The Glass Castle and A Separation

It’s good to be home after a great trip and summer vacation back East. We spent a week cottaging (my new verb) on an island along the St. Lawrence River near the Thousand Islands. See the view from the photo at left. It’s a beautiful area and river — where my husband grew up — that borders Canada and the U.S. and we visited both sides. Has anyone been to Gananoque, Ontario, or Clayton, N.Y., or Cape Vincent, N.Y.? Lovely little towns. We enjoyed bicycling the island, kayaking around, sunning and swimming (mostly my husband braved the waters while I read my book and enjoyed the views). It was a neat place to explore and we will think about it again maybe for next year.

We had a fair share of sun and rain there with a few big thunderstorms that crashed down rattling the small cottage. With all the water and humidity, it felt like a jungle out there covered with lush vegetation and trees — quite a change from out West where it’s very dry and scorched at the moment. We returned home to Western Canada to a heat wave where things are brown, and fires are raging in B.C. (Down south my father said it was 112 where they live in California, yikes!). Thankfully we are getting a thunderstorm today and a reprieve from the heat. Meanwhile, I will leave you with a couple of reviews of novels I finished on the trip.

I’m not sure why I never read Jeannette Walls’s memoir “The Glass Castle” when it came out in 2005. It was on the New York Times Best Seller List for more than five years. I think by then I might have been a bit wary or just plain scared of down-and-out memoirs about really tough childhoods. I had read Mary Karr’s 1995 memoir “The Liar’s Club” and Dorothy Allison’s 1992 semi-autobiographical novel “Bastard Out of Carolina,” both of which were pretty disturbing. There was also Tobias Wolff’s 1989 memoir “This Boy’s Life” and Kathryn Harrison’s 1997 memoir “The Kiss,” both of which I knew were pretty rough and I held off on reading. I was sort of in a recovery pause from those kinds of memoirs, but then I heard “The Glass Castle” was coming out as a movie in August, and I thought it was about time I read it and I wasn’t disappointed.

In fact it surprised me just how powerful it was. I completely fell into Jeannette Walls’s story on Page 1 and it kept me in its grips till the very end. For those unfamiliar with it, the memoir recounts the poverty-stricken upbringing Walls and her siblings faced at the hands of her dysfunctional parents. When she was young, the family moved around the West among small mining towns where her father hoped to find gold and strike it rich. They often lived in dirty shacks and didn’t have enough to eat or clothes to wear. Eventually they inherited a place to live in Phoenix when Jeannette’s grandmother died, but after some years they ran out of money and moved once again — this time to Jeannette’s paternal grandparents’ town in Welch, West Virginia.

It’s in Welch that things become even more dicey for Jeannette and her siblings. Her alcoholic father spends their money at the bars and her mother puts her energies into doing artwork, rather than her off-and-on teaching jobs. All the while the family resides in a small rotting house with no indoor plumbing and a roof that leaks on them. Her father promises that he’ll someday build his dream house, a glass castle on the property, which like all of his dreams never comes to fruition. Still Jeannette and her siblings persevere, leaving in their late teens for New York City, where they somehow make it, pursuing higher education and careers.

It’s quite a story, made all the more crazy since their parents wind up following them to New York, eventually living in an abandoned building as squatters. Jeannette recounts one evening while in a taxi seeing her mother picking through a dumpster for food. Jeannette and her siblings had helped her parents to get off the streets on various occasions, eventually to no avail. It’s this secret about Jeannette’s life that eventually propels her to confront her shame and open up about her impoverished childhood.

It’s a story that left me at times feeling quite exasperated and angered by her parents, who are truly neglectful of raising their kids and at times feeding them. I wanted to shake some sense into them along the way, yet surprisingly the kids make their way nonetheless and the family keeps together. The emotional bonds remain despite all the hardships, which I found surprising. It’s not a ranting memoir by an embittered daughter but rather a coming clean story about one’s past, in which the author remains in the end close to her parents.

As rough as it gets, the story luckily is not filled with a lot of physical abuse like some memoirs are about rough childhoods. I was thankful for that, and I thought Jeannette’s writing was superb — candid and evocative — and not overly wrought. Just telling it like it was. If you haven’t read it and get a chance, don’t pass the book up; there’s things to be learned from the memoir that I hope not to forget.

But judging by the movie’s trailer, there’s a chance the movie will not live up to the book for me. They make it seem sort of whimsical, as if the parents were just some unconventional, optimistic dreamers who wanted to challenge their gifted kids and have them learn the ropes a different way. While some of that may be true, from what I read in the book their grim poverty was real and the parents’ neglect of responsibilities seemed abusive; it’s a serious issue in many homes. I hope the movie treats it as such, though I agree the parents’ characters were more nuanced than being just plain bad or good; they were a mix, which makes it all the more emotionally complex. Still I hope the filmmakers have been careful to match it to what happened in the book.

Also last week I finished the audiobook of Katie Kitamura’s novel “A Separation,” which came out in February. For some reason — maybe because of the book’s marketing — the story was not what I expected but I liked it perhaps even more for that. It is actually much different than a “Gone Girl” type of thriller. Good grief, it’s an injustice to lump it together into that genre — for both fans of that genre and others who avoided it for trying to be another “Gone Girl.” For the record, “A Separation” is a slow-burn of a novel that’s much more ponderous about its themes.

It’s about a woman — a wife in London, whose mother-in-law sends her to Greece to find her son (the woman’s husband) because she hasn’t been able to get in contact with him and is worried. The husband, who’s on work travels in Greece, and the wife have been married for five years, yet separated six months ago without telling friends and relatives, maybe with a chance that they’d work it out. But when the wife gets to his hotel in Greece, she finds he’s not there but is known by the staff and is thought to be out doing research in the area, which has been charred earlier that summer by wildfires.

You get an ominous picture as the woman narrates the story of her travels to the hotel, her meetings with the staff there, her talks with her husband’s parents, and her searches for her husband. There’s not a large amount of action or dialogue in the story but it’s more consumed by the woman’s narration of her internal thoughts, feelings, and suspicions regarding her marriage, her husband’s infidelities, which you learn about, and love and divorce.

Wow this woman rattles on and on about it all. It’s quite a sad and tension-filled narration, sometimes I wanted her to stop and the story to just get on with where it was going, but most times I found her thoughts revealing and I couldn’t turn away as small details about the marriage unfold as well as those about her husband and what happened to him. It’s an internal kind of story no doubt, and in that way it might not appeal to everyone. Some might lose patience midway through and feel like chucking the novel against a wall, but I was kept intrigued and wondered admiringly who the author was and why I hadn’t know of her earlier. I found “A Separation” to be a bit unusual and a potent small gem. I will watch for whatever Katie Kitamura puts out next. Apparently she’s married to British novelist Hari Kunzru, for those who know his work.

What about you — have you read “A Separation” or “The Glass Castle,” and if so, what did you think?

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White Fur and The Circle

I was in an outdoor club tennis tournament over the weekend that was fun but took a lot of time. It was hot and windy and yesterday temps hit 90F degrees, which is big for Western Canada; people generally sort of melt here under such conditions, but they seemed to be having fun along the river, floating rafts downstream and throwing balls for dogs.

Meanwhile my husband and Labrador were out sailing and hiking. See Stella at left. She’s a big water dog and likes to show off, leaping into the river at full run. She believes she’s the best swimmer in town, which is pretty hard to argue with since she’s so fanatical about it.

We are going away next week back East for our summer vacation. Usually we don’t go in July, but it just worked out that way. And of course it’s Canada’s 150th anniversary of Confederation on July 1, so it’s a big deal. We will bang pots and pans and watch fireworks and celebrate along the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario. From there we can see Upstate New York, but we will be on the other side of the water, sporting our Maple Leaf flags and boating around amid some of the Thousand Islands. I will report on it when I get back, until then I will leave you with two brief reviews of what I finished lately.

Jardine Libaire’s novel “White Fur,” which came out in May, is getting quite a bit of buzz this summer and I was lucky to get a copy from the library. It’s about two 20-year-olds from opposite sides of the tracks who fall for one another amid the glitz and grit of New York City in the 1980s. They meet in New Haven, Conn., where Jamie Hyde is a junior at Yale. He’s beautiful and wealthy, an heir to a family fortune with high expectations. Elise Perez lives next door in a rundown apartment with a roommate who found her sleeping in his car. Half white, half Puerto Rican, Elise is a high school dropout who doesn’t know her father and ran away from her  mother’s life in public housing in Bridgeport.

Nevertheless the attraction between Jamey and Elise is quite instant. And what seems to start as a sexual obsession becomes something greater — as they move to Manhattan together that summer. Yet as their relationship grows, there’s forces — such as Jamie’s intervening family — that threaten to tear them apart and will have consequences for them staying together. You have to stay tuned to the very end to see whether they will survive it.

It’s a story that’s been compared to “Romeo and Juliet” and Bret Easton Ellis’s “Less Than Zero,” and it reminded me a bit of a mash-up of those. Of course, the theme of star-crossed lovers on opposite sides of the tracks has been done many times before, but there’s a freshness to this novel’s episodic-like telling that I found appealing. It’s raw, it’s gritty, it’s poetic at times, and there’s a feel for New York City that brings the story to life. Both protagonists’ views — Elise’s and Jamey’s — get fairly equal weight in the novel as do a bit of their family’s. “White Fur” is not only a love story, but it also focuses a lot on their class distinctions and the divide between rich and poor, which they try to transcend. The different New York City spots they frequent only highlight the melting-pot microcosm of economic society that surrounds them.

There’s not a lot of judgement in the book, other than two people trying to be together from opposite worlds. I thought the author put a lot into its writing and it came together fairly well — except for an episode or twist at the end that seemed to strain believability and that I didn’t care for. Despite that part, I rounded it up to 4 stars on Goodreads, though I don’t think it’s a book for everyone. Just fair warning: it’s rough around the edges, the sex is frequent and graphic and there’s a bit of rough language in it as well. It’s nice though that Elise and Jamey aren’t two misfit drug addicts who don’t know what they’re doing. For the most part, they’re pretty sober and clear about where their hearts come to lie.

Meanwhile, I finished the audiobook of Dave Eggers’s 2013 novel “The Circle,” which I don’t know why I didn’t get to when it came out a few years back, but it is long. And the movie of it, which came out at the end of April with Tom Hanks and Emma Watson, was pretty much obliterated by the critics, with only 15 favorable ratings compared to 83 rotten ones on the site Rotten Tomatoes. Apparently it’s considered one of the biggest movie disappointments so far of 2017, probably because of how topical and good the novel was. People were waiting for it after the book but then the movie didn’t deliver. Ugh. I couldn’t even talk my husband into going.

But I’m glad I went ahead with the audiobook because I found it quite entertaining and I laughed throughout it. It’s a wonderful satire of Silicon Valley culture and social media, even if it is heavy-handed at times about its message. It seems Eggers had quite a bit of fun writing this one, sticking it to the tech giants at every turn.

It’s a story about Mae Holland who can’t believe her luck when she’s hired to work at the Circle, a Bay Area tech company that’s cornered the world market on social media and e-commerce. As she rises through the ranks, she quickly loses sight of her friends, family, and sense of self to meet her work quotas and gain social acceptance, eventually becoming privy to the company’s plans to make the world safer, which include preventing child abductions through microchips, reducing crime through constant surveillance, and eliminating political corruption through transparency via personal cameras. Soon Mae’s encouraged by the company’s founder to participate in the experiment of full disclosure to “Go Clear” and wear a camera so the public can watch and comment on her every move. But when this has consequences on her family and friends, she must decide if she’s doing the right thing, and whom to trust and be loyal to.

It’s a story that’s a little scary to think about if our every computer keystroke is quantified and tracked and there’s little to no privacy, either online or off. Is this more of what we have to look forward to in the future? It’s a grim thought and Eggers isn’t shy in his novel about showing us the downfalls of this kind of dehumanized world. Though some didn’t like the novel because they found it too heavy-handed or simplistic a screed on the tech world. And they thought Mae was too passive and accepting of the Circle’s policies.

For the most part, I found it a fairly effective satire: funny and alarming at the same time. The corporate culture at the Circle’s campus — where social activities after work hours are encouraged and tracked — are particularly laughable in the book. Pretty soon Mae is just about living on-site and it’s a stifling feeling. She’s railed on to share all of her experiences with her thousands of co-workers through inter-office messaging whether it be while out kayaking on the Bay, or visiting with her parents, or about who’s she’s dating. Oh there’s way too much sharing! It’s a social media company run amuck. You’ll want to steer clear of it if you’re ever offered work at such a place.

This was my first Dave Eggers novel, so I was pretty impressed. I thought it was a bit too long (and I’m sure overdone), but I enjoyed it and would read him again in the future. Some of his novels such as “What Is the What” and his memoir I’ve heard are excellent, so I will eventually get to them.

What about you — have you read “The Circle” or any of Dave Eggers’s novels, or have read “White Fur,” and if so, what did you think? Also Happy 4th of July and Canada Day to all who celebrate it. Enjoy.

Posted in Books | 22 Comments

Saints For All Occasions and The High Mountains of Portugal

Summer days have been busy so I have been away from the blog a bit. I returned from a short trip to California to visit my folks and plunged headfirst into summer chores and activities here. See the photo at left of our bike ride in the mountains from last week. My reading has taken a bit of a hit as a result as it’s been left on the back burner, but I hope to get it back on track soon.

The two novels I finished lately both had a little about religion and faith to them, though they were not alike. You’ll notice neither are on my “summer reading list” that I put forth in my last post but I started them before “the List” was created. So I will have to jump back to that now. Meanwhile here are my reviews of the two recent books.

(The following summary was culled in part from the publisher’s description)

J. Courtney Sullivan’s 2017 novel “Saints For All Occasions” is about two close, Irish Catholic sisters that immigrate to the U.S. in the late 1950s to start a new life in Boston. The older, responsible one (21-year-old Nora) is shy and serious and engaged to a man she doesn’t know if she wants to marry; the other (17-year-old Theresa) is pretty and outgoing and loves the social scene in Boston. But when Theresa becomes pregnant, Nora comes up with a plan to right the situation that will have life-long repercussions for both of them. Fifty years later, Nora is the mother to four grown children and Theresa is a cloistered nun, living in an abbey in rural Vermont. They haven’t spoken in decades, but a sudden death in the family forces them to confront the choices they made from long ago.

The story alternates chapters of the sisters in the 1950s with those from 2009 among Nora’s grown kids and the two sisters, now in their 70s. The oldest son Patrick, who was a troublemaker growing up, is now a bar owner; then there’s John, a successful political consultant (married with an adopted child); followed by Bridget, quietly planning to have a baby with her girlfriend; and lastly Brian, living at home after a failed baseball career. It’s a well-done story and I got caught up into each of the family members’ modern lives and perspectives and how those differed from their mother Nora’s immigrant one. You get a bit from Theresa, too, about her life at the abbey and why she chose the nunnery — and most importantly why the two sisters’ lives diverged so suddenly and much.

It reminded me a bit of other Irish Catholic family tales, though I haven’t read a lot in this genre. I found it rather frustrating because of the secret kept and things left unsaid among the family members that threaten to undo them (which made me want to yell at each to spill the truth). None of the characters are exactly saints in the story and perhaps that’s the point of the book’s title. I particularly wanted to strangle the mother Nora for her stern ways, grudges, and for making matters worse, but then again she’s not altogether bad, but is caring in her own ways, which makes the novel more complex. It’s a story tinged with sadness and regret that made me think about it for quite awhile afterwards.

This was my first novel that I read by J. Courtney Sullivan and I’d be curious to read her others. I’ve heard that her 2011 novel “Maine” perhaps is the one readers have liked the most, though her two others “Commencement” and “The Engagements” are also talked about. As for “Saints For All Occasions,” I gave it a worthy 3.7 stars on Goodreads.

Next up, I finished the audiobook of Yann Martel’s 2016 novel “The High Mountains of Portugal.” You might recall from his award-winning novel “Life of Pi” that Martel’s stories often unfold like fables, delving in allegory and magical realism and containing animals in them. And this novel is no exception.

The book is broken up into three different sections — each like a novella unto themselves with different main characters and set in different decades, but the stories are slightly inter-connected and all come to pass in the same area of Portugal.

It’s a strange novel that touches on faith and religion, and animals and humans. I almost gave up on the book during Part I as nothing much seemed to be happening to keep my attention. This part is set in Portugal in 1904 where a man, whose family has died, embarks on a journey using one of the earliest motor cars to find an artifact of a mysterious crucifix in the high mountains of Portugal. The premise seems enticing, but early on the story waxes on and on about the inner workings of the car and the man’s frustrations with it — and after while I just wanted to throw the audio against the wall. I was surprised — was this really the work of the great Yann Martel, the same author of “Life of Pi”? I couldn’t believe it. But somehow I kept going and eventually odd things about the crucifix artifact were revealed, including its chimp-like qualities.

Thankfully Part II picks up a bit and tells an odd story set in 1938 about a Portuguese pathologist who receives a visit from his wife who waxes on about Christianity in the works of his favorite author Agatha Christie. Afterwards the pathologist has a strange occurrence while doing an autopsy on a man whose body is filled with unusual items, including a curled up chimpanzee. What the story all means, I couldn’t exactly tell you.

But Part III is by far the best. Set in 1981, it tells the story of a Canadian senator who, grieving his wife’s death, moves to Portugal bringing with him a chimpanzee — freed from an animal research facility — as his companion. This last part is wonderfully told and almost fully made up for the other two lesser parts. All three sections are inter-connected by a character and include a protagonist who is grieving a great loss — moreover they all include chimpanzees. As far as I can tell, each story seems to be about faith or the lack of it, though I’m not sure I understood everything in them — or if Yann Martel was smoking too much dope at the time. But he seems to raise and pursue the Darwinian notion that: “We are risen apes, not fallen Angels,” which he quotes at the end of Part I.

If you liked Martel’s novel “Life of Pi,” as I did, (or the movie) you might give this one a try too. It’s not as great as that one was — but still has a few interesting things about it.

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

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Purity and My Summer List

Recently I scored the audio download of Jonathan Franzen’s 2015  576-page novel “Purity” from the library. It took a couple of weeks to listen to it all, which I did mostly while walking … and then walking some more, but I found it well worth it — as the story hooked me early on and engaged me till the very end.

And oh my, it’s quite epic. It takes you down varied paths — from Northern California to the Eastern Bloc and jungles of Bolivia — and through the lives of its characters in a whirlwind. I found it at times humorous, creepy, endearing, and maddening. It has a lot in it and much to say. I was especially impressed by the captivating storytelling of it, which sort of surprised me — as this was my first Jonathan Franzen novel — and here I thought he was supposed to be snooty, grumpy and once infamously mocked Oprah Winfrey’s book club. All of Franzen’s novels about families I (wrongly) presumed were long, dense, preachy, and morose. Yet I found “Purity” to be quite accessible, full of life, easy to fall into, and funny early on.

It’s a story about a young college grad, the whip-smart Purity “Pip” Tyler, who’s laden with student debt, living at a rundown group home and working at a hokey business in Oakland that sells renewable energy. She doesn’t have anyone close to her except her single mother, a recluse who raised her at a remote cabin in Northern California and won’t lend her money or tell her who her father is. Her mother is manipulative and clingy yet Pip still loves her.

In time Pip takes an internship at The Sunlight Project in South America run by this dubious guy Andreas Wolf, an East German who rose to fame during the collapse of the Berlin Wall. He’s a competitor to Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, which his company resembles, leaking secrets of the world. Pip wants to use his company’s resources to find out who her father is, though Andreas is interested in Pip for reasons she doesn’t yet understand and which will eventually upend her ideas of right and wrong — when she pursues a job at an online investigative news organization in Denver. The story is a bit of a mystery, you’ll want to stick around to see what happens to the likable Pip, how it all ties together, and whether she’s able to reunite her family.

It’s also a bit of a modern-day Dickens tale that reminded me slightly of Lauren Groff’s big seller “Fates and Furies,” which came out around the same time. It has a similar epic-storytelling feel to it and is partly about the Battle of the Sexes. Like Groff’s Lotto and Mathilde, Pip’s mother and father are at odds with one another and their sordid history unfolds over time. Franzen seems to satirize their “feminist marriage,” which breaks apart in a firestorm. The mother in “Purity” is particularly worth strangling, though the father, is no white knight either. None of the characters — from Andreas to even Pip turn out to be as pure as they claim to be; they all harbor harmful secrets and have dirtied their hands from it — so to speak.

Like “Fates and Furies” too, “Purity” includes quite a bit about the characters’ sex lives or motives, which aren’t always pretty, so be forewarned. There’s a couple sections where I wondered if Franzen deserved the “bad sex in fiction award” but I think he narrowly dodges it by using it to show just how depraved his characters sometimes are.

What is interesting is the story’s theme that explores power and secrecy issues in the Internet age, and particularly those surrounding journalism vs. WikiLeaks, which Pip must navigate through early in her young career. It’s a timely theme, and one that delves into the background of the Assange-like character, Andreas Wolf. Earlier in life he’s on the run from the Stasi in East Germany for a crime he’s involved in. This part of the book is pretty gripping and reads like a thriller. It’s various side stories like these that make “Purity” worth the price of admission. For all it offers, I gave the novel five stars on Goodreads, despite it including two pretty dislikable marriage partners.

What about you have you read this one, or any of Franzen’s books and if so, what did you think?

As for my Summer Reading List, I’ve listed 15 novels below that I’ll be trying to get to from June 15 to Sept. 15.

Are any of these on your list? Or if not, what is?

I combined some thriller, fast-paced types with slower, deeper reads so hopefully it’ll be an enjoyable season.

Check out what’s on it:

1) If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio (2017)
2) Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane (2017)
3) Everybody’s Son by Thrity Umrigar (2017)
4) Transit by Rachel Cusk (2017)
5) The Nix by Nathan Hill (2016)
6) To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey (2016)
7) The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (2005) / movie out in August
8) The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel (2017)
9) The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne (2017)
10) The Scribe of Siena by Melodie Winawer (2017)
11) White Fur by Jardine Libaire (2017)
12) Celine by Peter Heller (2017)
13) The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985) / b/c of the TV series
14) Before the Wind by Jim Lynch (2016)
15) Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien (2016)

Hopefully I won’t get too distracted by other titles not on the List, but unfortunately I usually do. I’ll incorporate those additions as I go along.

This weekend I’m in California visiting my folks (can you tell?) so I will bid you adieu for now. Thanks for stopping by and Happy Reading!

Posted in Books | 30 Comments

June Preview

Well I wasn’t able to make it to BookExpo in New York this past week, but it looked like it highlighted some big-named authors with new fiction coming out this fall, notably Jennifer Egan with “Manhattan Beach” (Oct.), Nicole Krauss with “Forest Dark” (Sept.), Jesmyn Ward with “Sing, Unburied, Sing” (Sept.) and the first story collection of Jeffrey Eugenides called “Fresh Complaint” (Oct.). I’m sure many other buzzed about books were there, but we’ll have to wait and see what the word is on those. If you went to the Expo, I hope you had a great time and will give us the lowdown on what transpired and is hotly anticipated. Most importantly, how many books did you pick up, or which authors did you meet?

These days I’m juggling due dates of checked out library books with the onslaught of those coming off hold, and recently I finished listening to the audiobook of Jonathan Franzen’s lengthy 2015 novel “Purity.” Wow that one took me two weeks to get through but the storytelling I found was well worth it. My review of that will follow sometime this week along perhaps with my summer reading list. I enjoyed putting one together last year. It’s fun to decide which books go on the list — as my summer reading usually varies quite a bit from the rest of the year. It’s a prime-time for page-turners or stories you can easily fall into while catching rays on the back deck.

June is usually a great month — busy though. I have a couple trips and much yard work planned. It is very green here now and all the foliage has grown bonkers. So summer begins — I hope you enjoy yours. For now I’ll leave you with some notable new releases of what I see coming out this month.

I’m usually not a reader of really long, thick books, but Rachel Kadish’s novel “The Weight of Ink” (576 pages) seems like a totally immersive experience that’s received quite a bit of high praise.

It’s a story about two British historians who get a hold of a mysterious collection of papers hidden in a historic London home that sends them on an unforgettable quest. They’re 300-year-old letters written by a Jewish woman with an intellect unwilling to be squashed. One part is about her life in 17th-century, plague-ridden London, and the other part is the quest of the present-day historians trying to figure out the puzzle behind her letters. Hmm, I’m game.

Also the Indian author Arundhati Roy has a new book coming out called “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness,” which is her first novel in 20 years. I remember reading her debut “The God of Small Things” in 1997 when it won the Booker Prize, but it’s been a long, long time.

Her new book looks to be a complex and challenging read, but one that is said to be rewarding and worth the wait. I gather it’s a bit hard to sum up but features a diverse cast of characters whose stories are interweaved with India’s social and political tensions, particularly the violent retaliations to Kashmir’s fight for self-rule.

Apparently the story includes a lot of violence and suffering but also is suffused with flashes of humor and irony. Ron Charles of the Washington Post has called the novel a “remarkable creation, a story both intimate and international, swelling with comedy and outrage, a tale that cradles the world’s most fragile people even while it assaults the Subcontinent’s most brutal villains.” Hmm I’m curious to see how it compares to her first novel from long ago.

Next up, after that challenge, I’ll likely need Karen Dionne’s fast-paced psychological thriller “The Marsh King’s Daughter,” about a woman whose dangerous father has killed two guards and escaped from prison, disappearing into the marshlands of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where she was raised. The police start a manhunt for him, but the daughter knows she’s the only one who can track him down.

The story sounds unsettling and sinister for sure — it’s been recommended for those who liked Emma Donoghue’s novel “Room” — but is said to be well-done and to keep readers on the edge of their seats. It might be just the right thing while sunning on the back deck.

Then there’s Daniel Riley’s debut novel “Fly Me,” which is said to be a story of dark discovery set in the debauchery of 1970s Los Angeles. It’s about an airline stewardess who falls into a drug-trafficking scheme that clashes with the skyjacking epidemic of the day and one she does her best to break free of.

Apparently the novel is an excellent time capsule of 1970s nostalgia and is a book that author Scott O’Connor says “conjures a place and time as vibrant and compelling as the embattled young woman at the heart of this story.” I like novels set in L.A. and Southern California where I grew up — so count me in for this one. I think its plot gets pretty crazy but we will see.

Lastly in books, Thrity Umrigar’s new novel “Everybody’s Son” looks to be an interesting novel that examines race and privilege in America. It’s about a neglected 10-year-old African American boy who thrives as a foster child to a white U.S. senator and his wife who pull strings in order to keep him. But when the boy discovers the truth about his life and his birth mother, he must come to terms with those who’ve meant the most to him.

It sounds like a moving and timely novel from an author I have not tried yet. Author Celeste Ng says of it: With assured prose and deep insight into the human heart, Umrigar explores the moral gray zone of what parents, no matter their race, will do for love.” Hmm, it sounds like it’s a story worth exploring.

As for movie picks in June, it looks like “Wonder Woman” will surely make a dent at the box office. Critics like it too apparently as it’s received a 94% approval rating on the site Rotten Tomatoes. So who knows, I may eventually see my first superhero movie in many many years. I was going to wait for Aquaman — which is coming out in 2018, but maybe “Wonder Woman” is worth it? What do you think, have you seen it? It’s sure to be huge, and will likely do wonders for DC Entertainment, but I haven’t been a big superhero film watcher since the days of lovely Christopher Reeve and his Superman movies. As for other films this month, I’m hoping the romantic-comedy “The Big Sick” might have some laughs in it. Gosh it seems we could all use some laughs about now. So let’s hope this one has some in it; it looks a bit promising.

As for albums coming out in June there’s a slew of new ones by a variety of singers from pop divas Katy Perry and Lorde to singer-songwriter, country-alternative types like Jason Isbell, Steve Earle, Roger Waters, Ani DiFranco, and Amanda Anne Platt & the Honeycutters among others. I’m not sure yet of any of these new ones, but I’ll try the latter as my pick this month. The Honeycutters hail from Asheville, N.C., and I’m new to them.

What about you — which upcoming books, movies, and music are you looking forward to this month?

Posted in Top Picks | 28 Comments

American War

Hello. I was away traveling in the mountains last weekend during the Canadian May long weekend, which was truly gorgeous. We had spectacular sunny conditions for the annual three-day Golden Triangle bike ride and survived the long cycling routes just fine. It was really lovely out there. Along the way we saw deer, elk, and mountain goats but no bears this time; they were around the area according to all the Rangers’ signs posted but must have gone out of sight into the woods by the time we passed by.

Now we are coming down from that Rocky Mountain high to fly to Michigan this U.S. Memorial Day weekend for our nephew’s wedding. It should be quite exciting an event and fun to see other relatives there. Just a bit of a whirlwind. I wish all those in the U.S. a very happy Memorial weekend, and until next time I’ll leave you with a review of a book I finished recently.

Oh yes, I was lucky to score a copy of Omar El Akkad’s debut novel from the library, considering it’s been in high demand after receiving some rave reviews recently in The New York Times among others. It’s a dystopian novel about a family caught up in the days amid a second U.S. Civil War, of the North vs. the South, that takes place from 2074 to 2095. The war is caused largely by the prohibition of fossil fuels by the North, which the South doesn’t want to ban.

The story’s main protagonist is Sarat Chestnut who is of mixed race and only 6 when the war breaks out; her father has been killed and her mother decides to flee their home in Louisiana and take her brother and her twin sister and her to a refugee camp farther north near Tennessee. There in Camp Patience among tents they live fenced in for six years with hundreds of others while trying to wait out the war. But eventually an atrocity occurs at the camp — that along with Sarat’s befriending of a mysterious mentor — changes the paths of their lives and the country’s forever.

Oh it’s dark times indeed. The novel paints a picture in which the effects of climate change have wrecked havoc on the Earth, and northern drones, causing ruthless attacks, rule the skies. The barriers between the North and South feel like Korea’s DMZ, and there’s a Guantanamo Bay-like prison that Sarat must endure. Oddly enough there’s not a lot of mention of racism or slavery in the book (like in the first Civil War), but once again Southerners appear to be on the losing end, poor and desperate.

The scene setting, daily grudge, and characters in it are quite vivid and perceptively drawn, though one might need to suspend his or her disbelief a bit over some of the fuel/geographic/science details of it. I actually thought as a dystopian novel, it would be more action-packed than it turned out to be. The story meanders and takes it own sweet time and has some slow pacing issues in the middle. I was starting to lose patience when luckily it picks up again near the end, building to its conclusion (as peace plans are brewing) then taking a turn and coming crashing back down. Ugh it wasn’t an ending I was hoping for — the cycle of vengeance in it is quite rough. But did I really expect some light at the end of the tunnel?

Ahh well, I guess it was pretty effective in a scary kind of way. It’s a book that supposedly isn’t meant to be so much about America or its past Civil War as it is about the “universal language of suffering” and what it does to people, so says the author, Omar El Akkad, who I coincidentally was able to see this week at a discussion about the book. He was in town giving a talk — right as I had finished the novel, which was perfect timing! See a photo of him at left at the event hosted by Wordfest.

Although it’s a novel that appears to be timely in today’s fractured world, it was started long before the days of Trump, and was in reaction to things the author witnessed in the Middle East while reporting there for the Globe and Mail. He told us he was born in Egypt and moved to Canada when he was 16. He now lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife who teaches there.

The author admits he offers no answers with the book’s story, and says the character of Sarat is not a person we have to sympathize with, or apologize for, or like, but he hopes readers will come to understand how she gets the way she is. In this way and others, it’s certainly a thought-provoking novel … and rather provocative.

Although I probably liked Ben Winters’s 2016 novel “Underground Airlines” — which imagines the Civil War never took place and slavery still exists —  a bit more, I’m glad to have read “American War” and to have heard the author speak about it. He was quite interesting and well-spoken. I just hope the path of his story is not the way the future turns out for any of us.

What about you — have you read “American War” or other dystopian novels like it — and if so, what did you think?

Posted in Books | 26 Comments

Beartown, Hillbilly Elegy, and The Sun Is Also a Star

Happy Mother’s Day to all those out there. I haven’t posted in awhile because it took me some time to get through the novel “Beartown” and I’ve been busy with the yard and getting ready for a three-day bicycle trip next weekend. It’s the annual Golden Triangle bike ride that about 400 cyclists do every Canadian May long weekend. We are hoping for good weather but you never know until it gets here. I will report back on it, until then I will leave you with a few reviews of what I finished lately.

It’s true I like an occasional sports novel. I’ve read Chad Harbach’s baseball novel “The Art of Fielding,” John Grisham’s football novel “Playing for Pizza,” and Chris Cleave’s bike racing novel “Gold” among others — so with the hockey playoffs going on, I was game for Fredrik Backman’s novel “Beartown,” which is about a small depressed community, set deep within a forest, whose junior ice hockey team means about everything to the people who live there. Molded by years of endless practice and coaching, the team has a real shot at the country’s championship — that is until a crime takes place involving its 17-year-old star player and the 15-year-old daughter of its general manager, which changes things in the community forever.

It’s an alluring premise and setting, and the novel skips around in snippets among a lively cast of quite a few characters that includes players, coaches, parents, the GM’s family, the town’s bar owner and others. Of these, I liked the young immigrant boy, Amat, who is small but very fast on skates and is trying to make the team. A lot rests on him and what he knows in the aftermath of the crime.

This was my first book by the Swedish author — who also wrote the bestseller “The Man Called Ove.” His novels seem to border on popular fiction, which is okay if it moves along accordingly. He definitely seems to know his hockey, which there is quite a bit of in this story. My only trouble was that the first half of the novel seemed rather repetitive about how important hockey and the team meant to the dying town — there’s quite a bit of backstory that takes awhile to get where it’s going — and while the novel’s second half moves better with the crime and aftermath, I found it was a bit heavy-handed and lacking in subtly. There’s an occasional voiceover narration — in addition to those of the characters’ — that seems to drum its message into you. I guess I didn’t care for that, or being molded about how to feel about the situation — let us decide for ourselves.

Still judging by all the raves on Goodreads, I’m in the minority on this one, giving it three stars, which to me means I liked it okay but didn’t overly love it.  Thanks to NetGalley for sending me an e-copy of the book to review.

Next up, I listened to the audiobook of J.D. Vance’s book “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” which the author does a fine job of reading. It came out last June, and I feel like I might be one of the last bloggers to get to it. It’s been that popular! I had no idea, really, but the book’s sales sure took off amid the pre- and post-election hoopla, despite not being about politics or even mentioning Trump. Nor did I know the author was just 31 when it came out last year — it’s a memoir by a young person one could say.

As many know it’s about the author and his family’s life growing up poor in the Rust Belt — first in Kentucky’s Appalachia region then in Ohio, where his grandparents moved hoping to escape the poverty. J.D. chronicles how he was raised along with his sister mostly by his grandparents since his parents divorced — his dad moved away and his mother struggled with addiction problems and a trove of men and unsuccessful relationships.

To say his family life was chaotic would be putting it mildly. But luckily for him, his tough, gun-toting grandmother provided the stability and guidance he needed to get through high school. She is quite a character, who was not to be messed with. A couple years in the Marines also gave him discipline and structure and he went on to attend Ohio State University and thereafter Yale Law School and a high-paying job.

It’s quite a rise and the book chronicles his life’s changes in details that make for an interesting read. I admire how J.D. overcame so much (especially dealing with his mother) to get his education and job and make his life better. His genuineness in the book and the audio’s narration come through, and he tells it in a way that is straightforward and pretty humble. It’s mostly a memoir but also talks about the white working-class; he seems to love his hillbilly family and neighbors but is also critical of them.

Perhaps one of my takeaways of the book is that it takes a village or a support system to raise a child, especially when you don’t have reliable parents (surprisingly this sounds like Hillary). He credits his grandparents, sister, and mentors along the way for helping him. That seems key. I also like how he talks about taking personal responsibility and not always blaming others or the government for one’s place.

Apparently J.D.’s a conservative Republican who didn’t vote for Trump or Clinton, but someone else. But I’d be surprised from what I read in the book if he fully sees eye to eye with Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, are you kidding me? Does he? I didn’t find the book abundantly political — and I may not agree with everything in it — but I thought it was thought-provoking, and I’ll be curious to see where the author’s thoughts and life take him from here.

Lastly in fiction, I also listened to the audiobook of Nicola Yoon’s young-adult novel “The Sun Is Also a Star,” which is about a teenage girl (Natasha) in New York, who along with her family faces deportation to Jamaica in 12 hours, and a first generation Korean American boy (Daniel) who is being pushed by his parents to attend a college and career path he doesn’t want. Daniel and Natasha fatefully meet, and over the course of a long day, traipsing around the city trying to solve their problems, fall for one another, while their personal histories and those of their families unfold.

I thought there were a lot of excellent things about this story: the dialogue and details with which Yoon writes about teenage life and love seem pretty authentic and she knows a lot about the magic of love and how to write about it. The families and perspectives also seemed fairly realistic, though they came off a bit stereotypical. It’s a timely premise with today’s climate of increasing deportations, and the anxiety in it seemed palpable. I actually liked this book of Yoon’s better than her first bestselling novel “Everything, Everything,” which is coming out as a movie this month.

Though I might be too jaded to fully believe that two people can fall in love with one another in 12 hours. When I pick up a YA book, I often feel like I’m the wrong audience for the genre as the whole melodrama of the teenage experience isn’t often my cup of tea. So it’s usually me and not the book to blame. A few parts of this novel got a bit cheesy to me, and other parts I thought included an overabundance of cursing by the boy Daniel. Still I’m glad I finished it, and I think Yoon has a lot of talent writing YA fiction if she doesn’t go too overboard. I like her optimism and the spirit of love in her stories.

As for TV shows we’ve been watching, we finished Season 6 of “Homeland,” which ends with the president-elect pretty much going bonkers with retribution and cutting civil liberties. Hmm, is anyone paying attention? Now we’re into the TV series of “The Handmaid’s Tale” — based on the 1985 dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood in which a totalitarian and Christian fundamentalist government rules the former United States amidst an ongoing civil war — where society is organized with classes of women being brutally subjugated.

Oh my it’s grim, bleak stuff! After three episodes, my husband has declared it darker than Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” Still it’s hard to turn away from and there is hope for the resistance. Filmed around Ontario, Canada, the series apparently has been renewed for a second season to premiere in 2018. Viva the resistance!

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

Posted in Books, TV | 26 Comments

May Preview

Oh thank goodness we survived the April tax season and are now into the more pleasant month of May. The tennis tournament I played in over the weekend was fun though I didn’t win any top prizes. I battled in both singles and doubles and seem to have more work to do with my game over the summer. So I guess that’s all right, if only my bad knees will cooperate. (Note to knees: stay healthy despite the twists, turns, and pounding on the court you will endure.) Meanwhile there’s plenty of new releases to talk about this month, so let’s get started.

First off, who will be diving into Paula Hawkins’s new novel “Into the Water”? Ugh it’s received some pretty poor reviews from The Guardian as well as The New York Times, but will that stop us from reading an author whose prior book (need I mention the title) sold 20 million copies worldwide? Maybe. It doesn’t bode well that “Into the Water” includes 11 narrative voices that the Guardian says are “almost impossible to tell apart” and end up being both “monotonous and confusing.” Moreover Janet Maslin of the New York Times writes: Hawkins’s “goal may be to build suspense, but all she achieves is confusion. “Into the Water” is jam-packed with minor characters and stories that go nowhere.” Yikes. I think I’ll take a rain check on this one, though I did enjoy her prior blockbuster book for the genre that it was.

Instead I might try Richard Russo’s new book called “Trajectory,” which is a collection of four relatively long short stories. All of these stories, I’ve heard, are about aging people — college professors, a writer, and a real estate agent. Apparently it’s a book filled with characters quite different than Russo’s usual blue-collar, small-town Maine citizens, but I’ll believe that when I read it.

I enjoyed his 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Empire Falls” as well as the movie adaptation of his 1993 book “Nobody’s Fool” with Paul Newman, which was great. He’s a gem of a writer, and if you’re a fan, I heard this latest one is a must-read. So I hope to dive into it soon.

Another one I’m considering is Melodie Winawer’s debut novel “The Scribe of Siena.” Apparently it’s one part historical mystery and one part love story that includes elements of time-travel that blends the modern day with 14th-century Siena. Some say it’s reminiscent of Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander” and Tracy Chevalier’s “The Girl with the Pearl Earring,” if you liked those.

Usually I wouldn’t say I’m a fan of time-travel narratives, but some of the high praise this one has received on Goodreads makes me want to snatch it up — as well as the fact that I visited Siena a few years ago and found its history quite fascinating. I wouldn’t mind going back in time to check out life in medieval Siena.

I might also like to try J. Courtney Sullivan’s novel “Saints for All Occasions” about two Irish-Catholic sisters who journey to America full of hope only to find that a subsequent secret drives them apart. Hmm. Maybe this one, involving Catholic guilt, silences, and secrets, will appeal to the folks who liked the novel and movie “Brooklyn,” though I think this novel will differ a bit from that. I guess I want to know more about the secrecy going on.

I haven’t read Sullivan before, so that makes me curious too. From what I’ve read about the novel on Goodreads, it might be just the right family saga for a beach read.

Lastly, I’ll probably check out Dennis Lehane’s latest novel “Since We Fell,” which sounds like it gets crazy midway through and doesn’t let up. Remember Lehane’s novel “Shutter Island”? Well if you liked that kind of psychological, tense thriller, you’ll probably like this one as well.

It’s about a former journalist (his first female protagonist) who after an on-air mental breakdown, now barely leaves her house. Still she enjoys a good marriage until apparently a chance encounter “sucks her into a conspiracy thick with deception, violence, and possibly madness,” which she must find the strength in herself to overcome. Yikes it sounds a bit like “Shutter Island” Part 2, but perhaps it’ll be a fast-paced read while catching rays and drinking beer on the back deck. We’ll see.

Meanwhile in movies for May, I know that fans of “Guardians of the Galaxy,” who have been waiting patiently, will now be happy for the long-awaited Vol. 2. I’m sure “Guardians” will rule the month at the box office exponentially, yet it will have to compete with another “Pirates of the Caribbean” film at the end of the month. I have lost track of those, but apparently Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, and Keira Knightley are still apart of the swashbuckling script.

There’s also a new “Alien” prequel flick, this time called  “Alien Covenant,” which looks scary as all heck. I did see “Prometheus” back in 2012 and this apparently is the sequel to that. I’m a bit of a Michael Fassbender freak and luckily he’s returned for this one, though I’m not sure I’ll see it — as it would probably make me jump out of my skin.

But I am game for the movie “The Dinner,” which is adapted from the Herman Koch novel you might remember. Oh yes, how could one forget. It’s a novel I thought was pretty effective and disturbing. In the movie, the two couples are played by Steve Coogan and Laura Linney, and Richard Gere and Rebecca Hall. Quite a good cast.

The movie has been hailed by some critics as a “provocative journey” and panned by others, with only a 48 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, Ouch. From what little I’ve read about it, the numerous flashbacks get in the way of the story’s suspense, but I’ve been trying not to read too much about it because I still hope to see it. Call me crazy for that.

Lastly for May, there’s new albums in pop music by Harry Styles, and Ruth B (she’s from Alberta!); and in country music by the Zac Brown Band; and in singer-songwriter folky music by Justin Townes Earle — all of which sound pretty good. But I’ll pick the album — “Safe Haven” — by the young Ruth B for my pick this month since she’s a local to the province and her song “Lost Boy” is still pretty infectious.

What about you — which upcoming books, movies, and music are you looking forward to this month?

Posted in Top Picks | 32 Comments

The Women in the Castle and Anne of Green Gables

Well it turned into another snow day here. First it rains, then it snows, then it melts away. Then it repeats. Still I await spring; there’s buds on the trees and plants, and the grass under the snow is green, I swear. I haven’t posted in awhile because I’ve been busy playing in a couple of indoor tennis tournaments. I leave town tomorrow to play in another tournament and I can only hope the tennis gods are with me and my doubles partner. She’s Austrian and amazing. So we will see. Meanwhile I will leave you with a couple of reviews of books I finished last week.

The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck, 2017, 353 pgs, William Morrow

I think I was drawn to this one because it’s received a lot of positive hype and it dropped timely into my lap from the library. I wasn’t actually looking for another WWII story (I seem to have had my fill lately), but this novel is set in Germany and delves more into how three widows rebuild their lives after the war, which is a bit of a different take than the usual.

I’m not sure I’ve read too many WWII novels that are set solely in Germany, or from a German perspective, though I have read Markus Zusak’s 2005 novel “The Book Thief” and Bernhard Schlink’s 1995 novel “The Reader,” both of which were quite effective in a devastating kind of way. “The Reader” shares some of this book’s themes.

In this one, a German widow named Marianne returns after the defeat of Nazi Germany to the dilapidated Bavarian castle of her husband’s ancestors. Her husband, a resister, was killed after being involved in the July 1944 failed plot to assassinate Hitler, and Marianne plans to keep her promise to help and protect her husband’s conspirators — her fellow resistance widows.

As the war ends, she ends up rescuing Benita from the Red Army in Berlin, and Benita’s son Martin from a Nazi reeducation house, inviting them to live with her at the castle, as well as another widow, Ania, and her two sons. It’s a makeshift family that Marianne thinks will hold together from common ground, but little does she know how their secrets and different experiences threaten to rip them apart.

It’s a fairly intriguing premise and the first half of the novel flies by with some great storytelling about their lives. All three widows have made different choices before, during, and after the war and have dealt with its horrors in different ways. Post-war, Marianne seems to want to confront the atrocities head on, watching the news, volunteering, and having the kids know all about what happened; while Benita is set on moving on to the future; and Ania remarries only to be interrupted by someone from her past. All three are more complex and not as likable as you might initially think.

I was intrigued by the story’s themes namely those of shame, complicity, and what the average German knew or did not know or think about during the war’s darkest times. It’s something that you wonder about. What was the main populace doing or thinking? Does it have any parallels to today’s political climate? This book provides some interesting glimpses into what was going on. Interestingly in an Op-ed last month in the New York Times, the author wrote a piece entitled “I Loved My Grandmother. But She Was a Nazi.” In it she reveals her grandmother’s answers to some of the same questions she grapples with in this novel. It’s heady stuff.

The only trouble I had with “The Women in the Castle” was that while I liked the first half of it, I found the last portion of it dropped off for me. Starting with Part III and along with Part IV there’s a change in time and momentum and somehow the story lost some of its luster and mojo for me. It sort of drivels off towards its ending. But overall there are still plenty of good things I liked about “The Women in the Castle,” which made me glad I read it. For those who liked the storytelling of the novels “All the Light We Cannot See” and “The Nightingale,” this one seemed in a similar ballpark.

Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, 1908, (audiobook read by Shelly Frasier)

Meanwhile I listened to this children’s classic as an audiobook last week. And I want to thank Naomi over at the blog  Consumed by Ink for all the attention she’s given to L.M. Montgomery over the years and to Canadian Lit in general. She got me interested (again). I’m not sure I had read the Anne stories in my youth (uh-oh) though I was aware of them. For some reason, for me I was deep into Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel “The Secret Garden” (1911), Jean Webster’s book “Daddy-Long-Legs” (1912) and Anna Sewell’s “Black Beauty” (1877), though that had a different theme altogether.

Of course I knew I needed to acquaint myself with Anne (make no mistake that’s Anne with an E) in order to live in this great country of Canada. Perhaps it’ll be on the citizenship test as well it should be. Anne of Green Gables, as most know, is the 11-year-old orphan girl who is adopted by Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert and grows up on Prince Edward Island (which I hope to visit someday in the years ahead). She is a bright young girl who sure is a talker! She exasperates her mother — with all her mishaps and talking — but also gets into her heart as well. Anne’s vivid imagination doesn’t need cultivating like it does in others but transforms her parents’ and best friend Diana’s modest lives in innumerable ways. There’s a little Tom Sawyer and Dennis the Menace about Anne, but she’s also whip-smart and a good girl too.

Book 1 tells of Anne’s youthful adventures and her school days, which she excels at as a student. Just don’t call her carrot head. Oh how she dislikes her red hair and freckles, and is very sensitive about them. Her schoolmate Gilbert Blythe had to learn the hard way after teasing her about her hair; it’d be years before she ever spoke to him again. The novel ends with Anne deciding whether to attend college, or stay at Green Gables and teach at the local school.

Of course, it’s a charming story (drawn upon from the author’s own childhood experiences on PEI) and one that is still entertaining and as popular as ever. I had to wrench the audiobook out from all the other Anne newbies and fans on the waiting list, but I successfully did so in due time. I’m sure I should read the rest of the series at some point — or else face self-deportation — in this year that marks the 150th anniversary of Canada’s Confederation. I’m really thankful to be here these days.

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

Posted in Books | 18 Comments

The Sense of an Ending and 10:04

Happy Easter! I hope everyone has a great day. We woke up this morning to a trace of snow on the ground. It is quite pretty out now, but it will likely all melt away by afternoon. There’s a robin trying to build a nest in the tree out front and was mad when I came out to take pictures. Snow or no snow, this robin is busy at work — and must not be disturbed.

There’s plenty of snow left in the Canadian Rockies as the hub went skiing yesterday and said it was powdery up there. So while you get your mitts and ski outfit back on, I’ll leave you with a couple of reviews of books I finished last week.

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, 2011, 150 pages, Jonathan Cape

Recently I saw the movie adaptation of this novel and then I went back and read the book. Usually it’s the other way around: book first and then the movie, logically. But the movie was leaving the theater and I didn’t want to miss it. The movie is quite good and follows the book fairly closely though there are a few differences.

There’s definitely a number of passages in the book that make it great, along with the story, though I’m still wondering if I liked the movie just as much — as crazy as that sounds. The Indian director Ritesh Batra, who made “The Lunchbox,” does a great job with the film, along with the veteran actors Jim Broadbent and Charlotte Rampling. Need I say more?

I’m not sure why I didn’t read the Julian Barnes novel back in 2011 when it won the Man Booker Prize. It has the kind of haunting storyline from one’s past that always seems to get me. I think it’s been compared to Ian McEwan’s novel “Atonement,” which is one of my all-time favorites. I guess I can see a similarity in that in both books an act is committed in one’s youth that inflicts much hurt and is deeply regretted later in life. These are the stories that often kill me.

In “The Sense of an Ending,” it all starts when the book’s protagonist Tony Webster, a divorced man in his 60s, is bequeathed a diary that belonged to his brilliant school friend, Adrian, who committed suicide 40 years earlier at the age of 22. Tony doesn’t actually get the diary though because his long-ago first girlfriend Veronica, who later dated Adrian in college, has gotten her hands on it. It’s in this struggle over the diary that Tony begins to revisit what happened in his youth and of how badly he reacted to Adrian’s and Veronica’s involvement.

It’s a story in which a lot of ideas come to the forefront — as Tony mulls over his past and his teen days with Veronica — about time and memory and how we choose to reshape events as we tell them to ourselves and others over our lives. There are definitely some truthful passages in the novel that held me deeply, though there’s also Tony’s whiny, obsessive ways and irksome narration at times. I wanted to strangle him: to get on with it. He’s not been that great a person to those close to him and he did something pretty awful way back when. Oh the stupid things we do in our youths!

How it plays out at the end might surprise you. The twist only deepens Tony’s part in it. But his sense of guilt and profound regret seem to save him and made him more redeemable to me. It’s quite a story, packed within a short book and one I won’t forget anytime soon.

10:04 by Ben Lerner, 2014, 256 pages, Farrar Straus Giroux

Meanwhile I listened to this novel as an audiobook last week. I must be going through a New York autobiographical, quirky novel kind of phase as this one is my second in recent weeks. I’m not sure if the novel was as much a full story as episodes in this guy’s life but still it was entertaining.

The protagonist is a 33-year-old Brooklyn-based novelist, poet, and teacher who’s got a lot on his plate at the moment: he’s been recently diagnosed with a serious medical condition; he’s trying to write a second novel — a follow-up to his surprisingly successful debut; and his best friend has asked him to help her conceive a child. He’s reckoning his mortality and the prospect of fatherhood, all the while the city is undergoing frequent superstorms and social unrest.

It’s a pretty funny story, or so the narrator makes it out to be. He’s quite clever, perhaps too much for his own good. There’s many episodes in his writerly life — such as when the narrator gives a reading at a writers’ event and meets a famous author and then later when he goes to a writer’s retreat in Marfa, Texas — that are quite amusing and take unexpected turns. In one part, he talks about the episode that made him want to become a writer — the poetry used at the memorial after the Challenger disaster in 1986. There’s even a part in which a short story the narrator submits to the New Yorker is put in its entirety within the book, and then it tells what happens to the story.

“10:04” is a bit modern and quirky like that. The structure is a bit scattered and that’s probably why I gave it 3.5 stars on Goodreads. But I seem to have liked it a bit more than Jami Attenberg’s New York novel “All Grown Up,” which I reviewed a couple weeks back. In both books, there’s heart underlying the characters’ funny and at times biting disposition that becomes apparent along the way.

“10:04” put Ben Lerner on the map for me, though I’m sure it won’t be a book for everyone. Sometime I want to go back and read his first novel “Leaving the Atocha Station” from 2011— as it does sound similarly humorous and self-deprecating as this one.

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

Posted in Books, Movies | 25 Comments