Brother and Unstoppable: My Life So Far

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Books, Movies | 17 Comments

December Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Top Picks | 19 Comments

The Last Neanderthal and Sourdough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Books | 27 Comments

The Stranger in the Woods and Goodbye, Vitamin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Books | 12 Comments

Home Fire and Ethan Frome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Books | 18 Comments

November Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Top Picks | 34 Comments

Stay With Me and The Glass Castle (movie)

Greetings and Happy Halloween. I’ll try to remember the candy for Tuesday evening. Last week, I was in Southern California visiting my parents — where I also got to see my brother and sister who gathered for a couple days. It was a scorcher there. We spent some time inland not too far from Palm Springs and also at the beach at the OC where it hit over 100 degrees. Yikes it’s never that hot at the beach! Well at least since 1965, so confirmed the newspaper. I went swimming in the Pacific multiple times — which says a whole lot — as the water is usually freezing, but it felt great this time. I guess I hadn’t been back during late October in a couple decades so I expected some autumn temps but apparently not lately. So much for fall. It was a bit confusing, though not all together unpleasant for a current resident of Canada.

While there, I finished Nigerian author Ayobami Adebayo’s debut novel “Stay With Me.” It’s about Yejide and Akin — a young married couple in Nigeria who love each other very much but whose fertility issues end up driving their relationship to the brink. After a couple years, in which Yejide can’t get pregnant, the husband’s in-laws suggest a second wife for him, which apparently is the tradition there of having multiple wives. Though neither Yejide and Akin, who meet years before at university, really want this and conspire separately taking significant lengths for a solution to their pregnancy problems that ends up having devastating consequences.

Ohhh, there’s a lot of grief in this story, which is told in alternating chapters by the husband and wife. If only they had talked their personal problems through, but no! Too much pride and tradition seems to stand in the way. At different times, I sympathized with both of the protagonists, but I also found fault with their decisions too. Their head-space seems to drive both to make some poor choices, which put me on edge about them. Despite this, I liked how the story, which is set against a backdrop of Nigeria’s political upheavals, explores issues between tradition and modernity and masculinity and femininity, as well as self-identity. You get the feeling that these characters are pulling against the past in Nigeria while trying to step into a more modern and democratic time.

There’s quite a bit to think on in this short novel, which rolls along at a steady pace. After finishing it, I didn’t know just what I felt about it at first — for sure, I was relieved the ending was happier — but as time passed I’ve thought “Stay with Me” was potent, sad, thought-provoking and well done. It explores one couple’s marriage a little like Lauren Groff’s novel “Fates and Furies” did — combined with the backdrop and culture of Nigeria like in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel “Americanah.” Both were quite effective. I’d like to read more novels from African authors, so this is a new start.

Also last week before I left for California, my husband and I saw the movie “The Glass Castle” at the $5 theater in town. Despite my misapprehensions that the movie would be bad based on the trailer and critics’ reviews and that it wouldn’t live up to the book, it ended up being quite good. So the movie proved me wrong big time! My husband and I had both read Jeannette Walls’s 2005 best-selling memoir this summer and both liked the movie.

Although it’s a rough, condensed version of her family’s story, the movie still manages to hit some of the essence of her superb book. It cuts to the universality of the parent – child relationship, and doesn’t go too easy on how terrible these particular parents were at times, though the mother seems noticeably a bit less of a problem than she appears in the book.

Brie Larson as Jeannette Walls and Woody Harrelson as her father end up being quite excellent. (Brie earns big kudos from me for taking on the movie adaptations of the book “Room” and now “Castle” in roles that surely weren’t easy.) So despite all the negative hype about the movie, I’m glad I saw it. While it might not be as shattering or as great as the memoir is, it is still worth seeing as a heart-tugging drama about children and their parents. I especially liked how they show some of the real photos of the family and places at the end of the movie. Hooray for Jeannette.

How about you — have you read “Stay With Me” or seen this movie — and if so, what did you think?

Till next time, I’ll leave you with this parting shot of the sunset at the beach in California taken by my brother while I was there. Who knew — it’s never too late in the season for beach reads.

Posted in Books, Movies | 22 Comments

The Child Finder and I Had to Survive

The annual book festival, Wordfest, was very enjoyable here last week. I went to quite a few author talks and readings and picked up a couple signed copies. My favorite talks included one from Canadian author Claire Cameron who spoke about her new novel “The Last Neanderthal,” which follows the story of two female protagonists 40,000 years apart. One character is a Neanderthal girl who’s part of a depleted family, and the other is an archaeologist who unearths her bones in the modern day.

I must say I was impressed by the author’s extensive research and knowledge of Neanderthals for her novel. She said she came up with the idea for the story in 2010 when she read an article about the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome, which showed an incredible overlap of about 99.7 percent between modern humans and Neanderthal DNA. Wow, who knew we were so closely related to this archaic human species, which became extinct around 40,000 years ago. I hope to check out “The Last Neanderthal” sometime in the near future.

I also enjoyed the talk with nonfiction authors Michael Finkel and Alexis Okeowo, see photo at left. Finkel spoke about his latest book “The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit,” which is about a man who lived alone in the woods of Maine for 27 years in a tent. Did he really? My husband is sort of dubious of this, but apparently it is a true story of this man’s sojourn into the wilderness. He was ultimately apprehended after breaking into vacation homes to steal stuff and reintroduced back into society. I’ll be curious to see if the book is as good as Jon Krakauer’s similarly themed 1996 book “Into the Wild” about Chris McCandless who lived by himself for a while in the Alaskan wilderness. That story floored me with its tragic sadness.

I also met author Alexis Okeowo who writes for The New Yorker and spoke about her debut book “A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa.” Okeowo, an American raised in Alabama by Nigerian parents, seems like a talented young star and one to watch. Her book is a result of the five years she spent living in Africa and reporting across the continent.

As Publishers Weekly says of it: “Okeowo’s in-depth, perceptive reporting gives a voice to the extraordinarily courageous—and resilient—women and men fighting malevolent ideologies and organizations in their native countries.” I found the author bright and engaging. So count me in for this one.

Also at the book festival, I heard novelists Tom Perrotta speak about his latest book “Mrs. Fletcher,” which is about a 46-year-old divorcee whose quiet suburban life becomes upended when her online porn fixations start to spill over into her real life, and Ruth Ware’s latest crime thriller “The Lying Game,” which is set at a boarding school about four friends whose dicey game ends up having dire consequences. I’m not sure either novel is at the top of my list, but I did enjoy hearing them speak about their books and their thinking process in writing them. Both authors were quite impressive, and have various TV/movie options of their books in the works. See the photo of the authors above at left.

Lastly I’ll leave you with brief reviews of two books I finished last week. First Rene Denfeld’s novel “The Child Finder” is about a private investigator who specializes in missing children and gets on the case of a 5-year-old missing girl who disappeared three years ago while with her parents in a national forest in rural Oregon. Told in alternating chapters by the investigator (Naomi) and the child (Madison), you soon realize that Naomi was once a missing child herself and still has reoccurring nightmares of her days abducted that she’s still trying to figure out; and that Madison is a bright, perceptive child who is doing her best in the predicament she’s in.

It takes a while for Naomi to get any leads on the case as she pokes around the small hamlet in the forest. You wish she’d hurry up, even though it moves almost as well as a snowball downhill to its reckoning. I found the story quite visual and atmospheric, good for suspense. And the author writes about damaged people — like she did with her first novel — quite well.

My only trouble with “The Child Finder” was that I had very high expectations of it because of how much I liked the author’s 2014 debut novel “The Enchanted,” but this one I found pretty typical of other thrillers and missing children stories. I didn’t find the same spark or originality I had with her first book, which wasn’t a thriller, so this one seemed to pale in comparison. Too bad. Sophomore efforts can be hard; sometimes for the author and sometimes for the reader. Still I will continue to see what she writes next.

Also I finished the audiobook of Roberto Canessa’s 2016 memoir (written with co-author Pablo Vierci) titled “I Had to Survive: How a Plane Crash in the Andes Inspired My Calling to Save Lives.” Oh my, if you are of a certain age, you probably remember the popular 1974 book “Alive” about the true story of a Uruguayan rugby team whose chartered flight of 45 people crashed into the Andes mountains in October 1972. The survivors spent some 70+ days stranded in the wrecked plane near a mountain peak in sub-zero temperatures and were forced to eat the dead in order to stay alive. Ultimately two of the emaciated players hiked 10 days over the icy peak to get help for the remaining 14. It’s a harrowing and epic survival tale and more deserving than just being known for its cannibalism.

Roberto Canessa, who was 19 at the time and one of the survivors that hiked for help, revisits the story some 40 years later in the book, which is broken into two parts. In the first half, he recounts in vivid detail the horrible plane crash and ordeal on the mountain, as well as the mind-boggling hike out — without proper clothing or gear — to try to find help. It’s quite miraculous he made it that far, considering he had lost 70 pounds and was very weak and withered by the end.

The book’s second half delves into Canessa’s later life as a world-renowned pediatric cardiologist at the Italian Hospital of Montevideo in Uruguay. It recounts his medical cases, saving children with heart defects, which is also pretty amazing, along with his commitment to his patients and always having hope for them no matter how dire their health is.

Quite a bit of the book is told by Canessa, but there are various other chapters that are told by: the flight crews that tried to find them; his father who searched; as well as in the later chapters: the parents of the children he’s treated; and his son and daughter. So you get quite a few different voices telling about his life.

Although the book’s second half gets a bit redundant — involving Canessa’s various medical cases and virtues — taken as a whole his story is quite life-affirming, inspiring, and  an example of giving your all when facing adversity and always having hope despite overwhelming odds. The things that Dr. Canessa learned from the plane crash he says have helped to serve his entire life … as a doctor, father and husband. Surely he seems to have never forgotten those desperate days on the mountain and has put his time after surviving it to good use. His is a very admirable story.

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

Posted in Books | 28 Comments

History of Wolves and Lincoln in the Bardo

How is your fall going? A lot of the leaves are down here now so I need to get out and rake, rake, rake the yard. We had some snow but luckily it didn’t stick around too long, though more flakes are in the forecast. This week is busy with the book festival, Wordfest, going on here; I think I’m attending eight author events. Most notably perhaps is an evening with authors Tom Perrotta and Ruth Ware. I’m also looking forward to seeing nonfiction author Michael Finkel who wrote “The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit,” which came out this year and I’m on the wait list for at the library. I’m sure there will be plenty of other interesting readings and talks,  mostly by Canadian authors who are featured here, so I will let you know how it goes.

Also kudos to British author Kazuo Ishiguro for winning the Nobel Prize in Literature last week, Wow. I thought it was a good choice. I loved his novels “The Remains of the Day” (1989) and “Never Let Me Go” (2005) — so sad and good. I’d like to read more of his books including “A Pale View of Hills” (1982) and “An Artist of the Floating World” (1986) among others. I’ve heard various people say that “An Artist of the Floating World” is their favorite of his novels, but I think “Never Let Me Go” is hard to beat. Which one is your favorite of his?

Meanwhile I will leave you with a couple reviews of what I finished last week. Both of them happen to be shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize.

Set in Northern Minnesota, Emily Fridlund’s debut novel “History of Wolves” is a coming-of-age story that is quite unsettling. It’s about a 14-year-old girl (Linda) who lives with her parents in a drafty cabin in the woods by a lake, where they once were apart of a commune. She’s a lonely girl, unsupervised most of the time, who comes to be the babysitter for a 4-year-old boy whose parents have a place a mile or so away. Something happens to the boy — you learn this at the very beginning, though it’s not revealed then how — and the girl, Linda, who doesn’t see it coming, is haunted by it in the years after.

Told in the first person by Linda, the story delves back and forth in time over her young life there and her relations with the boy and his parents — as well as there’s a side story about Linda’s high school history teacher, who she’s drawn to, that’s accused by a student of wrongdoing. This side part turns out to have some thematic parallels with the main story about the boy, though it’s not evidently clear what those are until the very end.

I’m still rolling over in my mind what I thought of the novel. It sort of creeped me out in a bit of an icky way, but it did get under my skin. It very slightly reminded me of Celeste Ng’s novel “Everything I Never Told You” because the boy’s fate is known at the beginning (like Ng’s character’s is), and because I wanted to shake some sense into each of these characters at some point, just like I did with Ng’s book. You’ll figure out what happens long before Emily Fridlund’s character Linda does, but like her, you probably won’t want to see it coming.

I guess I’m a bit surprised “History of Wolves” was shortlisted for this year’s prestigious Man Booker Prize. For one thing, it’s a debut novel — and for another, I didn’t realize they pick many in this psychological thriller genre for the award (but maybe that’s just my own misconception). Also some of the threads of the story seemed to strain one’s sense a bit — though I do agree it is a pretty visceral debut — both a bit moving and disturbing. I will watch to see what the author writes next.

Second up, I finished listening to the audiobook of George Saunders’s offbeat and much-talked-about novel “Lincoln in the Bardo,” which features 166 different actors’ voices for the many parts — perhaps the record for any audiobook. Surely all the different voices light up the story. It’s a lyrical narrative and at times the chapters sound like poetry and at other times the scenes of the interaction between characters come off like a play.

The novel has quite a few components to it, but mainly it intermixes historical parts about President Abraham Lincoln after his 11-year-old son Willie dies in 1862 — with a fictional story about ghosts in limbo of those dead, including Willie, who hang out at the cemetery where he is buried. It’s quite a motley crew of the undead who are in various states of decay that befriend Willie. They yammer amongst themselves about their past lives and their anxieties of their current limbo.

I didn’t know exactly what to make of all the ghosts. Some are comical and some tragic; they made me contemplate otherworldly states a bit. But despite their colorful liveliness, I was more drawn in the story to the interspersed historical parts about Lincoln that Saunders compiles from bits of letters, diaries, newspaper articles, testimonies, and history books. Some of these sources are fictional, while others are real. They are quite fascinating, and give a portrait of Lincoln that shows his utter grief over his son’s death, the struggles he has with his faith, and the loss of lives in the Civil War. It’s a sobering and sad view of the president and all that was happening at the time. (I guess I didn’t realize either that there was a party given at the White House the night Willie lay ill and dying upstairs, which only compounded the Lincolns’ grief later.)

All in all, I enjoyed the language of “Lincoln in the Bardo” — which made it feel like it was 1862 — and its imagery and history. Though there were times in the audio that I became lost with who was speaking and what was happening — due to the immense number of characters and facets to the story, and therefore I should go back at some point and read the print version as well. Despite its brevity, there’s quite a bit to take in. Some parts of the novel worked better for me than others, yet I still think it’s likely to win this year’s Booker Prize.

Finally last week my husband and I saw the movie “Battle of the Sexes” about the 1973 tennis match between then-world No. 1 Billie Jean King and ex-champ and hustler Bobby Riggs. Oh it’s an enjoyable movie and is about much more than tennis (which is mostly at the end of the film). It delves into the personal lives of both Billie Jean and Bobby at the time, and the social change that was going on in the country. With Emma Stone as Billie Jean and Steve Carell as Bobby what are you waiting for? They are terrific in the roles — even if slightly nuanced from the real Bobby and Billie Jean.

Surely pro athletes such as Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams have much to thank (as we all do) for the early women pioneers of the sport, who are highlighted in the movie, though there’s still plenty of room for improvement of women’s equality and workplace fairness … which is clearly evident this week by the abhorrent story of Harvey Weinstein and how he conducted business at Miramax films for decades. In regards to all these cases that have recently come forward (with Cosby, Roger Ailes, and Bill O’Reilly etc.) —   “Battle of the Sexes” seems to be still highly relevant and timely in a number of ways.

That’s all for now. What about you — have you read these books or seen this movie and if so, what did you think?

Posted in Books, Movies | 26 Comments

Mini-Reviews and October Releases

Ahhh it’s October. I hope you are enjoying fall where you are. It’s been nice here the past few weeks and I love the colors. But wait, what’s this I hear … they’re calling for 10 to 20 cm of snow today on Monday; are you kidding me?! Darn, the only happy camper will be our dog, Stella, who enjoys the cold. We’ll see how much we get. Meanwhile there’s only three reading months left of the year, so I’ll try and bear down to get to some of the better novels of 2017. This month an array of new releases look to be enticing and I’ll discuss those in the paragraphs that follow, but first I’ll leave you with a couple of brief reviews of what I finished last week.

Rachel Cusk’s 2014 novel “Outline,” the first in a trilogy, is one of the more different novels I’ve read this year — the story follows a woman who travels to Athens to teach a summer writing workshop and details the conversations she has with various people and friends she meets there. Not much is divulged about the woman herself but those she’s in contact with tell her much about their daily lives, such as their loves, losses, ambitions, perceptions and things that have happened to them. Quite a few of them have been divorced or have had relationships that have fallen apart.

They spill the beans to her, so the woman must be a sympathetic listener, though she isn’t much of a talker. You get only glimpses of what she’s about and her background. Over time from bits and pieces you gather: that she’s from London, she’s divorced, has two sons and is in debt. Only towards the end do you learn her name is Faye. It seems her divorce has been rough on her — like quite a few of those narratives she listens to — which are from students, or fellow writers or friends or the man she sits next to on the plane. All of the narratives put together feel sort of like a meditation on the relations between men and women.

It’s not much of an action story, more of a thinking one, but I found Cusk’s writing kept my attention. Her descriptions were restrained but often pitch perfect; they seemed to capture some of Faye’s inner mood and the different kind of living she mentions trying to start. A few people have told me they didn’t care for the novel and I can see where it wouldn’t be for everyone — a story made out solely of conversations between various people and the main character — can get old, but for the most part I thought Cusk wrote it well enough to pull it off. She seems quite a smart cookie and though I’m not sure I understood everything she mentions in her short novel, I appreciated the command of her writing.

I eventually plan to get to her second book in this trilogy — “Transit” — which has recently been shortlisted for Canada’s 2017 Giller Prize.

Next up, I finished the audiobook of Graham Norton’s 2016 debut novel “Holding,” which I’m pleased to say was a total delight. I went into the story blind and didn’t realize until after that the author is a TV and radio presenter in the U.K. Do you know of him? His novel is about a small village in Ireland whose inhabitants’ lives are disrupted when decades-old human remains are discovered on an old farm. The remains are suspected to be those of Tommy Burke, a former love of two different ladies in town. As police Sergeant PJ Collins tries to solve the case (the first real one of his career), a lot of resentments, secrets and regrets are stirred up in the community along the way.

It’s an enjoyable small caper of a story — revealing the lives of half a dozen characters in the village. I got right into it and found the storytelling quite entertaining, especially with a bit of the spotlight on overweight Sergeant PJ Collins, who is quite a sympathetic hoot. You’ll have to wait till the very end to find out about the case, but that’s not really the story’s main appeal. Instead it’s the frumpy village and the characters stories. I thought it had a lot of charm and heart to it — as well as being funny and sad at times too.

The author reads the novel for the audio and performs all the parts very well — making it one of my favorite audios of the year. Who knew? I wouldn’t be surprised if a second novel with police sergeant PJ Collins were to follow.

But now on to October releases and my, there’s a slew of upcoming ones by an array of well-known authors, including Alice Hoffman, Isabel Allende, Mark Helprin, T.C. Boyle, Jeffrey Archer, Walter Isaacson, and even a memoir by Amy Tan. I’m zeroing in on a few others that I’d like to get my hooks into.

Most noticeably the marketing has been high for Jennifer Egan’s new novel “Manhattan Beach.” Gracious it’s been all over the place. If for some reason you were on Mars and missed her Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” which I did, then there’s time to get back onboard with this more traditional historical novel of hers. It’s said to be set on the Brooklyn docks during WWII and follows an intrepid young woman into a world populated by gangsters, sailors, divers, bankers, and union men. Hmm, I’m game as I need to try Egan out. She seems to be the literary darling of most every critic.

Also Jeffrey Eugenides has a collection of short stories out called “Fresh Complaint” that I probably will grab. Ever since he won the Pulitzer Prize for “Middlesex” and I read his novel “The Marriage Plot,” I’ve been keen on his fiction.

The stories in this new book are said to be ones he’s been steadily producing through the years; even his M.F.A. thesis is included within it. I may not be a frequent reader of short story collections, but if it’s from Eugenides then I must venture forth for it. Still I must ask: when is his next novel coming out?!

Next up, there’s British author Naomi Alderman’s dystopian novel “The Power,” which won the 2017 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. A protege of Margaret Atwood’s, Alderman’s book was influenced by and dedicated to her. It’s apparently about teenage girls who develop the ability to inflict pain through jolts from their fingers, thus enabling them to become the dominant gender and resetting the world’s order. As the Guardian’s reviewer says of the book: “What starts out as a fantasy of female empowerment deepens and darkens into an interrogation of power itself, its uses and abuses and what it does to the people who have it.” Hmm, count me in.

Lastly in books for October, I’m curious to check out Irish author Jon McGregor’s novel “Reservoir 13” and perhaps C. Morgan Babst’s debut novel “The Floating World” too. Apparently McGregor’s latest is an atmospheric novel that begins as a mystery about a disappeared 13-year-old girl in an English village and morphs into something a bit different. Instead it chronicles the lives of the villagers over the years and the impact the girl’s disappearance has on them. McGregor seems to be a rising star with three of his four novels being longlisted for the Booker Prize, so I’m game to try out this new one.

As for C. Morgan Babst’s novel “The Floating World,” which is also getting high praise, it’s about a New Orleans family that is shattered and scattered by Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Said to be another essential Katrina story, it “explores family, race, class, and the essence of disruption,” so says author Walter Isaacson, who calls it a powerful and lyrical novel. I still haven’t read Jesmyn Ward’s novel about Katrina “Salvage the Bones” — but this one sounds like I need to add it to the pile as well.

In movie releases for October, there’s a lot coming out. For those “Blade Runner” fans the sequel “Blade Runner 2049” looks to be very favorable with critics scoring 85 on Metacritic and 96 on Rotten Tomatoes. Still even though I like Ryan Gosling and all that, I’m not really keen to see it. Don’t ask me why — the trailer just didn’t appeal to me.

But I am a bit interested to see the movie about the early law days of Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court justice who served 24 years on the high court. It’s called “Marshall” and stars Chadwick Boseman — who played Jackie Robinson in the movie “42” — as Thurgood. Apparently it’s about a lawsuit he worked on before his landmark case Brown v. Board of Education. I wonder why they didn’t choose that case for the movie?

I’m also a bit curious about the murder mystery, crime thriller “The Snowman” based on the book by Norwegian author Jo Nesbo. The movie stars Michael Fassbender as Detective Harry Hole who investigates the disappearance of a woman whose pink scarf is found wrapped around an ominous-looking snowman. I haven’t read the book, but I rarely skip a major Fassbender film (with the exception of the “X-Men” stuff). He’s usually divine.

Neither of the movies “Marshall” or “The Snowman” has received any reviews yet, so I’m winging it on my picks. I couldn’t seem to select the Idris Elba/Kate Winslet plane-crash flick “The Mountain Between Us” because the content of its trailer seems to strain credulity left, right and center, but perhaps the movie could make a decent rental if you want to be stuck with them, lost on a mountaintop.

Finally in albums releases for October, there’s new ones by Liam Gallagher, Beck, and Robert Plant among others — all worth listening to. Though since I’m a fan of folk music, I’ll pick The Weather Station’s new album, which is conveniently titled “The Weather Station,” and is a Canadian band fronted by Toronto songwriter Tamara Lindeman. She’s quite good.

That’s it for me. What about you — which October books, movies, or music are looking forward to?

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