.

It seems a bit of a page-turner, in which a woman in Toronto tries to track down her doppelganger following rumors that someone that looks just like her hangs out at Belluvue Square, a local park in the city. But when park users, eager to help her, start disappearing, things turn sinister and she must find a way to put an end to it.

It sounds like a doozy. Apparently the novel has a slew of plot twists and turns and is a bit of a mind-bender. It slightly reminds me of the Jake Gyllenhaal 2013 film “Enemy” in which he plays a man who seeks out his look-alike after spotting him in a movie. Did you see that one? It’s pretty creepy and strange no doubt.

Meanwhile I finished the audio of Michael Finkel’s nonfiction book “The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit.” It’s a journalist’s story about a man who apparently lived alone in a tent in the woods of Maine for 27 years before being caught breaking into a camp site for food. You get to know the journalist a bit as it’s partly his story of how he comes to gradually interview and interact with this very reticent individual — the hermit Chris Knight — whom he first meets while Knight’s in jail, waiting to be sentenced for the thousand break-ins he committed in order to survive around the North Pond area of Maine.

Oh he’s no easy loner. Knight, it’s clear, wants no part of the journalist or society and would rather be left alone. It seems like pulling teeth to get his story. Even Knight’s family, being the stoic Mainers that they are, won’t talk with the journalist about him and didn’t report Knight missing when he disappeared at age 20 in 1986, yikes — he wasn’t found or captured until 2013. Still somehow the journalist gets to Knight and pieces his story together from nine one-hour interviews of him from jail.

Admittedly I had a hard time at first latching on to the story. The hermit — Knight — isn’t exactly the most likable character (he steals repeatedly and doesn’t say much for one thing), though his survival in the woods alone for so long is rather admirable and an interesting oddity. It’s curiosity more than anything that takes you into a story like this. How did he make it — especially living outside during the Maine winters without making any campfires — and why was he out there? Although he stole to survive, no one ever saw him do it and he’s said not to have really damaged property; he pried open windows apparently, using screwdrivers. There’s an unbelievability to his feat of being alone 27 years in the woods that’s hard to accept, or perhaps hard to fathom.

And I couldn’t help but compare Knight’s story a bit to that of Chris McCandless’s, who author Jon Krakauer wrote about in his 1996 book “Into the Wild” — about a young 23-year-old who goes off to live on his own in a remote part of Alaska. That’s a tragic story that gripped me from the get-go. Knight’s feat of surviving outdoors is much more successful, but his whole background and tale perhaps quite a bit less so. But I did like the fact that Knight was a voracious reader in the woods  (from books he stole at summer cabins a ways away) and also liked how in tune he was with nature and how he knew the seasons and trees and everything around him.

But perhaps what elevated “The Stranger in the Woods” story for me — was not exactly the hermit himself or the journalist’s many attempts to try to connect with him, which were often futile, but perhaps all the research the author did in the book about topics such as solitude in the wild, idleness, loneliness, survival skills, and studies of other hermits around the world. It was quite interesting, and as the book went along I got more into it.

It’s even discussed whether the hermit had Asperger’s syndrome or the like. The audiobook, too, was a good way to go because the narrator was able to credibly do the different voices for both the journalist and the hermit, who has a Maine accent. The story engaged me till the end, though I felt uneasy that the author continued to try to contact the hermit even though the guy made it clear he was done with being contacted a year or so after he got out of jail. They weren’t going to end up being true buddy-buddies just because Knight agreed to talk to the journalist for his book. That much was clear.

I also finished reading Rachel Khong’s debut novel “Goodbye, Vitamin” last week. It’s about a 30-year-old girl (Ruth) who quits her job and returns home to her parents’ house for a year to take care of her ailing father, a prominent history professor, who’s in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. It’s written from Ruth’s perspective in a diary format that details her relationships with her family, friends and her struggles over her recent breakup with her boyfriend.

There’s some amusing anecdotes and descriptions and creative turns of phrase in the story from which you can tell Ruth is a quirky but caring person. The author surely has talents about her writing, but somehow the story felt too episodic to me and not as cohesive as I would have liked.

My mind wandered too often while reading it, which is usually a sign that something isn’t working for me. The diary entries jumped around quite a bit in its telling of vignettes, and I couldn’t get fully gripped by the story. It’s too bad, I so wanted to like the novel from all the hype it received when it came out in July. It was said to be quirky, endearing, funny and heartwarming too, and it is all that in ways, it just didn’t fully capture my attention. And its ending, too, didn’t make much of an impression on me. Still I’ll be curious to see what she puts out next.

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

Posted in Books | 12 Comments

Home Fire and Ethan Frome

Last week, I tagged along a couple days on my husband’s work conference to Banff, and then when I returned home I was in a tennis tournament over the weekend so it’s been busy. Being in Banff was really nice as usual, especially as it is still a bit of the quieter shoulder season there, though the ski season is just beginning and things are starting to pick up.

I took a few walks around town and along the river and went to one of my favorite spots — the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies. It usually has an exhibit or two worth seeing.

This year it was Colleen Campbell’s art work of her 20 year career as a field biologist in Banff National Park tracking the patterns of bears along the eastern slopes of the Rockies. Her drawings detail the bears’ individuality and show the challenges they face in the increasingly high-traffic corridor of the park. Sadly many bears over the past decades have been hit and killed by cars on the highway or by trains, though park officials are trying hard to mitigate this. I kick myself for not getting a few shots of Campbell’s work while I was there, though some of it was quite detailed and might not have shown up too well using the iPhone camera. Still it was fascinating.

Since my last post, I finished Kamila Shamsie’s novel “Home Fire,” which was long-listed for this year’s Man Booker Prize Award, as well as Edith Wharton’s timeless 1911 classic “Ethan Frome.” Both lead up to endings that come to shattering reckonings. Shamsie’s novel is said to be a modern re-telling of Sophocles’ play “Antigone,” but it’s not something you really need to know about to follow her story. Only afterwards, did I look up “Antigone” to reacquaint my memory that it’s about a woman who attempts to secure a proper burial for her brother who is killed in battle. She has a sister too, who, unlike Antigone, hesitates to bury him out of obedience to the king’s authority.

Meanwhile, Shamie’s story is set in London and follows the lives of 19-year-old twins, Aneeka and her brother Parvaiz, who were raised by their older sister, Isma, the devout orphaned daughter of an Islamic jihadi fighter. It’s only when Isma leaves for a Ph.D program in the U.S., that things take a drastic turn. Parvaiz disappears to Syria to try to prove himself to the father he never knew, while his twin Aneeka becomes involved with the son of the British Home Secretary (a secularlized Muslim) to try to get help for her brother. But what starts as a relationship driven by motive soon develops into something much more.

Oh what a tangled web is weaved. What plays out between the two families from different neighborhoods — Isma’s and the Home Secretary’s — holds the story in the balance. Told from different characters’ perspectives, “Home Fire” deals with terrorism, religion, and politics in ways that are quite bold. I found it to be a timely and absorbing read that explores themes of love, loyalty, family, and justice. It caught me in its grip to the point that I listened to both the novel as an audiobook from the library, then when it expired too soon, I read it in hardback to pick up more of the details. I recommend both formats, though maybe even more so the audio as it’s superbly rendered and the hardback uses a font that seems unnecessarily tiny. Why do they do this to me?!

All in all, I’m thinking “Home Fire” is one of my favorite novels of the year. How it didn’t get shortlisted for the Booker Prize I don’t know. I thought it was better than Emily Fridlund’s novel “History of Wolves,” which made the Booker’s short list — or perhaps the subject matter of “Home Fire” just interested me more. It definitely surprised me because I had read Shamsie’s previous novel “A God in Every Stone” and found it a bit slow and cumbersome and a chore, but this one was lively and kept me turning the pages.

I didn’t find the story overtly pro-Muslim or anti-Muslim (the author is a Pakistani who was raised in Karachi and moved to London in 2007), but it showed people of various adherences of faith from the peaceful to the radical as well as to the secular … against the back drop of the dangerous and politicized times we live in. The roots of radicalism are explored in it as well as the pull of family — slightly similar to another novel I found thought-provoking — Karan Mahajan’s “The Association of Small Bombs.” “Home Fire” too has an ending that will send you scurrying for cover. A bit of a love story with a modern-day crisis about it, the novel’s themes carried the day for me.

Speaking of love story, I picked up a copy of Edith Wharton’s short novel “Ethan Frome” that was lying around my parents house when I visited them back in October. My folks had recently been in Massachusetts and had stopped by Wharton’s estate in Lennox, which is now a historic house museum. I gather my Dad was fond of the story from his school days and so bought a Signet Classic paperback Centennial Edition from the house museum. It’s the one that starts with a Foreword from author Anita Shreve who says “Ethan Frome” has “always been her favorite novel” and though she’s read it at least 20 times, she says the novel “never grows old or even fully known to me.”

And so with that, I plunged into the story set in a desolate winter landscape around the fictional farming town of Starkfield in western Massachusetts. Oh it’s a frigid place and time of year: cold, cold, cold! Brrr, the story makes you experience the freezing temps and the icy slopes as the protagonist Ethan wields his horse buggy along the rural snowbound roads. And from early on, you know something is not quite right with Ethan (now a man of 52); he’s had a “smash-up” of some sort that’s left him in a ruinous state along with his farm, where he lives with his shrew of a wife Zeena. But try as you must, you won’t find out what happened to him decades earlier until the episode plays back at the novel’s end.

It’s not a complex story. It’s about what happens when a young cousin of Ethan’s wife (Mattie Silver) comes to live with them on the farm. In due time, Ethan falls in love with Mattie but is trapped in his marriage to the awful, ailing Zeena, who moves to take from him the greatest chance at happiness he has left. Oh the story’s a heartbreaker whose shattering ending is far worse (I agree with Shreve in the Foreward) than we could have imagined.

It’s hard not to see it as semi-autobiographical — based on Wharton’s own dismal marriage that she was trapped in for 28 years to a mentally unstable man before she divorced him in 1913. Apparently she had an affair towards the end of her marriage to an American journalist that was brief but made her happy. It’s the story of Ethan Frome in reverse!

I tried to find the movie version of “Ethan Frome” from 1993 with Liam Neeson as the protagonist and Patricia Arquette as Mattie, but it wasn’t on Netflix or Apple TV. But too bad. Maybe it’s on YouTube. Guess who plays the sickly and cruel wife Zeena in the movie version? None other than the seemingly tough actress Joan Allen, who you might remember as CIA Director Pamela Landy in two of the Jason Bourne movies. Oh I fear she makes a harsh Zeena!

So thanks to my Dad for lending me a copy of his Signet edition of “Ethan Frome” and also to Brian over at the blog Babbling Books who reviewed Wharton’s short novel in October and urged me to read it. I indeed found it a classic worth visiting and Wharton a masterful author at the height of her powers.

What about you — have you read either of these novels or seen the movie — and if so, what did you think?

Posted in Books | 18 Comments

November Preview

We got hit with snow this past week and today the temps are hovering around 8F/-13C (yikes) — see my little pine tree out in the front yard. It stands next to a very tall parent tree, but I’ve always liked this little one best. It’s grown quite a bit since we moved here. It’s my Charlie Brown Christmas tree. I’ll put some red balls on it and maybe some lights when we get closer to that time of year, but wait, I’m jumping a bit ahead of myself. What about November? Will you be traveling for the U.S. Thanksgiving? We will be staying here and traveling instead at Christmas, but maybe we’ll make a turkey dinner.

The year is winding down quickly now and I’m trying to read some of the acclaimed books  from 2017 that I might have missed. There’s not a whole lot of notable fiction releases out this month, or albums for that matter, but movies are ramping up. In books, there’s new ones by John Banville, Janet Fitch, Andy Weir, and Louise Erdrich among others. Erdrich is sure putting out books quickly these days. It seems like it was just the other day that her novels “The Round House” and  “LaRose” came out, and now this one the “Future Home of the Living God” is already upon us.

I must say I’m quite curious to read it. If Erdrich has turned to writing dystopian/speculative fiction in this troubled day and age, then I figure I need to get to it.

A bit like Atwood’s “Handmaid’s Tale,” Erdrich’s story takes place in the U.S. in a dystopian future ruled by a religious government in which pregnant women are being rounded up and reproductive rights taken away.

But in this one, evolution is now moving backwards, affecting every living creature on earth, yikes. The protagonist is a pregnant Native American woman on a reservation in Minnesota who tells much of the story in a letter to her unborn child. I think it’ll be filled with some interesting observations and ideas, so count me in for this.

Also I might not be able to resist Andy Weir’s second space novel “Artemis,” after liking his debut book “The Martian.” This one is set on the moon several decades into the future and has a female protagonist named Jazz. She’s grown up in the moon’s only city Artemis and hopes to strike it rich doing a shady job for a wealthy businessman, but — as you might expect — it doesn’t go quite as planned.

I’ll have to read it to find out more, though perhaps I should test it out on my husband first. Readers don’t seem to be loving it as much as they did “The Martian,” but it does have some of the same kind of humor in it I’ve been told.

Next up, I’m also curious about eco-activist Bill McKibben’s debut novel “Radio Free Vermont: A Fable of Resistance.” With a title like that and a premise about a hippy protagonist who is broadcasting from an undisclosed location advocating that his state Vermont secede from the U.S. — it’s a bit attention-grabbing. I sort of thought Gov. Jerry Brown wishes California were totally autonomous by now, but I hadn’t thought much about Vermont in that way though there is the Bern factor.

McKibben’s story sounds like a rollicking tale of eco and political activism much in the vein of Edward Abbey’s 1975 novel “The Monkey Wrench Gang.” I like the idea of a “Fable of Resistance,” my only worry would be if it gets too didactic. But Kirkus Review says it’s a “timely yarn that, though a little obvious and a little clunky, makes for a provocative entertainment.”

Lastly in books, for those who like California noir, there’s Ivy Pochoda’s new novel “Wonder Valley.” Apparently a traffic jam is the springboard for this story about the gritty lives of Southern California drifters who are entwined first by circumstance, then by love and revenge, according to Kirkus Reviews.

I’m not too sure what to think about picking up this multi-character novel, similar maybe to the film “Crash,” but I want to try out the author, whose last novel “Visitation Street” received some high praise. She seems to be one to watch.

As for movies, November is a big month. I always fall first for the historical dramas such as “Darkest Hour,” which is coming out around U.S. Thanksgiving and stars Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill — oh yeah.

It’s set during the early days of WWII when the British PM must decide whether to negotiate with Hitler or fight on despite considerable odds. It’s received 70+% favorable ratings on Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes, quite a bit better than Rob Reiner’s movie about “LBJ” with Woody Harrelson as President Johnson, which isn’t getting too much love surprisingly. It’s cool though that Jennifer Jason Leigh stars in it as Lady Bird Johnson — so I’ll probably end up seeing it as well.

For those who liked the popular 2012 children’s novel “Wonder” about a 10-year-old boy who has a rare medical facial deformity, the movie adaptation comes out this month with Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson starring as the parents. The story reminds me a bit of the films  “The Elephant Man” from 1980 and the movie “Mask” from 1985. Oh I still will watch “Mask”  if I see it while changing channels: Eric Stoltz and Cher put in some pretty good performances. But I will wait on “Wonder” for now. It might have a bit too much goo in it for me.

Meanwhile the movies “Lady Bird” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” seem to be getting the most critical hype this month. “Lady Bird” is not about President Johnson’s wife, but is a comedy-drama about a high school girl — who gives herself the nickname Lady Bird — and her parents who move to Northern California for a year.

I must say the trailer looks pretty funny with Saoirse Ronan as the girl, who comes off smart-alecky and quirky. I have liked Saoirse’s performances in “Atonement” and “Hanna,” and  indie actress Greta Gerwig — whose roles are always a bit humorous and quirky — writes and directs the movie. So because of these two, count me in.

As for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” it looks to have a more serious storyline but apparently it’s a dark comedy about a mother who challenges the local police to solve her daughter’s murder after they fail to catch the culprit.

I didn’t have much reaction to the movie’s trailer, but it’s getting strong reviews and stars Frances McDormand as the mother. I loved her in “Fargo,” but will this be anywhere near as good? Some of the same dark humor looks to be in this one too — along with having a strong female protagonist. So we’ll see.

As for November albums, if you’re a fan of pop music, or your kids are, you’re in luck because Taylor Swift has “Reputation” coming out. Remember the days when she put out country music? No more. Just pure pop pop. Even Maroon 5 seems overtly dance pop-py these days with the band’s new album “Red Pill Blues” coming out.

For me, I usually need a little more rock (or folk) to my tunes so I’ll pick Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds and their album “Who Built the Moon?” for my choice this month. Enjoy your November.

What about you — which books, movies, or music coming out this month — are you most anticipating?

Posted in Top Picks | 34 Comments