May Cycles and Savage Harvest

I’ve long known that the word here in Canada is that you’re supposed to wait — to be on the safe side — till after the May long weekend holiday (which was last weekend) before planting your summer annuals and garden. I always want to jump the gun, but no, I guess it’s best to be prudent and follow the local wisdom. After all it did snow in town last weekend, but luckily now the sun is back so we’re in the clear from here on out … right?

My husband and I followed our May long-weekend tradition of participating in the annual three-day Golden Triangle bike ride in the mountains, which is a local club ride of about 400 cyclists going over 100 km per day.
We had a good time, and only got drenched on Day 2, when it rained and was cold all day. Not good. But we biked on, taking in the sights and avoiding hypothermia.

During Day 1 my husband came across a Mama grizzly and her cub by the side of the road. He kept his distance and biked past them. Later that evening we went back up the canyon by car to take pictures, and saw the same two bears again. They were busy munching on grass and dandelions by the ton. I was worried they were so close to the road where vehicles were whizzing by at 60 to 70 mph that they would be hit, but apparently the bears know the area and often manage these precarious situations.

All in all, it was a great weekend, which started off with a bang on Friday evening when our public library hosted authors Chris Cleave and Michael Crummey together for a reading and talk. I repeat Chris Cleave and Michael Crummey came here! Two authors I really like. Good gracious it was wonderful. I just had seen Cleave the week before at Book Expo and now he was following me to my town. What’s going on?! This is no cultural mecca. I was so pleased to hear them both. I have read Cleave’s three prior novels, and I look forward to his new one “Everyone Brave Is Forgiven,” which is based loosely on the love letters his grandparents wrote to each other during WWII. Apparently his grandfather was stationed on Malta during the war and he was separated from his wife for three and a half years. Cleave gave an interesting slide show of his grandparents and London during the Blitz. His novel is a tribute to them and a meditation on courage, Cleave said, and I’m sure it will be a weeper. Have you read it?

As for Canadian author Michael Crummey, I really liked his novel “Sweetland” last year, about an old man who refuses to leave a remote island off Newfoundland when the mainland government decides to resettle the population. It quietly blew me away and made me say: “Who is this guy? I need to read more of his books.” Crummey has written a few novels and some excellent poetry collections as well. He was there reading from his latest book of poetry called “Little Dogs,” which made me realize I must find time for reading poetry! Crummey’s writing often draws on the history and landscape of his native Newfoundland and Labrador. Both of which I would like to visit someday.

As for books last week, I finished the audiobook of Carl Hoffman’s 2014 nonfiction work “Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art.” Oh my, I didn’t know much about Michael’s sad fate before getting into this, but now I feel I know it from almost every angle. It’s safe to say author Carl Hoffman became very obsessed in solving the long-ago disappearance of 23-year-old Michael Rockefeller, who vanished in 1961 off the coast of New Guinea when his boat overturned. Did Rockefeller drown trying to swim to shore as his family believes? Or did he make it to shore only to be killed and eaten by a remote cannibalistic Asmat tribe? (No body was ever found.)

In this book Hoffman provocatively makes the case — after much research and time in the Asmat region among the people — that the tribe killed Rockefeller and was avenging the deaths of members of its group at the hands of whites years earlier. He also suggests there was a Dutch cover-up in hiding what truly happened to Michael.

Admittedly I’m a sucker for such vanishing stories of influential people whether it’s the tragic cases of Amelia Earhart over the Pacific, or the Lindbergh baby — I found Michael Rockefeller’s story similarly entrancing, especially since it was more than 50 years ago. Hoffman’s book includes a lot about the tribes in the Asmat region: their history, society, and the tropical jungles and conditions in which they lived. So if you like anthropology, like I do, this book could be your cup of tea. But fair warning: some of the descriptions in the book are graphic and violent. It’s not exactly Disneyland there. Hoffman also provides context of what was going on under Dutch colonialism then and circumstances surrounding Rockefeller’s death and what he was doing collecting primitive art there at the time.

I was impressed by Hoffman’s research and how he put himself into the story and experienced the tribes much like Rockefeller did. He seemed drawn to Michael and his pursuits in the remote tribal world. But I also thought there were times when Hoffman’s ideas seemed presumptuous and that he was over the top in solving the case.

As the book goes on, Hoffman’s theories swirl round and round and get a bit repetitive. No doubt it’s a thorough and exhaustive exploration of Michael Rockefeller’s disappearance, but the book likely would have been better if it had been a bit shorter and more focused. While I listened to “Savage Harvest” as an audiobook, on second thought I would have rather have liked to read it — as there are many foreign proper nouns in it that would have been easier to follow in print. Still the audio kept me intrigued. (Kudos to Joe Barrett for his excellent narration.)

I kept thinking Hoffman would unveil a smoking gun in the case, but alas — although what he finds out is quite convincing and stunning — it’s not a totally done deal. Whatever happened to Michael Rockefeller perhaps will never be fully known, but I’m glad to have learned about him through this journey.

What about you have you read “Savage Harvest” or about Michael Rockefeller before? Or have you read any of the books by Chris Cleave or Michael Crummey — and if so, what did you think?

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My Wrap on BookExpo America

I’m still coming down from my experience at BookExpo America last week in Chicago. As a newbie to the big publishing event, I was pleasantly overwhelmed by all the books, booths, authors, and book and industry chatter. I attended the first two days of the three day affair and managed to come away with 16 books, 12 of which haven’t been released yet. My luggage certainly was a lot heavier on the way home, but I squeezed it all in and made it through the airline line-ups a bit haggard but in one piece.

The highlight of BEA (besides chatting with fellow bloggers, which was truly great) was meeting the authors Chris Cleave, George Saunders, Amor Towles, Jay McInerney, and Jane Hamilton and having them sign their new books for me. I chatted with Cleave about whether his new novel “Everyone Brave Is Forgiven” is another weeper (since a couple of his books truly are), which he said it is but hopes too that the book makes one feel happy at the end. We also talked about cycling since I believed Cleave to be an avid cyclist after his last novel “Gold,” which indeed he says he is.

I also met authors Noah Hawley, Joe Ide, and Matthew FitzSimmons, and listened to the author breakfast talks of Colson Whitehead, Louise Penny, and Sebastian Junger. Is your head spinning yet? Hawley, whose novel “Before the Fall” looks like a page-turning thriller, is the writer and executive producer of the show “Fargo,” which I chatted with him about since it’s filmed here in Alberta, where I live. He’ll be back in Alberta for more of the show later this year.

I also enjoyed the Blogger Conference portion of BEA, which was on Day 1. There, I listened to the blogging journey of Erin Loechner (who has a blog called Design for Mankind); heard a panel discussion on connections between bloggers and publishers, and another on creative content; and sat in on three blogger table talks, which were pretty helpful particularly on website design, coding, plugins, and social media minutiae, which aren’t exactly my forte.

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to attend Day 3 of BEA and therefore did not meet authors Justin Cronin and Richard Russo or have their new novels signed. (Big sigh.) But at least those two books are out this month — should I want to promptly get my hands on them. Also a cordial representative at the Harper’s booth informed me that they had run out of giveaway copies of Ann Patchett’s upcoming book “Commonwealth” while I was in line for George Saunders. Yikes, it was hard being at two places at once! But she said she’d mail it to me — it was nice that people were quite friendly and accommodating. I also missed picking up books by Fredrik Backman and Maria Semple, who were both there signing copies. I wonder if Semple’s new book, (“Today Will Be Different,” ) due out in October, will be similarly endearing as her debut novel “Where’d You Go, Bernadette”? Hmm. So indeed I missed some books, but in reality if I had received all of the ones I wanted, I likely wouldn’t have been able to stuff them in my suitcase and get on the plane home.

All in all, it was quite fun at BEA, feeling all the buzz about upcoming releases. Here I am at left with singer Kenny Loggins (ha), who was there to promote his kid’s book “Footloose.” Even YA author Veronica Roth apparently made an appearance on Day 3 though her new novel (“Carve the Mark”) doesn’t come out till January 2017. I guess that makes sense since she lives there in Chicago. I thought the whole BEA event with all the signings and giveaways was well organized: they had shuttles to and from the chosen hotels; had on-time schedules of the events; and the lines weren’t intolerable. I’d love to attend BEA again though maybe I might not get there every year. It’s supposed to be back in New York next year, where it usually is, so we will see. I thought having it in Chicago was a great alternative and made it more accessible to those out West. Hint, hint.

For those interested, here are the books I picked up at BEA with their release dates:

The Short Drop by Matthew FitzSimmons / Dec. 1, 2015
The Excellent Lombards by Jane Hamilton / April 19, 2016
Approval Junkie by Faith Salie / April 19, 2016
Everyone Brave Is Forgiven by Chris Cleave / May 3, 2016
Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger / May 24, 2016
Before the Fall by Noah Hawley / May 31, 2016
Bright, Precious Days by Jay McInerney / Aug. 2 2016
A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny / Aug. 30, 3016
Perfume River by Robert Olen Butler / Sept. 6, 2016
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles / Sept. 6, 2016
Mercury by Margot Livesey / Sept. 6, 2016
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead / Sept. 13, 2016
IQ by Joe Ide (debut novel) / Oct. 18, 2016
The Terranauts by T.C. Boyle / Oct. 25, 2016
The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon / Nov. 1, 2016
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders / Jan. 3, 2017

And for more on BEA experiences check out the inspired posts by Shannon over at River City Reading, Catherine at The Gilmore Guide to Books, and Marisa at The Daily Dosage. Furthermore I enjoyed hanging out and chatting with Annette, who hails from the U.K. and likes to blog about YA books among other genres over at Book Blather.

As for reading last week, I finished “The Excellent Lombards” by Jane Hamilton, who I was thrilled to meet at BEA. I remember loving her novels “The Book of Ruth” and “A Map of the World” back in the 1990s. I so wanted to love her new novel too, which is a coming of age novel narrated by a young girl who lives with her family on a large apple orchard and farm in Wisconsin. She wants everything in her life to stay the same, particularly her brother to remain close and the farm to remain in her family, but as she gets older things start to change, which causes her growing pains and unhappiness.

What’s not to like, right? Apple orchard, check. Jane Hamilton, check. Coming of age novel, check. A glorious plug from Ann Patchett on the cover, check. Gracious, I assumed I’d swallow this slim book whole. But unfortunately for me this one didn’t live up to her two novels that I had loved. I liked its premise and setting, but the execution midway through gets slow and not enough happens to make the story overly compelling. At points, I found the story and storytelling to be a bit tedious. Was this just me and my week?! Towards the very end, “The Excellent Lombards” picks up a bit and I did want to find out: (a) what happens to the farm and the family and (b) if the girl and her brother go their separate ways. But alas, it wasn’t enough to make me relish “The Excellent Lombards” or find it overly compelling. Oh too bad!

What about you — have you read Jane Hamilton’s books before or ever gone to BEA — and if so, what did you think?

Posted in Books | 35 Comments

On the Road With a Few Reviews

Hi, I’m on the road presently so I’ll leave you with a few mini reviews with what I’ve completed recently. Though first I’d like to introduce my trusty book assistant and walking partner — for those who might not have seen a photo of her before — this is Stella at left. She’s our 3-year-old Yellow Lab, who likes to walk and do errands in the mornings, and nap in the afternoons. She’s a big swimmer and likes all things food related.

As for my recent read, I can’t say I really recall the real life assassination attempt on Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet in October 1984, which is what British author Jonathan Lee’s novel “High Dive” is about. I was in college then and my head must have been in the sand. But at the time, a bomb exploded at the Grand Hotel in Brighton, England, where Thatcher and others were staying for the Conservative Party conference. She and her husband narrowly escaped injury, but five people were killed and 31 others injured.

“High Dive” explores the lives of a few fictional characters working at the Grand Hotel and also gets into the head of the Irish Republican Army member who’s behind planting the bomb there. It’s an eerie waiting game as you know (from history) what’s going to happen at end of the book when the prime minister arrives. I became invested in the characters at the hotel, who unbeknownst to them may or may not get out in one piece. And while I found the characters fairly interesting, there’s some lag time about their daily lives that dragged for me in the middle, especially knowing this horrific thing was going to happen in the near future.

Despite that, there’s some good writing in the book and Jonathan Lee builds a mostly affecting story surrounding the bombing. I perhaps wanted to like “High Dive” a bit more than I did, but still it’s an interesting book of historical fiction and gave me insight into the situation between the IRA and British government back then.

In contrast, I listened to the audiobook of Maggie Shipstead’s 2014 novel “Astonish Me,” which is about a professional ballerina in New York who falls for a Russian star, helps him defect to the West, and eventually quits dance when she becomes pregnant. She tries to put that world behind her, marrying a childhood friend, and moving to California. But when her son ends up excelling at ballet many years later, she’s forced to face up to the secret and life she left behind long ago.

“Astonish Me” is a story I became quite invested in as it paints an intricate picture of the world of dancers and weaves a web of relationships, making for a bit of a page-turner. All of which I liked, but one relationship toward the end between the Russian star and the son’s former girlfriend seemed pretty weird or unlikely I thought. And at times the story among the characters bordered on melodrama. The big reveal at the end is a bummer the woman should never have done at the beginning (what was she thinking?). Still I did fall for much of the author’s storytelling and its dance setting. And I virtually had to rush to its conclusion like a flower needs the rain — so to speak.

Lastly this week, I finished the audiobook of Rufi Thorpe’s 2014 debut novel “The Girls From Corona del Mar.” With a title like that, I was drawn to it immediately because as a teenager I often joined my friends’ families who drove for summer day trips from the desert to the beach at Corona del Mar where we put on Coppertone and got burned by the sun. The funny thing is the novel is not a lot about Corona del Mar, which is in Orange County, California (in fact quite a bit of the story takes place in Europe). Instead it’s about two friends who grew up there but whose paths diverge after high school.

Mia, the narrator, the one they joke has a black heart, goes on — after having an abortion at 15 — to Yale and then Istanbul to write her dissertation on a Sumerian goddess; while her best friend Lorrie Ann, the good one accepted to UC Berkeley, gets pregnant just before graduating, has a shotgun wedding, and gives birth to a disabled child. Thereafter her life takes a downward turn. One succeeds for awhile, while the other falls. The psychological ebb and flow of their friendship over 20 years is pretty intoxicating stuff. They both go through a lot; some of it is brutal and some very sad. I’m still wondering about the ending: I guess it begs the question how well do we really know a person.

“The Girls of Corona del Mar” is an intense slim novel about friendship, family, and fate, which held me a bit more than the other two novels this week. Who knew?! I was surprised by its power and unflinching ways and had to look up the author Rufi Thorpe. Apparently she has a new novel out this month called “Dear Fang, With Love.” Judging from her debut, I’ll have to get a copy of it ASAP.

Coincidentally, the audiobooks of both “Astonish Me” and “The Girls of Corona del Mar” were expertly narrated by Rebecca Lowman, whose long list of audio titles is quite impressive. She must be one of the most sought-after readers there is. Kudos to Ms. Lowman for how well she goes about such layered stories and characters.

What about you have you read the novels: “High Dive,” “Astonish Me,” or “The Girls of Corona del Mar” and if so, what did you think?

Posted in Books | 26 Comments

May Preview

May is now upon us — can you believe it? Lately I’ve been busy playing in a couple tennis tournaments, trading in an old car, and making plans to attend the memorial service of my friend back East and then continue on to the BookExpo America in Chicago. It could be a crazy trip. If you’re going, I hope to see you there. Meanwhile this past week I’ve been reading British author Jonathan Lee’s historical novel “High Dive,” which is about the real-life assassination attempt by the IRA of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet in 1984 at the seaside town of Brighton, England. It’s quite excellent so far. I also finished the audiobook of Maggie Shipstead’s alluring 2014 novel “Astonish Me,” which involves the world of professional dance and the defection of a Russian ballet star. Have you read either of these? I plan to review them this coming week.

In fiction releases for May, quite a few acclaimed authors have new novels coming out, notably: Richard Russo, Don DeLillo, Louise Erdrich, and Julian Barnes among others. You might want to jump on these ASAP. But of course, I can’t resist Chris Cleave’s latest novel “Everyone Brave Is Forgiven,” which is set during World War II and is apparently inspired by the real-life love letters between Cleave’s grandparents. I know, I know, it’s another WWII novel, and you likely have the same fatigue over that subject matter as I do, but I’ve read all of Cleave’s novels including “Incendiary,” “Little Bee,” and “Gold” so I can’t stop now. His books have held me in their clutches before.

But nothing this month is more highly anticipated than Justin Cronin’s post-apocalyptic novel “The City of Mirrors,” which is the finale of his Passage trilogy. I gave the first two books to my husband and watched as he lapped them up like nobody’s business. I will dish out the third and see his reaction. I have yet to get to these epic tomes and the survivors in the desert, but oh I will! I have heard so many good things about the books — it’s just a matter of which deserted island — or alas, back deck — I will take them to — and when the heavens will part for my total immersion. I’ll keep you posted.

A few other novels that are piquing my interest this month are Adam Haslett’s new one “Imagine Me Gone” about the ravages of mental illness on a family. Publisher’s Weekly says “Haslett’s latest is a sprawling, ambitious epic about a family bound not only by familial love, but by that sense of impending emergency that hovers around Michael, who has inherited his father John’s abiding depression and anxiety. … In Michael, Haslett has created a most memorable character.” Said to be both gut-wrenching and at times hilarious, the novel seems an excellent one worth exploring.

I also like the look of Karan Bajaj’s novel “The Yoga of Max’s Discontent” about a man who leaves his successful life behind as a Wall Street analyst and embarks on a spiritual journey that takes him to the farthest reaches of India. Part adventure story and part journey of transformation, this novel is receiving highly favorable reviews on Goodreads. I’m not sure if it strives to be a modern-day channeling of Hermann Hesse, but I’m open to yoga and stories of awakenings, so count me in for this.

Lastly in fiction this month, I’m curious about Jennifer Haigh’s new novel “Heat and Light” — about the residents of a rural Pennsylvania town caught up in the fracking boom. I was impressed by Haigh’s last novel “Faith” about the Catholic Church abuse scandal, which I read for book club, so I’m geared up for this one too. Haigh seems an author who presents various sides of an issue in powerful and thought-provoking ways. This one appears to be an environmental novel pertinent to today’s national debate surrounding energy resources and drilling.

As for movies in May, I am not a big fan of summer blockbusters — it’s true — but they are here! If you like all things Marvel then you will be happy about seeing “Captain America: Civil War” and “X-Men: Apocalypse” both in the same month. I’m guessing Captain America will win that box-office battle. There’s also Disney’s sequel to “Alice in Wonderland” — “Alice Through the Looking Glass” with returning stars Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter and Mia Wasikowska as Alice. I like Mia as Alice. But what about the Jodie Foster-directed thriller “Money Monster” with Julia Roberts and George Clooney? I watched the trailer and it looks sort of didactic — so I’m a bit hesitant if it’s worth stomaching. Though indeed George is in it.

I guess there’s no May movie I’m dying to see, but the trailer of “The Lobster” looks a bit quirky and funny. It’s a satire, set in a dystopian near future, in which single people, by law, are taken to a place where they are obliged to find a romantic partner in forty-five days or are transformed into beasts and sent off into the woods. Who thinks these things up? “The Lobster” looks pretty peculiar and stars Colin Farrell playing the deadpan lead character. I’m hoping maybe it might be slightly reminiscent of the quirky but heartwarming movie “Her” with Joaquin Phoenix, which I really liked, but I don’t expect it’ll be nearly as good.

As for albums in May, such icons as Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan have new ones coming out, which sound quite interesting, — as do Keith Urban, Blake Shelton, Ziggy Marley, and Cyndi Lauper, too. I’d like to check out Corinne Bailey Rae’s new album “The Heart Speaks in Whispers” as well as the new one called “The Things We Are Made Of” by an old favorite of mine Mary Chapin Carpenter. She’s always been a crowd favorite each summer on the lawn at Wolf Trap.

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

Posted in Top Picks | 24 Comments

The Invention of Wings and Stone Mattress

Wow congrats to Viet Thanh Nguyen for winning this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his debut novel “The Sympathizer” about an undercover communist operative during the Vietnam War and its aftermath. Judy over at the blog Keep the Wisdom reviewed it recently and raved it was the best novel she had read so far in 2016, and from her heavy stream of good reads, that’s saying something! I can’t wait to snatch it up in the near future. I also plan to get a hold of William Finnegan’s memoir “Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in the Biography category. This book made a great gift for my surfer brother this past Christmas, and now I need to travel vicariously through its waves too.

Meanwhile I am planning on attending this year’s BookExpo America, which takes place in Chicago in a few weeks. So if you’re there, let’s meet up and say hello. I would love to meet other bloggers I follow and put faces to your blogs. I have not been to the Expo before, but Chicago is a manageable destination from here, so I thought I’d give it a swirl. I noticed that among others, author Jane Hamilton will be there with her latest novel “The Excellent Lombards,” which I talked about a couple weeks ago. So that works out! We will see what many other books and authors I discover there.

Last week I finished Sue Monk Kidd’s 2014 bestselling novel “The Invention of Wings” and the audiobook of Margaret Atwood’s 2014 book of nine tales “Stone Mattress.” Both were excellent so I can’t complain too much about dawdling, though I have — during this span of exceptional spring weather — which has been perfect for outdoor activities. “The Invention Wings” is a novel I read for my book club, which plans to discuss it tonight. I thought it was a great read and a tough look at slavery. It surprised me a bit because I wasn’t overly taken by Sue Monk Kidd’s first novel “The Secret Life of Bees,” which came off a bit saccharine to me when I read it in 2001. But now I sort of want to go back and reread it because I found “The Invention of Wings” to be quite authentic and moving. So perhaps I was mistaken about the former, or was I?

“The Invention of Wings” is the story of Sarah Grimke, the daughter of a white wealthy South Carolina plantation owner, who on her eleventh birthday in 1803 is given a black slave named Hetty by her parents to be her waiting maid for life. Sarah tries to refuse but is forced to succumb to owning Hetty over a couple decades time. The story, which alternates chapters narrated by Sarah and Hetty, details the lives and families of both women over many years linked by the horrors of slavery.

It’s a riveting story and one that I found even more so because it’s inspired by the real life of Sarah Grimke and her sister Angelina Grimke of Charleston. I had not heard of these famous Grimke sisters, who grew up in a large slave-holding family and later became early abolitionists and suffragists, but their incredible lives of courage are detailed in this novel. It’s said that Sarah’s writings influenced Harriet Beecher Stowe and pre-dated “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by 13 years, wow!

But I actually didn’t know this till I read the Author’s Note at the end of the book. While I was reading the novel, I liked the story for its moving tale about the two women, Hetty and Sarah (and their families), one black, one white who are trapped by the confines of the day and the diabolical institution of slavery. They share an uneasy relationship, but come to rely on each other in unexpected ways. I liked too how the alternating chapters of the two women are equally interesting and contain page-turning incidents that transform them both and move the story along.

Author Sue Monk Kidd does an amazing job at seamlessly blending fact and fiction to create a totally believable tale, making the 19th-century setting and the characters’ voices come alive. It felt very real and visual to me. Hetty’s narration seemed just as strong, if not stronger than Sarah’s, lending a visceral look at how the institution affected both. I think it’s one of the best novels about slavery I’ve read in a long while. I know there’s other recent popular books on the subject that I would like to get to, notably: Lois Leveen’s novel “The Secrets of Mary Bowser,” Kathleen Grissom’s novels “Kitchen House” and “Glory Over Everything,” which Michelle over at the blog That’s What She Read just reviewed and liked a lot, and of course Solomon Northup’s “Twelve Years a Slave” which I found an unflinching movie that I’d love to follow up with the book. Have you read any of these?

But at first I need a break as the subject matter is so disturbing. So thank goodness for the wicked, offbeat tales of Margaret Atwood’s in “Stone Mattress” this past week. I’m no expert on Atwood, though I know she’s royalty here in Canada. I’ve read about five or six of her books over the years, but I guess if I plan to stay in the country I need to do a lot better than that, or else I might face deportation, joke joke. My favorite novel of hers has been 1996’s “Alias Grace” about a notorious 19th-century murder case, but now I’m thinking the array of tales in “Stone Mattress” perhaps better showcase her talent and total command as a writer.

Parts of the tales in this collection are funny, while some are eery and sinister, a couple are otherworldly, some deal with literary, artsy things, some with retribution and quite a few in the book deal with aging. I laughed at parts of her tale “Torch the Dusties” about companions trapped inside an assisted living facility besieged by a violent anti-elderly movement, though other parts of it are real and unsettling. Atwood has a bit of everything in her tales, they’re clever like that, just don’t call them short stories — or you’ll be remiss for making a bad faux pas.

At first I thought the tales in “Stone Mattress” would all be linked by the same characters since the first three in the collection start out that way. I was imagining something like the novel “Olive Kitteridge,” but no, after that the rest are all separate. I liked the first three linked tales — they’re clever, imaginative and entertaining, but my favorite ones in the book (besides “Torch the Dusties”) are the sinister ones: “The Freeze-Dried Groom,” “The Dead Hand Loves You,” and my favorite one, the title story “Stone Mattress,” which is about a damaged woman who plans a murder on a trip to the Arctic. A perfect way to bump off your spouse, right? (Ahh don’t worry honey …) This tale involves retribution for a crime done long ago.

Oh yes, Atwood is at the top of her game with these! I particularly loved listening to the audiobook version of the book because different readers narrate each tale (except one who reads two of the stories). All are done exceptionally well, though Atwood’s own narration of her title story “Stone Mattress” was my favorite by far. It’s done so sedately and matter-of-factly — it’s wonderfully unsettling. I had to listen to its entirety twice. What a master!

But what about you have you read Sue Monk Kidd’s novel “The Invention of Wings” or Margaret Atwood’s book “Stone Mattress” and if so, what did you think?

Posted in Books | 18 Comments

Reading Mojo and Late Nights on Air

It’s been another busy week and I still haven’t fully recovered my reading mojo. It’s been warm here though, so I’ve been doing other things. In my spare time, I’ve been bicycling and playing quite a bit of tennis lately. I’m in a tournament for fun at the end of the month — so I need to get cracking, or swinging so to speak. As for books right now, I’m reading Sue Monk Kidd’s 2014 novel “The Invention of Wings” for book club, and I’m listening to Margaret Atwood’s book “Stone Mattress” as an audiobook. Both are good, have you read either of them?

Meanwhile this past week, I finally finished Elizabeth Hay’s 2007 novel “Late Nights on Air,” which seemed to take forever despite being 364 pages. At the halfway mark, I wasn’t sure I would get to the end as it seemed slow and a bit meandering and I wasn’t sure it was going anywhere — but then upon completing it I was glad to have seen the story through. The novel won Canada’s top literary prize, the Giller, in 2007 beating out Michael Ondaatje’s novel “Divisadero,” which I’m sure was no small feat. I came to read Hay’s book because I met the author last fall at our city’s book festival and had her sign a copy.

“Late Nights on Air” is about a group of misfit co-workers at a Canadian public radio station in the far northern town of Yellowknife in the 1970s. There’s the affable lead character Harry, who becomes the station’s manager as the book opens; and Dido, the beautiful, alluring one who has the perfect radio voice; as well the receptionist, the likable lonely Eleanor; and twenty-something Gwen who’s driven 3,000 miles from Ontario to get radio experience. There’s also Eddy, the brooding technician, and 60-year-old Ralph, the station’s book reviewer who doesn’t get enough air time.

It’s these characters and their relationships among one another that form the crux of the novel and kept me curious to see what would eventually pan out, though it takes awhile to get there. The story is descriptive and imbued with a strong sense of place of remote Yellowknife, a city only 250 miles from the Arctic Circle. Apparently the author, Elizabeth Hay, worked at a radio station there in the 1970s, so her novel is a bit autobiographical. Amid the backdrop of the characters’ lives, the city — in the novel — is undergoing a ruckus over a proposed natural gas pipeline that would cut across Native lands, and the first incoming television station threatens to disrupt their local radio programming. Much is in flux there that at times binds and comes between the crew at the radio station.

The story meanders on for awhile, but luckily picks up towards the end as four of the radio crew take an epic six-week canoe trip to pursue the route of English explorer John Hornby along the remote and wild Thelon River. This was my favorite part of the book with some beautiful nature writing and a little suspense to its passages. I wish this journey had started earlier in the book as the river pages flew by. By the book’s end, the friends eventually depart the radio station and move on with their lives, but not before making an indelible impact on each other and their time together in the North. It’s a novel that grew on me over a long while, and its characters and northern scenes have stayed with me after turning its last pages.

For those who like radio, or are interested in character-driven novels, or the far North, you might like this one.

What about you have you read “Late Nights on Air” or any of Elizabeth Hay’s books, or any similar novels? And if so, what did you think?

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Billy Lynn and April Preview

March is over now. It went by in a blur. It was consuming but not exactly conducive for reading or blogging. I had a good time on our biking and camping trip in Arizona mid-month, but sadly the close friend I had visited in early March at the hospital in D.C. passed away last Saturday before Easter. She was 47 years old, and had been ill for awhile. It was rough this past month with her in the hospital. And my mind and thoughts were long gone and faraway. She was a former journalist and co-worker with me — a single mother of a 17-year-old daughter, who I have long known and often cared for. It’s a terrible blow, and something I need to work through.

But I will try to turn April around. One step in front of the other. The garden is already coming up here, which is very early for Canada. I look forward to doing my spring yard cleanup. Last week I finished the audiobook of Ben Fountain’s 2012 award-winning debut novel “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” which I thought was a funny satire with some biting truths to it. Actor Oliver Wyman narrates the story and the different characters so well that I’m glad I opted for the audio.

The story’s about a squadron of eight Bravo soldiers, heroes on a break from the Iraq war who are sent on a U.S. “Victory Tour” by the Bush administration to drum up support for the war. Most of the novel takes places at a Dallas Cowboys football game where the Bravo guys are guests who are fawned over by promoters, Hollywood producers, fans, and cheerleaders. They’re even part of the halftime show, sharing the stage with Destiny’s Child.

Much of the story involves Americans meeting the Bravo soldiers and pontificating like doofuses in regards to the war and their service. Author Ben Fountain is brilliant with the dialogue and the craziness at the football game. His side plot about a Hollywood producer trying to make a movie deal with the Bravo squad is pretty hilarious. Hilary Swank is interested to star in the movie apparently, which is a hoot (I hope in real life Swank has read this book as she’s mentioned and lampooned in it quite a bit).

Though what grabbed me most wasn’t the antics at the football game, which seemed to get repetitive after awhile, but rather the personal journey of the young lead character, Bravo Billy Lynn, who is working his way through a lot of issues while on break from the war. He’s dealing with the death of his Bravo friend, and is going through changes while reflecting on things during his stint in the U.S. and with his family. It’s these quieter moments with Billy that grabbed me and underscore the book’s points of how it feels to go to war. His talks with his sisters and his endearment to a cheerleader seem to speak volumes. And my, does Billy learn a lot in a couple day’s time before his return to Iraq. Kudos to author Ben Fountain for the book’s humor and truths, and for how well the story is done. The novel might not have grabbed me at first, but by the end, it sunk in like a football game well played.

As for new releases in April, I see such popular storytellers as Anna Quindlen, Jane Hamilton, Curtis Sittenfeld and Stewart O’Nan have new novels coming out. I have liked their books in the past and would especially like to get my hands on a copy of Jane Hamilton’s “The Excellent Lombards,” which is a coming-of-age tale about a young girl’s life growing up on her family’s struggling apple orchard. I haven’t read Hamilton’s books since “The Book of Ruth” in 1988 and her powerful novel “The Map of the World” in 1994, but those books are proof enough for me to look for this one. She’s a great storyteller, whose novels, like her new one, are often set on farms in the Midwest.

I’m also thinking Hope Jahren’s debut memoir “Lab Girl,” which is getting rave reviews, looks good. A scientist and professor of geobiology, Jahren writes in the book about her study of plant life and her insights on nature. She also talks about the man who becomes her lab partner and the scientific adventures they take to various spots around the globe. I hadn’t heard of this award-winning scientist before, but now with all the praise of her book, I’m quite interested to learn more about her life and work. Cheryl Strayed calls Hope Jahren a “deeply inspiring woman — a scientist so passionate about her work I felt myself vividly with her on every page.” Hmm, count me in.

Other noteworthy reads out this month that I’m interested in are all very long epics. Martha Hall Kelly’s popular debut “Lilac Girls,” a WWII-Holocaust story that weaves together the lives of three women, is just under 500 pages;

Suzanne Rindell’s new novel “Three-Martini Lunch” about the publishing industry in New York in the 1950s is just over 500 pages; Stephen O’Connor’s innovative debut “Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings,” which fuses fact and fiction to interesting effect, is 624 pages; and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Book 5 of his acclaimed series “My Struggle,” weighs in at 626 pages. Which reminds me I simply must get to Karl Ove’s series sometime in the near millennium. The latest book involves his move at age 19 to Bergen, Norway to be a writer — a place I have had the good fortune to visit — so I think Book 5 sounds enticing. With all these large novels out this month, how on earth is there time to get anything else done?! Nevertheless, I bid good luck with the tomes of spring.

As for new movies in April, critics are liking the Richard Linklater comedy “Everybody Wants Some!!” about a group of college baseball players partying it up for three days before school starts. But do I really need to go there? And then there’s actor Don Cheadle’s biopic of Miles Davis called “Miles Ahead,” which looks a bit troubled in its execution. There’s also John Carney’s latest film about music “Sing Street,” and I have liked his movies “Once” and “Begin Again” in the past, but I’m not sure this one holds the same allure for me. That leaves me with either: the Tom Hanks film “A Hologram for the King,” adapted from the Dave Eggers’ book (which I’d love to read first), or the Susan Sarandon comedy “The Meddler,” which actually looks kind of funny. I guess both are feel-good kinds of flicks. Nothing wrong with that for April. I think I’ll go with the Dave Eggers story “A Hologram for the King” for my pick this month.

Lastly, in albums for April, I’ll make it short and sweet: my pick is “Cleopatra” by the folk-rock trio out of Denver the Lumineers. Hands down they’re good. Enjoy!

What about you — have you read “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” and if so, what did you think? Or which books, movies, or albums are you looking forward to this month?

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Spring Break Revival

Here’s wishing everybody a very Happy Easter and spring break (if you plan to take one). I’m recently back after cruising the beautiful scenery of southern Arizona, which was terrific! My husband and I explored all around Tucson and also enjoyed a week bicycling southeast of there and staying in the small towns of Patagonia, Tombstone, Bisbee, and Sierra Vista. We biked in a 50 person group with the organization Adventure Cycling Association, which is an excellent nonprofit that promotes bicycling and offers tours in the States. You might know of it, if not I heartily recommend its “adventures.”

We camped a bit on the trip, which was pretty bold for me as I’m not usually a camper (what was I trying to prove?) — and the mornings in the desert were quite brisk. It felt like frost one morning and I recall tepidly putting my feet into what seemed like frozen shoes. Ouch. But luckily every day warmed up very quickly and by midday we were cycling our 40 or 50 daily miles, slathered with sunscreen and worried about too much heat. The sun there is very intense, especially for pale Canadians! Now I have weird tan marks all over and feel like a zebra when wearing shorts.

Some of the sites we saw and would recommend are: hiking in the Sonoran Desert amid all the spectacular cactus including the tall Saguaro cacti; visiting the Kartchner Caverns with its remarkable mineral deposits and formations; touring the Desert Museum outside Tucson, which is an immersive outdoor experience and is considered one of top museums in the country; taking a tour at the Titan Missile Museum, which offers a daunting look at a nuclear weapon system and underground facility the U.S. had on standby during the Cold War; and lastly, taking a mine or museum tour in the town of Bisbee, which lies amid the Mule Mountains and is world renowned for its diverse minerals and wealth of copper.

Who knew so much was there? I suspect this is only a tip of the iceberg in southern Arizona. We’ll have to go back sometime for more.

Meanwhile my reading didn’t fare as well as my sightseeing, but I’m midway through Canadian author Elizabeth Hay’s novel “Late Nights on Air” which won the Giller Prize in 2007 and takes place at a radio station in the far northern Canadian town of Yellowknife in 1975. I’m liking it so far, though not a lot has happened. I’m also almost done with the audiobook of Ben Fountain’s 2012 award-winning novel “Billy Lynne’s Long Halftime Walk,” which I almost put down at first but now is gaining ground with me. I should be finished soon so tune in next week for reviews of these two books.

The one book I did finish this past week was a short-ish one by a friend of mine whom I met at the dog park. We walk our dogs together there at times and that’s where I first learned of her funny sense of humor. After a couple years of going to the park, she told me of the book she was writing for women about coping after they’ve been dumped in relationships with men, and I agreed to read it. (She writes under the pseudonym Jade Edgal, how cool is that?)

Her self-published book “Dumped: Mockery, Blame, Revenge & Other Coping Strategies for Women” is quite a funny lambasting of the male species — as we know it — and a guide on how women can avoid becoming jilted fools and how to prevent relationship train wrecks in the future. I laughed while reading it. Quirky, sarcastic, absurd, and rather wicked, “Dumped” is not only a humor book but is also a helpful, truthful guide to moving on with one’s life after a terrible breakup. If you’re in such a mess, or if dating isn’t going well for you, you might find it helpful to pick up this book that’s filled with considerable levity and insight. It includes examples from the author’s personal experiences and from life in general. If you’ve ever been dumped, then you might find yourself laughing — as I did — instead of weeping into your bowl of soup.

Meanwhile this coming week I have a lot of catching up to do, and I hope to visit all of your blog postings, which I missed while I was away. So I’ll be in touch!

What about you — have you been to southern Arizona or do you plan to take a trip somwhere this spring? Or have you read Ben Fountain’s or Elizabeth Hay’s books? And if so, what did you think?

PS. Who is this slow person to the left? And would she mind staying to the far right of the bike path! While I’m back home now in Canada, I can’t help but bring on some more Arizona dreaming.

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The North Water and Between the World and Me

Tomorrow my husband and I are headed off on a bike trip with a group around southern Arizona for a week. It’s our spring break, so to speak. Since there’s a few nights of camping involved along with the cycling, I’m not going to be bringing a computer or blogging during the trip. That will have to come after. It’ll be a break of sorts — to lap up the scenery, get fresh air, and renew ourselves. But before I go, I want to leave you with two quick takes on books I finished this past week.

First off, Ian McGuire’s new novel “The North Water” is a doozy of a page-turner. It’s about a 19th-century whaling ship that sets sail for the Arctic with a killer onboard. Needless to say, the story got its hooks into me early on and didn’t let go until the end. Not only is there a shipmate onboard secretly committing heinous crimes, but there’s also a plot by a few to purposely scuttle the ship to get the insurance money. The only crew member to figure out who’s behind both acts is an ex-army surgeon (Patrick Sumner) whose reputation has been ruined by past mistakes while serving overseas. Will he be able to shrug off his own demons and stop them in time? Or will they perish amid the arctic winter?

I thought the author did a wonderful job at capturing the 19th-century feel of the characters and the realities of the whaling trade, and the arctic landscape in a suspenseful way. But be forewarned: “The North Water” involves quite a lurid, gritty tale with considerable harsh language to boot. The whaling industry back then wasn’t exactly for the squeamish. While it might be too much for some, to me the book’s depictions seemed realistically evocative of the place and times.

I found “The North Water” to be an easy, quick read — well written — with plenty of intriguing imagery and action. While anyone who likes adventure kinds of tales might surely like it, the book would probably especially interest those who have liked books such as I have on the Whaleship Essex tragedy, and Franklin’s lost expedition, and other arctic and whaling tales. In that respect, it was a book with a subject matter right up my alley. (Thanks to the publisher for providing me with a copy to review via NetGalley.)

The second book I finished this week was an audiobook of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s nonfiction 2015 bestseller “Between the World and Me,” which takes the form of a letter written to the author’s son warning him of the dangers of being black in America today.

This book pretty much lit up the blogosphere when it came out last year, and I think it was JoAnn over at Lakeside Musing who said the audio was a must listen. So I got on a long list for it at the library. Then I listened to the book twice this week, which is indeed powerfully read by the author. You can tell Coates has written poetry as his book is quite lyrical sounding and like poetry in places. I loved the audio version for this reason — it’s a book that seems meant to be read aloud — only I missed being able to mark sentences that I particularly wanted to note — which I could’ve done easier if I had the book in print.

“Between the World and Me” is a strong cup of coffee — thought-provoking, frank, unflinching, and challenging in a good way. It boils over the American history, traditions, and laws that have plundered black lives and over police brutality cases and the culpability of the democracy that made the police what they are. At one point in the author’s discussion he says whites are just interested in personal exoneration, and he isn’t too hopeful for any change ahead for racial harmony in America.

His perspective and experiences are quite fascinating. I particularly felt his sections on Prince Jones, his Howard University schoolmate who was gunned down by a police officer, were some of the strongest of the book. His outrage and sorrow palpable. His talk of the Sept. 11 attacks were less agreeable to me. But all and all I found “Between the World and Me” powerful and illuminating. It made me want to read more of James Baldwin’s books, which apparently had inspired Coates’s book.

What about you — have you read “The North Water” or Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book and if so, what did you think?

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March Preview and Week in Review

Happy March. We’ve just about made it to the start of spring, which is always a bit exciting for those living in a Northern country. Though May is usually the time when a lot of flowers open and things turn green up here. Still it’s the thought about “spring” that counts. But this past week has been rough as I unexpectedly had to return to D.C. to visit a friend under palliative care in the hospital. I’m glad though that I was able to visit with her and her daughter for a few days; it made a big difference for me and hopefully I was able to help a little.

While in D.C., I was sorry to hear that author Pat Conroy had passed away on Friday. I was a big fan of his novel “Prince of Tides,” which I remembered sneaking away to read in the employee breakroom at the U.W. Many years later, I took my page-worn copy and stood in line while Mr. Conroy was on a book tour with his novel “Beach Music.” I remember the line to meet him wrapped around the building and parking lot of a shopping mall in Virginia and round and round it went, but I was determined to meet him so wait I did. I finally got to the front of the line and he said some nice things and signed my copy of “Prince of Tides.” I thought he was great. He was a Southern rock star of a writer and a good guy to boot. “Prince of Tides” was undoubtably my favorite book of his, but which one is yours?

As for new fiction releases, this month is plentiful with an array of talent. There’s new ones by veteran authors: Pat Barker, Edna O’Brien, Tracy Chevalier, and Jim Harrison among others. And I’m hopeful that Helen Simonson’s new novel “The Summer Before the War” might be as good as her charming 2010 debut “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand,” although I’m seeing a few mixed reviews about it, so we will see.

In the meantime I’ve picked up “The North Water” by British author Ian McGuire, which a publisher passed my way, about a 19th-century whaling ship that sets sail for the Arctic with a killer onboard. Author Hilary Mantel calls it a “tour de force of narrative tension and a masterful reconstruction of a lost world that seems to exist at the limits of the human imagination.” So far it’s a fairly coarse, but seemingly realistic depiction of seamen in the 1850s whaling trade. But the story has me in its grip. So stay tuned: I plan to review it next week.

Other March novels that look enticing include: Lyndsay Faye’s new one “Jane Steele,” which is said to be a Gothic retelling of “Jane Eyre” — a reimagining of Jane as a gutsy, heroic serial killer. It’s said to be “wonderfully wicked” with author Suzanne Rindell describing it as a “darkly-humorous, elegantly-crafted story of an ‘accidental’ vigilante.” I haven’t read Lyndsay Faye before, though her novel “The Gods of Gotham” received considerable recognition when it came out, so count me in for this one.

Also Montana author Rick Bass has a new collection of short stories out called “For a Little While” that gathers his best stories together, 18 from previous collections and seven new tales. Admittedly, I’m not usually a big reader of short story collections, but Bass’s latest has been getting rave reviews and wide recognition. Joyce Carol Oates calls it “nothing short of remarkable” and William Kittredge says Bass’s “name will be on notices alongside Raymond Carver and Flannery O’Connor.” So I’d say it’s about time I sampled his short fiction.

Lastly two other books from authors across the pond have caught my attention. First British author Jonathan Lee’s new novel “High Dive” is based on the real 1984 assassination attempt on Margaret Thatcher’s life by an exploding IRA bomb at Brighton’s Grand Hotel. Publishers Weekly calls it an “incredible novel of rare insight, velocity, depth, and daring,” and authors Lauren Groff and Tea Obrecht are among many others hailing its praises. It makes me think “High Dive” could be one of the year’s best, but we will see.

The other book is a debut novel by Irish author Sara Baume called “Spill Simmer Falter Wither,” which is about a misfit man who adopts a misfit dog. Apparently after the seaside village where they live shuns them, the unlikely duo takes to the road, providing comfort to each other’s lives. Anne Enright says the book is “a flame in daylight: beautiful and unexpected,” and Booklist calls it “elegant, heartbreaking, and inspiring.” I can’t resist a good dog story so count me in for this small, quiet novel.

As for movies in March, all the talk is about “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Ben Affleck vs. Henry Cavill. I’ll take Cavill thank you very much. In this movie apparently the Caped Crusader has a tiff with the Man of Steel (okay it’s more than a tiff) but eventually they team together to fight Lex Luthor, this time played by a seemingly demented Jesse Eisenberg. It’s true that I’m not the big superhero, movie-watching girl that I once was in the Christopher Reeves days — I never even saw the 2013 flick “Man of Steel” with Cavill and Amy Adams — so I’m not likely to rush out to see this one, but who knows? Maybe I’ll need a Henry Cavill fix, or an urge to revisit the Caped Crusader’s mask once again.

My two actual movie picks this month include “Midnight Special” about a kid who possesses special powers, which looks a bit like a “Close Encounters” kind of movie. It’s by the same writer and director who made “Mud” and “Take Shelter,” which I liked, so this one should be decent too. Then there’s Nanni Moretti’s Franco-Italian film called “Mia Madre” about a film director in the middle of an existential crisis, who’s unable to accept that her mother’s dying. It looks good and has received a 91 percent favorable rating on Rotten Tomatoes. So “Mia Madre” it is for me.

Lastly in albums for March, there’s new ones by three notable male singer-songwriters namely: Ray LaMontagne, Pete Yorn, and the late Jeff Buckley. Wow what a trio. I’ve long been a big fan of LaMontagne’s music. He’s wonderful as is his music, though his latest album the cosmic “Ouroboros” sounds a bit like a departure from his folk roots kind of stuff, which I might lament. But if I need more of that perhaps I can turn to Jeff Buckley’s posthumous album “You and I.” It’s a collection of 10 of his demo tracks, which are mostly covers, or I can check out Pete Yorn’s sixth studio album called “Arranging Time.”

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

Posted in Top Picks | 31 Comments