April Preview

It’s hard to believe: March is over and done with. Now on to April and the transition to spring. As I will be away this weekend in Victoria, B.C., I am posting this early and wishing everybody a very Happy Easter! Perhaps some of you will be watching the Final Four college basketball finale, or maybe even the Miami Open if you follow tennis. Others will be at church and then maybe hiding or eating Easter eggs. Whatever it is, enjoy this lovely time of year!

March was a fairly good reading month for me so I hope to continue that into April. Next up is a novel I’m reading for my book club called “The Girl Who Was Saturday Night” by Heather O’Neill. So far, all I know about it is that the story is set in Montreal about a sister and brother who are twins who are trying to outrun the notoriety of their artistic father. Booklist calls it “a marvelously intriguing novel of a family in dissolution.” Hmm. I better get going on it as we are meeting to discuss it soon.

As for April, there’s a few big-name authors with books coming out this month, notably Toni Morrison will be releasing her 11th novel called “God Help the Child,” which apparently is “about the way childhood trauma shapes and misshapes the life of the adult.” Also there’s books coming out by Jon Krakauer, Larry Kramer, Matthew Pearl, Per Petterson, and Lisa Genova among others.

After weeding through the April list, I’ve narrowed my sights on three novels that I probably can’t resist. First off, I must check out Ann Packer’s new novel “The Children’s Crusade,” which examines the bonds of a Northern California family over many years. I’ve heard so many good things about Packer’s 2002 novel “The Dive From Clausen’s Pier” that I need to find out firsthand if Ann Packer is the real deal, which I’m sure she is.

Next off, I’m curious about the novel “The Sympathizer” by Viet Thanh Nguyen, which deals with the fall of Saigon and its aftermath in 1975. So many seem to have high regards for this debut. Author Maxine Hong Kingston calls it “a novel of literary, historical, and political importance” and T.C. Boyle says it’s “destined to become a classic and redefine the way we think about the Vietnam War and what it means to win and to lose.” Judging from the stream of other praise-worthy comments, I’m going need to find a copy.

Also I don’t think I can pass up the upcoming novel by Jane Smiley called “Early Warning,” which is the second novel in a trilogy that will span a century about the Langdon family from Iowa. I received the first book “Some Luck” for Christmas and I haven’t delved into it just yet, but plan to soon. The trilogy has been getting generally favorable reviews, but I won’t know for sure until I crack the spine, so to speak. Admittedly, I haven’t read Smiley since her award-winning 1991 novel “A Thousand Acres,” but goodness was that a killer.

For movies in April, I don’t think there’s anything in particular that I plan to rush out and see. I know they’ve advertised the heck out of “Woman in Gold” as the trailer has been everywhere for months. It does look like an interesting story about a Jewish refugee who comes to sue the Austrian government to recover Gustav Klimt’s masterpiece painting that she believes belongs to her family. It stars Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds, too. Though I’m surprised to see the movie’s rotten-tomato ratio isn’t too good, so I might wait to see it on pay-per-view.

In the meantime, I’m thinking the teeny-bopper romance movie “The Longest Ride” will probably win the box office in April. It’s another Nicholas Sparks’ novel adapted for the big screen, none of them I’ve seen or been interested in. Too much melodrama and drippiness. Instead, I’ll pick the film “Clouds of Sils Maria,” with Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart, about an older actress who apparently is going through a crisis. I don’t know too much about it, but it seems to be getting some positive buzz. And judging by the trailer and the actresses in it, it could be an entertaining drama.

As for albums, there’s a lot of good ones coming out in May, but for April not as many notable ones. Still I’m looking to check out the new album from the Canadian indie band the Great Lake Swimmers called “A Forest of Arms,” and I’ll select the Alabama Shakes album “Sound & Color” for my pick this month. It includes the single “Don’t Wanna Fight,” which the Shakes performed quite coolly on Saturday Night Live recently.

So that’s what I see for April releases. How about you — which books, movies, or albums out this month are you most looking forward to?


Laird Hunt’s acclaimed 2014 novel “Neverhome” starts off simple enough. It’s narrated by a housewife and farmer named Constance from Indiana, who in 1862 decides to disguise herself as a man to enlist in the Union Army. She takes the name Ash Thompson and leaves behind her meek husband, Bartholomew, to care for the farm. The story follows her journey as she endures soldier life and harrowing battles of the war while trying not to be found out as a woman.

The novel’s prose is simple and stark but rich in its descriptions, especially of the battle scenes, and the syntax takes on the vernacular of the times, which seems a bit awkward at first, but gives a vivid feeling of being in the Civil War era and its settings.

The character Ash proves to be an excellent shot and sure fighter. She seems heroic and able to outmaneuver and shoot her way out of trouble. But there’s also baggage from her past that comes to her in dreams: her mother’s death haunts her, as well as the death, we learn in time, of her newborn son. There’s also letters from Bartholomew hoping for her return and fearing that she will not.

Along the way, Ash witnesses horrific bloodshed and is injured in battle. A nurse heals her, only later to give her over to authorities who chain her up in a prison, where she’s abused. The book is a bit of a page-turner as you wonder whether Ash will make it back home alive and what unfinished business will be awaiting for her once she gets there.

At first glimpse “Neverhome” appears to be a straightforward heroic story about a strong woman who overcomes great odds but not too far into it you become aware that Ash is carrying around secrets, which she doles out only here and there, and is talking to ghosts. Amid the war, her mind starts to unravel, too, and what is real or not real becomes hazy. She seems to undergo a transformation, and you have to wonder whether she’s telling the truth. The dark ending brings everything home, so to speak.

Judging by comments on Goodreads, quite a few readers thought the story’s ending went off the deep end, or they didn’t get it. I was one of those who had to reread it a few times to understand what it all suggested. I think I was lulled into the story going a certain way, and then it took a turn quite other than that, which left me a bit puzzled and not pleased. Ash is a character who definitely is more complex than she seems. Though I might not have wanted the story to go in that direction, I thought the novel’s writing was quite visual and beautiful in places. For a slim book, “Neverhome” wields a large takeaway.

It also makes me want to read more books about the Civil War, including last year’s nonfiction book by Karen Abbott called “Liar, Temptress, Soldier Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War.”

How about you — have you read “Neverhome” and if so what did you think? Or what books set in the Civil War era are your favorites?

Dark Rooms

I picked up Lili Anolik’s debut novel “Dark Rooms” at the library for a quick suspense read, a transition after a couple of denser books. I didn’t really know anything about it other than it appeared to be among the popular genre of crime novels set at private high schools. The publisher touted it as Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” meets Gillian Flynn’s “Sharp Objects” with twists of Megan Abbott’s “Dare Me” along the way. Okay, okay, I think I get the picture?! I snapped it up and read it quickly this past week ready for something a little berserk.

“Dark Rooms” takes place at a private high school in Hartford, Connecticut, where one morning student Nica Baker, age 16, is found murdered in a nearby field. Her parents, both teachers at the school, and older sister Grace, who recently graduated, are grief-stricken and foggy amid the media circus that follows. The police though are able to close the case quickly when a student commits suicide a couple weeks later, leaving what appears to be a confessional note to the crime. Grace though begins to have her doubts about it. She puts college on hold, stays at home, and becomes obsessed with finding out the truth about her sister’s murder. Though in the process, she opens a can full of worms about her family, herself, and those who knew her sister.

Nica, it turns out, was no angel; she was beautiful and also promiscuous — different than Grace, who sets out to tackle a long list of Nica’s admirers to find out what really happened. Meanwhile Grace finds herself pregnant after a drunken grief-laden escapade and with little time left to solve the murder. Oh my. One thing’s for sure: There’s considerable sleeping around going on at this high school: among the faculty, the kids, you name it. It’s a high school on hormones. The so-called adults or parents in the book aren’t exactly role models either; a few are downright creepy, so Grace must make her away through some pretty messed up, disturbing stuff to find out the truth. She’s a Nancy Drew of sorts. I can’t say much more though I’m sure I’d like to.

Admittedly the book held me till the very end. The author did a good job painting the scenes, giving vivid details, and moving the story along. It’s the kind of suspense story I was looking for when I picked it up. It’s done well, both the writing and plot as well as the twists kept me guessing, although there were a couple times I had to suspend my disbelief and I’m still wondering if the ending fizzled just a bit. Still if you’re on a flight from L.A. to New York, or even on a beach this summer, I’d say this is a suspenseful, well-done novel to hold your attention and pass your time with. Who knows, it might even make you a bit more grateful for the folks and family you have.

How about you — have you read “Dark Rooms” and if so, what did you think? Or what if any are your favorites in the genre of high school/crime novels?

Us Conductors

“Us Conductors” is one of the more unusual novels I’ve read in a long while. It follows the true life story of a Russian scientist (Lev Termen) who I’d never heard of, who made among other inventions a strange musical instrument (the theremin), which I’d also never heard of. Lev came to the U.S. in the 1920s and 30s and was a big hit, especially in New York, and then he returned to Russia where he was imprisoned in various gulags till 1957. It’s not a book I think I would’ve picked up on my own, but I was curious since the author had won the Giller Prize for it last November for $100,000 — not too bad for a debut novelist.

In the first half, I struggled with “Us Conductors” as I didn’t feel very invested in the character of the scientist Lev. The novel jumps around, too, to different places in time — in flash backs as he’s telling the woman he loves about his life in two letters. The novel though is quite readable. The pages go by quickly as Lev at first arrives in New York and is the toast of the town with his patented musical box — the theremin.

Have you heard this instrument’s sound? Its eerie high-pitched notes make it seem straight from The Munsters or Star Trek. No one even touches the box to play it but uses their wavering hands in the air to manipulate the electrical field between its two antennas to make a shrill sound. Check out this example. [embed] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pSzTPGlNa5U [/embed]
Strange but true, I think companies once had big plans for making the theremin a popular instrument in homes everywhere, though in the end that didn’t really pan out.

Somewhere along the line “Us Conductors” crept up on me. As the book goes on there’s so much of this scientist’s life that turns out to be incredible — his successful inventions and work with U.S. companies, how he gets involved in being a Russian spy, his marriages and the one unrequited love of his life, and his imprisonment in the Soviet gulags. Wow. His life story encompasses the Bolshevik Revolution, the swinging night life and music of New York City in the 20s and 30s, and later the Soviet gulags under Stalin.

It’s quite a riches to bust story with an amazing scope that made me rush online the minute I finished it to find out if indeed certain parts of Lev’s life story were true. I especially found his involvement in espionage and the whole Cold War era to be quite captivating, as well as his lifelong love for this woman Clara (an expert theremin player) who he’s addressing throughout the book. Eventually I wanted to know everything about what really happened, which obviously is a sign of an engaging book.

Apparently, the author Sean Michaels kept to the actual biographical sketch of what happened in the scientist’s life, but then reimagined it by filling in the scenes, details, conversations, and people Lev came in contact with. As Michaels said on a radio show, he filled in Lev’s “emotional progress.” It’s not unlike other recent novels have done with the Fitzgeralds, Hemingway’s spouse, or Frank Lloyd Wright’s spouse.

It’s a bit weird because I’m not usually enticed by novels that use actual historical figures to put words in their mouths, but for “Us Conductors” I actually think it served a worthy or interesting purpose.

Not only does it bring life to the era, places, feelings of this scientist who has long since been forgotten by many (Lev only just died in 1993, at the age of 97), but I also liked how the espionage in the book raised questions of Lev’s patriotism, duty, and responsibility, which Michaels talked about on a radio program as being relevant today in such places as Russia and in America’s NSA/Snowden case.

It’s cool, too, that the musical instrument the theremin can be seen sort of as a metaphor in the book. As the theremin uses invisible forces to make players or listeners feel a particular way, so too does Lev feel an invisible force working, for instance, through Clara and him. He writes letters to her in his mind over time and distance as if it’s almost telepathy.

I was struck by the novel especially during the second half of the book. There’s a lot of different things at work in it, such as: love, music, inventing, spying, and surviving the gulags. The story of this scientist’s life is rather remarkable — he went through so much — and that’s what ultimately won me over. The book’s research into bringing his story to light is quite compellingly done and left me wanting to know what was fact or fiction about the scientist Lev Termin and the theremin long after its last pages.

What about you have you read Sean Michael’s book and what did you think? Or have you ever heard of a theremin before this novel?

March Preview

The Hub and I have been in Palm Springs this week enjoying a little spring break before heading back to the real world and winter. Ahh it’s nice to feel the sun and wear short selves again. Hooray for the desert. We’ve been doing some hiking, biking, and reading by the pool (of course), and taking time off from the TV and computer, which feels nice. Though my reading hasn’t been great of late as I put two books down after the first twenty-five pages or so. Argh I hate when that happens. First I set aside Asali Solomon’s 2015 novel “Disgruntled” and then Marilynne Robinson’s 2004 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Gilead,” which I know many people love. For whatever reason I couldn’t focus on either of these books or they just didn’t capture me. Now I’m mid-way through Sean Michael’s 2014 Giller prize-winning novel “Us Conductors” and liking it but not loving it so far. What I could use right about now is a book that’s killer enticing.

For books coming out in March, I really thought that would mean racing through Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel “The Buried Giant” and Erik Larson’s nonfiction book “Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania.” Both authors’ books I have loved in the past and both have been perhaps the most highly anticipated books of the year.

Set in 6th century Britain, “The Buried Giant” follows the story of an elderly couple who undergo an illuminating journey to find the son they have not seen in years. It’s said to include themes about lost memories, love, revenge, and war. While “Dead Wake” explores the devastating sinking of the luxury ocean liner, the Lusitania, by a German U-boat in 1915.

Both seem fascinating and I was so ready to pounce, but apparently these latest works out this month have been receiving some tepid reviews. How surprising. Both authors are masters, are they not? I still plan to read both books, but so far the feedback has made me put them a bit lower on my reading pile — on the back burner for now. If you already jumped to read these, what did you think?

Meanwhile I’m curious to check out Christian Kiefer’s second novel “The Animals” about a man who manages a wildlife sanctuary in rural Idaho, caring for injured animals that are unable to survive in the wild. All is well apparently until his past comes back to haunt him; a friend is released from prison and returns to avenge the aftermath of a crime that involved the two of them. Publishers Weekly calls it a “mesmerizing literary thriller” and author Edan Lepucki says it’s a “startling and beautiful novel about friendship, grief, and the urge to start over.” Hmm, count me in.

As for movies out this month, I probably won’t dash out to the theater for any of them (I’m still coming off my Oscar splurge). The second installment of Veronica Roth’s young adult dystopian series “Insurgent” is likely to be the biggest blockbuster of the month, though Disney’s latest “Cinderella,” by director Kenneth Branagh, hopes to rain on that parade. I like Shailene Woodley but I can’t exactly see me watching “Insurgent.” I did read Roth’s first book “Divergent” but haven’t followed through with the two remaining books. Are you a big fan of the series and do you plan to see the movie? Meanwhile, I’m surprised by how much advertising has been thrown at “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” Holy smokes they’ve really tried to ramp up this follow-up, but seeing the first Marigold Hotel movie was likely enough for me.

Lastly in albums out this month, there’s some big new releases from Noel Gallagher, Death Cab for Cutie, and Modest Mouse, which I’m geared up to check out. So far I’ve heard songs from them here and there but still need to hear more of them. I’m also game for new albums by Mark Knopfler and Brandi Carlile. Carlile’s latest “The Firewatcher’s Daughter” will be my pick for the month. Enjoy.

What about you — which books, movies, or albums are you most looking forward to this month? And do you plan to take a spring getaway trip?

The Uninvited Guests

I was glad to fall into Sadie Jones’s 2012 novel “The Uninvited Guests” for my book club read this month as it’s a far cry from the mayhem of “American Sniper,” which I had just read before it. Alas, I found “The Uninvited Guests” to be a good remedy and a quick escape from today’s world.

It’s set in the early years of the twentieth century at a grand old manor house in the English countryside. (Think Downton Abbey era.) The lady of the household, who’s remarried after the death of her first husband, resides there with her new husband and three children, the oldest of whom (Emerald) is celebrating her twentieth birthday with a couple of friends on a rainy evening. But then a terrible train wreck nearby propels a group of survivors from the train’s third class to seek shelter at the house, throwing the household into chaos and mischief. The uninvited guests turn Emerald’s birthday upside down as well as her younger sister who decides it’s time for a dubious undertaking and a mysterious male survivor from the train wreck who divulges a shocking secret from their mother’s past. Shenanigans at the rickety old manor ensues with a touch of the supernatural thrown in.

What starts as a tale quite stuffy and amusing comes splattering down like the rooms and wall at the manor. The characters undergo a reckoning that although harsh seemingly does some good, shaking them from their lofty pedestals.

The writing reminded me of a Dickens tale and I found it quite enjoyable. “The Uninvited Guests” definitely makes me want to read other titles by the talented British author Sadie Jones in the future. Apparently Jones’s first novel “The Outcast” from 2008 is coming out as a television drama on the BBC sometime this year. I likely will have to pick up that novel before then.

It made me wonder what other recent novels take place in big spooky houses and I’m thinking perhaps of Sarah Waters’s novel “The Paying Guests” and Garth Stein’s novel “A Sudden Light.” Both of which are from last year and are ones I still have to read. Are there others? It seems spooky old houses are popular settings once again.

How about you have you read “The Uninvited Guests” or any others by Sadie Jones? And if so, what did you think?

Oscar Night

I was just reading in the newspaper about how no one really cares about watching the Academy Awards anymore and that the winners are all so predictable and the nominee choices are sexist and without diversity. Has the Oscars grown old, stale, and out of touch with society? Perhaps so. I’m not exactly sure why I still watch the entire drawn-out broadcast each year, but I guess I still enjoy the hubbub over the year’s best films and discussing films of interesting substance. And though the Best Picture nominees this year might be filled with predominantly white, male protagonists, the films offer quite an array of subject matter. Similar to a good book, I like how the best films can transport one to a place or situation that is not our own and draw us into remarkable stories. The list below is of the nominated films I’ve seen over the past months in the order of when I saw them.

“Begin Again” I loved this little movie about a singer-songwriter in New York who collaborates on an album with a disgraced music executive. It’s by same writer and director as the movie “Once,” whose story also captured the magic of music. Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley shine in “Begin Again,” and I can’t believe Knightley actually sings the songs for the movie. That takes guts. The film is nominated for Best Original Song for its tune “Lost Stars” and I’m hoping it will win.  

“Gone Girl” This film adaptation did a great job replicating the suspense and creepiness of the popular suspense novel by Gillian Flynn. Kudos to the filmmakers and to Ben Afflect and Rosamund Pike for getting the flawed Nick and Amy so right. Pike is nominated for Best Actress, deservedly so. I’m just a bit worried she’ll be forever typecast in my mind as the diabolical Amy no matter what roles she takes on next. “Gone Girl” received 1 nomination for Best Actress.   

“Interstellar” Funny, I didn’t like director Christopher Nolan’s other film “Inception,” but I thoroughly enjoyed this time puzzle story about a group of astronauts who travel through a wormhole in outer space. The film is thought-provoking and elegantly shot with some cool special effects too. My husband and I thought it much better than the prior Oscar space flick “Gravity.” “Interstellar” is up for 5 Oscars: Original Score, Production Design, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, and Visual Effects, and I’m hoping it’s going to win a couple.

“Birdman” I loved this clever black-comedy film about a washed up actor who tries to revive his career by staging a Broadway play. There’s a lot of cool actors and performances in this. And along with “The Imitation Game,” “Birdman” was my favorite film of the year. It’s up for 9 nominations: Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Picture, Best Cinematography, Best Director, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, and Best Original Screenplay. I particularly want it to win for Screenplay, if not also for Best Picture.

“The Imitation Game” Another favorite film of the year for me. What an amazing story! About a team of mathematicians, including Alan Turing, that break the Nazis’ Enigma Code during WWII. Benedict Cumberbatch is terrific as Turing and any other year would likely win Best Actor. But I’m a bit afraid that he and the film will be snubbed out of many awards because much of the attention seems elsewhere. “The Imitation Game” is nominated for 8 Oscars: Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Picture, Best Director, Film Editing, Original Score, Production Design, and Adapted Screenplay.

“Unbroken” This film based on Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling book about Louis Zamperini’s life, primarily in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during WWII, wasn’t nearly as good as the book but did have compelling parts to it. I’m a bit surprised it was snubbed in nominations, receiving only three: Cinematography, Sounds Editing and Sound Mixing. It wasn’t even nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay which was done by the Coen brothers. But perhaps it’ll win for Cinematography.

“Boyhood”  I saw this nearly three hour film on pay-per-view TV. Much has been talked about how it was filmed over 12 years. It’s pretty down to earth but it surprisingly engaged me even though it’s simply a look into the life of a family and particularly of a boy’s growing up. The family doesn’t have a lot of money and struggles through the mom’s relationships and divorces; it ends once the boy gets to college. “Boyhood” comes off feeling quite real, which interested me. I didn’t find it my favorite but I know many others think it should win Best Picture. Patricia Arquette is expected to win for her role as the mother. It’s up for 6 nominations: Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Picture, Best Director, Film Editing and Original Screenplay.

“Wild” Based on the bestselling book by Cheryl Strayed, this film, about a woman trying to overcome her grief over the death of her mother and the end of her marriage by walking the Pacific Coast trail, seemed to live up to the book. It has some solid performances along with a scenery that’s tough to beat. It’s up for 2 nominations: Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress. Hooray for the return of Laura Dern.

“The Judge” I saw this film recently on pay-per-view TV. It’s about a son who returns to his hometown to defend his father, a judge, against a murder charge. I like Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall but this film has irksome characters that didn’t really resonate with me. Though there was a sad sense of a family’s missed opportunities which came through. It’s up for 1 nomination: Best Supporting Actor for Robert Duvall’s performance, who last won an Oscar for “Tender Mercies” in 1983.

“Selma” I was geared up to see this film about civil rights icon Martin Luther King’s campaign for equal voting rights in Alabama in 1965. It’s a moving, interesting account though I did find the actual footage of the march in Selma, which is included at the end, even more so and could’ve watched more of that. I was surprised that actor David Oyelowo who plays King didn’t receive a Best Actor nomination. The film did get 2 nominations: Best Picture and Original Song.

“American Sniper” I’ll be interested to see if this film receives any Oscars as there’s been considerable controversy swirling about it, as well as the ongoing murder trial of its protagonist. I recently reviewed the book and movie, see the post below. I’m not sure it will win any awards though it already won at the box office, becoming the top war movie of all time. It’s a stunning feat for sure. “American Sniper” is up for 6 nominations: Best Actor, Best Picture, Film Editing, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, and Adapted Screenplay.

“Theory of Everything” This film, about the life and struggles of physicist Stephen Hawking and his wife, grew on me as it went along and I ended up liking it quite a lot. It had great performances by Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne and I’m glad I didn’t pass up seeing it, which I almost did. It’s perhaps the sleeper hit of the year and is up for 5 nominations: Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Picture, Original Score, and Adapted Screenplay.

“Still Alice” This film is based on Lisa Genova’s bestselling book, which I reviewed in January about a successful woman who is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s at age 50. It’s sad but also thought-provoking. Julianne Moore is considered a shoe-in for Best Actress. I found her performance quite good but perhaps no more extraordinary than others in her category. Though she gave the role a realness and dignity which I hope will succeed in bringing more attention to sufferers of Alzheimer’s. “Still Alice” is up for 1 nomination: Best Actress.

“Nightcrawler” I watched this crime thriller about a freaky L.A. crime-accident TV cameraman Friday on pay-per-view TV. Wow is this dark and creepy. Jake Gyllenhaal plays weirdo roles so well. I recall the other dark role he played in “Enemy” in which he portrays a professor and a look-alike man who he pursues. Strange. This film too is disturbing — but well worth a Friday night rental. Hooray, too, for the return of Rene Russo. “Nightcrawler” is up for 1 nomination: Original Screenplay.

So far these are the nominated films I’ve seen. 14 in all. I was going to see “Foxcatcher” starring Steve Carell, Chatum Tanning, and Mark Ruffalo but I never made it there. It looks like a good rental for later. Anyways, what were your favorite films or performances of the year? And do you think you’ll watch the Academy Awards?

American Sniper

A couple weeks ago before I heard about the hoopla surrounding what right-wing or left-wing people were saying about the movie “American Sniper,” I picked up and read Chris Kyle’s 2012 book of it because I was curious to get a glimpse of the war in Iraq from a Navy SEAL’s first-hand account. My brother had given the book to my husband for Christmas and it was lying around. I didn’t know much about it other than it seemed like a scary-ass war book from its title, the movie trailers, and the fact that Chris Kyle is credited with the most sniper kills in U.S. military history.

Indeed the book is scary and disturbing as war is. I’m sure no one can fully comprehend the reality or horrors of war who haven’t experienced it as our troops have. Chris Kyle’s account is quite blunt and candid. He tells of how he became a Navy SEAL and about his four tours in Iraq from 2003 to 2009. He takes readers along the way through the intense urban combat he experienced in the Iraqi cities of Fallujah, Ramadi, and Sadr City. Mostly Kyle was responsible for sniper overwatches, where he and his team set up in or on top of buildings, protecting Marines or Army troops on the ground by shooting anyone who posed them harm. He also did foot patrols with troops and went door-to-door, weeding out insurgents and weapons caches.

It’s heart-pounding warfare not for the squeamish. Kyle was shooting to kill each time and makes no bones about it in the book. He was doing his job, he says, before the enemy killed him or other troops. He was so good at being a sniper that the insurgents labeled him the “devil of Ramadi” and put a bounty on his head, while U.S troops referred to him as “the Legend.” He placed his priorities in God, country, and family in that order (despite his wife’s disagreement). And his moral clarity about protecting his Team by killing enemies never wavers in the book. He has no regrets about his service other than he couldn’t save more U.S. troops, or trade places with the three U.S. Navy SEALS who lost their lives during his time there.

I’m sure Kyle saved very many lives in the line of fire. He served four tours in Iraq in incredibly dangerous conditions, while at the same time missing out on his family when his kids were babies. I commend him and the troops for their service to the country and Allied mission. He says in the book he wasn’t doing it for the Iraqi people, who he doesn’t seem to put much faith in, but solely for the U.S. He doesn’t go into why we were in Iraq in the first place but simply went where elected officials declared war.

Kyle’s view is definitely a patriotic account but is it, as some say, propaganda? I think he lets readers decide what they will. Quite a few will find the book like I did disturbing in his love of war and killing — how he was concerned with the numbers and in getting the most kills, and how he refers at some points to the Iraqis as savages and details mowing down the “bad guys’” and delighting in their slaughter. It takes a toll just reading about it, much less doing it. Though I’m sure we need tough guys like Kyle to wage our dangerous battles and protect the country.

Apparently the latest edition of the book has been toned down a bit. Though candidly opinionated by Kyle, the book at this point has been vetted by the military, two co-authors, and lawyers alike. Such scenes as in the movie’s trailer that shows a mother and son moving toward the U.S. troops with an RKG grenade was redacted from the book says the movie’s screenwriter. Gone, too, is the subchapter apparently in which Kyle wrote about punching out Jesse Ventura, which Ventura said never happened and in which he won a $1.8 million defamation lawsuit against Kyle.

Despite that, Kyle’s account is informative in bringing insight into how the troops worked in Iraq, into weapons, rank, tactics, what the landscape and war was like, what factions they faced, what SEALS are like, and what they did. The book also highlights how hard deployments are on military families and returning veterans. It shows the war abroad as well as the war at home, where spouses often raise children on their own and vets can’t get the help they need. Kyle’s wife, Taya, writes passages throughout the book about what she’s experiencing and the relations between her and Kyle.

At one point, it seemed the stress of warfare would break their marriage apart, but the book relates how with great effort they held on. By the end, with his wife’s urging, Kyle leaves the war and eventually begins a security company (Craft Intl) and starts helping veterans return to civilian life. The war changed Kyle; it undoubtedly took a toll and affected him. He seems to grow from it by the book’s end. Tragically Chris Kyle was killed in 2013 while helping a vet at a Texas gun range. Now the murder trial of him is all over the news.

It’s prominent especially because the movie of “American Sniper” has been such an astounding blockbuster. I saw it on Sunday and would never have thought that it would become the top war movie of all time at the box office, nor the top movie of 2014, which it looks like it will be. The movie is effective and moving, rough to watch in parts, and in places powerful, but I wouldn’t pick it as the best war film ever.

It’s drawn controversy no doubt. Those on the right say it’s patriotic, heroic, and highlights the hardships of military families and vets, and also shows the toll the war took on Kyle. While some on the left see the movie as glorifying an unjust war, violence, and a gun culture run amok. Take your pick. I feel it’s more the former than the latter. It’s up for six Academy Awards. I’m still a bit puzzled by the huge success of it when other Iraq war films haven’t fared well.

The film differs from the book quite a bit, notably the movie has the U.S. troops trying to root out a couple of specific Iraqi bad guys, whereas the book describes the clearing out of insurgents in general. Other details differ as well and the script was revised after Kyle was killed. His wife Taya and their marriage troubles figure in both the book and movie. Bradley Cooper who plays Kyle and Sienna Miller who plays Taya excel in their roles. Cooper looks much huskier, and purposely bulked up for the part. I heard about the “fake baby” the filmmakers used in a scene and had to laugh a bit when it came up despite the scene’s seriousness. A rubber baby? C’mon Clint.

The book and movie I’m sure aren’t for everyone. For me I think it’s always informative to know what the country’s military is up to, or what is being asked of our troops, or to reflect on what has been done. I’m curious sometimes to read various perspectives, both military and non-military, about the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, even though they can be a harsh look at human existence. This particular story seems to have its lessons: about sacrifice, about family, and about showing that war is hell and should be the very last resort.

What about you — do you have any interest in seeing the movie or reading the book? And if you have, what did you think?

February Releases

Surely it’s amazing news this week to learn that Harper Lee, the author of the 1960 classic “To Kill a Mockingbird,” had a long-lost second novel stashed away, which was re-discovered and now will be published on July 14. Lee apparently wrote the novel “Go Set a Watchman” in the mid-1950s before she wrote “Mockingbird.” In it, the character Scout, now an adult, returns to Maycomb, Alabama from New York, 20 years after the events in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and reminisces with her father Atticus Finch.

Of course, some critics are worried that this new novel won’t live up to her classic or will somehow debase it, but I for one welcome it. If Harper Lee is indeed okay with releasing it, which some have questioned because of her health after a 2007 stroke, then I see no harm in it. I’m sure it will be valuable in learning more about Lee’s creative process and how “Mockingbird” came to be. And I’m excited that Scout and Atticus have more to say. I plan to reread “To Kill a Mockingbird” before July so when the new book comes out, I’ll be ready to dive in. As of right now, there’s no book cover for the new book just yet, drats.

Meanwhile I’ve been checking out which February releases I want to delve into. For books, there’s quite a few heavyweight authors with new novels out this month, notably: Anne Tyler, Nick Hornby, Daniel Handler aka Lemony Snicket, and John Boyne. Despite these talented veterans, my book picks for February releases are all from debut novelists. Hard to believe but true.

First off, Tom Cooper’s novel “The Marauders” looks to be a winner. It’s set on the Louisiana bayous after the BP oil spill and chronicles the misadventures of some wacky denizens of a dying fishing village. Stephen King says it’s “rollicking, angry, eye-popping, and fall-on-the-floor funny” and “so damned good you won’t believe it’s a first novel.” O Magazine calls it a “finger-lickin’-good Louisiana swamp noir.” So I might have to wade into its muck … so to speak.

Another new release gaining attention is “My Sunshine Away” by M.O. Walsh. It’s a coming-of-age story set in a quiet Louisiana neighborhood touched by violence. According to Amazon, the narrator was fourteen the year that a crime against the girl he loved changed him irrevocably. Southern authors Kathryn Stockett and Anne Rice are strongly touting this book, with Rice saying “it’s about love, obsession, and pain. Such a beautiful book. … I can’t praise it enough.”

I’m also curious about another coming-of-age novel “Disgruntled” by Asali Solomon. It’s about an African American girl growing up in Philadelphia in the eighties and nineties who’s a perpetual outsider and battles the “shame of being alive.” Stephen Cha of the L.A. Times calls it “entertaining and thought-provoking” and Publisher’s Weekly says the narrator’s “incisive commentary is both arresting and painful.” Perhaps “Disgruntled” is just the book I need to more diversify my reading experiences.

Switching gears, “Green on Blue” by Elliot Ackerman looks to be another unflinching war novel that likely shouldn’t be missed. It’s about two Afghan brothers, Pashtuns, who become orphans and get caught up in the deadly conflict. Author Khaled Hosseini says Ackerman has “spun a morally complex tale of revenge, loyalty, and brotherly love,” while others are touting the author’s enormous empathy. So just when I thought I was done with war novels, I’m being drawn back in.

For brighter fare, I’ve been eyeing Carrie Snyder’s novel “Girl Runner,” which came out in Canada in August but is just coming out now in the States. It’s about a former Olympic female athlete from the 1920’s who at age 104 reflects on her childhood and life from a nursing home. It “weaves together the past and present narratives of an uncompromising woman’s life,” says Dani Couture in the Globe and Mail. With a memorable heroine, the novel might just be the perfect escape especially if you’re a runner.

As for February movies, I’ll be skipping over “Fifty Shades of Grey” though I’m sure it’ll make a dent at the box office from fans of E.L. James’s 2011 erotic romance novel. The movie’s being released next weekend in time for Valentine’s Day, weird eh? I didn’t read it so I’m not curious to see how “Christian” and “Anastasia” translate to the big screen. Instead I might catch the *slightly* more (LOL) wholesome Disney production about a true story — “McFarland, USA,” which stars Kevin Costner as a cross-country coach in a small town in California who transforms a team of Hispanic athletes into championship contenders.

“McFarland” should be half-way decent, but my real pick this month is the action thriller “’71,” which is about a British soldier who is accidentally abandoned by his unit following a riot on the deadly streets of Belfast in 1971. Jack O’Connell, who also starred in “Unbroken,” plays the soldier who’s being pursued by killers of the IRA among others. He’s an actor to watch and this film seems highly suspenseful.

As for albums out this month, I plan to check out “Tomorrow Is My Turn,” the debut solo album by North Carolina singer Rhiannon Giddens. It’s an album full of covers, consisting of songs made famous by Patsy Cline, Odetta, Dolly Parton, and Nina Simone. Giddens has an enticing voice and delivery and is definitely up and coming.

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

The Jaguar’s Children

Author John Vaillant is best known for his two nonfiction books “The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed” and “The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival,” which were both very well received. So when his debut novel “The Jaguar’s Children” recently came out, I snatched it up quickly to read. I was lucky because John Vaillant (pictured above) gave a reading from it here on Jan. 19 where I also heard him give an interesting talk about the writing of the book and he signed my copy. He said the novel came about during the time he and his family were living for a year in 2009 in southwestern Mexico in the state of Oaxaca. And indeed Mexico figures prominently in “The Jaguar’s Children” along with its tangled ties to the U.S.

Specifically, the novel’s about two Mexican guys, friends who get trapped in a sealed water truck along with other illegal immigrants not long after they have crossed the U.S. border. The truck they are in has broken down somewhere amid the desert dirt, and the smugglers, who have taken their money, have not returned with the mechanic they promised. With little food and water, and not much air getting in, the occupants will likely live only a few days inside the truck if they don’t get help. Hector continually tries to leave messages (sound files) at an American number that he finds in his friend Cesar’s phone, hoping they can be rescued. But the cell phone coverage is very spotty and it doesn’t appear the messages are getting through.

Hell, five pages into “The Jaguar’s Children” and I felt clammy hands from their horrific situation. It’s as if you’re in the sealed truck with them where it’s very dark — like being buried alive. I’m very claustrophobic to begin with, even closed elevators make me a bit nervous. Fortunately the story veers off as Hector begins to leave cell messages hopefully to eventually go through at the American number about how he and Cesar came to be there, en route illegally to the U.S. He tells their different back stories that become as big a part of the book as the scenes in the truck, which are intermingled throughout. Hector’s story reveals a truth he comes to learn about his family, whereas Cesar’s uncovers a dark reality about his job researching corn production for the Mexican government.

Each of these tangential stories held my interest to a certain extent, but “The Jaguar’s Children” is not an easy read. While it does a great job depicting its Mexican atmosphere and the terrible struggles within the country, the novel does get confusing at times. Sometimes I had to reread parts just to figure out what was going on or which story was being described. It also uses a considerable amount of Spanish language, often without translation, which left me a bit lost. It took considerable concentration to get through everything in it, and at times I just wanted to cut to the end to find out if the two guys and people get rescued from the truck, but I held back and slowly plowed on.

In the end, I’m glad I stuck with it. It’s quite a rich portrayal of the Mexican experience, and quite dark. It cuts to the humanity really. And if a book can speak well to that then it must be good. Though I had to read “The Jaguar’s Children” quite carefully, it has stayed with me — its bleak depictions and ramifications. As for the guys and other people in the truck, you’ll have to read it to the very end to find out if they survive. I guess I’d give the novel 4 out of 5 stars if I had to rate it on Goodreads. Undoubtedly the author poured so much into it. You can really feel an immersion into the place and culture.

What about you — have you read any of this author’s books and what did you think?